This week, Penny Dreadful pulled out all the stops for a breathless penultimate episode that brings everyone together in the townhouse to hash out the beginning of the end: alliances are formed, secrets come to light, and the devil comes back for Vanessa Ives. (The devil, it turns out, is still not as terrible as Malcolm. Twist!)
The heart of Penny Dreadful has always been that its core cast is fantastic at both handling the necessary camp and at bringing these characters a great deal of nuance whenever possible. As if to prove it, this episode brings the core characters under Malcolm's roof as Vanessa clings to life, for a claustrophobic hour that's packed with chewy character beats, each of which reveals some crucial things and reinforces others.
One of the most important things to reinforce is the very particular creep of Vanessa's demon, in which her normal affect is so perceptive and quietly macabre that it always takes people a beat too long to realize they're not speaking to Vanessa; we spend more time this episode in her point of view than they do, so we know the moments when she's fully herself, but the balance of never quite knowing who's manifesting is really something. (Both John Logan's writing and James Hawes' directing get full marks here.) It creates an aura of doubt even when people are being fully truthful, and that makes it perhaps the creepiest episode so far.
Of course, there's also the actual creepiness. And we start instantly, as Vanessa's first words upon waking are, "To be beautiful is to be almost dead, isn't it," and after musing a little more about the ideal ivory lassitude of the nearly-departed lady, she says, "There's a pretty trade for photographs of dead women, did you know that?...Men circulate the pictures and pleasure themselves."
Eva Green, whose worthiness for an Emmy passed Obvious Contender several episodes ago, does a spectacular job of letting Vanessa's skewering insinuations slowly turn into something else; it's not that Malcolm doesn't know who she really is—I'd argue that though he often thinks the worst of her, to a great degree he does know her—it's that by the time she asks, "Who dressed me?", the answer of "Sembene and myself" is a trap he sets for himself.
Also, having seen young Mina since "Séance," this impression of young Mina is very canny; it's far too sharp and hostile for the actual child we've seen—it's more the twisted version Malcolm's guilty conscience manifests (highlighted by things like the demon dwelling on "fat mother" as something Malcolm hated), with spikes of expression that feel remarkably like Vanessa trying to get out (snapping at him about not going to Mrs. Ives' funeral—Malcolm, you asshole).
Then she drops the first of many wake-up calls for Mr. Murray when she calls him out for essentially raping his way across the African continent—"They enjoyed you pawing at them, or you convinced yourself they did," with a damning list of peoples he imposed himself on that turns into a whirlwind that destroys the living room before Sembene can run in and knock her unconscious to stop it. (Not sure how I feel about Sembene being the only character who uses violence against her, but clearly Sembene doesn't think much of it either.)
He's definitely not impressed with Malcolm. (Why does he ever let Malcolm do anything? What has Malcolm ever actually done right on his own except manipulate his two surrogate sons into disliking each other? Revolt, Sembene. They'll rally behind you.)
Victor, of course, shows up to lend medical assistance. Vanessa postures at wellness with a palpable undercurrent of fear that they'll send her back to an asylum, but for a minute this is their most touching interaction, a reversal of the quiet protection she's extended him in the hypermacho downstairs.
His quiet, intense concern for her sets a beautiful stage for some really creepy unspoken subtext later, but here it's also a suggestion that if she were in less dire straights, she might actually be in caring hands. Still, she's also a predator, always, and Victor knows it—too well, since it takes him a second too long to realize something's amiss when she starts asking if he's a virgin and quoting his own obsession back at him.
(Harry Treadaway does some of his best acting in this episode, all over the spectrum, but this initial sweetness sliding into horror is some of the best.)
Victor, you can't handle any of this. Cede the field.
Downstairs, he and Malcolm man off about it. "What brings on the fits?" "I don't know. Emotion of some kind." (I laughed. Malcolm, you're the worst.) "Is she intact?" "I wouldn't have thought so. I place no judgment on that." "I have no interest in your judgment," Victor says, amazingly, and then theorizes there's something pschyosexual about it (YOU DON'T SAY) as spiders pour out of Vanessa's tarot cards.
HUGE NOTE: There's a scream from upstairs that interrupts this, but THEY NEVER INDICATE WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE SPIDERS. I NEED CLOSURE.
But instead of closure, Ethan arrives, which just opens up more disasters.
He's terribly kind, and Vanessa acknowledges it for a moment right before she Gollums out and asks whether Ethan was top or bottom when he spent the night with Dorian (yikes) and they should tell Brona, since she already banged him (YIKES). Things don't improve, and Victor finally sedates her as the demon howls, "Leave her to me! You men, you men, YOU MEN!"
The situation's gotten so bad that both Malcolm and Victor start telling Ethan things. We also learn Victor has less than zero religious sentiment, and Ethan has at least enough to snap at Victor to shut up about it. (We'll come back to this.)
