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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Orphan Black: The Weight of This Combination and Penny Dreadful: Fresh Hell

At the risk of sounding like I have no life at all, this was the best Tuesday ever! Why? Because I got to watch the season premieres of my two absolute favourite (current) shows: Orphan Black and Penny Dreadful. The latter does not air properly until the first of May, though that's not as far away as it sounds, and with my weekly dose of Vikings, Musketeers and pirates having come to an end, I'm looking forward to spending my evenings with clones and witches instead (two sets of witches actually, as I'm still following Salem, though will probably just do an overview at the end of the season instead of episode-by-episode reviews as I did for the first).
The first season of Penny Dreadful I've reviewed here, though I've never once written on Orphan Black, mainly because I'm intimidated by just how good it is. So clever, so concise, so layered; even the meta written about it (such as this and this) feels beyond my capabilities. But I'm forcing myself to get over such inadequacies for the sake of joining in the conversation – and perhaps when this season comes to an end I'll jog back to the very start and write something worthy of it.
So here we go, the season premieres of Orphan Black and Penny Dreadful!

Orphan Black
We start with a dream sequence – or perhaps a hallucination – experienced by Helena just before she wakes up in a box so small that it triggers my claustrophobia.
I'm of the opinion taught to me by Russell T. Davies: that dream sequences can be lazy things, simply because they use hyper-realistic images and scenarios to tell the audience what's going on in a character's head. If you have to resort to a dream sequence to do that, then maybe your character and the situation they're in isn't as three-dimensional as you think it is.
Well, rules are made to be broken because this little opening tells us so much about Helena's fractured psyche – namely how straightforward it is. She wants her family, she wants her child, and she wants food. Despite all the maiming and killing she's does, she's a creature of simple desires, and that in itself is heart-breaking.
My favourite touch though? That the manifestations of Alison and Cosima are clearly what Helena thinks of them rather than any accurate depiction of their true selves. As such, Alison looks like a stepford wife laden with trays of food, while Cosima gets to spout the line: "I'm like – way better thanks to science!" It's got Helena's mentality all over it, and the only clone who acts remotely like herself is Sarah – naturally, the only one that Helena really knows at all.
As you're probably already aware, the scorpion that Helena discovers on awakening in her box is voiced by Tatiana Maslany, suggesting (not that it wasn't already obvious) that this is another materialization of Helena's subconscious. Whether or not we get some background on the meaning and purpose of this scorpion is as yet unclear; all we need to know at this point is that it is familiar to Helena – she's even named the thing! – and therefore symptomatic of her no-doubt traumatic upbringing.
So yeah, we're about two minutes in and I'm already close to tears.
Let's concentrate on the here and now, which is Delphine's new hair and attitude. It's hard to know what's more awesome. Okay, it's the second one, because Delphine has been promoted to Rachel's position within Dyad, and she's going to use her newfound power to fulfil her promise to Cosima – that she will love and protect all of the clones.
But it comes with a catch. As she says, she's the new Rachel, and this doesn't just mean assuming Rachel's duties but also her tactics. And that means she also has to protect sweet, innocent Cosima from what she's prepared to do to secure her safety – namely pressing Rachel's empty eye-socket into her skull to extract information.
Like all those male heroes before her, who gave their endless array of girlfriends the It's Not You, It's My Enemies speech, Delphine decides to cool things off with the woman she loves so that she can focus all her attention on her protection.
Yup, here come more tears.
But the highlight of the episode is of course Sarah impersonating Rachel while Alison impersonates Sarah in order to assure new character Ferdinand ("a cleaner" sent by higher-ups) that everything is running smoothly at Dyad.
How is it that we the audience can tell exactly which clone is which despite their best attempts at mimicking each other? How does each performance manage to have layers of the real woman underlying their impersonations? How does Tatiana Maslany keep pulling this off? Where's her damn Emmy?
There are so many gifts here – the familiar slump in Sarah-as-Rachel's walk that demonstrates how uncomfortable she is in high heels, the way Alison's accent drops during Ferdinand's feel-up when she starts to panic, the growing unease between Delphine and Sarah as they watch Ferdinand get closer; waiting for their moment to intervene and unsure how far they can let him take what he's doing.
