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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Penny Dreadful: And Hell Itself My Only Foe

Well, we're definitely in endgame territory now, but thank goodness there's a season three on the horizon. Only one minor subplot gets wrapped up in this episode, so there's no way John Logan will be able to bring everything that he's introduced this season to a satisfactory conclusion in just one forty-five minute finale (heck, he didn't really manage to do that last season in regards to Mina's anticlimactic death).
Thankfully, when it comes to this show the overarching plot is less important (and interesting) than each individual scene.

Ethan and Vanessa's quasi-romantic and fully Gothic not!honeymoon comes to an end when they kill a man. A different one this time. Ah, kids.  
In all seriousness though, Mr Roper manages to catch a witch and a werewolf (each with preternatural powers) unaware and wake Ethan up with a pistol pointed at his head, having found their super-secret location simply by asking around.
He's still pretty set on dragging Ethan back to America, but as soon as the violence starts ... come on, did you really think he had a chance against these two? It ends with Vanessa yanking a bowie knife out of Ethan's shoulder and using it to stab Roper while Ethan kicks him in the face. Their attacks are synchronised and everything. It's awesome.
She's just stabbed; he's about to kick.
Since she saved his life against one of his mortal enemies, Ethan has no disparaging words to say about this particular homicide as they stand behind the grave of the man they killed together, which is just as well since he was more than a little condescending the last time around.
Awkward.
Frankenstein takes this opportunity to arrive in a stagecoach and hustle them back to the A plot, without a shred of self-consciousness or sarcasm when he describes Sir Malcolm as gone "to the witch's castle." Congratulations Victor, you've accepted your rightful place in the insanity that is this story.
Much to the growing annoyance of her mother, Hecate seems intent on playing her own game, and heads to the London household to pay Ethan a visit. And what do we learn? That all the gang's charms of protection are useless, and that a bullet to a witch's abdomen would finish her off. Oh whatever, show. I'm done bothering with your arbitrary magical rules.
Long story short, she's managed to sneak in to give Ethan the usual villain spiel about how he has a great destiny, how she can give him whatever his heart desires, etcetera.
I feel she would be a fairly decent villain if Helen McCrory didn't exist.
Like her, Inspector Rusk is another spanner in the works, both hovering on the periphery of the main action, and both demanding that the central players pay more attention to them. (For the most part, they fail). However, it's precisely because the likes of Vanessa and Ethan have better things to do that Hecate and Rusk may end up being underestimated. Rusk in particular is very sharp, and his observation that Ethan's life is "a phantom limb" actually reminded me of Vanessa's definition of the demimonde back in season one.
Unfortunately, both these scenes cut into Lyle's confession that he's been working for the witches. Why would you skip that??
Naturally, Vanessa sneaks out that very night to confront the witches and save Malcolm, despite the wholly reasonable plan that they wait until sunrise and the abatement of the Nightcomers' power. Her decision makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but the plot demands it for the sake of cliff-hangers and dramatic tension, so Logan just says "screw it!" and plays the discovery of Vanessa's absence for laughs.

