[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
Of the many things there are to admire about Penny Dreadful from week to week, one of the least expected, and yet most fun to watch, may be the standard of living and enjoyment of extracurricular activities its characters maintain, despite their rather ominous, supernatural circumstances. Vanessa is being actively hunted by a coven of witches in league with the devil himself, Victor is embroiled in a love triangle with two corpses he’s brought back to life, and Sir Malcolm is literally under the spell of his new lady love. And yet, there’s still time to attend a ball thrown by Dorian Gray, in honor of his new infatuation, Angelique.
There is something remarkably charming about the way these characters can cast off the larger worries of their abnormal lives to engage in a bit of socializing with the upper crust. In a way, it seems counterintuitive to the requirements of the genre, and maybe that’s exactly why it works. Men and women who have been tasked to do battle with supernatural forces generally don’t accept invitations to balls, or attend luncheons with their doctor friend and his newly arrived cousin from the country. Instead, they sulk around their house, or act gloomy all the time, waiting for the next encounter with whatever unholy thing that will crawl out of the darkness. Essentially, they act like Ethan Chandler does for much of ‘Glorious Horrors.’
But even though Ethan has good reason to turn down Vanessa’s offer to be her escort – that moon isn’t going to get any fuller – his actions of stoic, tight-lipped manliness are typically how we are conditioned to see such characters behave. But Penny Dreadful actively works against those expectations, by offering its cast of outsiders a chance to be outsiders within the genre itself. In fact, nearly everyone’s actions, with regard to Dorian’s ball, are the antithesis of Ethan’s call to circle the wagons from last week. Sembene, Vanessa, and Sir Malcolm all helped out for a day or two, readying some guns, putting up a steel-plated door, and drawing bloody emblems around the house. But after a few days of waiting for the Nightcomers to attack, they get a little stir-crazy (as evidenced by the sexcapades that concluded ‘Above the Vaulted Sky‘), and basically jump at the chance to get out and cut a rug.
This refutation of their place within the conventional structural confines of the horror genre makes situations such as the one at the center of tonight’s episode that much more lively. Because we are not watching characters on guard, waiting for the worst to come directly at them, there’s no telling what can or will transpire. As such, Dorian’s ball becomes an exciting set piece, rather than the delivery device of genre expectations. And because the situation unfolds against the backdrop of such a specific type of event, both it and the characters involved become exponentially more bizarre and fascinating.
Case in point: A sumptuous ball usually isn’t a part of a horror setting unless it is about to be ravaged by whatever dark forces are looming in the background. Such an occurrence is not necessarily beneath a series like Penny Dreadful. And yet, at every turn, the show resists the temptation to fuel its genre’s bloodlust – even when it is showering Vanessa and all the party’s guests in a crimson downpour the likes of which are rarely seen outside The Overlook Hotel’s elevators. The result, then, is a comedy of manners that sees Victor bring Lily to Dorian’s house, oblivious her past as Brona might have seen her walk through those stately doors and avoid eye contact with the hundreds of paintings hanging in his grand room.
In a sense, writer and series creator John Logan sees the social event of the season as its own potential horror story, one free from witches and vampires, poetry-loving corpses and werewolves, but filled with the budding terror of social humiliation and jealousy amongst lovers (the looks thrown about by Victor and Angelique while Dorian danced with Lily were sharp enough to reenact the Mariner’s Inn massacre). And for a while, the episode takes pains to walk the audience down a very Three’s Company-esque path with Dr. Frankenstein eager to show off Lily, his frighteningly domesticated new lover, before veering suddenly at the last second thanks to Ethan’s lycanthropic condition.
In a sense, this makes Ethan the outcast within a group of outcasts, but only because he refuses to talk to anyone about his problems. Then again, there’s the question of how much he actually knows about his condition in the first place. Ethan may be the only one to recognize how his unusual circumstances can limit his social life, and yet, at the same time, we have to wonder whether or not he’s fully aware of what he is. It seems likely that the front-row seat he offered Sembene wasn’t a “hey, wanna see a neat trick?” type of invitation, but more of a “can you help me figure out why I wake up after a full moon coughing up bits of recently massacred people?”
There are questions swirling around ‘Glorious Horrors’ that go far beyond wondering why, when the devil has sent his daughters to invade your home and steal a lock of your hair, you would consider attending a ball. Those questions include, why would a Pinkerton stooge like Warren Roper (Stephen Lord) come to Sir Malcolm’s home and threaten the guy who ripped off half his face? And will anyone mourn for Gladys?
Those are compelling issues to be sure, but now that Vanessa has had her psychedelic run-in with Hecate and her sisters – and let Ms. Poole know she’s on to her – those issues will have to take a backseat to the looming confrontation we have been waiting all season for. And if the eccentric circumstances of ‘Glorious Horrors’ are anything to go by, we can look forward to a wildly unconventional conflict for the ages.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘Little Scorpion’ @10pm on Showtime.