[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Even though Penny Dreadful has only existed for all of 12 episodes now, the series has developed a certain rhythm that, once it gets going, is easy for the audience to fall into. That rhythm can be a little staccato at times, drifting off into fog-encased memories of weeks spent in Patti LuPone’s quaint two-story cottage on the outskirts of some prime English cattle country, before suddenly lurching forward, like a naked Nightcomer camouflaging herself as 19th century designer wallpaper. And while that may not be a particularly smooth cadence, it’s one that John Logan, series creator and writer of every episode, has used to the show’s particular advantage. If nothing else, the series’ worldview – filled as it is with poetry-loving reanimated corpses, scorpions drawn in blood, and American werewolves in London – is a little askew, so the disjointed rhythm of its narrative certainly makes sense.
But there are smaller rhythms within the larger movement that are far more consistent. For example, there’s the series’ penchant for putting its characters in pairs to handle bits of personal business. Sometimes these pairs handle banal activities, like doing the dishes or preparing a sumptuous dessert, as Sembene and Ethan do. Other times it’s as simple as Vanessa joining Dr. Frankenstein for an early afternoon on the town, shopping for a few dresses for the recently resurrected Brona/Lily, who is seemingly being remade to become the good doctor’s ideal woman. And then there’s Dorian Gray and his latest infatuation Angelique (Johnny Beauchamp), who do little more here than go out to play table tennis and turn as many heads as possible with their public displays of affection.
The point is, Penny Dreadful, though still an infant in television terms (most series have had more episodes in their first season), seems to know what it’s doing. It’s guiding the viewer to see how the show works through repetition: Pair characters up for a short adventure or some expository dialogue, pause to explore Vanessa’s tortured path as a means of establishing narrative progress, rinse, repeat. ‘Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places,’ then, would be that moment of narrative progress.
And yet it’s all tucked away in a subtextual (and sometimes textual) throughline about vanity. For an episode that ends with Hecate and her coven-mates blowing through Sir Malcom’s house like sorority pledges on a dare from hell (which, in this case, actually is hell), it seems peculiar that so much of what transpires addresses matters of how the characters are perceived. Victor’s shopping excursion with Vanessa is filled with nods to her personality, her style, what suits her and what does not. In a sense, she’s the yardstick by which Victor begins to measure Lily. And yet, through it all, Vanessa isn’t the self-conscious one; it’s Victor.
The whole scene feels a little Pretty Woman-esque – there’s a tension there that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s as though there’s an expectation someone is waiting come in and judge Vanessa or Victor for what they’re doing. The little seen smile on Vanessa’s face tells us she’s enjoying gently nudging her colleague about his “second cousin” who suddenly came to visit and is in need of some clothing. And yet, for Victor anyway, the judgment is purely internal; it carries over to his time back in the lab with Lily, as they discuss the purpose of corsets and how they are part of the system determined to position women to keep houses, raise men’s children and “flatter them with pain.”
Still, it’s not just Lily’s past coming back on a subconscious level. She may not know who she is, but she certainly knows objectification when brings her back to life. Lily’s the ultimate object: a woman who used to sell her body, a woman who was killed and unwittingly resurrected as the betrothed to a creature who demanded a mate as though it was his right. John Clare might want to fill Lily’s heart with poetry, but his flowery intentions do little to erase what he’s been party to in order to get what he wants.
The same is true for Victor – although his situation is far more complicated. He killed Brona in a manner that could be considered merciful, and he brought her back to life, but by keeping the truth from her (and taking liberties with her corpse), and now becoming desirous of her, he’s miles from ever being considered her savior. And through it all, it seems Lily still clings to vestiges of her former self. She rejects the painful restrictions of the corset, but keeps the equally painful shoes because Victor likes them. But is the pain she’s willing to endure for his vanity or for hers?
It’s a complicated thread; one that may be even murkier than the revelation the text translated from the museum’s artifacts is Lucifer’s autobiography. The question stemming from the discovery is: What does that mean for Vanessa? Sir Malcolm is quick to point out her fluency in the Verbis Diablo points to some sort of association with the devil, which she refutes, shortly before said faculty comes in handy when the bald and branded interlopers launch their stealth attack – the purpose of which was apparently to steal a lock of Vanessa’s hair (no doubt for the voodoo doll Ms. Poole had been working on in ‘Verbis Diablo‘).
‘Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places’ is another solid episode that nonetheless feels like it could have done more to define the parameters of the season. Thankfully, it’s not quite the halfway mark, so there’s still plenty of time for both sides to circle the wagons and for the stakes to begin to reveal themselves. Now that Ethan’s been introduced to Hecate (in both her forms), at least he’s privy to more of the story than he usually is. And, on the plus side, those in Sir Malcolm’s house are now aware the forces they’re dealing with – even if Lyle hasn’t quite been so forthcoming as to who it is they’re up against. Hopefully, that will be made clearer sooner rather than later. Penny Dreadful is a series that thrives in darkness, but in order for the narrative to advance, the characters need to find their way out of the dark and to achieve some sort of illumination.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with ‘Above the Vaulted Sky’ @10pm on Showtime.
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