After a tightly-focused episode, Penny Dreadful re-keys its many subplots in “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places,” making no bones about headstrong women...and kinda-useless men.
Penny Dreadful, like the Victorian page-turners from which it takes its name, is not subtle when it want to make its points. This week, the man-hating witches crept into the London townhouse and hid in the yellow wallpaper, then attacked – and conquered – until Vanessa saved everyone all by her lonesome.
This episode’s nearly overburdened trying to spin so many plot plates, but if this doesn’t drive home this week’s theme, nothing is. “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places” is clear: When men mean well they’re a mess, and when they don’t, they’re a danger.
I speculated last week that Penny Dreadful felt on the edge of becoming more thematically direct – of taking its slightly-stagey Victorian dialogues from clever commentary/occasional pastiche to direct takedown of Victorian mores. We know John Logan’s on it: Malcolm Murray is a gentleman explorer who, at every turn, reminds the viewer he’s the sort of man whose masculinity is threatened by being offered a set of eyeglasses.
He named a mountain after himself rather than the son who died following his footsteps, then made life miserable for his quasi-daughter he’s oddly possessive of, and then shot his actual daughter without even trying to save her – and asked his wife to be the moral influence he needs and take him back. She turns him down flat, which of course makes sense to us, but which at the time was a more radical act, and feels now like it was setting the stage for a larger-scale takedown.
The Victorian era was awash in feminist concerns, from legally being one’s husband’s property to the vote, from classism to racism, from the dangers of tight-lace corsetry to temperance, from educational opportunities to sexual liberty. The “Angel in the House” archetype in particular got simultaneously held up and torn down by opposing sides. The idea of woman as inherently moral, kinder, and gentler, without a man’s intellectual rigor and untidy passions, was so outwardly chivalrous as to excuse restrictive proscriptions (women were too moral to sully themselves with, say, the vote), and so insidious that sometimes even feminist causes adopted the enemy’s rhetoric (if women were so moral they should undoubtedly have the vote!). And since horror is by nature a conservative genre that loves a good taboo, dime novels were awash in those angels being plagued by sin. Good women sacrificed themselves or were hounded to death; bad women schemed and made deals with the Devil for power. A good woman in a penny dreadful (or even in Dracula) praises the men who are taking care of everything – when a woman’s in trouble, the very best thing is “a brave man’s blood.”
But even some good women, suitably beleaguered by the supernatural and usually surrounded by men, would get angry – either unable to do more, or galvanizing themselves to action. Early in Varney the Vampire, damsel Flora is happy to use pistols as vampire deterrent: “If ever human being was justified in the use of deadly weapons, I am now.”
Occasionally, a woman would even be blessed with the praise that she was very nearly one of the guys. Van Helsing speaks of Mina’s “great brain which is trained like man’s brain.” More interestingly, he mentions a “special power which the Count give her, and which he may not take away altogether—though he think not so.” Here, then, is where we find Vanessa: a woman of great intelligence, set upon by supernatural evils, fighting for her soul but also trying to harness power the Devil gave her, which he may not take away altogether. She’s both a creature of the penny dreadful and a commentary on it, and though this episode’s light on Vanessa, the scaffolding holds just fine. That header shot of Vanessa surrounded by men gives exactly the impression it’s meant to give.
In fact, some of the best Victorian-masculinity commentary this show’s ever had hits us this week thanks to Vanessa, Victor, and a shopping trip.
This feels on some level like Eva Green asked for one scene that didn’t involve head-to-toe exhaustion. It’s largely charming, as Victor has to deal with the big scary world of ladies’ clothing with the finesse of an ice-skating puppy while being incredibly creepy about his “second” “cousin” “Lily” who is “coming to visit” and is “alive.”
First of all, the man is fondling the curtains, buddy, please, you’re new to fashion but you’re not THAT new. Second of all, that’s Vanessa’s face when he gives Lily’s height as “precisely five feet five inches.” Why do people try to pull shit on Vanessa? She can spot BS at a hundred yards.
On an acting level, it’s great, from Victor’s nerves to his inability to even describe what he’s looking for, hoping Vanessa can help because she wears “Collars, and the black things...always very completely dressed,” to which she reacts about the only way possible, which is to make his life miserable.