Then there's the unspoken but obvious logical choice that Alison could not have been called upon to play Rachel. Theoretically it would have been easier to let Sarah play herself and Alison play Rachel just so there wasn't a two-way switcharoo, but there's no way Alison could have done what Sarah did here. Not in a million years. Delphine may not have even known that Alison has played Sarah before, but she has seen Sarah impersonating Cosima and knows what she's capable of; how cool-headed she can be in these tense situations.
And what I love most about Sarah, from the moment I first saw her swallow liquid soap to vomit her way out of the police hearing, is her ability to improvise – to pick up on cues in her surroundings and other people in order to manoeuvre through any given situation. I would have floundered totally, but Sarah had Ferdinand pegged as someone who would respond to sexual violence, a conclusion she drew based on what he was saying and what she already knows about Rachel.
And even when she doesn't have all the raw information, she finds a way to cope, as when Ferdinand says of his drink "same as last time", and she diverts him by offering something new. And when he finally reveals what Helsinki actually is (a plan concocted between himself and Rachel to exterminate all her sister-clones) she has enough composure to walk away calmly before collapsing into a panic in the bathroom.
This woman is my hero.
Finally, we come to the Castors. For now I'm reserving judgment on the boy-clones, knowing that fandom is a bit hesitant of their inclusion and possible purpose on the show. Naturally Ari Millen is no Tatiana Maslany, but at this stage I'm not sure the show is asking him to be.
Whereas the likes of Sarah and Alison and Cosima and Helena are all profoundly different, the Castor clones are owned by the military, and have presumably been raised as a unit of soldiers: obedient, cohesive, and largely indistinguishable from each other. They certainly seem to have known each other for longer; referring to each other as brothers and greeting each other with affectionate hugs.
With the exception of a few defining features – a moustache, a cowlick, an army uniform – they're not easy to tell apart, and I feel that's as much a conscious creative decision as it is a statement on Millen's acting ability. So far all we known is that they're looking for Ethan Duncan's research (presumably because at least one of them is having painful white-outs) and they're working outside military jurisdiction (so once again, Paul is good for absolutely nothing).
***
I'll admit at this point that I find it quite difficult to keep track of all the opposing organizations and factions in this show, what we're already supposed to know about them, and who is controlling who from within them. In the first season Dyad was a murky, faceless conspiracy – now it's a glass complex that employs half the cast and which Sarah can effortlessly walk in and out of. The powers behind Helena's terrifying rampage turned out to be a single religious loon and a bunch of inbred hicks on a farm. That's how that panned out, right?
And what happened to the Neolutionists? Were they an offshoot of Dyad that's irrelevant now? And the Proletheans? They all died in the fire Helena set?
We've gone from Proletheans (Tomas) versus Dyad (Professor Leekie) to Project Leda (scientists) versus Project Castor (military), and now they all seem to be trumped by the introduction of Topside, which may or may not be behind everything that's happened so far.
It's hard to keep track of what mysteries have been solved and which haven't; which are relevant and which aren't particularly important. I get the feeling that Mrs S's shadowy network isn't quite as significant as I originally thought it was, and I'm getting a little impatient over the lack of information regarding Kira's mysterious qualities.
It reminds me of LOST, where the answers were always just out of reach, in which more and more "higher tier" (in terms of omniscient) characters were introduced, only for us to learn they didn't really know much at all. The goalposts keep shifting is what I'm trying to say, and all I can do is cross my fingers and hope this will all arrange itself into a coherent whole by the end of it.
Miscellaneous Observations:
That Felix and Sarah call that stretch of riverside "Shite Beach" is just so them.
For the first time Helena is described as an albino, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I never realized this before. I just assumed that she had a dye job on her hair!
Alison's antagonism toward Marcy feels like an impending comedic side-plot, much like the theatre production in the second. I'm not sure I'm fully on-board with whacky housewife hijinks when there's so much else going on, but hey – let's see how this unfolds. (Plus, I'm interested in which of the two Hendrix spouses is going to suggest murdering Marcy first).
