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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Penny Dreadful: The Day Tennyson Died

It's that magical time of the year: when Penny Dreadful and Orphan Black are airing concurrently. It makes life complete.
I'll admit I'm going to miss watching Penny Dreadful and Salem on the same night (the latter having been pushed back to October) but Orphan Black's intricate plotting provides a great contrast to the broad strokes of atmosphere and archetypal characterization that makes up Penny Dreadful.
Last season ended with our intrepid not!heroes disbanding and scattering across the world, but already events are transpiring to draw them back together. I've no idea how long it'll take John Logan to complete the full set of Mad ScientistWolf ManGreat White Hunter, and Apocalypse Maiden, but there's no doubt they'll have to reunite sooner or later in order to defeat the show's long-awaited Big Bad...
Yup, Dracula has arrived! I kicked my feet like an over-excited toddler.

So let's go through the gang one at a time:
Judging from the state of Malcolm Murray's townhouse, several months have passed and Vanessa has gone feral. Eating delivered groceries on the floor, ignoring all of the housekeeping, sleeping all day with the curtains drawn, and – worst of all – not brushing her hair.
Her reaction to someone knocking on the door made me laugh more than it should have –
– and as soon as I realized it was Ferdinand, I wrote: he'll be most disturbed by her hair.
Sure enough, once he's seated (having put down a handkerchief first) and recommended a psychotherapist (having poignantly alluded to his own inner turmoil) he pauses briefly and says: "you might want to... you know, fix up your hair."
I love this show.
We know simply from Ferdinand's endorsement that Doctor Seward must be an effective and trustworthy new ally, but there's a surprise waiting when Vanessa reaches her office. Okay, it's not actually a surprise. We already know that she's Gender Flipped version of the Bram Stoker character, and that she's played by Patti Lupone.
I was on tenterhooks wondering how the show would chose to play this. Would Vanessa recognize her? Would they make the connection to Joan Clayton? Would she be Joan Clayton? Would there be mystical significance to her reappearance or would they try to rationalize it?
First of all, yes there's recognition. There's recognition to break my heart.

