Amid a season’s slow-burn dread, Dorian Gray threw a party. You know it’s a social tangle when the showers of blood are the least stressful part, but the dialogue in this week’s Penny Dreadful is worth it.
We’ve said before that the plot of Penny Dreadful is more a suggestion than a rule. Writer John Logan is much more interested in character and theme than in actual plot continuity. For the most part, those are great priorities; if bad actors sat down and banged out the rules of the magic system that Vanessa could and couldn’t use, we’d lose a lot of the atmosphere and air of uncertainty that makes the show so quietly compelling. It can, admittedly, be frustrating week-to-week (including some moments in this episode!), but at this point it’s fairly clear Logan knows he’d rather give some great lines to some good actors and let the plot chips fall where they may. Does it work? These 13 moments say it all.
1. “You’re going to have a challenging day.”
For an episode that ends on a double-cliffhanger, Evelyn’s murmured warning to Malcolm seems like something of a letdown at first. Sure, he gets terrible news, but it’s not like it registers through all the Witch Goofball Serum in his veins right now, so it’s hardly an emotional blow. Malcolm’s only actual challenge this episode is whether or not to shave his beard. No, this warning is just letting us know things are going to get campy later – a nod to every Victorian chapter header In Which Our Heroes Discover The Empty Tomb and are Chased By a Beast Most Foul. (It’s also something of a wink to the fact that this episode’s events make such use of Penny Dreadful’s elastic compression of time that we see only one day’s worth of time – we know events take place over several days, but we see n episode that technically begins in bed at dawn and ends in deep-night disaster, and even though no ball was actually made in a day unless you’re in Reign, we’re clearly meant to feel the urgency of events as they pile up.) But what surprised me about it was that flicker of melancholy in Evelyn’s eye. I don’t dare assume she’s overly fond of Malcolm, despite making out with his fetish:
But there’s a sense of weariness here that, if the narrative structure of this show was more predictable, would suggest that her powers were beginning to gnaw at her, and this might be the seam in the armor that allows Vanessa to land a killing blow. Not that anybody knows this, of course, not even Evelyn: she’s busy getting Malcolm ready.
2. “She took her own life.” “Gladys did? That doesn’t seem like her.”
We know, from Malcolm’s own words, that he respects his wife in that vague Victorian way one’s supposed to, even though there’s no real love lost. But Malcolm is under a spell in which he does not give one damn about any non-Evelyn items, and as Vanessa tries to explain that his wife has ceased to be, Malcolm visibly can’t bring himself to care. The glorious thing about it is that even a spell of this strength can only make Malcolm slightly more awful than he usually is, so that it takes until “I shall have to have the carpet replaced, then” for anyone to realize something is definitely supernaturally wrong. Up until that point it was just an uncomfortable, silent accord among Vanessa, Ethan, and Sembene that Malcolm was being kind of a d-bag, which means this vaguely puzzled non-reaction to news of his wife’s suicide seems believably in Malcolm’s wheelhouse.
3. “But why am I frightened?”
So far Lavinia has been a Victorian pity object whose main purpose is to continually remind Caliban that he’s marvelous and delightful. (John Logan’s ongoing quest to decide if it’s going to lean into Caliban’s tragic-monster demise or have him tread Nice Guy water for another season until a plot crops up is a puzzler.) It was almost refreshing, then, to have this scene, in which something is apparently demonstrably wrong with Caliban in a way that marks him as someone to be feared. Tamsin Topolski does a wonderful job being frustrated with her own reaction – when he assures her she has no cause for fear it’s clear she believes him, but that this isn’t something she can shake. Vanessa, who has one foot in the grave anyway, seems at ease with him, but this is a well-done and necessary reminder of his otherness. The chip on his shoulder is seriously disproportionate to how he’s being treated, by and large; moments like this help keep him from being a total caricature. (Note also that his cold hands are an object of terror, but later, Lily’s cold hands are declared charmingly appropriate. If it’s a deliberate gender commentary, I’m listening.)
4. “Can I tell you a story?” “No.”
