Since Episode 3 was a Vanessa Spotlight, it makes sense that the next two episodes would both be Ensemble Hangouts. Of the two, “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places” does a masterful job of reconnecting us to the ongoing story and being a solid episode. “Above the Vaulted Sky” includes some disappointments, but also some good setup for the future. Both episodes keep the show’s second season decidedly more woman-centric than the first season, which works to this season’s benefit (even as the first season remains one of the best first seasons of a TV show).
This is also a good place to acknowledge the great work of Genevieve Valentine, who recapped the first two seasons of this show for Io9 (with bonus posts on her blog) and is an all-around smart person. I followed along the first time I watched Penny Dreadful, which undoubtedly shaped my perspective. Out of respect for her work, I try to steer my analysis into some of the places hers didn’t have the space to get to, but there’s no question she’s been an influence on my thinking, especially when it comes to the rest of this season.
Rather than recap both episodes point for point, let’s check in on how each storyline/theme develops. At this point, we can safely say the following are our storyline/(theme) combos for the season:
- Too Good for Dorian Gray (My Identity is not Your Accessory)
- That Frankenstein Weirdness (Male Entitlement has Consequences)
- Witch is the New Vamp (Women with Power are not to be Trifled With)
Too Good for Dorian Gray (My Identity is not Your Accessory)
In these two episodes, the focus of this storyline is the amazing Angelique. Between the two episodes, Angelique both proves how Dorian is unworthy of her and manages to bring out the best in him. The pair spends quite a bit of time together, both in public playing table tennis and in private back at Dorian’s place. During several of their exchanges, especially outside of Dorian’s, Dorian gives the impression that he delights in the looks they get from other people and is over-eager to revel in the difference between Angelique’s female presentation and her sex assigned at birth.
When Angelique calls him on this when they are alone, Dorian summons an eloquent articulation of how sincere his affection truly is. He is able to quell the concern that he is essentially fetishizing the transgressiveness of being with her by acknowleding how much he cherishes her for who she truly is. While this in no way makes up for the way he treated her earlier, it is nonetheless one of Dorian’s better moments of emotional earnestness. Thus, even when it’s become clear that he’s not good enough for her, he still manages to be his best self with her.
I guess the main takeaway here is that a spinoff show all about Angelique would be fascinating and I would watch the heck out of it.
That Frankenstein Weirdness (Male Entitlement has Consequences)
On the decidedly less self-assured end of the masculine spectrum, we have Victor Frankenstein and John Clare both being creepy as all get out around Lily (who so far shows few to no signs of remembering her pre mortem life as Brona). Victor has constructed a backstory wherein Lily is his cousin from the country, recently arrived in London and unfamiliar with the ways of the city. This gives her cover for her awkwardness when in public as well as giving him cover for hovering around her and buying her clothes. The latter quest does bring out one of the more delightful scenes of these two episodes: Vanessa playfully tormenting Victor in a women’s clothing store.
Victor’s creepiness does lead to some incredibly uncomfortable-to-watch sex with Lily at the culmination of “Above the Vaulted Sky.” In the build up to that event, though, we get to see Lily learning quickly what English society of the time is like, especially for women. Her disappointment and frustration are clear, even as she tamps them down enough to stay on good terms with Victor. One gets the sense that this détente cannot last forever, and the anticipation of Lily’s eventual self-liberation from her own origin and the society around her begins here.
And of course there’s John Clare, being his mopey, awkward self. He is simultaneously more awkward and less intensely creepy than Victor around Lily. As his desperate hope that she will be an easy, eager partner begins to die, he becomes increasingly pitiable. Especially when paired with the apparent rapport he is building with Lavinia Putney – which can only end in tears given how transparently the show telegraphs the sinister side of the Putney family – and the more genuine connection he’s building with Vanessa as they trade sad poetry and philosophical musings underground, it’s clear that John Clare’s visage is the least important factor in his enduring loneliness. He is, instead, a man of little self esteem or sense of control over his life. To the extent he does try to assert control, his efforts largely manifest as bullying Victor. The biggest favor John Clare could do himself would be to get out of his own head, but he’s clearly incapable of doing that right now.
Despite these more sympathy-inspiring aspects of his plight, there’s also no question that John Clare has deep issues seeing women he’s attracted to as whole people with agency in their own right. He’s become so consumed with the tragedy of his own situation and the pressure of his own urge for companionship that most women immediately become to him trophies locked behind puzzles. When he can’t get the perspective necessary to approach them as people, he grows upset and tries to find a way to smash through the puzzle.
In the end, these two episodes present both Victor and John Clare as two different faces of male entitlement and toxic masculinity. Both men’s creepiness lies in Victor’s immaturity – after all, if he had been more of an emotional adult, he would have stuck around and been a better guide during John Clare’s first weeks and months – yet they have managed to find different ways to be creepy about women. This, too, adds to the hope that Lily finds a way to break out of this toxic situation.
Witch is the New Vamp (Women with Power are not to be Trifled With)
These episodes build up the power of the Nightcomers, particularly when they stage a stunning action setpiece of a raid on Malcolm’s London house. Outside of the direct physical confrontation, we also get a chance to see the various social and psychological manipulations of the witches play out.
The consummate mistress of manipulation is, of course, Evelyn Poole. Her seduction of Malcolm plays out exactly as she wishes it to, while at the same time she torments Malcolm’s wife using magic. She makes the entire endeavor look easy and fun, and Helen McCrory and Timothy Dalton make absolute meals of every scene they have together.
Her skill contrasts with that of Hecate, one of the younger witches who has trained her sights on Ethan. She is decidedly less adept than Evelyn and has picked a tougher target, as Ethan is more closed off than Malcolm and unwilling to trust anyone else with an American accent. Hecate’s early attempts fail as a result, which only drives her to seek other ways to hunt Ethan while tormenting Vanessa.
It is this level of agency that makes the witches more active and interesting antagonists than the vampires of the first season. While Dracula himself may be a versatile predator, his minions so far have been more like vermin in their behavior. They hide in large numbers, rarely venturing out against our motely crew of monsters even as they know they are being investigated and hunted.
The Nightcomers, on the other hand, have been driving the action of this season handily. They’ve kept our ensemble off balance and on the defensive, and it’s clear they have goals even if the nature of those goals remains somewhat murky to the audience at this point in the season. That their efforts are tied back to their connections with the Devil creates resonance with the first season’s incredible “Possession” episode (and the demonic elements of the eponymous scene in “Séance”), lending established weight to their sense of threat even as they prove themselves terrifyingly powerful through their own actions.
Even as these episodes contain some disappointing beats (and Dorian continues to be largely superfluous, even if his storyline has brought us the magnificent Angelique), they still contain moments of great power and further develop this season’s themes. The next two episodes will be “Glorious Horrors” and “Little Scorpion,” and they promise to advance these ideas and give us plenty more decadent television. What more can we ask for?