As I’ve been making my way through Penny Dreadful, I’ve noticed that my ability to write meaningfully about an episode dips is less connected to the episode’s quality than I’d assumed would be the case. Acknowledging that even the “worst” episodes of this show are still very good, I’ve certainly been able to pull lots of analysis out of episodes that are basically just moving characters around to set up future events.
And then there are truly great episodes like “The Nightcomers,” where I find myself struggling with what to write because they’re operating at a level of quality I find hard to dissect. Still, I shall endeavor to do my best!
Season 2 kicks off with a couple Ensemble Hangouts setting up our new antagonists for the season. Rather than do a straight up recap, let’s jump straight to talking about witches! (Okay, one quick note: This season has the delightful distinction of having Simon Russel Beale’s Mr. Lyle as a series regular, which more shows should really do.)
And so this marvelous show’s first turn upon the stage comes to an end. The last episode of Season 1, “Grand Guignol,” brings many of our characters together for a final climactic night at the theater. Along the way, other characters end up isolated or dead (for now), and some pieces get moved into place for our next season.
Penny Dreadful is a prime example of shows that benefit from short seasons. For as much as I love the show, and for as much as I can savor pretty much every shot in it, from a plotting standpoint, its short seasons (running 8-10 episodes each) are around the right length for a reasonable arc.
If the first season has anything approaching filler episodes, they would probably be “Demimonde” and “What Death Has Joined Together.” Of the two, “Demimonde” at least does some work moving the characters around and placing them in interesting combinations. “What Death Has Joined Together,” on the other hand, has the unenviable task of trying to bring the audience back up to speed with the whole ensemble after the Vanessa Spotlight of “Closer than Sisters” while also laying the groundwork for the tour de force of “Possession.”
Penny Dreadful episodes come in two major types, and these episodes illustrate each type. “Demimonde” is what we might call the Ensemble Hangout and “Closer than Sisters” is a Vanessa Spotlight.
Pretty much everything up to this point has been an Ensemble Hangout. Each of the characters gets some screen time, with one or two getting a little extra focus. For example, “Resurrection” gave Frankenstein’s creature, Caliban, the opportunity to catch us up on what he’d been doing between his creation and his bloody appearance at the end of “Séance.” In the case of “Demimonde,” it’s Dorian Gray who gets the extra attention. Along the way, we see each of the show’s main ideas and plotlines advance a bit, plus we get to watch these characters bounce off each other in interesting and sometimes unexpected combinations.
While each Ensemble Hangout tends to have a focal character or two, the Vanessa Spotlight episodes keep the attention on Vanessa Ives. A given season may have only a couple Vanessa Spotlights, and they often stand out from the rest in tone and structure.
“Demimonde” and the Core Elements of Penny Dreadful
We’ll jump straight to the point with episode 2: Eva Green makes this show. Plenty of the other actors turn in great performances to be sure, but Penny Dreadful owes at least 85% of its total existence to Eva Green and her ability to say anything with just her face.
The writing emphasizes her character, Vanessa Ives, early on, and as the series moves on, it’s clear that the writers understand that hers is one of the central stories that weaves together the different strands of the series. She begins in the Dracula strand of the story, recruits Ethan Chandler, winds up being a confidante of both Frankenstein and his monster, and draws Dorian Gray out of his self-obsessed torpor. Writing alone, however, rarely makes a character memorable.
What makes Vanessa Ives truly essential to the show is Green’s performance. The first episode gave us a sense of her ability to convey poise, amusement, discernment, and intrigue, among other moods. The second episode goes further and cements her as the critical member of the ensemble.
First, though, the rest of the story. Around the scenes of Vanessa and Sir Malcolm pursuing their lead from the first episode, we are introduced to new characters. Billie Piper’s Brona Croft is a sex worker holed up at the same seaside inn of questionable character where Ethan Chandler has decided to hang his hat. In addition to meeting our charming American gunslinger, she also calls on Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray to serve as a model for increasingly extreme photographs that wind up mixing sex and blood in the way you can really only get away with in a show that includes the occasional vampire (even if no vampires were involved in that particular scene). Meanwhile, Victor Frankenstein reintroduces his creation from last episode to the realm of the living, first through literature and then through actual experience.
The true heart of the episode, of course, comes in its eponymous scene. Back in the first episode, Mr. Lyle of the British Museum refused to complete his translation of the hieroglyphics inside a vampire’s skin until Vanessa and Sir Malcolm attended a party at his house. At the party, Vanessa trades unnecessary banter with the unnecessary Dorian Gray before the main event: a séance conducted by “Madame Kali” (who will eventually be revealed to be far less exotic than her name suggests).
The séance draws skeptical looks from both Vanessa and, especially, Sir Malcolm. Who can blame them? Having already trucked in the realm of the supernatural, the pair can hardly be begrudged a certain jaded affect when confronted with the theatrical charlatanism they believe to be the stock in trade of “Madame Kali.”
And then the spirit of Sir Malcolm’s dead son manifests through Vanessa.
In an epic speech that involves contorting limbs, speaking in tongues, and channeling the spirit of a dead boy, Eva Green commands the screen while building both her character and Sir Malcolm’s. She provides backstory, deepens the emotional tone of the show, and shows off a truly impressive formative range. I do not have the words to fully capture the effect she has, either in this scene or in the show as a whole. The whole series is streaming on Netflix right now; if you have the ability to watch the first two episodes and haven’t yet done so, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch them.
If Vanessa is the backbone of the series and of “Séance,” Frankenstein’s first creation is the heart of “Resurrection.” While the end of the first episode and nearly all of the second gave us a resurrected man played by Alex Price, that poor man’s torso was ripped apart at the end of “Séance.” Sticking his head through the blood and viscera was Frankenstein’s “firstborn,” played by Rory Kinnear.
“Resurrection” devotes significant screen time to the creature’s backstory. He tells Frankenstein (and the audience) about his life after Frankenstein created and then abandoned him. Through misadventure, maltreatment, and the eventual kindness of a stranger, Frankenstein’s creature winds up a theatrical stage hand who’s distrustful of much of humanity and something of a creeper when it comes to women. Where the man we saw Frankenstein resurrect in the first episode wound up with the name “Proteus” from Twelfth Night, Frankenstein’s original creature receives the dubious, if ultimately rather appropriate, pseudonym of “Caliban” from The Tempest. (All of his monologuing about modernity and raging against romanticism aside, Caliban can’t escape the romantic and fanciful flourishes endemic to his creator’s narrative.)
We also get a Dracula-related plot that starts with a vision, leads to a small adventure in the London zoo (containing absolutely zero foreshadowing about Ethan Chandler’s secret nature), and ends with a man named Fenton chained up in Sir Malcolm’s basement. So that’s neat.
By the time we reach the end of “Resurrection,” we already have a strong foundation for some of Penny Dreadful’s recurring themes and ideas. To name a few, we have evidence for:
A) Daddy issues. All the daddy issues.
B) Vanessa Ives is nigh unflappable; only the most powerful of entities can flap her.
C) A woman with agency is the most powerful and/or intimidating creature of all, and most men will fail to realize this until their plans fall apart.
D) Stop trying to make Dorian Gray happen.
Now, seriously, find a way and the time to watch “Séance.”