[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
After last week’s premiere introduced audiences to the unseen side of Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole, and the torment she and her curly-haired coven of witches were hell bent on putting the seriously sleep-deprived Vanessa Ives through, Penny Dreadful has its characters (perhaps fool heartedly) on the prowl for some kind of peace. Well, everyone but Ethan, who pretty much gets to spend his time hanging around and flirting with the wonderful Ferdinand Lyle, as the two take from the British Museum a collection of eleventh century relics intended to give the Victorian-era adventurers a clue as to what precisely is the titular Verbis Diablo.
That search for peace doesn’t do much to bring the characters together, but it at least puts most of them on the same page. In ‘Fresh Hell,’ there was a sense that, although not much time had passed since the season 1 finale and the beginning of season 2, there was a physical and emotional distance between Vanessa, Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and the eternally standoffish Dr. Frankenstein. Barely a day had passed since finding and putting an end to Mina, than they were all prepared to go their separate ways. Ethan was ready to run from the mess he’d made in what has become known as the Mariner’s Inn Massacre, while Sir Malcolm thought maybe, with both his kids out of the house, he and the missus could enjoy a little downtime to, you know, get reacquainted and stuff. And of course Dr. Frankenstein was busy getting uncomfortably close with Brona, the deceased intended of his creation, who has become so taken with the beauty of poetry, he’s taken up the name John Clare.
With all that going on, it’s no wonder the premiere felt a little scattered. But rest assured, the sculpted cheekbones and frighteningly committed chanting of Evelyn Poole are here to make sure that, no matter how scattered things seem to get among the haunted adventurers, there’s something wicked just waiting to make sure they have a reason to stick together.
It feels like a reset in a lot of ways, as though season 1 was more a proof of concept than anything else – a way to see if a story could be built around such a sumptuous and atmospheric setting. And now that it has been proven, the series is setting in motion a grander, more ambitious storyline that is somehow set at an even more leisurely pace than before. But with the benefit of 10 episodes this season, Penny Dreadful can take all the time it pleases in resetting the circumstances of some of its key characters.
There’s perhaps no more obvious resetting than that of Billie Piper’s hard-drinking woman of the night Brona, who after falling victim to a potent mixture of tuberculosis and a pillow held over her face by Frankenstein has been reborn as Lily, a curiously emotional woman who sounds like Billie Piper, and not Billie Piper doing a tortured Irish accent. In a way, Brona’s transition to becoming Lily is a lot like the Creature’s transition into John Clare. It’s like the series wants to smooth out the rough edges of what were some of last season’s less refined characters, without putting them through a complete retcon.
Lily gets a few choice moments with Frankenstein, as he guides the recently resurrected woman into a life she’s supposed to remember but never will. The attraction on Frankenstein’s behalf that was hinted at last week takes on an entirely new level of discomfort when he fabricates a backstory in which the two are cousins, and almost too eagerly informs her that “continuing” to love Mr. Clare is entirely her choice. The wrinkle in what is shaping up to be one twisted romantic triangle immediately calls to mind last week’s brief but haunting introduction of Lavinia – the blind daughter of Clare’s new employers – who may well become the recipient of all that poetry he has to fill the heart of whomever will accept it.
The episode works as character rehabilitation of sorts for the Creature, who spent the better part of last season ripping bodies in half and breaking the necks of old men, as a way of intimating his creator’s sins are far greater than his can ever be – oh, and that he’s also pretty lonely. Maybe if the Creature stopped killing people and started getting to know them he’d feel more like he was one of the gang, but then again, he’s never had the pleasure of chatting with Ms. Ives in a subterranean cholera quarantine before now, so here’s to finally getting someone to notice how pretty your eyes are.
The conversation between Vanessa and the Creature is about the idea of faith and beauty. And given the Creature’s acquaintance with his creator, it’s no wonder he’s not one for putting his faith in some sort of higher power. Instead, he’s enraptured with the beautiful things around him – both that which exists in nature, and all the beauty created by humankind. It’s a wonderfully strange, digressive moment that would almost certainly be booted from any other series for the simple fact that it seemingly does little to progress the plot. But plot isn’t as important to Penny Dreadful as something like, say, atmosphere or a few minutes between tormented characters that somehow manage to find solace in the unlikeliest of places.
By the time we find out Lyle is being blackmailed by Poole to spy on Vanessa and Sir Malcolm, a young family has been murdered and their infant’s organs are being sewn into a doll bearing Ms. Ives’ striking visage. Unlike Doran Gray’s interaction with Angelique, Sir Malcolm’s off-target afternoon with Ms. Poole and Vanessa’s sudden gasp – as though someone just walked over her grave – feel like the characters have no idea what’s waiting for them. So let’s let them enjoy this brief respite and search for peace, as it may be the last they have of it for quite a while.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘The Nightcomers’ @10pm on Showtime.