[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
A few weeks ago Penny Dreadful took to the English moors to bring us ‘The Nightcomers,’ the best episode of season 2 to date. Dark, gloomy, and full of portent, it was the sort thing fans of gothic horror dream of. Not only did it offer up an impeccable performance from Patti LuPone as the Cut-Wife of Ballantree Moor, but it also shed some light on Vanessa’s backstory, a light that was destined to illuminate the road on which she would soon find herself. A road that might very well lead her straight into the pits of hell and the devil’s warm embrace.
The episode was, in many ways, a perfect digression. It left the main thread of the season to reveal a crucial piece of history, a broken shard that, when merged with the main storyline, revealed itself much less an entertaining detour, and more of an immensely significant part of the whole, without which the story could not have supported the crucial, life-changing decision Vanessa makes during the course of ‘Little Scorpion.’
Though the episode brings Vanessa back to Ballantree Moor and the quaint, two-story cottage that was bequeathed her by the mentor she saw burned alive, it is not a retread of what has come before. After the requisite meeting in Sir Malcolm’s drawing room, in which everyone discusses the events of the past episode, Vanessa reveals her plan to sequester herself from London for a time, to put herself out of harm’s way. After shooting down her invitation to Dorian’s ball last week, and narrowly missing out on the carnal atmosphere that permeated the latter half of ‘Above the Vaulted Sky,’ Ethan offers up his company and protection. This effectively fulfills those who have been longing for the two to finally have some alone time without pesky, trivial things like Nightcomers, demonic possession, or traumatizing memories spoiling any potential fun.
Fun is something of a fluid concept in Penny Dreadful. For one thing, there’s always something lurking in the background, hiding just out of sight like a creepy, sullen living corpse who just wants to read some poetry when you’re hanging out with Dorian Gray. Or it’s something dark and terrible that lurks deep within a person, like Lily’s urge to strangle a john in bed. Call it a demon or a monster, or things that mark you when you’re young, that dark thing is very much a part of what makes these characters who they are – Vanessa and Ethan especially. And if Lyle’s translation of the devil’s autobiography means what it seems to mean, then the darkness with them both may well have brought them together for a reason.
The Hound of God may exist to keep the devil from his bride, bringing about the complete subjugation of mankind. That’s a remarkably positive spin on Ethan’s lycanthropy, but some ancient text scribbled on a bunch of artifacts isn’t the only thing suggesting the American Werewolf in London’s situation may be the opposite of a curse. Sembene saw the monster and confirmed its existence to Ethan, but he also saw something good in the snarling entity chained up before him. If that’s what Sembene sees when he comes face-to-face with a werewolf, I’d hate to know what it would take for him to sit back and say, “You know, this is a pretty bad situation. That thing is evil, and it is going to eat my face.”
Heavenly werewolf or not, at least Ethan is finally in the know about those monthly blackouts and why wakes up feeling like he’d turned a seaside tavern into a one-man buffet. Out on the moors with Vanessa, Ethan has the courtesy to leave his traveling companion for the night, while he slaughter’s sheep in the moonlight – resulting in a rather gorgeously composed slow motion shot of him tossing his head back, causing a string of gore to arc across the full moon. It is seriously a beautiful shot; one that underlines the idea of the beast within to the degree that even Vanessa and Ethan can’t deny it any longer.
But first there are trees to be chopped down, bottles to be shot, and dancing (which is the opposite of homicide) to be taught. The montage of Vanessa and Ethan experiencing a kind of weird domesticated bliss out in the middle of nowhere is a major part of what makes this series so unique. While it doesn’t plumb the emotional depths of ‘The Nightcomers,’ shots of the two dancing, planting a garden, and arguing over how much salt should be put in the stew is the sort of thing most shows wouldn’t pause a season filled with voodoo dolls and the daughters of the devil to emphasize. But Penny Dreadful does, and that’s what has made this season so fulfilling from a character standpoint.
And by the time the loathsome Sir Geoffrey Hawkes makes his appearance, you understand why. This domestic bliss takes Vanessa and Ethan right up to the brink of some serious fan service. After putting out a spontaneous (and rather suspicious) fire inside the cottage, the two find the flames of their passion for one another have also been stoked. They finally kiss, but it’s cut short by Vanessa’s refusal to take it any further – after all, the last time she felt something like this she was…indisposed for the better part of a month.
So again, the would-be lovers must sublimate their desire for one another. This time, though, they redirect their emotions into a little bloodletting. Ethan skulks out into the night to do away with Sir Geoffrey, only to witness Vanessa using the dark book to see him turned into Kal Kan. It seems the dude was going to be dog food either way. This places Vanessa on a dark path, and it puts Ethan in the position to do a little unnecessary mansplaining about what it means to take a life, to call her “little girl,” and to tell her she’ll never get her soul back.
It’s soul crushing to listen to. The specificity of the dialogue and Hartnett’s emphasis on “little girl” is brutal and animalistic, and we can assume his anger stems from his inability to protect Vanessa from what he sees as her damnation. But it also demoralizes her in a significant way. Ethan’s reaction not only undermines what Vanessa chose to do, but also the fact that she made a choice at all. “We have claws for a reason,” she told him earlier. Vanessa makes it clear that her action, her choice was inevitable. That gives her the power, but it doesn’t make the emotional conflict any easier to watch.
And now we are left to contemplate the fallout. Was it one more step into darkness for justice, or did Vanessa play right into the hands of a very dark power?
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘Momento Mori’ @10pm on Showtime.