It's James Frain. OF COURSE it is. He's in everything these days.
After learning what Mrs S did to Helen, Sarah tells her: "you're not my people." Interesting. I get the feeling a major theme of this season will be the clones closing ranks – perhaps to their own detriment.
With mention of Alison's mother, I hope that we'll finally get to meet her. It'll shed all kinds of light on Alison's upbringing, and hopefully some information on how she got adopted in the first place. Did Dyad arrange such things? And were the parents in on it?
I'm a little uncertain about Sarah's newfound protectiveness of Helena. After all, Sarah was in the same car as Katja Obinger when Helena shot her between the eyes, and was with Amelia in her last moments after Helena stabbed her to death (and spat on her body). There's a lot of history here, and I'm not fully sold on Sarah's sisterly feelings toward her twin.
That said, there might be some situational disassociation (a word I just made up) at work in Sarah's mind. God knows male characters can perform mass murder and still be readily forgiven both in-universe and out, and Helena at least as the excuse of being a very damaged individual. Still, it would be nice if some of her past misdeeds were acknowledged. Helena should be treated by everyone as a very dangerous individual, not a neutered puppy.
Felix seems to have embraced his role as Clone caregiver, acting coach and stylist – particularly when they're impersonating each other.
This episode also introduced yet another Tatiana Maslany clone: Crystal. I wonder if we'll get to meet her properly soon.
All the blue gloves reminded me of: "one two, hands of blue" from Firefly.
The climax of the episode comes when we discover that Rachel and Ferdinand have plotted together to exterminate all Rachel's sister clones. Wow, is she a piece of work. But what's more terrifying is that Helsinki has apparently been enacted before this – it makes you wonder how, who and when.
One thing remains a bit unclear: would Sarah have really gone through with killing Ferdinand before she was interrupted by Delphine? If so, it's very reminiscent of Beth deliberately murdering Maggie Chen in order to save the others; a decision that had a big part to play in her eventual suicide.
Who is the woman watching over Helena's crate? Is she to the military what Marion is to Dyad, since the Ari Millen clone certainly seemed to be taking orders from her? Another woman in charge should be interesting...
No Paul. Can't say I really missed him.
Penny Dreadful
It's the show about people carrying demons inside them and doing everything in their power to repress them. How can you go wrong with a premise like that, especially when it draws upon the Victorian Era and 19th century Gothic Horror for inspiration?
When last we saw our would-be heroes, it was in the aftermath of Mina Murray's death. They had successfully infiltrated a vampire nest and killed most of its inhabitants, but the battle is far from over. Vanessa Ives is still at risk from being possessed by demons, Ethan Chandler is grappling with the beast within, and Victor Frankenstein is on the verge of giving his creation what he longs for: a bride.
This season picks up moments after the last concluded; with Ethan waking up in the bloodbath of the Mariner's Inn, and Vanessa crossing a public park, presumably directly after leaving the church she visited in the final moments of last season (though I don't remember this heavy a snow when she entered). This season's Big Bad doesn't waste any time in making her move; Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole steps out of the trees and whispers an incantation that causes Vanessa to fall to her knees – though the most important thing we take from this is the fact Vanessa's first impulse is to protect other people, signalling a man who is moving to help her to stay away.
Now, according to reports from last year's Comic Con, a deleted scene revealed that Evelyn and Lyle the Egyptologist are in cahoots; a scene that will hopefully be included at some point this season (it seems likely considering both Helen McCrory and Simon Russell Beale are now in the opening credits).
Just as the first season heavily involved vampires, it would seem that this one will deal with witches (or "night comers") who attack Ethan and Vanessa's carriage as they're on the brink of confessing dark secrets to one another. I immediately noticed that these particular creatures bore a distinct dissimilarity to the vampire-women of last season, though they certainly behave in much the same way during their attack. The fact that there were three of them also brought to mind Dracula's brides, but as soon as they're clear of the carriage they transform into beautiful but seemingly-normal young woman – something that seemed beyond the capabilities of this show's take on vampires.
