[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last season at this point, Penny Dreadful was drawing things to a close with a rushed, somewhat sloppy, and rather disappointing season finale. Now, as season 2 rounds the corner on its eighth episode, it is abundantly clear what a difference an additional two hours make to John Logan’s gothic horror series.
In terms of pacing and delivering more of the kinds of character moments that make the series so appealing, while also setting up some idea of what the endgame will be, these last two episodes in particular (last week’s excursive ‘Little Scorpion‘ and tonight’s ‘Memento Mori’) have been opposite sides of the coin. One was a bit of wish fulfillment interrupted, as Vanessa and Ethan’s literal getaway to the English moors resulted in a schism developing between them. The other, is a well-crafted piece of plot progression that eschews an appearance by the series’ ostensible protagonist in favor of setting up an eventual conflict between Ms. Poole and her coven of Nightcomers, and Vanesa Ives and her Hound (nay, Wolf) of God.
The season has always been building toward a confrontation between the two; the introduction of Helen McCrory’s blood-bathing Evelyn Poole was the piece of the puzzle missing from season 1. She represented the ambiguous evil Vanessa and her team of Victorian-era ghost busters was up against, but Poole’s presence here gives the antagonist a much-needed earthly presence. With the series’ evil finally given some character to go with the usual bit of terrifying flesh and bone, things snapped into place. The season still enjoyed its digressions – taking more than one, resulting in the two most effective episodes of the season – but no matter how far the side stories strayed, there was always something, an A-plot, to which the story could eventually return.
And with ‘Memento Mori,’ that A-plot builds towards a crescendo, when Sir Malcolm, after being thrown into a well-deserved time out by Sembene (the only person in the house with any common sense) for tossing a table in the drawing room like a guy who just learned his football team lost, cuts Evelyn’s witchy strings. In that moment of involuntary self-reflection, Sir Malcolm’s rage quickly gives over to the pain of wistful nostalgia, exposing the still-open wound of the family he’s lost and been unable to properly mourn, given his circumstances (and perhaps his now questionable status as an alpha male explorer).
But Malcolm’s influenced rage is not too dissimilar from the anticipated “manly rage” that Evelyn knows will bring him directly to her. Despite his fancy weaponry and history as a man who gets things done, Sir Malcolm’s no match for the house full of Nightcomers, nor the machinations of Ms. Poole. His attack is short-lived and a failure, giving more credence to the season’s stance on the predictability and easily manipulated nature of the male ego. Like all the men this season – especially those who have fallen in with Ms. Poole – Malcolm has no idea what he’s up against, and his response – to fit his house with a steel door and position guns at various vantage points throughout the massive dwelling – falls well short of being remotely effective.
What is effective is Poole’s play to lure Vanessa to her, using Malcolm as bait. But even that fact takes some time to work its way through Malcolm’s man brain, as he brushed away the scorpion his recently rebuffed lover placed on his pant leg like it was one of his own children scampering toward him for attention. It’s only when the room is filled with the dead does that the adventurer begin to understand the gravity of his situation, that he is about to be undone not by some physically imposing creature, but by the emotions his stoic visage has denied him proper time to wallow in.
‘Memento Mori’ essentially boils down to lovers undone by their significant other. It’s in keeping with the episodic structure of the season, in which all the parallel storylines share a theme or a series of events – take the sex-filled montage of ‘Above the Vaulted Sky,’ for example – that brings the players together. For Logan, this is how he reconciles the size of his cast, and the disparity that exists between their threads.
In season 2 there has been no more disparate storyline than that of Dorian Gray. The ageless outlier of the series hasn’t had a place all season, until he came across Lily, née Brona, at the ill-timed ball he threw in honor of his new lover, Angelique. The look on Angelique’s face when Dorian asked Lily to dance said all that needed to be said. After a few nights on the town with Lily – under the watchful eye of the epitome of male sexual entitlement, a.k.a. the Creature – Dorian effectively poisoned his relationship with Angelique, before actually poisoning her with a glass of spiked champagne.
It’s a shocking moment followed up with a distinct twinge of disappointment, as Gray’s step into murder is trailed by the reveal of what his supernatural painting actually looks like. The picaresque lothario may well have killed before, as the painting suggests a moral component that’s at least as strong as the physical one, but it was presented far stronger in Gray’s tone and language – and in Angelique’s response – than in actually seeing what grotesquery the heretofore-unseen canvas held.
As unsatisfying as seeing Dorian Gray’s picture actually was, ‘Memento Mori’ contains no more satisfying moment than when Lily asserts her dominance over the creature who thought he was owed her body and her love, simply because he was lonely and wanted it. Nothing against Rory Kinnear’s depiction of the character, but the would-be John Clare has been a major irritant for the better part of two seasons now. He may be the living embodiment of Dr. Frankenstein’s sin, but he’s come across as little more than a pale-faced mope with a dopey haircut. When he finally submits to Lily and her plans for their creator (and the world), the brooding corpse suddenly becomes an interesting part of a larger whole.
That’s how the antepenultimate episode of season 2 works: It moves the threads around in such a way that although they may still be slightly disparate, they are more inline with one another now that the whole has become more visible.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘And Hell Itself My Only Foe’ @10pm on Showtime.