[This is a review of the Penny Dreadful season 3 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
For all of its violence and bloodletting, all of its darkness and satanic seduction, Penny Dreadful is neither nihilistic nor cynical. It is passionate and romantic, often in love with the idea of love and the tragic poetry of its doomed characters and their soot-stained gothic setting. And at the start of its third season, the series, guided by creator John Logan, remains as passionate as ever about its characters and their unique circumstances. It finds ways to ensure they, too, are filled with passion, even though, for all they have been through, no one would blame them for being emptied-out husks, hot-boxing the entirety of a posh London mansion, opening the door only to drag in groceries like some fresh kill.
There is a communicable ardor in Logan’s dialogue throughout the season 3 premiere that links the romantic tragedy of his characters with the London-wide mourning of Tennyson and the silencing of his poetic voice. The bells toll across the city and characters are inspired to quote the poet. The recognition of something both sorrowful and celebratory is proof that as low as Vanessa, Ethan, Sir Malcolm, Victor, and even John Clare (The Creature) have been brought following the events of season 2, their nadir is impermanent; something in their supernatural nature won’t allow them to remain at the bottom for long. There are appeals to right one’s self, to seek help if need be, or, in the case of Wes Studi’s Kaetenay, there are speeches about destiny to be made in an effort to once again stoke the flames of passion seemingly doused by grief and whiskey.
This effervescent zeal is made evident through the various one-on-one exchanges that dominate the first hour. They are both lengthy and wonderful in how they remind viewers of all that has transpired over the past two seasons, while also pointing to the road ahead. Penny Dreadful is prone to overexcitement of what’s to come and to making storytelling promises that don’t always pan out, but it’s hard not to be taken in when Kaetenay sells Malcolm on a trip to the New Mexico territory by referring to Ethan as “our son,” and it’s flat-out impossible to not be seduced by Patti LuPone‘s uncannily accurate analysis of Vanessa, or to cringe as Doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein consider plans to tame and domesticate (or destroy) Lily, the latter’s unruly creation who became a powerful woman with agency.
The show is so good at beginnings that its less successful endings hinge more on the promise of starting over again, than on the conclusion of the present narrative. That was perhaps never more obvious than in season 2 when, in addition to a specific Big Bad in Evelyn Poole, the series intimated a certain fulfillment of destinies – not only a clarification of Vanessa’s ongoing torment, but also Ethan’s role as Lupus Dei or “Wolf of God” – that led to a lot of treading water, since destinies are routinely only fulfilled in a season’s closing moments.
As each season closes, though, another opening is right around the corner. The heady enthusiasm, with which Penny Dreadful tackles the next chapter, setting the table as it were, is always invigorating. Here, ‘The Day Tennyson Died’ makes terrific use of its characters having been scattered to the wind. Distance allows for unique pairings that drive the narrative down promising new avenues. Ferdinand Lyle encourages Vanessa to seek the help of LuPone’s Dr. Seward, while Sir Malcolm has traveled to Africa to lay Sembene to rest, and Inspector Rusk has extradited Ethan back to the United States. Normally, spreading characters across such an expanse is a recipe for disaster, but here it’s a chance for the series to crack a window and let in some air – and considering her present state, there’s no one more in need of a little ventilation than Ms. Ives.
Penny Dreadful fills the void of Ethan and Sir Malcolm’s physical absence with new characters like the aforementioned Dr. Seward, her assistant Renfield, and the mysterious Dr. Henry Sweet, who makes an immediate impression on account of his welcome exuberance – his passion – for all creatures living and dead. Vanessa’s dialogue with Dr. Sweet begins as a harmless little game of “Did you know?”, like the kind a child who has just had his mind blown by a particularly illustrative book would play in wanting share his newly acquired knowledge with anyone in possession of some attention to spare. Of course Sweet’s knowledge is something far different; it earned him his station at the museum, watching over and caring for all the creatures resigned to an eternity approximating the living and paying special attention to those “the broken and shunned” ones whose cases have grown dusty and for whom eyes pass over with increasing irregularity.
Dr. Sweet feels like Logan inserting himself into his own story. Sweet is not merely entrusted with the care of these broken and shunned things; he is excited by them, passionate about their existence, and dutiful in his maintenance and care of them. Whatever else Sweet proves to be, his introduction serves as a reminder what kind of show Penny Dreadful is, and that although its characters are monsters (or near enough) who sometimes beget monsters, there are those who look upon them and marvel at such beautiful horror. That’s Logan, that’s Dr. Sweet, that’s anyone who has tuned into this series with any regularity.
The passion Penny Dreadful has for its broken and shunned things and the unique double lives many of them have led as literary characters, classic movie monsters, and now characters in an ongoing gothic drama comes through in the episode’s closing moments. The reveal that Dr. Seward’s receptionist is Renfield cements an appearance (or non-appearance, as the case may be) by Dracula before the famous name is actually uttered. It’s the sort of reveal that plays into the expectations of the series, while also tacitly guaranteeing a shift away from how the character has been portrayed before. Season 2 tried its hand with a Big Bad in Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole, and while Dracula is the biggest bad this series has so far introduced (other than, you know, the Devil), the unique angle from which the show views the world – from the perspective of the monsters, that is – makes his arrival feel more like a enticing promise than anything close to dreadful.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘Predators Far and Near’ @10pm on Showtime.