As we head for the season endgame, Penny Dreadful is determined to drop the portents and start surprising us. And with Vanessa gone, everything shatters. There’s one scene, in particular, that’s jaw-droppingly nuts. And we made a clip for you! Spoilers ahead...
Last season, John Logan spent the third act ratcheting up the tension and giving us two episodes of big reveals and character pivot points in preparation for the big payoff. The big payoffs didn’t all work, but some of those moments were amazing. And with Vanessa and Ethan off the game board and only two episodes left of season 2, the Victorian-serial pace is getting serious pickup. This episode was out to answer some questions, sprinkle in some big-deal character beats, and taking the aesthetic so over the top, we can’t even see the ground from here.
With every interior shot or lingering close-up of bloody gargoyles, we are inching closer to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. I can’t decide if that’s delightful or frightening.
But “Memento Mori” wasn’t just here to show us London’s most confusing house. It was here to remind us that on Penny Dreadful, anything can happen.
Malcolm’s memento mori. One of the things that we can reliably expect to happen on this show is that Malcolm will be gloriously, hilariously terrible. He left his son’s body in Africa after nagging him there, he shot his daughter point-blank with one of the most dismissive one-liners ever, he tried to get his wife to reform him and barreled into an affair when she refused, and he maintains the world’s most fraught relationship with Vanessa.
Last season, he played Ethan and Victor off each other and asked Vanessa, on the brink of death, to GPS Mina real quick. He’s so terrible that it took a non-reaction to the death of his wife for anyone to realize the influence over him might be the actual exercise of evil rather than just Malcolm’s general MO.
But I never guessed we were building up to such a decisive moment for Malcolm when Evelyn tries to possess him: Sembene forces him to recall the past and remember who he is, and who he is, from this glimpse into his mind, is a beloved and forgiven husband and father.
(It’s a beautiful scene; the ghostly figures and the red room work perfectly, and the two inches of dust in the real world is both evocative and realistic for a house tended entirely by Sembene in between witch attacks.)
“What happy days we have known,” Gladys promises him. [Footage not found.]
And Malcolm’s pity party is so viscerally powerful it literally breaks Satan’s chains.
Oh Evelyn, you may have thought Satan’s power plus making him shave his beard would remove the power of his macho BS, but Vanessa could have warned you: Never underestimate this man’s macho BS.
Luckily, Malcolm has broken the chains of his unwitting Satanic servitude! Unluckily for him, he was also a jerk on the mortal plane.
If you’re always finding Easter Eggs, is every day Easter? It is for Detective Rush, who is doing his level best to investigate actual crime while the rest of these people are staggering through the spirit world. Remember when Malcolm stormed into the Yard last season demanding people look for a beast and not a regular murderer for those cold-open gorefests? Rush does, and he is going to get to the bottom of this.
It’s a beautifully-acted scene. (Even when the wider show is falling apart, the acting on a moment-by-moment level tends to be really solid.) Malcolm is, of course, a tough nut to crack, given that his self-pity is literally greater than Satan’s, and his landed-gentry attitude suggests the sort of power deferential in which he could likely arrest Rush for asking him questions and somehow get elected Chief Constable in the process. But you know what else Rush wonders? If anyone has seen the horrible wig or the man it used to wear:
I would be surprised if the show took a turn into Victorian crime procedural (it would be a significant departure for a show in which women dance violently with death as men stand around frowning about it). However, I’m pleased his visits to the Yard to tell detectives to search for a beast and ask about his daughter — that ceased shortly before his daughter’s untimely death — have popped back into play. It’s the sort of thing a good mystery unveils at the worst possible moment; in this case things could go a number of ways, but if nothing else, Malcolm knows that more mundane forms of justice are no longer at his disposal. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere, I always appreciate old details coming back.
Hell is other people. Specifically, Hell is the lease-agreement domain of Satan, who had a bratty little brother stalking the earth at night feeding on the blood of the living (of course) and who was in competition with him for Vanessa Ives. The vampire brother lured her with Mina; the Devil is using the witches, which is a better use of delegation as a management tool.