It’s also a scene that finely balances Victor’s feelings for Vanessa (which Harry Treadaway plays as a soup of protective-little-brother, knowingly futile crush, and that jerk who sits in the back of your bio lab) with his burgeoning feelings for Lily (which he plays as a soup of being the biggest creep in the world and occasional horrified realization he’s the biggest creep in the world). In keeping with this episode’s leitmotif of “Nothing horrible has happened yet but wow is it gonna,” Victor even asks if Vanessa will meet Lily for tea, which is the best kind of dramatic irony this show can pull. They’ve met, buddy! Any two people in this show are doomed to meet! That’s going to implode on you right in the middle of a scone!
However, for a dude who isn’t sure what a collar is, he knows just what he wants Lily to look like: virginal, corseted, and teetering on high heels. A doll he dressed all by himself, tended with the posture of gallantry even though we all know better.
“It’s very tight.” “That’s meant to be the point.” “I can barely breathe.” “I think that’s meant to be the point, too.” And about why he picked high heels: “I like that in a woman.” WOW.
Billie Piper wheezes her way through torn between pleasing the man who has total power over her and realizing the horrors of the social position she’s been (re)born into. “All we do is for men, isn’t it? Keep their houses, raise their children, flatter them with our pain.” Whatever she’s been reading, it’s working for her – this is straight-up The Bride.
Victor, having creeped out even himself, promises her otherwise. “I want nothing to cause you pain, not for flattery or my vanity, or anything under the sun.” Suuuuuuuure.
(Of course, she offers to keep the shoes, but this is her face as she turns around. Please, please, let this all implode.)
In the other edge of this awful triangle, Caliban manages to go to work this week!
(“So how creepy can we make this?” “I dunno, creepier?” “Great.”)
Even better, he gets embarrassed out of creeping in his own subplot, which exists mostly so the wax-museum proprietor can remind us that he has Dastardly Plans for Caliban and tell us the theme of both his potential freak show and the Ethan Did It Massacre: “Horror in all its horror.” (That massacre investigation is proceeding at the first-season pace of people portenting vaguely while not revealing anything. Detective Onthecase remains uncapped four episodes into the new season, because there’s just not time.)
The only person in the wax museum actually working is his daughter. She sculpts a face and chats to Caliban, who’s beginning to actually look guilty about how much time is being spent building up his self-esteem. He is the most-complimented person on this entire show.
At least he looks like he realizes self-pity might be getting weird when he can’t go a day without beautiful women saying kind things to him.
Given the signposts here, I still hope this is part of some deeper awakening for him and that his real monster-to-man arc is him learning that women are people and none of them owe him anything. He’s also one of John Logan’s favorite Victorian props for morose dialogue, so it might be a slow process for him, but we’re at the point with his character (and the Victor/Lily arc) that the only real place for him to go is to have a feminist awakening, hopefully one that involves helping Lily get the hell out of Victor’s sphere of influence.
Angelique is also in a prime social position to be talking about how much of her life relies on the goodwill of men!
Unfortunately, after an introduction that was handled fairly well, this episode’s subplot mostly featured a veritable laundry list of what not to do when someone mentions they are transgender, including:
* Dorian making guesses about her “real” name even after she tells him it’s “beneath contempt”
* Dorian waving away stares from passersby by saying “Let them stare, provocation is food and drink to me” (which bothers me on two levels: Angelique is not provoking just by existing, thank you very much, and also, Dorian, who made this about you)
* Dorian replying to Angelique asking, “Do you think your pride can take it? Losing yet again to a defenseless female?” with “And you are neither of those things.” DUDE COME ON.
You’d never know this from the blocking, by the way: Angelique beats him in Gossima tennis (a new adventure!) twelve games to nothing while being charming and joking she can smell champagne from thirty yards, and she and Dorian smooch and seem happy, so that’s nice.
But either this is masterful commentary on the microagressions faced by trans people even by well-meaning friends, making Dorian the accidental bad guy, in which case John Logan did a bang-up job and this will hopefully somehow correct itself, or John Logan is using language like “subterfuge” to treat Angelique’s gender is one of the season’s puzzles, in which case that is going to be a pretty terrible thing to sit through.
(Note the dozens of extras playing ping-pong with real balls. The Showtime budget allowed for a swanky fairground/sports lounge, and I dig it, but that’s a rough day of extra-ing.)
BRIEF COMPETENCE INTERLUDE: Ethan! Such a good guy, he even helps with the dishes!
Sembene, who continues to deserve so much better than this show gives him, especially when he is DOING THE GODDAMN HOUSEWORK GET YOURSELF TOGETHER SHOW, is priceless as always. Danny Sapani makes a meal out of every line. (He has to.)