Ethan’s greatest grace note of meta-characterization might be this: The man is so desperate to know what’s going on that any time he turns down information it feels like a mic drop. He’s stayed manfully through all the Lupus Dei awkwardness, while realizing that to be the person with an immediately relevant secret makes for a nasty ethical dilemma and someone, sooner or later, will have to be told. (That someone is Sembene, that “sooner” is “this episode,” and “told” means “turn into a werewolf in front of him as a surprise.”) Ethan’s refusal to go home is not one of his more interesting qualities, but it’s one of his most consistent, and of course the mystery grows every time. This is stalling for time dressed up in Ethan’s unconscious character, and it’s hilarious. (Honorable mention from this scene: “Say you fall asleep.” One of the best things this show has is its casting, which with few exceptions is perfectly suited and can often perform magic in terms of making something plausible out of thin air. This is only the second real scene Stephen Lord has even had in this show – occasional skulking aside – and he’s locked behind a half-mask here, but as soon as he starts this little speech the temperature in the room drops ten degrees; whatever he says he’s capable of, you believe him.)
5. “It is safely Dorian.”
It feels like some strange things from the first season are being left behind (I am not now, nor will I ever be, resigned to Vanessa dropping the ball about recognizing Lily), but sometimes a moment will carry over nicely. Dorian’s been out of the loop this season, which is fine, but clearly it’s time to start dovetailing, so here he is! Vanessa’s cagey about Dorian and his various invitations – so much so that even Victor takes notice, and ends up positioned between them looking even more ill-at-ease than usual – but when he mentions the ball’s in honor of his new girlfriend, Vanessa finally relaxes, using those weaponized manners to agree to the implied parameters of their new friendship. (Victor, who has just found out about John Clare, is mostly trying not to have a heart attack.)
6. “And if the fly eats the spider?”
Lyle is so firmly Team Vanessa he can’t even keep his mouth shut around the witch who’s blackmailing him. Evelyn seems to understand it, even to the point of honesty with him about the quest for youth that sounds like vanity and then, in the span of three sentences, like a desire to stay young in order to hold on to whatever power youth can provide you against the cruelty of the world. “Such a price we pay,” she tells him. “Such a price.”
This scene is a perfect example of what heavy lifting actors can do; a woman who presumably yanked out a baby heart this morning is genuinely mournful now, and thanks to Helen McCrory, not only does Lyle buy it, we do too. Their conversation about an absentee God feels like a bookend to Vanessa and John Clare; it’s a glimpse of a relationship deeper than then moustache-twisting we’ve seen so far.
7. “I was wondering if you might like to accompany me somewhere.”
Vanessa and Ethan have gotten really close since last season. Queen and Huntsman close. The sort of close where you go Golden Age Hollywood and share a single cigarette out of frame after a bad day.
But even when she’s asking to spend the night in his room, Vanessa’s quietly terrified to actually make this romantic overture. (It’s even worse when he brusquely explains he can’t, and leaves her looking so deeply embarrassed she might never look him in the eye again.) But of course, this isn’t just an invitation to a dance where showing up alone makes you look horribly independent – she does that anyway. This is foreshadowing for the rest of the season. He’s her guardian; he’ll be going where she goes.
8. “Step inside and steel yourself.”
This plot feels mostly in the service of giving Caliban something to do and creating a link between Ethan and last season. Thematically, however, it’s tough to beat the gleeful, gaudy grossness of the Putney Wax Museum and their new crime-scene-recreation wing, to which Ethan goes because he is apparently new here. (Actually, he goes so we get this shot of him being found out by the Detective with a severed head staring balefully on the table between them.) This, like the Grand Guignol, is theater within our theater, and a perfectly macabre trapping. If there’s not a fight scene in here before the season is over, I will be surprised.
9. “What am I to do?”
