[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
Even for those who don't watch on a weekly basis, Penny Dreadful easily establishes itself as an incredibly unique show. For those who do tune in regularly, they know it's a well-balanced mixture of gothic horror, romance, and camp. But putting genre and aesthetics aside for a moment, the series also stands out in other ways; most notably, the way in which a season's narrative arc refuses to travel along the sort of typical dramatic structure most viewers are used to. Instead, the series is marked with powerful asides often times more memorable than the action directly related to the plot. Season 2 has certainly been a terrific example of the success this unusual structure can bring. Yet, when an installment like 'And Hell Itself My Only Foe' comes around, it demonstrates how the series handles rising action in its own distinctive and uncommonly sedate way.
The penultimate episode works by raising the stakes between Vanessa and Ms. Poole without going in to the typical demonstrations of power, intimidation, and rising conflict these types of interactions normally produce. In fact, although Vanessa's confrontation with her nemesis finally begins to advance, there's little hint of animosity between the two; it feels like a business transaction or obligation, something inevitable that had come to pass and both women were duty-bound to be involved.
Although Vanessa ostensibly follows in the footsteps of her surrogate father Sir Malcolm, venturing into hell's mouth on a suicidal solo mission, the confrontation unfolds in a much more dignified way. The series has again and again sought to point out ways in which toxic masculinity makes matters worse, and the juxtaposition of Sir Malcom's journey (and his subsequent psychological torture) with Vanessa's is certainly on point. The whole thing unfolds as a matter of decorum that is far more unsettling and effective than Malcolm's unsubtle run-in-with-guns-blazing approach. Ms. Poole is a gracious host, welcoming Vanessa into the dark and oppressive halls of her home, while young, ambitious Hecate greets their guest as she apparently greets everyone: with a kiss on the mouth. The ease with which the would-be usurper sidles up to those she is speaking with (sometimes stepping through a mirror) and plants one on them as a demonstration of her dominance justifies her mother saying, "If I were of another constitution, I would fear you."
But what exactly is there for Vanessa to fear? So far, Penny Dreadful has kept that mostly at arm's length. Yes, we know that the devil himself (and his unspoken of sibling) want to use Vanessa to bring about the apocalypse, but so far that's all been little more than second-hand information; there's been no physical threat beyond the notion that something dark, menacing, and potentially world-ending is looming somewhere off screen. It would be nice to see the series escalate this beyond a mood or feeling.
Perhaps the dearth of a physical threat is why creator John Logan decided to start the episode by resolving the tale of Warren Roper, the Pinkerton detective and sole survivor of the Mariner's Inn Massacre who's been forced into a tepid Phantom of the Opera routine after Ethan's lycanthropic alter ego left him with half a face. Like last week's disappointing reveal of Dorian's picture, Roper's disfigured visage felt off in some strange way. One typically thinks of a mauling as an act of subtraction, in that the creature doing the mauling is usually in the process of pulling pieces away from its victim. Here it was the reverse, Roper looked more like the werewolf attack left him with a lumpy Toxic Avenger-like growth on his face.
But instead of handing Roper a mop, the episode places him at Vanessa's house on the Moors, so that the vacationing duo can be bound by homicide in a violent sequence that does not want for brevity. To be frank, the Roper stuff never really worked in the way it seems like it was intended. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Ethan's involvement in the Mariner's Inn Massacre has already placed him in Inspector Rusk's sights, making whatever threat Roper poses a little redundant. His confrontation with the man he knew to have nearly killed him marked the character as less of a threat and more of a mere obstacle, something disposable that could be dealt with and then forgotten. There's a significant moment when Vanessa and Ethan bury Roper and she asks her accomplice what he is. This essentially justifies Roper's short existence, but for a show that's usually quite deft at covering such things up, the seams are really showing here.
The same can be said for Lily's ongoing seduction/recruitment of Jon Clare and Dorian in her quest to do…something that isn't quite clear yet (be the third season's big bad, maybe?). It's great seeing Billie Piper get to work with this kind of material here, as she's delivered a terrific and dominant performance two weeks in a row, but her conquest of Dorian read more like a retread of the speech she delivered to The Creature last week, and as such, the weight of the moment was diminished somewhat. Still, Lily was smart to double-up her recruitment efforts, as the poetry-loving mope wound up imprisoned by the Putneys, lured into a cage by a blind woman with more foresight than he, and tempted by, of all things, a book of poetry on the ground. The irony here is slathered on thicker than the latex make-up covering Roper's face.
Vanessa and her crew may have assembled to confront Ms. Poole and her coven of Nightcomers, but there are still plenty of threads left dangling. It feels appropriate to give the series the benefit of the doubt because the season has offered so many solid moments, and yet it's difficult to ignore the feeling that it might miss the boat again in terms of finishing the season off with a satisfying conclusion. The season 3 renewal certainly makes the issue of unresolved storylines a little easier to deal with, but it just seems unlikely that The Creature, Lily and Dorian, Inspector Rusk, and the showdown between the forces of good and evil – not to mention the weighty mythology swirling around Vanessa and Ethan "The Chosen One" Chandler – can all be dealt with satisfactorily in a single hour.
And given that the episode ends with Sembene about to become dog food, Victor and Sir Malcolm locked in the room that lays guilt on heavier than a Catholic mother, and Vanessa an unwitting guest on the Victorian era version of The Muppet Show, here's hoping that the finale focuses on paying these situations off, and letting everything else continue simmering until season 3 rolls around. That seems like the best way to cap off what has been a terrific second season.
Penny Dreadful will conclude its second season next Sunday with 'And They Were Enemies' @10pm on Showtime.