[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 1. There will b SPOILERS.]
Last year, prolific screenwriter John Logan took a break from the mega-budgeted adventures of British secret agents, last samurais, and Roman gladiators to bring to television the dark and intensely atmospheric world of Penny Dreadful. Set in Victorian London, the horror-steeped series set itself apart by using layers of Gothic dread to peer into the lonely, tormented lives of a small group of outcasts on the verge of discovering something, well, pretty dreadful.
Violent and moody, the eight-episode first season succeeded in bringing to life a London where horse drawn carriages moseyed down cobblestone streets that led straight to the heart of darkness. The series created a world where terror lurked around every corner and was concealed by nearly every shadow – a fitting notion, considering every character had something to hide. But mostly, it was a world where an Allan Quatermain proxy by the name of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) had unwittingly assembled a team of characters who were very much a part of the world they had gathered to combat for the sake of Murray's missing daughter, Mina.
For all that season 1 was able to accomplish, creating a believable world from the past, introducing characters like Josh Hartnett's sharp-shooting showman Ethan Chandler, or Harry Treadaway's Doctor Victor Frankenstein and the vengeful, theater-loving Creature (Rory Kinnear) he'd brought into existence, it succeeded most in telling the twisted tale of Vanessa Ives – brought to life by the often brilliant and unrestrained performance by Eva Green – and the darkness that threatened to consume her.
Season 1 was more of a character study than anything else, which may have been a facet or a fault of the storyline being limited to just eight episodes. There was a plot, but it mostly involved Sir Malcolm Murray's hunt for his missing daughter, and the mysterious circumstances in which she'd fallen in with an evil force (that was, for all intents and purposes, the Penny Dreadful version of vampires, or Dracula, if you will). There was a vague notion of an antagonist – namely, the monsters that lurked in the shadows and came in through windows at night, and the unseen force that so desperately wanted Miss Ives – but both their characters and their intentions were obscure, to say the least.
And yet, despite the elusiveness of its plot, or the circuitousness of the story, the season was still more hit than miss. That was largely thanks some terrific digressions, in which Vanessa's past was explored and the question of what haunted her and why grew larger and far more pressing than whatever had taken the little seen Mina. It was from those moments that the series felt truly born and ready to define itself for something beyond its ornate setting and palpable atmosphere.
As such, it's no surprise that when Penny Dreadful begins its second season with 'Fresh Hell,' it does so by opening up on Vanessa as she comes under the assault of an unmistakable antagonist played by the fantastic Helen McCrory (who can also be seen delivering a tremendous performance on the underrated Peaky Blinders). McCrory's Evelyn Poole made a few appearances last season, one at the séance that first demonstrated the power of Green's performance. There was something off about Evelyn, but the character was otherwise innocuous – perhaps not as innocuous as, say, Simon Russell Beale's ostentatiously-styled Ferdinand Lyle (someone please get him a series where he says "papyrus" 87 times in an hour), but one wouldn't necessarily have pegged her for taking leisurely baths in the viscous blood of a young woman while enjoying a smoke.
And with that 'Fresh Hell' sets itself apart from the eight episodes than came before by establishing a strong rivalry between McCrory's Poole and Green's Ives, with only one of them being aware any such enmity exists. But more than give Green a challenger, the addition of Evelyn and her coven of (apparently disposable) witches, McCrory's character livens the proceedings up considerably. There is a hint of campiness in every line she delivers, as though Evelyn is the only one aware she's a character in the kind of story that would fill the pages of the cheap, popular literature from which the series derived its name. That sort of self-awareness is seen in the slashing of a fellow witch's throat with a ring apparently designed to do just that, or how Evelyn's daughter Hecate (Sarah Greene) hisses joyfully, while sporting a hairdo straight from the Bernadette Peters collection.
But in addition to imbuing the season with an energetic flesh and blood antagonist worthy of going up against the embattled Vanessa, 'Fresh Hell' also succeeds in setting its characters up to make some significant choices. Ethan wakes to find himself covered in the remnants of the Mariner's Inn Massacre, and while thoughts of Spain or fighting in some war somewhere threaten to pull him from London, his (dog-like?) loyalty and concern for Vanessa have him setting up in Malcolm's guest room instead.
Meanwhile, Victor Frankenstein finds himself fondling Brona's (Billie Piper) corpse before she can be resurrected and find out she's been betrothed to the Creature. It's a disturbing scene that adds more questions to the debate of whether or not Victor's killing of Brona last season was done out of mercy or obligation to the alabaster-skinned abomination to which he is "bound on a wheel of pain." To that end, the Creature (a.k.a. John Claire) seems set to have to choose between the reanimated Brona or the blind daughter of his new employers.
There is a great deal more than sheer atmosphere packed into the season 2 premiere. The focus on plot construction and the building of challenges for Vanessa, Ethan, and Victor is much more concentrated than it was last season, all of which points to some intriguing character arcs. Setting its characters on a clear path seems to be the right choice for the series, considering how muddled the season 1 finale was.
But it does make one wonder whether such single-mindedness will make Penny Dreadful too rigid in its storytelling, and prevent those wonderful, character-focused digressions from happening again. Of all the things that may be sacrificed for a more focused narrative, hopefully it won't be what made the series so remarkable in the first place.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with 'Verbis Diablo' @10pm on Showtime.