Honestly, Sembene? Quit this entire popsicle stand and go find someone who appreciates you. When your boss is chuckling over the death of his wife and nobody quite believes you that the man’s possessed, AND the closest dude you have to a friend wants you to hang out and be werewolf bait for him on his off nights, that feels like a serious market indicator. You have reached the ceiling of professional advancement in Butler to the Damned. All you can do is save yourself. None of these people deserve you. (Is this a lovely shot? Yes. Do you need this nonsense? No.)
10. “I’m not sure what game you’re playing, my dear, but I so enjoy watching your scales catch the light as you coil.”
Sure, the man’s walking through the valley of the shadow, but he’s not going to stop bitching about it until he’s actually dead, and probably not even then. Hecate’s secret motives interest him just enough that he’s trying to suss out how much chance he has of making a break for it, and by the time he’s offering to take Vanessa home we know he’s picked his side even if Hecate didn’t notice, but Simon Russell Beale is slinging his dialogue with grim archness throughout.
Angelique is a close second in terms of being on her guard, both emotionally (as when she points out Dorian’s recklessness, which he dismisses and then quietly breaks her heart about:
There’s something almost refreshing in how everyday her heartbreak is; in a room full of witches and the undead, Angelique’s verbal defense (“Livestock” is the single best delivered word of the episode) is effective as armor, and second only to Lyle’s. They are both delightful. Honestly, my favorite dialogue from this entire episode is probably whatever is happening in this dance Lyle and Angelique are sharing, and we just can’t hear it:
It could be the weather. It would still be great.
11. “I wanted her to have life. Now she does.”
Lily has been handled so oddly this season that my expectations for her have diminished. As such, I was pleasantly surprised to see her stretching her wings a little (even if it was just to try to remember a bang from lifetimes past), and I really enjoyed the squirmy process of Victor realizing that to bring someone out into the world means making them independent of you - and him realizing that that is the last thing he wants.
Naturally, he resents it, because he’s a garbage human; he’d resent it even more if he knew that Lily and Dorian had met before. (I resent that Lily apparently pings Dorian’s radar more than Vanessa’s. I don’t need a system of magic with assigned point values in order to enjoy something unfolding, but we’re looking at Vanessa being oddly useless for several episodes in a row, and none of this is helping.) Later, of course, Victor gets angry at Lily, which also sort of delights me; anything to wake her up is fine with me at this point. Have Caliban platonically help you break out!
12. “You’re a friend of his late daughter, I believe.” “And his late wife.”
Vanessa Ives is not having it. Thank goodness. Am I disappointed she still can’t put two and two together about evil witches when 1) we know she can look into people’s minds because we saw her learning how to do it and she just hasn’t, and 2) Evelyn Poole has absolutely no human veneer left and should be easy to figure out? I am. Do I love that even oblivious, Vanessa is still trying to determine where Evelyn’s manners are because she doesn’t want to yell at Malcolm about his? I do. Their co-dependence forbids Vanessa yelling at him directly. But Vanessa is going to make triple sure Evelyn Poole understands that Vanessa is paying attention to this flagrant lack of mourning on Malcolm’s part.
13. “Miss Ives!” Sure, it’s no big deal for one of the guys to be checking in with Vanessa – she’s the sun around which they all besottedly orbit – but this is Victor, whose jealousy about Lily and general grossness still can’t quite blind him to the fact that poor Vanessa has begun another Victorian Goth-spiral. Though really, he doesn’t know the half of it.
Hats off to these extras, by the way; this background dancing was impeccable even in three inches of fake blood rain.)
This show’s unabashedly Gothic aesthetic is well known, but this nightmarish blood rain might be one of its best moments: the sheer opulence of the party becomes as sinister as the blood itself. It is, if we’re being honest, disappointing that we end with Vanessa in a damsel’s faint, having been utterly unable to defend herself even though she seems to have caught on to the danger at last:
Of course, we end on dual cliffhangers (Vanessa and Ethan both giving in to forces they can’t control), so we don’t know if Vanessa’s recognition will pan out. Has she recognized them at last? Is the ruse over? We don’t know. What we do know is this: one, Vanessa better get her witch shit together in a hurry if she’s not going to be eaten alive. Two, this social circle is getting kind of magnificent.