Ethan and Sembene bond over their shared concern for Vanessa, which makes me want to know more about Semebene and his actual thoughts about Vanessa. Or anything! I want his actual thoughts about literally anything.
Instead, here’s more Ethan - so distracted from the Waxworks ads for the Mariners’ Inn Massacre that he races across the street to pick up a paper featuring the dead subway family.
“Perfect cover – a multiple murder that WASN’T me.”
Then he rescues a damsel from an oncoming carriage in traditionally masculine fashion! He also chats her up in traditionally masculine fashion, but poor Hecate didn’t use her witch powers to watch the first season, and is totally unprepared for the daddy issues she finds under his chivalry. He knows something’s fishy with her (correct!), and this is a setup (correct!), and that his dad sent her (that’s okay, you’re trying!), and her list of errors means she’s a terrible spy (correct!), and also the shoes she said were sensible are not sensible (wow, you cannot stop a man from voicing his unwanted sartorial opinions this episode, can you).
(He also apparently smells her, which is all the proof she needs that he’s a werewolf. That’s pretty speedy, given how many of his friends saw the Zoo Incident and somehow STILL don’t think he’s a werewolf, but the nice thing about a penny dreadful is that you can handwave an awful lot, especially about witches.)
Ethan’s helpfulness, however, ends here, as he proceeds to brush off Hecate’s setup and Vanessa’s witch knowledge, and is also completely useless during the battle. Ethan: you tried.
In other vaguely-competent-men news, Ferdinand Lyle is better than ever as he reads what he’s discovered of the Verbis Diablo. It turns out to be a story of the Fall told by the Devil himself, which is suitably creepy.
“So God looked down on his defeated angels and – “ “found them to be evil angels, so he cast them out.” (Lyle points out “them” is actually “us”; Ethan and Vanessa, both devout, look more unsettled by the “us” than anybody else.) “Cast US out, and took us by our winged backs and raised us over his head, thence...”
It’s so creepy Vanessa eventually nopes the hell out of there. It’s all still less creepy for Lyle than realizing Malcolm is being seduced by Helen McCrory and being unable to warn him against it because he’s super blackmailed. Simon Russell Beale delivers a sublime set of facial expressions that vacillate between his normal affect and genuine horror, enough that even Malcolm notices.
“You might...proceed with caution.” Good cover, Ferdinand.
Which leaves us with Vanessa. She’s barely in this episode, comparatively, but spends it navigating the masculine world, which exists equally in a monastery and in the center of a modiste. Even as she storms off from the idea of a millenia-old prophecy about her soul as a battlefield, she pauses and apologizes for the outburst, claiming she’s tired. (Her relationship with manners is really interesting to me; I will save my thoughts on this for whenever she meets Lily and has to cover her horror.) And she gathers the men around her, up to and including concerns about her eating.
(Sembene complains “She should eat more,” but he’s also the one who tells Ethan, “She’s a lioness, she does not worry me.” Ethan is just sipping tea about Vanessa’s habit of eating dessert for breakfast.)
But of course, the witches come calling, for a moment of gloriously Gothic damselling as she sets down her hairbrush and turns in live-action slow motion for what feels like a minute and a half:
Vanessa then proceeds to Verbis Diablo them all right the hell out of her house. It brings up a lot of questions, after her episode with the Cut-Wife: She’s used the Verbis Diablo twice now after being told it was dangerous to use it – how much is too much? Did the Cut-Wife teach her anything else she could use in her defense? What’s the use of the scorpion sigil if the witches are wandering into her bedroom regularly? And maybe her most pressing question:
What on earth is she going to do, now that she’s having to look out for all these useless dudes on top of it all?
Don’t mistake me; I enjoy watching nearly all these dudes, even the ones who tend to be human garbage, like Malcolm and Victor. (This show has yet to sell me on Dorian and this week did not help.) But it really does feel that Logan is leveling this arc in order to take shots at Victorian masculinity within a feminist framework. If he picks apart the damsel-in-distress trope as he’s picked apart the gentleman explorer – if Vanessa arms herself with knowledge from the Cut-Wife and the story Evelyn handed her via Ferdinand, taking on these witches for more than the portent-and-regroup of the serial structure – then this show could have resonance beyond just being a delightful time. We’ve spent more than a season learning what Vanessa wants and what haunts her, we’ve seen who she learned from, and we’re ready for her to tear the whole place down. If ever human being was justified in the use of deadly weapons, she is now.