This right here? It's a flat-out lampshade hanging of how ludicrous it all is.
So the boys duly follow their wayward heroine and promptly find themselves in far more danger than Vanessa is. Who on earth splits up in a haunted house? Surely this is something everyone should know, regardless of gender, race, religion or whatever time period you live in!
And though we finally get some significant background on Sembene – and some fairly juicy stuff at that – it comes just in time for him to die when a booby-trapped staircase and a full moon puts him at the mercy of Ethan's transformation.
But the reveal that Sembene was once a slave trader, and that his mysterious facial scars are a mark of that, explains so much about why he works for Malcolm in the heart of the British Empire. It's not because of the stupid "I saved your life and so I must become your servant" trope (which always seems to result in the black guy becoming the servant regardless of whose life is saved) but due to self-imposed punishment in putting himself at the service of Malcolm, who is The Worst.
While Ethan transforms and Frankenstein joins Malcolm under the guilt-tripping spell and Lyle is menaced by Witch #2, Vanessa confronts the Nightcomers who are important enough to actually have names. Evelyn treats the whole thing like a social call, Hecate gets in a jab about Ethan, and Vanessa ends up where we all knew she would from the moment she admitted her fear of dolls two episodes ago.
Great shot.
Still, she takes the sight of the creepy Vanessa fetish in her stride – and even when it opens her eyes and calls her a murderer she looks more angry than frightened.
We know that this doll has a baby's heart and Vanessa's own hair woven into it – so who or what exactly is speaking through it? And why, in its confrontation of Vanessa, does it go with calling her a "murderer". Of all the things she's done in her life, I'm pretty sure killing the likes of Sir Geoffrey and Mr Roper don't weigh too heavily on her mind.
***
And then we have Caliban's imprisonment, which is foreshadowed nicely in yet another of his gloomy introspections: "true evil is above all things, seductive. When the devil knocks at your door he doesn't have cloven hooves; he is beautiful. And offers you your hearts desires in whispered airs, like a siren beckoning you to her ruinous shore."
He's obviously thinking of Lily throughout all of this (so what actually happened between them the night before?) but he really should have taken heed of his own advice when it comes to trusting Lavinia, who sweetly lures him down to the cells in the basement and locks him in.
I'm torn on this twist. On the one hand, if plot-twists are to be judged by how shocking they are, then it's brilliant. I didn't see it coming for a moment. I also love the subversion of the pure-hearted blind girl turning out to be quite the Bitch in Sheep's Clothing.
But it also means that we've got yet another female villainous character, which steers Vanessa dangerously close to The Exceptional Woman category (follow the link for more details). Whereas the likes of Mina and Lily/Brona are corrupted by the supernatural, and Evelyn and her daughters are faithful servants of Lucifer, and Lavinia and Mrs Putney are by all accounts just nasty wenches, Vanessa stands above and beyond them – ever steadfast, ever defiant, as Sembene puts it "without limits."
This show needs some more female characters, stat.
(Though I did get a laugh out of the fact that Lavinia was just as sick of Caliban's poetry readings as Lily was. Morose philosophy isn't for everyone!)
And for the record, I call foul on the Putneys' nefarious plan to fill their basement with freaks. Accepting that an entire village would get away with the murder of the Cut Wife is one thing (at least that took place out in the country and away from the eyes of standard law enforcement) – but this? We've already seen Inspector Rusk visiting the waxwork museum, and we're meant to believe that he and people like him would say and do nothing at the sight of an intelligent, articulate man behind bars who explains he's being kept there against his will? I guess I have a higher opinion of humanity than Mr Putney does, because I can't for a second imagine him getting away with this.
(That said, this plot will almost certainly be resolved not by the intervention of the law but through Caliban tearing through the bars and strangling the entire family to death. He's got to be given some reason to team up with Lily and her plans to take over the world).
***
Speaking of Lily, she's over at Dorian's place, where the two of them are testing the waters. Dorian drops the phrase "photography sessions" into the conversation, which is reason enough to suspect he knows who she truly is – and sure enough, it's only a matter of seconds before he calls her Brona.
I'll probably never stop being irritated that Dorian recognized Brona/Lily whilst Vanessa didn't, and more plot-related questions arise when it becomes apparent that Lily is aware of something equally supernatural about Dorian. So much so that she bites off his ear and orders him to go heal himself. Well. Goodness.
Her instincts about him were right on the mark, but there's really nothing else to indicate that she knew he was immortal. Or did she just start strangling him on a whim and figure things out from there?
Whatever the case, Dorian tries to stall when she demands to know his secrets, but he wasn't around for last week's monologue and she's having none of it. He's kneeling at her feet in a matter of seconds – and though this is an uncomfortable reminder of Evelyn and Sir Geoffrey (in which their dominant/submissive vibe was used to flag her evilness) this is also Dorian we're talking about. He's likely just playing along for now.
***
But since we're on the subject of Lily, let me hop up on my soapbox for a second here. If you follow me on Tumblr, you may have seen a post I made last week that pointed out the many, many reasons why Lily has every right to be intensely furious for what Frankenstein has done to her. After all, in their time together he's smothered her with a pillow, resurrected her from death, introduced her as Caliban's fiancé via a fabricated backstory, and acted intensely possessive and jealous when she interacts with other men.
This all seemed blatantly obvious to me, so imagine my surprise when I came across a post that spent a lot of time and energy justifying all of Frankenstein's actions while taking issue with the fact that Lily is "leading him on."
Because I don't want to encourage dogpiling (after all, an opinion is an opinion), and because there's every chance a thirteen year old girl with a crush on Harry Treadwell is behind this, I'll simply copy-and-paste an expert without providing a link:  
Then the morning after because of what they did he sees their act as something meaningful [as in he’s convinced she has true feelings for him] yet there she is disregarding his feelings at the ball just as Dorian was disregarding Angelique. Is it really a shock he acted jealous in that episode? No because he friggin gave his virginity to the first woman that ever touched him, made him feel something either than the cold; experiencing emotions he does not fully understand. And we still don’t know if her intentions for Victor are sincere but according to spoilers her feelings for him aren’t. She’s clearly not in love with him so why did she sleep with him? Why is she entertaining his fantasy of wanting and being loved? Those are all things I have issues with concerning Lily.
