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Monday, July 6, 2015

Penny Dreadful: And They Were Enemies

And so season two of Penny Dreadful comes to an end. In many ways this finale was exactly what I had expected (a few surprises mixed in with at least one total anti-climax) and in other ways it veered considerably off the beaten track.
In one thing however, we can be clear – and it's something that I've mentioned throughout several of these reviews: John Logan does not care about plot. This show is about characters, atmosphere and theme (namely that only monsters can destroy monsters).
Look too closely at the storylines and they will crumble as completely as the head of that Vanessa fetish. Because has the devil forgotten he can appear to Vanessa in the guise of anyone he likes? That he's already done so as Malcolm and Ethan? So why does he suddenly need a creepy doll as a transmitter?
I would say this sort of thing makes Penny Dreadful a work of style over substance, but then you watch Eva Green going face-to-face with Satan in a diabolical chant-off involving a carefully-made replica of herself and how can you not think this show is a work of pure genius?
But I'm getting ahead of myself (not too far though, as this dramatic confrontation clocks in at the twenty-minute mark). The most pressing question of course, is did Sembene survive last week's wolf attack, as we all hoped and prayed he would?

Nope. This is one second in.
I made my feelings on this old cliché pretty clear last week, so let's press ahead. When we last left our intrepid band of monstrous monster-hunters, Vanessa had made her way down to the doll-filled grotto, Professor Lyle was being held by a witch in the corridor, Ethan had wolfed out in the stairwell, Malcolm and Frankenstein were being haunted by old sins in the living room, and Colonel Mustard had killed Mrs Peacock in the ballroom with the candlestick.
The devil awaits Vanessa in Evelyn's inner sanctum, this time in the form of herself, for it's very clear that the voice in which the doll speaks is her own. Make of that what you will. Surrounded by the dolls she's afraid of, and accused of being a murderer in her own voice, Vanessa once again has to withstand a direct confrontation with Lucifer himself.
But there's one glaring problem with this scene, and that's simply that it was surpassed in the previous season. This entire season has revolved around the witches' plot to lead Vanessa to this secret underground lair so that she could converse with their Master – but nothing much is said or done that hasn't already been said and done in Closer Than Sisters or Possession, and at much closer quarters too.
This time around Vanessa is tempted by a scene of happy domesticity involving Ethan and their hypothetical children, but for the most part it's a fairly standard "get tempted by the devil" sequence. She's offered wealth, power and happiness, and she rejects it.
But despite the predictable trajectory, there are a few gems in here. For instance, we return to the question of: "do you really want to be normal?" which was asked of Vanessa by the priest last season, and which here encompasses the dream of the idyllic family that's offered to her. But as it happens, Vanessa doesn't want to be normal. She wants to be special, but on her own terms. Which is why it's a fist-pumping moment when she says: "I know what I am – do you?" To the freaking devil!!
Then there's the moment in which her voice deepens and she starts chanting the Verbis Diablo. Her tone and expression is hugely reminiscent of when she was possessed, leading me to wonder whether Ethan truly did exorcise properly her last season, or whether she's instead simply gained control over the creature that still dwells inside her.
I'm not sure if this idea has occurred to John Logan, but it would be an awesome development – for Vanessa to have gained mastery not only over her inner demon but its powers as well. (Or in another branch of thought, perhaps the demon has recognized Vanessa's own power and thrown in its lot with her against Lucifer).
Either way, Vanessa has definitely tapped into her dark side, and she destroys her fetish with power, not prayer. It's this that seems to have compelled her to turn her back on her faith, at least for now, though surely that can be counted as victory for the devil if nothing else.
And yet, I think her rejection comes not from a lack of faith as it does a sense of self-flagellation, akin to Ethan turning himself into the police. Perhaps we're just meant to assume that she's given up believing God can or will help her (after all, she was menaced by the witches even in the midst of prayers, and none of their religious tokens did the slightest bit of good in keeping anyone out of the house) but I think it's slightly more complicated than that.
So what remains for Vanessa? She's turned from God but she's also rejected the devil – and I doubt either one is through with her.
When you look at the Biblical relationship between God and Lucifer, it's difficult not to see it reflected in that which exists between parents and children; the universal tension when the time comes for a child to either follow in their father/mother's footsteps or reject them for another path.
This narrative lies at the root at so many stories, none more obviously than Frankenstein and his monsters (it can't be a coincidence that Victor's brood explicitly calls him "creator" and "father" in both real life and the dream sequence – though they throw in "brother" and "lover" too, because this is one messed up family).
It was a masterful bit of theatre in getting Frankenstein and Malcolm – shitfathers both – trapped in the same room, their dead (or undead) families coaxing them toward suicide, the words of the two trinities weaving in and out of each other – but the real reckoning comes later when Frankenstein confronts Lily at Dorian's house.
At this point, it's vital to note that Frankenstein's sin is not simply the hubris of playing God, but his relentless evasion of responsibility afterwards. He abandoned Caliban. On being confronted with Proteus, he immediately points the finger at someone else and states: "he did it". The moment he returns home, he shoots himself up with morphine. And in confronting Lily and Dorian, he takes a gun (and uses it) so as to cut short anything he doesn't want to hear.
Thankfully, such weapons are pointless against the immortals, and we get what might be – in a twisted way – the most light-hearted scene of the whole episode, in which the happy couple soundly mock Frankenstein and casually announce their plans to take over the world.