Favorite thing about this plot thread: Victor, who confesses his drug addiction to Malcolm, and tells him in a tangent, “It’s been my inexorable pattern of behavior. No mystery too deep, no puzzle too complex. They’ve fallen before me.” Behind him, on the table, is the enormous puzzle he has not helped with whatsoever, except to point out that if you mention something over and over, you might be afraid of it—an insight into Victor and an insight into the puzzle that no one else had noticed. This show can be subtle-ish when it wants! (It cannot. It is a glorious show sometimes, but it is not here to be subtle about anything. Luckily Harry Treadaway has it in hand.)
Second favorite thing about this thread: Evelyn doesn’t bother to spy through Malcolm before launching into the heavy stuff. She doesn’t care about her boss’s autobiography, and nobody in that room has anything to teach her except Sembene, who knows exactly what Lupus Dei means, but no one ever talks to him, so she’d never find out.
Favorite thing about the actual big-reveal scene: The bracing pause Simon Russell Beale takes at the end of the known part of the message (“Thence did He fling us from His Heavenly Throne and cast us down, to Earth and to Hell. So we were...”) before launching into the unfinished part of the message, which is easily the same length as the part it took them five-ish episodes to assemble and outlines the last two seasons’ worth of villainy. I’m going to assume Sembene just lost his patience one night and solved that part for them in fifteen minutes.
In fairness, Lyle could very well have been stalling; it’s not like he’s eager to get to the next part of events. But maybe he shouldn’t worry.
Ferdinand Lyle is the Final Girl. Watching Simon Russell Beale and Helen McCrory together has been my favorite dynamic this season. Two amazing actors, such a great tension between them, and such great character work being done in small moments.
We know Lyle has bristled against Evelyn, who finds it vaguely amusing. But this episode makes it clear that Lyle’s fear is beginning to burn away; he’s beginning to play the game in earnest, distracting her and challenging her on things she thinks don’t matter to avoid answering bigger questions, giving the impression of being under her thumb just enough to avoid magical compulsion.
And because it’s Helen McCrory, Evelyn isn’t particularly fooled.
There are lingering questions (did he give up to the daughter what secrets he refused to give up to the mother?). There’s a deeply uncomfortable kiss. But there’s also the sense that Lyle is past merely taking precautions; he’s making plans. DON’T DIE, SIR, WE NEED YOU.
The Picture of Dorian Gray. They showed it. I begged them not to! Rookie mistake. The unseen picture of Dorian Gray is a personalized specter just shy of madness, a story that tells itself over and over in the eyes of its onlookers – the unsuspecting it horrifies, and the master it serves. No actual picture of Dorian Gray is ever going to be as terrifying as the one you imagine.
And even if that version existed, this version is not it:
It’s just greyscale. This show has worked so hard to wiggle out from the shadow of LXG, and yet here we are, Logan! Here we all are. (I’m glad the painting moved. I hope it eats Dorian from the bangs down. )
The Unsurprising WTF of Dorian Gray. Angelique saw the painting. Dorian brings champagne. Anyone who’s seen television before knows what’s going to happen to Angelique.
(It was the most Victorian Gothic fall possible in the most Victorian Gothic red satin blood-robe possible, but that is some cold comfort.)
And the aftermath? At best, John Logan and Reeve Carney would like us to think that this decision cost Dorian some regrets, especially since her answer to his question of whether she could love him now was equal parts love and fear. I hope Dorian gets to reflect on that once he’s done staring at himself, but given that the painting moves and immediately becomes Dorian’s prime concern, I suspect his callous immortality is on full display and not a lot of tears are scheduled for Angelique.