So what do we know about them?
There's five of them (at least at first) whose scars signify their obedience to the devil and who speak the Verbas Diablo. Frankenstein gives us a quick theology lesson on what this is: the perversion of angelical speech that prevented Adam from understanding God after the Fall of Man, but which made him all too-aware of what the serpent had to say. How this relates to Vanessa is apparent in the brief scene in which she communicates with one of the witches, though – strangely enough – neither she nor the witch seem to be clear about what was actually said.
There's a chance that the two of them are lying about what passed between them, but both seemed sincere in their confusion, with Vanessa in particular describing it as "an animal instinct." Whatever her words were, it caused the witch to flee in fear – suggesting perhaps that Vanessa's demon still has a grip on her? And isn't too happy with these women threatening its host?
I mentioned in my review of Penny Dreadful's season one that it's a little hard to keep track of who exactly is calling the shots behind all this supernatural hocus-pocus. Three candidates are possible: Lucifer himself, Count Dracula, and Vanessa's demon – all of whom may or may not be the same entity. Mina called the head vampire "the master", just as Evelyn refers to the devil as "master", and the likes of Ethan and Malcolm seem to consider both Satan and Vanessa's demon one and the same. And how does Amon-Net and Amon-Ra fit into all this?
This episode went out of its way to differentiate between the vampires of last season and the witches of this one, so it's probably safe to assume that Dracula (if or when he ever shows up) is a separate creature entirely; though there's every chance he too has a vested interest in Vanessa. I'm also inclined to believe that Vanessa's demon is one of the Legion rather than Lucifer himself, though this is up for debate considering some of his appearances in Malcolm and Ethan's form.
And yet this episode had Evelyn invoking her master and saying "I have found her and she shall be yours", which to me at least seems an unlikely (or at least highly ignorant) thing to say – after all, if Lucifer is the one who has been torturing Vanessa all last season (and throughout most of her life) it's pretty clear that he doesn't need anyone's help in finding her.
I'd really love some clarification on this issue, though I can also understand why they would want to keep it opaque – it's scarier that way. Yet what interested me on a Doylist level is that the writers are clearly trying to "up the game" when it comes to Vanessa's reaction to these witches. Whereas she could stare down vampires and hold her own against her demon, Ethan is at pains to point out that she's now legitimately scared.
That she found them familiar was obvious by the simple fact she could identify them, and Evelyn later describes Vanessa as "my old friend", suggesting that perhaps Vanessa has crossed their path in some capacity before. It makes you wonder how on earth they could be more terrifying than Vanessa's demon – so hopefully the show will be able to live up to the promise they've made: that these women pose an even greater threat  (if not just on a personal level) than anything Vanessa faced in the first season.
The scene of the witches in Evelyn Poole's incredible house of blood baths and human skulls sheds some light on what they're capable of and what they're trying to achieve. Their powers are not wholly omniscient, for Evelyn seemed shocked at the idea that Vanessa "knew the language", though they're well aware that Ethan is a werewolf and a potential threat.
For now it would seem that they're going to approach Vanessa through Ethan and Malcolm, Hecate tackling the former, and Evelyn enticing the latter.


***

Whenever one returns to a television show for its second season, it's always interesting to discover what plot-lines will be continued and which ones will be dropped. It would seem that (for now at least) the search for Mina and the threat of vampires is over and done with, though the prophesied conjoining of Amon-Net and Amon-Ra is a plan that's yet to come to fruition (making me wonder what the significance of the hieroglyphics carved into the first season's vampire was – it suggested if nothing else that they at least knew of the plan).
And so the episode ends with two desperate prayers to two very different entities, and the game is set: it's Helen McCrory versus Eva Green in the great eye-rolling, frantic gibbering, and all-around scenery chewing competition. This is going to be great.  

***
I'm admit that with all this new witchy material, I wasn't particularly engaged by Frankenstein and Caliban's ongoing mission to provide the latter with a mate. It initially seems clear that the good doctor just wants to give his creature what he wants and then bid him goodbye forever, but between Caliban's assertion that such a thing is not possible and Frankenstein's creepy fondling and talking to poor dead Brona in the water tank, it would appear that they're going to be in partnership for a while yet.