Over a montage of Vanessa's suffering (this must have been an exhausting episode to shoot for Eva Green), the music carries both unsettling atmosphere and sorrowful cello, which helps remind us that for all the talking men do in this episode, Vanessa's suffering isn't just a plot point to get them in the same house—it's a crucible that affects who she is from what's left of her at all.
Take this pivotal scene, in which she wakes in a tableau that seems at a remove from her, as the montage has been, Ethan's warm colors against her cadaverous white:
Ethan is still softly kind, and offers a priest. "I might have fallen in love with you," she confesses softly; he answers (with a smile that's terrifying in hindsight), "You still might." It's the most quietly honest and open she's been with anyone all season (except on the beach with Mina, when it was too late to do any good), which makes it even worse when she lays deeper trust in him and asks him to kill her before she can hurt anyone...and he reveals himself to be the demon.
Josh Hartnett is a wonderfully effective demon, all Ethan's soft-spoken swagger with some uncanny affect thrown in. She stands her ground—when he threatens her with murder she snaps back, "Do it, my soul remains my own," but it still ends like this:
This is such a crucial and ambiguous scene. There's even more weight on it than the first time he manifested—she recognized him almost instantly the first time, and this time trust blinded her until it was too late, in a terrible reverse of how her own demon manifests. And one could argue the demon in her rises to meet this demon, and the kiss is a covenant of which she's unaware, but I hope not. It's been established that sexually capitulating to the demon doesn't mean surrender (he wouldn't be here if she'd given in the first time), which means her fundamental resistance was still in place at least up until the moment of the kiss. I hope Vanessa's pulling a Lily from Legend move, and embracing the darkness in order to throw it off guard later.
On the other hand, that's some damn creepy calm.
Actual Ethan is downstairs, fondling his convenient St. Jude medal and having hit the ceiling on Malcolm Murray's going-to-Africa guilt trip: "I have a father, I don't need another one, and you had a son and you killed him. Am I missing anything?" It's Ethan's turn to tell people things, I see!
But the truth-bombing is interrupted by Vanessa having a serious vein-ripping Amunet-sigil crisis.
You know how dismal the situation's gotten when morphine-addict Victor sees Caliban waiting outside the window and does the closest he's ever come to an actual greeting:
One wonders if Caliban hears Vanessa's screams and is counting down to Potential New Girlfriend. One DEFINITELY wonders if seeing Vanessa with such a precarious hold on life gives Victor any ideas. It wouldn't be the worst instinct he's ever had—wanting to give Vanessa a chance at life after her almost inevitable (to him) demise is probably right in line with his twisted idea of chivalry—but it throws into doubt the remainder of his medical advice. (He almost immediately suggests to Ethan that Vanessa might die despite their help. People die all the time! Nice, pretty young women who would probably be even more awesome if they were resurrected as a super-strong immortal being just keel over on the regular!)
Ethan's more concerned about the fact that Malcolm and Vanessa are in such a weird emotional tangle that he's just defaulted to suspecting foul play: "He doesn't want her to die, but I don't know why he wants her to live." Victor: "She's like a daughter." Ethan: "No. She's not. That's the problem." Family-relations conspiracy theorists get a point! No-family-relations theorists also get a point. This show knows better than to hand out actual answers. We have a whole episode left!
There's also a very interesting monologue from Ethan about the destructiveness of forced assimilation of Native American nations through abduction an indoctrination of their children. ("Awful," interjects Victor, who is not wrong but who also brought someone back from the dead without his permission and then bolted.) Ethan points out that even if they escape, they're sometimes not welcome at home. "They roam, then they die." Despite equating this to Vanessa's utterly dissimilar situation, this is a rare enough thing to acknowledge, and an interesting parallel to Malcolm's own British Explorer bullshit coming back to bite him.
In their newfound intimacy, and staring at the person he made out of corpse parts, Victor asks for shooting lessons.
Ethan's a hilarious teacher: "Very gently, like you're touching a lady's neck."
He gets the bottle on the fourth try. Ethan gets the rest with trick shots. Victor's intensely into it. ("What about a rifle? Do you have a rifle?!")
Sembene is over it. He's over it ALL.
("Uh oh," Ethan grins, "we're in trouble with Dad," which is maybe the first time they've acknowledged to each other what Malcolm has tried to make them without hostility.)
Vanessa's deterioration continues, and is more terrifying because we're not sure what deal she's made with the devil; can she even come back from this?
Standing sentinel in the hallway, Sembene finally gets a conversation. It's not enough, by a long shot—we only learn that he maybe thinks Ethan can cook, and that he owes Malcolm something. We do get confirmation he feels some loyalty to Vanessa in particular, and he tells Ethan to just go ahead and call the priest already.