So that is why I say she is leading him on. She is in the process of wounding him deeply.  Yes he took her life but she was already dying and the way I saw that moment was him releasing her from her misery. He didn’t want to hurt her but at the same time in that moment he was only thinking of redeeming himself to his creature.
Won't somebody think of FRANKENSTEIN?? I mean, in the face of Lily being suffocated and resurrected and getting fobbed off on a deformed murderer and treated like a doll, people have lost sight of how much all this is going to hurt HIM. After all, the greater crime here is not stripping a woman of her dignity, consent and free will, but that said woman is LEADING A MAN ON. How can she be so mean? So thoughtless? So selfish?
I am seldom rendered speechless, but the above post just left me gobsmacked. I mean, what do you even do with the sentence "she was already dying" (insinuating that it therefore doesn't matter that Frankenstein sent the man she truly loved out of the room so he could kill her without interruption to create a mail-order bride for his last massive mistake)?
On a related note, this attitude worries me when it comes to John Logan's long-term plans for Lily. As you're probably aware, I've been watching Salem alongside Penny Dreadful every Monday night, and in both shows there is an unavoidable feminist undercurrent when it comes to women seizing power and exerting it. At times it's explicit – several times the women of Salem have discussed the fact that their magical power (derived from their pacts with Satan) have given them liberties and agency that they would never have enjoyed were they forced to remain part of the Christian patriarchal society.
But I'm sure you can see the problem inherent in that premise – to become empowered they have to become evil. In Salem powerful women are the ones engaged in trying to bring about Lucifer's reign on earth; in Penny Dreadful Lily has come up with the idea to use her strength and immortality to obliterate the human race (and even WORSE, break poor widdle Victor's heart). In both cases, it's the way the patriarchy has abused them that lies at the root of their animosity and which provides their motivation. Within each narrative it offers a reason for their hostility but not (strictly speaking) justification for their subsequent actions.
(For another example off the top of my head, see the Evil Queen's backstory in Snow White and the Huntsman, where all of Ravenna's evil is a response to the suffering men inflicted upon her due to her beauty. On consideration, perhaps even Morgana from Merlin fits into this category as well, especially in the way the writers were at pains to assure the audience that she was much, much worse than the genocidal king she opposed).
And I suspect that for many viewers, the natural reaction to these stories – even if it's just subconsciously – is not "look at the terrible consequences of oppressing women" but "well gee, this is why women shouldn't have power; we need to control them even harder."
This is all very difficult territory to mine, for though I certainly think that female characters should have the opportunity to be flawed and reactionary and furious and flat-out evil in some cases, the handling of it so often creates room for unfortunate implications regarding how these women respond to abuse and their acquisition of power with which they plan to fight back. Namely, the idea that the cruelty inflicted upon them is often used as their impetus to do even worse things – which must be prevented or stopped (usually by the menfolk) at all costs.
We saw it two weeks ago when Vanessa's revenge against the man who murdered her friend and branded her back was treated as her Start of Darkness, and we might well see again it with Lily if Caliban and Frankenstein team up to stop her from trying to enslave the human race and take over the world.
Or worse – HURT FRANKENSTEIN'S FEELINGS.
Miscellaneous Observations:
So ... did Vanessa take the Cut Wife's book back to London with her or not? I thought that was the whole point of going to the moors in the first place!
We finally learn Ethan's real name: Lawrence Talbot, which is of course the name of the titular character in the 1941 Universal Horror film The Wolfman. As such, this also gives us a clue as to the background of his curse: it's likely to be hereditary, not inflicted.
That was a nice scene between Frankenstein and Vanessa (and it made me realize for the first time that she's probably projecting her feelings for Peter all over him) though I hope this sympathy doesn't last once she finds out what he's been doing with dead bodies. "I'm sorry she hurt you." Oh Vanessa, you will rue those words.
A lot of dialogue that explores the ongoing theme of the monsters within: Rusk says: "set a monster to kill a monster" (I still think there's a good chance that he's supernatural in some way), Vanessa calls Frankenstein "a beautiful monster" and Sembene tells Ethan that: "I have found kindness among the unkind."
We see Vanessa's burn mark for the first time since she got it.
I'll admit to being confused as to how exactly Ethan is the Wolf of God. I mean, the moniker suggests he has some sort of higher purpose, but I fail to see how considering his werewolf side is a mindless killer. His first act on this show was to kill a little girl, and in this episode he's (apparently) just killed Sembene. Until he gains some sort of control over this ability, he remains a liability.
The worst thing about Sembene's death is that it's indirectly Ethan and Vanessa's fault – Vanessa for going off on her own during a full moon, and Ethan for not giving her the information about himself that would have prevented her from going off on her own under a full moon.
And the other worst thing about Sembene's death is that once again we're looking at the demise of a show's sole black character. It's especially glaring since the exact same thing has just happened in the very same week on Salem. Sure you can use the Anyone Can Die excuse all you like, but the fact that there was only ONE black character per show means that their deaths are all the more glaring – especially when both were largely wasted throughout their tenures.
Danny Sapani is apparently moving to a new show, which will probably be trotted out as an excuse for his character's death, though the problem truly lies in the fact the writing never gave him enough decent material to prevent him from seeking out greener pastures. What can I say? I was so looking forward to the Whole Episode Flashback that explored his backstory.
There were a lot of evil trinities in this episode: the Putneys, the visions of Malcolm's family and Frankenstein's children, and also the suggestion of Lily, Dorian and Caliban teaming up. Even Vanessa ends up as part of a trio:


As for my predictions for the finale: I don't think Evelyn Poole is long for this world, which is a pity as I don't think Hecate quite has the gravitas to take over as the show's Big Bad – though there's a chance that role will be filled by the unholy triumvirate of Caliban/Lily/Dorian, or the long-awaited arrival of Count Dracula.
Hopefully Lyle will survive his treachery, and no doubt Vanessa will be the one to rescue Frankenstein and Malcolm from their inner demons (my fingers are crossed that she finds out about their outer demons while doing so) and if Wolf!Ethan manages to escape that stairwell and take out the other two witches, I'll consider that a beneficial use of his powers.
As for the vile Putneys – well, we've never really seen Caliban exert his strength before. Can we be sure he can't simply bend those bars like butter?

2 comments:

  1. I am firmly in denial about Sembene being dead at this point. Can't he and Ethan be werewolf buddies now? Even if Sapani has a new show (and, frankly, given how little they give him to do here, who could blame him?), these are British-sized seasons; he should have time to do both (?). At the moment I simply can't deal with the fact that this show would kill its POC character first, in 2015. (I know it still happens all the time, but this show should be better than that.)

    Looking forward to Brona/Dorian/Caliban, although I agree they're probably next season's big bad.

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    1. Perhaps I've been preemptive, but the signs aren't good. Fingers crossed though, as by this point writers should REALLY know better. But then like I said, the exact same time just happened on Salem as well.

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