My prime concern is sighing heavily. There was a large probability Angelique was going to die, because such is the nature of a guest star on a show littered with corpse parts, but this is just a way to shade Dorian’s character, open his post-ball prospects, and bring focus back to the painting. I know Dorian’s been out of the major plot loop, and respect the decision not to try to bring him back in via Angelique given time and story constraints if they had plans for Dorian elsewhere. But this feels like a pretty throwaway treatment for a romance second only to Vanessa and Ethan in terms of screen time this season. A fridge is a fridge.
Malcolm’s family reunion. And a year practically to the day after Malcolm failed Mina on Father’s Day, he fails his entire family all over again by marching into Evelyn’s stronghold alone and offering himself in exchange for Vanessa’s life. Evelyn’s even a little touched by the depth of his sacrifice for her: “She was always your favorite. It’s good we care for our daughters. “
If you had your money on “She’s his daughter,” you can collect half from whoever said “They’re having an affair,” but only half, because this season has, if anything, only enhanced how codependent they are, and if there’s one thing a Victorian Gothic loves, it’s fakeouts about which people who are making out might be secretly related.
The other revelation in this scene is quieter but still important; Evelyn might genuinely care about Malcolm. Thanks to Helen McCrory, her loneliness is as touching as it is creepy, and though you utterly believe Malcolm when he says he’d like to rip her head off, even he wavers at the moment of truth. “Take my hand and love me,” she says, “we have no one else,” and on this show, if that’s not love, what is?
No worries, Malcolm. I suspect your deliberately-murky sexual tension with Vanessa is likely to continue undiminished, and so I forgive you for being distracted enough to not try to leave the witch house until it’s too late and then only slowly come to realize that you’re being locked in with the vision-corpses of your family as they heave to life.
Happy Father’s Day!
A one-act play starring Caliban and Lily. While discussing why the chosen vessels of darkness tend to be women, Malcolm says, “Something thought unholy in the erotic power they hold over men.” Because he’s Malcolm and they’re talking about Vanessa, that’s partially just a reminder of their weirdo subtext. But because this is Penny Dreadful, it’s also taken very literally, and because this is Penny Dreadful, it unspools like a one-act play that holds back absolutely nothing.
The scene: Victor’s lab. The plot: Caliban confronts Lily, then gets his ass utterly handed to him.
Caliban, at his best, is a tragic figure trying to make his way in a world that doesn’t want him. At his worst, he’s a petulant, entitled jerk second only to his father in destructive impulse and feeling of ownership over women. When Lily lays into him, Rory Kinnear gives us a rainbow of melting dudebro, until there’s nothing left but worshipful terror. And what other reaction is there? Look at her. [NSFW language]:
There are two schools of philosophy. One sits under the train tracks and quotes poetry in understanding; the other demands to know if life is suffering and then suggests an orgy.
“My brother,” she breathes in his ear (“Is it subtext? Eh, just make it text”), and delivers lines as stylized as any of the poetry he could ask for, sealing the weirdest marriage vows ever.
And honestly, it’s awesome. (Not just because Billie Piper commits harder to this scene than I’ve ever seen her commit to anything.) It’s one of those scenes in this series that have to be seen to be believed, because it is utterly heartfelt and hugely camp at the same time.
For this show, plot is just a playground, and it’s character pieces like this that are its true passion. (This episode had a retread “Going to kill you as per usual” Caliban/Victor faceoff, and a flat, too-sweet Lily/Victor scene, and neither of them tells you anything until this moment starts, at which point you realize it was just reminders so this scene didn’t have to have any more exposition in it.) Echoes of macho nonsense and the violence of men are everywhere in “Memento Mori,” and when she flips it here with superstrength and utter lack of giving a crap what anybody else wants ever again, it’s kind of great.
It’s also satisfying because it plays on one of this show’s favorite themes: Women can be heroes and monsters both, and are fearsome and amazing either way. The cliffhanger of this episode is that Malcolm is being held hostage as a lure for Vanessa to come get him; the centerpiece of this episode is Lily and Brona coming into their own as a single person, a channel of anger with a monster she terrified and tamed in under 9 minutes, and honestly, if Hell is empty after the season finale, I know the right woman for the job.