Once Frankenstein makes a run for it, they go back to their dance as blood pours down onto the floor. Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're looking at the Big Bads of season three.
I have some reservations though. Although Lily reveals that she has known the situation right from the start of her resurrection, I had enjoyed the assumption that she was gradually reclaiming herself and autonomy from the creeps who designed her as a plaything (and was looking forward to a rewatch to search for the moment of her recollection).
But the only thing of note that Dorian has done this season is murder Angelique, putting him firmly into bad guy territory – and the fact Lily has now teamed up with him will almost certainly provide John Logan with justification for her eventual demise (possibly at the hands of Victor, Caliban or – God forbid – Ethan).
And I'm not sure the destruction of Lily, after she was smothered and resurrected against her will, and who is now simply pushing back against a world that treated Brona like crap – is the ending she deserves. Though even as I sit here writing it occurs to me that Logan is well aware of this, and so will craft Lily's end at Ethan's hands as one she permits and welcomes, which will conveniently pave the way for Ethan/Vanessa at the same time. That's what's going to happen, mark my words.
Speaking of Ethan – well, this was the anti-climax I was talking about. An entire season of the witches muttering fearfully about "lupus dei" and coming up with elaborate deceptions to get him out of the way ends with him lopping off Evelyn's head in the space of a few seconds. Couldn't they have at least heightened the suspense by having shots of Evelyn advancing on Vanessa with her knife interspersed with Wolf!Ethan racing madly through the corridors towards them?
But we have at least (finally!) reached the stage where Vanessa knows what's really going on with him, and learn that Ethan still possesses enough of himself to recognize and leave Vanessa unharmed – but I still question why this so-called Wolf of God has to leave a trail of innocent bodies in his wake when it comes to protecting Vanessa. Help him out with a little self-control, God!
Speaking of his moniker, I wonder if his departure more than anything else is what caused Vanessa to take the crucifix from the wall. The Wolf of God is gone, and now she's all alone (beside which, the only person who could have told her about Ethan's true purpose was Sembene).
Hilariously, throughout most of this Lyle is pinned to a wall by a bald, naked witch hissing in his face. Ethan's derringer makes short work of her, and though he gets the line "never underestimate a queen with lovely hair," the whole thing is (again) absurdly anti-climactic. As is the death of the second witch, who gets effortlessly gunned down by Malcolm in the corridor.
This has gone on for about twenty minutes.
However, young Hecate lives to see another day, having organized her mother's death at Ethan's hands – or paws – by releasing the stairwell trap at the most opportune moment. Again with the theme of the child overthrowing the parent.
See you next season, I guess.
That leaves Caliban, whose escape from the freak-show may (once again) be anti-climactic, but in this case it's an anti-climax that works, so amusingly effortless is his escape. He rips off the bars, snaps Mrs Putney's neck, and smashes our jolly Dickensian villain's face into a brick wall. It was almost funny.
A moment of suspense arises when Lavinia comes down the stairs, and the window of opportunity opens for Caliban to despatch her as well when she starts mocking him – but I like that it's kept ambiguous over whether or not he's deliberately shown her mercy. She's now an unmarried, parentless blind girl in Victorian London with no visible means of continuing her father's livelihood. That won't be fun.
And if he did spare her because he recognizes that (as nasty as she is) he didn't have the right to take her life, then perhaps there's hope for him after all. It would appear that he's rejected whatever offer Lily made him and decided on a life of isolation – though not before asking Vanessa to come with him. I'm always going back and forth on Caliban. Sometimes he's a wretch and sometimes he's a darling, and reaching out to offer Vanessa comfort by invoking a God he doesn't believe in was his finest moment.
Whatever else happens, I hope he and Vanessa cross paths again one day.
And so it ends with everyone parting ways: Ethan back to American in a cage, Malcolm taking Sembene's body back to Africa, and Caliban going north to icy desolation. Three ships, three destinations. Frankenstein I expect will take Lyle up on his offer of a good listener, while Vanessa is left all alone – perhaps vulnerable, perhaps protected – in the London house.
Not particularly uplifting, but then we all knew that when we chose to watch this show.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Interesting that Vanessa was called "Amon-Net" – surely this is the first time the name has been directly attributed to her.
I'm surprised but pleased that Lily explicitly used the word "abuse" when she mentions Victor touching her. And if these images are in some way drawn him from his  subconscious, it means he's well-aware of that too (remember, at this point he doesn't yet know that Lily was self-aware the whole time, which means that when she initiated sex, he went along with it believing that she believed she was his innocent country cousin).
And look at his face. He knows he's trash. That's what makes him (and all of them) such a great character.  
Though I did love Malcolm and Frankenstein's abashed look at each other when the spell is broken and they find themselves alone in the room.
Possibly the most heart-breaking thing about Vanessa's dream is that in it Mina is still alive. (She also namedrops Jonathan Harker – where is that guy? Will they introduce him next season?)
What was up with the little white scorpion that sinks into Vanessa's palm? Was that done with her blessing or not?
Dear fandom, you are frustrating me with this incessant belief that Dorian is Lucifer's brother, as mentioned in the Verbis Diablo artefacts. It's been made pretty damn clear that this individual is a vampire, and therefore going to be Dracula.
Let the record show that Frankenstein pulled the trigger on Lily not when she threatened the world, but when she mocked his prowess in bed. Please stop trying to tell me that this guy is a poor little woobie. Compelling character, yes. Guy who deserves happiness, fuck no.
But honestly, the best bit of this sequence was Dorian Grey's face:

Actual line: "You'll have to do better than that, sport."
Whatever comes next, it'll be very interesting to see who's holding the reins in this relationship. For the moment Dorian is following Lily because she's shiny and new and exciting – but will it stay that way? What's more, what if Brona's personality comes back to the fore? She certainly wasn't fond of Dorian, and there's every chance she's playing him as well.
But let's face it, the above shot was the whole point of this scene. I'm pretty sure Logan wrote backwards from the idea of Dorian and Lily ballroom dancing and leaking blood all over the floor.
RIP Ethan's hair. You will be sorely missed.
Predictions for next season:
A few episodes devoted to Putting the Band Back Together.
An emphasis on the Frankenstein clan, though Dracula will be introduced and identified as such.
Perhaps some sort of involvement of the mummy; if nothing else the Amon-Ra prophecy opens up the opportunity for a trip to Egypt.
Whole Episode Flashback for Ethan, detailing how exactly he came to be a werewolf.
Hopefully a return to the emphasis on Malcolm and Vanessa's relationship.


  1. OK, so my optimism last week about Sembene was for nothing. Dammit, Logan! I hope Danny Sapani gets a whole lot more to do on his new show.

    Agreed on most of the points here, especially the anti-climaxes - I felt a bit sad we didn't get to see Helen McCrory dig her teeth into one last hammy scene, especially after all the buildup we had with her, but oh well. And I am at least glad that Ferdinand survived.

    I don't think we'll see Dracula next season - it sounds busy enough with everyone dealing with their individual demons, Lily/Dorian, and also Hecate about somewhere. I think we're more likely to get a lot more hints about him (and maybe a vampire minion or two) so that they can set him up as the big bad for season 4, if we get such a thing. One thing I like about this show is that it at least gets that the scary thing about Dracula is that you hardly ever see him, which not very many other adaptations have ever really understood (not that I've seen anywhere near all of them).

    Oh, and how did you like The Borgias? I miss that show.

    1. Perhaps Sembene can return in a flashback, though that doesn't excuse the fact that he was completely wasted for two seasons AND that this otherwise trope-subverting show went right ahead and killed the only black guy.

      As for season three, I actually have very little idea of what could come next. At some point everyone will have to be reunited and a new threat will have to emerge, but they're all so far flung that it'll be interesting to see how it's handled.

      Oh, and how did you like The Borgias? I miss that show.

      Review forthcoming!