Both of them are projecting their own internal lives on this poor girl, and between Frankenstein describing her as "this thing, living" and Caliban rhapsodizing poetically about how they'll seek out the shadows together, I really hope this ends with Brona rejecting them both (and burning the place down as she goes).
Urgh. How much do you want to bet that he'll want another
one the moment she exhibits the slightest amount of agency?
Somewhat amusingly, Caliban comes to the conclusion that having a girlfriend means he's going to need money. Wandering around London he discovers a waxwork museum and naturally finds himself at home among the theatricals. He meets Mr Putney, a man whose jovialness seeps so radiantly from every pore that it was almost a relief when he eventually reveals to his battle-axe of a wife that his motivation in hiring Caliban was rather more exploitative than first appears.
Oh, and naturally these two have got a beautiful but blind daughter who tenderly touches Caliban's face and leaves him breathing heavily over how pure and innocent and lovely she is. If this ends with a love triangle, so help me...
I'll reserve judgment for now on this new setting (I loved the Grand Guignol Theatre, and am sad to see it go) but if the waxworks does anything it's to really tap into the spirit of a penny dreadful: that one man or woman's tragedy is ripe material for the general public's entertainment.
***
Malcolm Murray and Ethan Chandler were in supporting roles this episode; with the former burying his daughter and the latter trying to coax information about this new threat out of Vanessa.
It was nice to get a reappearance from Gladys Murray (who disappeared entirely during last season's Whole Episode Flashback of Vanessa's childhood) even if it's just to put a full-stop on her character. Though it's a shame we'll probably never see her react to Vanessa's presence, I loved that she soundly rejected her husband's attempt to move back in. Good for her, especially since you get the feeling she knew full-well what he was getting up to with Mrs Ives next door.
For the first time ever Malcolm looks as though he's sincerely trying to make amends for all the sins of his past, but she's got the mother of all comebacks for that: "we have no more children for you to save – or to kill."
Ah, they might not, but he does – as demonstrated by Vanessa rushing into his arms as he returns to the London house. Bring on the weird semi-incestuous but co-dependant father/daughter relationship!
For now at least Vanessa and Ethan can't help each other because they won't confide in each other, but with Ethan moving into the room just down the hall, it appears that they'll be growing closer this season.
Which begs the question: what's going to happen when the next full moon rolls around? I'm still not entirely sure if Ethan even knows that he's a werewolf, as what he describes in the carriage to Vanessa is no more detailed than "blackouts involving blood." Yet in the past we've seen him communicate with wolves and refuse to give blood for a transfusion, so surely he must have some idea of what happens every month.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Eva Green makes being mysterious seem effortless. Even the sight of her walking across a snowy park is riveting.
Funny coincidence that both Orphan Black and Penny Dreadful made heavy use of scorpion symbolism in their season premieres. 

It's also fascinating to compare this to Salem, which has many of the same elements as Penny Dreadful: witches, incest, secrets, period setting, impending Satanic plots – but wow, what a difference British thespians and high production values make. In essentials Penny Dreadful is probably not any more or less ridiculous than Salem, but it does manage to carry off its premise with considerably more – well, "class" is the only word I have to describe it.
Interesting that when Frankenstein's Bride was brought to life, it was initially to Frankenstein and not his promised mate that Caliban was looking. Still, the fact that both men were desperately screaming "NOW" during the thunderstorm seems to foreshadow an imminent love triangle between them and resurrected Brona. Please no.
If there was a major weakness in the last season it was the underutilization of Sembele. It would seem this is on the way to being rectified, as I'm pretty sure he had more lines in this episode than he did for the entirety of last season, as well as our first sign of tenderness between himself and Vanessa. This is important considering the last time they interacted, it was Sembele slapping her into unconsciousness!
And last but not least, we have a new police inspector investigating the Mariner's Inn massacre – and he knows that at least one person escaped.
No Dorian Grey. Can't say I really missed him.

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