It's pure joy.
Vanessa flat-out tells Doctor Seward "we've met before," but it would appear the show is trying to sell her as an Identical Granddaughter by establishing that her ancestors came from Devon. It's a bit of a reach, and one that I suspect is derived from the show just really, really wanting to bring back Patti Lupone, but I'm willing to roll with it. 
I guess I was just hoping for something a little bit more meaningful – something reminiscent of the twelfth Doctor taking the face of Lobus Caecilius (both played by Peter Capaldi) to remind himself of his purpose.
Vanessa remains nervous and twitchy throughout the encounter, but rises to the challenge of Doctor Seward's straightforward questions by giving her an equally frank assessment of her interest in Vanessa's case. Basically, they Sherlock Scan each other. They're playing with each other, Doctor Seward's blunt modernity against Vanessa's Gothic desperation.
Oh God, this is going to be so good.
After her preliminary consultation, Doctor Seward gives Vanessa one instruction: to do something she's never done before. This leads her to a natural history museum, but not before an odd little run-in on the street.
Seriously, he may as well have it written on his forehead. Vanessa also double-takes at the sight of a young boy who steps out in front of her, with a face pale enough for him to defensively pass off as "anaemia." She's disconcerted, and I find myself wondering if she's remembering Fenton, but the moment passes and she enters the museum.
Among the stuffed animals she lingers at the sight of the wolf (*sniffle*) but appears to brighten a little at the array of scorpions. It's there she meets Doctor Alexander Sweet – he's weird and passionate, so she's hooked.
This doesn't bode well for two reasons. 1) Doctor Seward, whose judgement we implicitly trust, said Vanessa is drawn to "dark, complicated, impossible men." And lo, one appears! 2) Since Alexander Sweet isn't the name of any literary figure that I've heard of, there's every chance it's an alias, and because we never actually see Dracula's face at the end of this episode, it suggests they're deliberately keeping him concealed from the audience.
In short, Alexander Sweet = Count Dracula.
Vanessa's arc in this episode is one of depression giving way to renewed hope, albeit in a rather simplistic way. She lives in squalor, accepts help, and then makes the effort to improve her surroundings – it's a pretty basic three-act structure. And yet it's marked by some interesting details:
The death of Tennyson permeates her storyline from beginning to middle to end (she initially hears of it from Ferdinand, she buys a death ribbon from the vampire-boy at the halfway mark, and we last see her reciting poetry to the stars) and there's also a visible improvement in her bearing and appearance as the episode advances.
What I think is important to note is that her depression is not solely brought on by being abandoned by the menfolk (after all, Malcolm is writing to her and always intended to return) but due to her newfound lack of faith. Vanessa's Catholicism has been the foundation of her life for so long that a gaping hole is left in its wake, though it's not entirely clear whether Vanessa has stopped believing in the existence of God or no longer thinks He has anything to offer her. 
It's probably the latter since she knows that vampires, witches and devils are very real (thereby requiring a heavenly counterpart) which means her lethargy is not brought on by a sense of grief or loss or existential crisis, but from losing huge part of her identity. Despite her declaration to Lucifer last season: "I know what I am," it's clear from this episode that she really has no idea who or what she is – not without the diabolical mayhem that's always surrounded her.
And so what we see here is Vanessa taking baby steps towards self-classification. She finds an old friend and makes a new one. She turns away from the wolf at the museum, but warms at the sight of the scorpions, which have always been a symbol of her selfhood. She cleans up the house and writes to Sir Malcolm. Her soul is gone yet she remains, as do the stars in the sky. As Ferdinand told her: "life, for all its anguish, is ours – it belongs to no other."
It all ends on a surprisingly hopeful note.
Meanwhile, across the other side of the world, a handcuffed Ethan is being shipped home again under the watchful eye of armed lawmen and Inspector Rusk. It's all so foreign that it took me a few seconds to figure out what I was looking at in this shot:
It's a bird's eye view of train tracks across the desert.
But amidst all the American trappings (guns, hats, accents) is a single solitary female. And it's Hecate!
After finding her a tad lacklustre over the course of season two, I was surprised by how happy I was to see her. Perhaps it's because the actress is now out of Helen McCrory's shadow, which gives the character a chance to pursue her own agenda.
It's clearly got something to do with Ethan, and she pulls off a sterling impersonation of a quivering damsel when a group of men gun down Ethan's guards and make off with him on horseback. In fact she seemed oddly pleased about it – could she have known it was coming? Inspector Rusk survives the bloodbath, and Ethan is surprised as the audience is to learn his father is responsible.
Which is to say, not at all.
How you know you're in America.
Pretty straightforward stuff (at least until we meet Daddy Talbot) but as it happens, Ethan's storyline is just as present in Africa as it is in America...
Which is where Malcolm has finished burying the completely-wasted-and-I'm-still-rather-bitter-about-it Sembene and taken to drowning his sorrows in drink, telling Vanessa via correspondence that Africa has lost its romance due to the ongoing slave trade; calling it "tainted" and "filthy". 
Gimme a break, it was made very clear in season one that Malcolm was not only indifferent to slavery, but also a rapist of the native women. Let's not whitewash him now, not when the whole point of the show is that its main characters are complete monsters.
But that's what appears to be the case as Malcolm stops to give money to a beggar woman – one who promptly turns a gun on him, and who is promptly killed herself. Nothing like throwing a large knife into a woman's face for a Character Establishing Moment, and this one belongs to Wes Studi's Kaetenay, surprising us all when he turns up in Malcolm's subplot instead of Ethan's. No one saw that coming when the casting was announced!
