[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although it is technically an ensemble, Penny Dreadful has demonstrated time and again it is rather disinterested in having more than two characters share a scene at any given moment. Sure, sometimes the audience is treated to the sight of Vanessa, Sembene, Ethan, Victor, Ferdinand, and Sir Malcolm in the drawing room of Malcom’s London abode, but even then it’s to listen to Vanessa talk, while agitatedly smoking a cigarette, or as Ferdinand pieces together more of the Verbis Diablo from a crateful of eleventh-century artifacts.
In other words, even when the gang is all gathered in one place, it’s rare for the conversation to include more than two characters. If Vanessa isn’t retiring to her room to draw scorpions in blood, Dr. Frankenstein is off to be manhandled by his creation, before listening pensively on the staircase as the poetry-loving abomination does a poor job selling the romantic history he doesn’t share with Lily.
If anything, the series seems intent on proving that, although it has an expansive and talented cast, it’s not really interested in seeing them do things together as a group – or at least not yet. Instead, the series is much more interested in seeing what they do when paired off with one another. There’s nothing wrong with this; sometimes it results in a charming bit of conversation, as it did here with Vanessa and Clare. But sometimes – yes, even in the aforementioned dialogue – the interchange is so intense and deliberate, you can all but see the seams on the scene. That was certainly true for much of what transpires here, especially during Clare’s all too familiar confrontation with his creator, or Ethan’s exchange with the Scotland Yard detective intent on discovering what else the American is hiding – which is strange, because Ethan can typically be tossed in any situation (domestic or otherwise) with just about anyone and there is bound to be some sort of chemistry.
That’s what ‘Above the Vaulted Sky’ is about: Finding chemistry among this group of outcasts, or, as Jon Clare puts it: “unloved, broken things”.
There’s heat almost everywhere you look. Even in the pouring rain it’s enough to make the simmering sexual tension between couples boil over. Dorian Gray and Angelique take their relationship to a more emotional place, after some high society dirt bags (the Victorian equivalent of the fraternity brothers, apparently) let their opinion be known with a gob of spit to Angelique’s face. So far this season, Dorian’s story has been something of an outlier, as he’s had absolutely no contact with anyone in the main group. But rather than see him written off or shoehorned into the Ms. Poole storyline in some unconvincing manner, his thread has existed to underline the burgeoning theme of the season, which asks: Who do outcasts relate to when they find they no longer fit in amongst society at large? The answer: One another, of course.
Dorian may be off in the periphery, but his romance with Angelique is one of many on display in the episode that run the gamut from skirting decorum to flat out obliterating social conventions altogether.
For starters, the seduction of Sir Malcolm is downright pitiful; seeing as how Ms. Poole plays the poor guy like a harp from hell. After what must have been an invigorating evening of Wagner, Malcolm is put under the witch’s spell with yet another jab from her fancy ring/flesh-poking instrument (leading one to wonder where she get’s such accessories: Is it a coven thing, like, is there a catalogue, or does she contract her own goldsmith?). The episode seems concerned with the fact that Malcolm’s technically committing adultery, seeing as how Mrs. Murray is unwilling to grant him a divorce. It’s a sticky situation to be sure, so enter Evelyn Poole: Dissolver of marriages. Sure, Poole could have influenced Mrs. Murray to grant the divorce, but why do that when you can stick hot needles into a simulacra, while your daughter chants and weaves a lock of Vanessa’s hair into another voodoo doll? That’s some quality mother-daughter time that the two need after last week’s troubles. And, say what you will about her methods, but when someone of Sir Malcolm’s stature needs his marriage taken care of, Ms. Poole is ruthlessly efficient – cutthroat even.
While Ethan and Vanessa are able to sublimate their attraction to one another, Victor and Lily aren’t made of such stern stuff. Victor’s attraction to the corpse intended for the Creature crosses so many boundaries it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, Lily thinks she’s Victor’s second cousin (which really isn’t so bizarre for the era), but that’s only scratching the surface. Let us not forget that she is also the reanimated corpse of Ethan’s Irish prostitute girlfriend, whom Victor smothered in a twisted mercy killing to fulfill a bargain he made with a cranky, lovelorn corpse he’d brought back from the grave. We could go down the list of offences Victor has committed here, but why be so judgmental when Penny Dreadful simply wants its characters to find some semblance of connection in a world that has otherwise cast them out?
Which is why the team-building portion of the episode feels so important and momentous. Not only does Sir Malcom’s house get a sweet reinforced front door, but this group of outcasts that tends to divide itself into vulnerable pairs is, under Ethan’s guidance, reinforced as well. We’re at the halfway point of the season, and it’s still unclear what Poole’s plan for Vanessa really entails, but seeing the ragtag group of outcasts come together to protect each other from another nocturnal incursion by the Nightcomers makes these otherwise parenthetical couplings feel like they’re building to something more than the obvious.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘Glorious Horrors’ @10pm on Showtime.