Malcolm, taking his own watch inside and looking more demonic than when the actual demon was using his face, suggests that Vanessa's on the verge of death, and while she's there, maybe she wants to look for Mina for a second, that would really be helpful. Vanessa mewls piteously that he's cruel, and I feel like that word falls far short of the dickery we're witnessing.
So does Ethan.
"Get the f*ck away from her." (Let's put a pin in the composition of this shot; we'll come back.)
It's a fracas in the hallway! Malcolm doesn't want any strangers involved! Victor thinks they've lost, let her die already, people might be waiting for this corpse, other people I mean, just hypothetically for science! Ethan thinks it's time to do what Mina wants to do. Malcolm, proving he know her: "She wants to die." Ethan, proving himself the better man: "Then let her."
Malcolm suggests an exorcism. Victor, genuinely upset: "Have you not a single shred of decency left? This is what happens when your murder your way across a continent!" (He's not wrong.) And Ethan isn't having any of it. "You want a daughter? There she is." Conspiracy theorists from both sides of the "Is Malcolm Vanessa's Father" debate tick up a point.
As Malcolm agrees to fetch a priest, Ethan gives a final warning: "If you let all this happen...I'll rip your throat out." He'll rip it out with his normal human man teeth, okay, Malcolm? (Victor's never been so aroused.)
(Earlier in the episode, Malcolm stands over Vanessa beside a painting of a lion bringing down its prey; here the two factions are bisected by a gathering of people gazing out of the frame in judgment. Noted.)
While they wait, Malcolm asks for a little coke from Victor for the long night, and then semi-casually mentions that his son wanted Malcolm to name a mountain after him, but when the time came, "I wasn't thinking of him. I named it for myself."
I cackled. Malcolm, The Very Worst by his own admission.
But hearing Malcolm's terrible confessions must be the last step of the hazing that means you get a say in what happens, because when the priest shows up, Victor's not impressed ("Give her the last rites and get the f*ck out of this house, you ridiculous man."), and it seems to cement his new footing in the household that he isn't instantly shot down. Outside, sensing people might be beginning to tolerate Victor, Caliban cracks his knuckles.
The priest's horror is nearly comical. His gentle catechism and her deliberate blinks are heartbreaking. (That it's Ethan who answers when the priest asks her name is telling.) The moment she surges up and bites off some of his face Brienne-style is cheesy Victorian amazingness. Windows shatter! Victor goes flying! Use that effects budget! You've earned it!
Finally, when it's down to Vanessa and Ethan alone with a mournful piano, and she's begging to die:
Ethan whips out his St. Jude medal and performs an exorcism. (That shot of him standing next to the crucifix pays off!)
'Wait, what?" you might be saying. Is Ethan a priest fallen from the faith? Is he a true believer? Is this just a super hardcore version of the prayer to St. Anthony when you can't find stuff? Doesn't much matter, since the show's not going to tell us anything about it yet. Now WE are the Ethan!
We'll have to wait until next week, which should be pretty exciting given that peacefully-sleeping Vanessa has visions of the Grand Guignol ("There cannot be a happy end, for claw will slash and tooth will rend"), and shows up in Malcolm's room in a great callback to Mina's first appearance in the pilot:
Where she announces, drained but determined, that she knows just where Mina is.
(After seven hours of a show in which she appears the vast majority of the time, we have never seen this expression from her. Someone get Eva Green her Emmy, please.)
After a slow burn in the last couple of enjoyably-pulpy episodes and their use of Victorian tropes, everything pays off amazingly here in pure character moment: what's essentially a bottle episode keeps everyone trapped in the house with an increasingly horrific (and horrified) Mina, forced to confront things they've managed to avoid, Victorian-serial style, for six installments. None of it is particularly surprising—Malcolm is the worst, Victor is a walking psychological quagmire, Sembene has some vague obligation to Malcolm that keeps him standing in the background of group shots as other people argue—but all of it is satisfying. It's particularly nice to observe the little pivots in Victor's treatment of Ethan and Malcolm's treatment of Victor, a small-scale chain reaction in which two pretty sanctimonious characters each drop the act for a moment.
It's also an episode of parallels. Ethan's treatment of Vanessa is as unflaggingly kind as the demon could possibly manifest; the demon's own return in the guise of an object of desire; Vanessa's appearance in Mina's place in Malcolm's room (conspiracy theorists from both sides of the debate chalk up a point).
So, how's that chart looking, with another demon interruption, confirmation that sex with Dorian is a gateway drug, and some of this episode's revelations?
But there's one question that still looms: Did Vanessa really give in on that dark night of the soul when the devil asked her to rule with him in Hell? And for that, we'll have to wait until next week, when everyone will act in a very emotionally healthy manner, Ethan will remain a normal human man, and everything will probably be fine.