Naturally though he's linked to Ethan, and has in fact come all the way to Africa to enlist Malcolm in his rescue attempt. According to him, Malcolm can't die until "you've served your purpose: to fight the great demons of earth and sky," and that "our son needs us."
It's the first of two pretty significant HoYay moments, though something tells me it won't be inspiring as much fanfiction as...
Our first glimpse of Doctor Henry Jekyll, Race Lifted to an Indian youth who is remarkably calm when subjected to racist abuse on the street. He's pretty much a case of Remember The New Guy, as when he knocks on Victor Frankenstein's door it transpires that the two of them went to school together – now Victor has called upon his old friend to help him with his teeny-tiny problem of resurrecting corpses who have since turned into psychotic murderers. I'll admit, I laughed when Jekyll asked: "is it love or work?"
I initially thought Shazad Latif played Jekyll too expressionlessly, before it became clear his intense passivity was the result of a lifetime's worth of internalizing rage at the way he's been treated. He has a monologue about it and everything, leading me to wonder whether Mr Hyde has materialized yet. His talk about taming the beast within could as easily be foreshadowing as it is an oblique reference to his alter-ego, though – much like Lily's rage being directed at the men who abused her during Brona's lifetime – John Logan is on somewhat dangerous ground if he plans to use racial discrimination as the source of Mr Hyde's fury.
Both are interesting takes on the original source material, but depending on how it's handled, the conceit could just as easily veer into "women/minorities are too dangerous to let live when they're given the power to fight back against their oppressors" territory.
These two have HoYay oozing out their pores, but before you start feeling too sorry for them and their experiences of being bullied at school, Frankenstein reveals that he wants Jekyll's help in killing Lily. Jekyll responds by offering to fully "domesticate" her, stripping her of all memories, agency and willpower. Frankenstein agrees. He even has the nerve to call it "helping her."
Boys, I dub thee the ultimate fuckboys. 
Last but not least, Caliban/John Claire (though I'm sure he'll be giving himself yet another alias this season) is on a ship in the Arctic Sea, surrounded by crewmen debating whether or not to eat their compatriots and embracing his inner emo. Seriously, you can tell that on some level that he's just loving this.
It all changes when he goes to a small child – and honestly, why is there a small child on this vessel? – and begins to sing him a comforting song, which triggers memories of his life pre-resurrection. Though we don't glean much insight into it, we at least know a wife and child were involved.
Honestly I think he looks better now.
I've often wondered whether the Creature would ever remember his true self before Victor's meddling, especially when Proteus and Brona/Lily caught on pretty fast (as Victor refined his work) and it was a nice touch that he would do so at the point when Mary Shelley's novel ends. This show has always played fast and loose with its source material, adhering to their spirit whilst ignoring details, and so there's something quite exhilarating (and Game of Thrones-esque) about taking the Creature all the way to the Arctic and then having him turn around and walk – WALK! – all the way back again.
"Peace out."
But not before snapping the kid's neck and wishing the doomed crew luck before he leaves. You can pay him to recite poetry, but you can't pay him to give a shit.
Yet the general air of hopefulness this episode left me with is not to last. When Vanessa goes to see Doctor Seward, she talks to a perfectly pleasant secretary who asks her to take a seat. For the episode's final scene we return to him, and discover that he's not so pleasant after all. Stealing money from the desk, he heads out to the seedy side of town to spend it on a lady of the night – and is snatched away by the vampires we saw approach Vanessa earlier on.
Just as things seemed doomed for him (and seriously, the set piece in which he's surrounded on all sides by vampires crawling down the walls and across the floors is excellent) he's spared by a new arrival. It's Dracula of course, how could it not be, but I confess I got a bigger kick out of the secretary identifying himself as Renfield because I honestly didn't see it coming.
Samuel Barnett was great in the role – I genuinely liked him in his interactions with Vanessa, and then empathized with his utter terror in coming face-to-face with Dracula, and both those reactions were stymied by his sleaziness during the interim. 

He's just pathetic enough for me to feel sorry for him, and it makes sense that Dracula would see an opportunity to get close to Vanessa and take it. (Of course, it will make a lot less sense if Dracula ends up being Alexander Sweet, though I suppose you could argue he wants to get his hands on what passes for 19th century medical records).
In any case, you couldn't ask for a better introduction to Dracula than his deep voice uttering his own name over the darkness of the closing credits. Because when you're dealing with Dracula, you have to capture just the right balance of subtlety and melodrama, and it's been done so many times it's a challenge to bring something new to the table. But if anyone can do it, Penny Dreadful can.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Vanessa's storyline is framed by news of Tennyson's death, though I'll admit I'm not entirely sure why. An excuse to quote his poetry? A tool to establish the show's time frame? A way to capitalize on the romance of a dead poet and the sight of London's public wearing mourning bands? You decide.
It's only because of the recent slew of female deaths on television that I was extra bothered by the gory and needless deaths of the African thief and the London prostitute – but here we are. I was bothered.
One little tidbit we learn this episode: that Vanessa's father has since died and left her an inheritance. I was wondering what became of him, though I suppose now I'll have to rule out any awkward family reunions in the future.

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