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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Penny Dreadful: Ebb Tide

As I mentioned on my Orphan Black episode, I'm getting fatigued with all this watching/reviewing, not helped by the fact I'm starting to see some gaps appear in Penny Dreadful. Yes, this show has always had plot-holes galore, many of which I could either gloss over or chalk down to the genre (Gothic cares little for logic or continuity) but after watching this episode, I feel the show has lost its lustre a little. Or maybe I'm just tired.
When a story begins, it's easy to believe there's a master-plan in place, that everything happens for a reason, that it'll all eventually have satisfying payoff – and though I still think Logan has things mapped out in broad strokes, enough supporting characters and secondary subplots have been discarded that I'm beginning to detach myself from the characters/plots I am invested in as a pre-emptive protective measure.  
Why was this episode the catalyst? I couldn't tell you, but I just couldn't muster up a lot of excitement for this one, and I can't even effectively explain why.

Lily is still recruiting and Logan is still walking a fine line between making her sympathetic and making her (inevitable?) demise justifiable. She's offering condolences to grieving mothers, teaching prostitutes in the art of self-defence, and making grand speeches while standing on dinner tables. Some of what she's doing is admirable, some is indefensible. Some is just plain nonsensical – why tell her girls to cut off the right hands of men when they could be stealing their wallets?
But there is one striking problem: absolutely everything she's doing is only happening because Dorian allows it to. It's the very definition of "soft power", the type that is given to a person through the resources, wealth and permission of someone else. Logan surely wasn't blind to the irony that Lily's misandrist crusade was reliant on the tolerance of a man – but I'm bewildered that Lily was. Seriously, how the hell did she not see his betrayal coming? He's the very type of man that she's railing against in her speeches, and she knows that from her experiences with him as Brona.
Portrait of a man who has  realized it's Not All About Him anymore.
How she was blindsided by her kidnapping, or happy to rely on Dorian's wealth in the first place, is a mystery to me.
There were also a lot of what could only be deliberately gendered lines throughout this plot, specifically with Lily telling Dorian: "she's very emotional" while comforting a young woman, and later calling him a "fucking c**t" on realizing he's betrayed her. Surely Logan picked these phrases on purpose, though I've no idea to what end. Was it meant to be a meta-joke that Lily would describe a woman as "emotional" and expect Dorian to give a shit? And was her gendered slur an indication that she's not as woman-positive as she's trying to pass herself off as? Or were both just irony? I'm pretty lost here, folks. 
More terrifying than Dorian's delight and Jekyll's apathy at what they're about to do to Lily is Victor's genuine sense of compassion. He honestly thinks he's helping Lily by turning her into "a proper woman", a bit of dialogue that I did grasp the full meaning of, and which fell like a ton of bricks from his mouth.
This is a truly chilling expression. He's convinced himself he's helping her, and hey – if he gets his obedient little housewife back in the bargain, that's just a completely unconnected bonus.
I'm hanging in there Logan, but I sure hope you know what you're doing with this.
In a poignant touch, John Clare goes to Vanessa for advice on what he's to do about his family situation. Answering my question from last week, it's apparent that Vanessa has remembered him from her stay at the clinic, though he still remains oblivious – even after she reminds him of their time together.
Could this be significant? I'm betting that his decision to leave the clinic led directly to his death, which (along with his name) goes entirely unmentioned by his wife. Clearly the circumstances of his demise are important, and the fact he can't yet unlock that memory suggests that when it emerges, it'll either reignite his hatred for Victor or be the motivation he needs to leave his family for good.
I'm judging this on the simple fact that everything went way too well. He confesses all: his resurrection, his relationship with Victor, his bloody crimes, and his wife calmly accepts him. She takes him home, and his son follows suit. I was holding my breath, certain that a trapdoor was about to open beneath him – but for now at least, the man formerly known as Caliban and John Clare has found his happy ending.
One thing I really appreciated was the simple fact that he confesses his crimes and acknowledges the harm he's done. Pay attention folks, this is how you redeem a villain. Self-awareness and remorse can take you SO FAR.
Over in America, I remain baffled by Ethan and Kaetenay's relationship. They seem to be on speaking terms again (Ethan is no longer ordering Kaetenay to be left in the desert to die slowly of snakebite poison) so... that whole thing about Kaetenay assisting in the massacre of Ethan's mother, brother and little sister is just water under the bridge now? Mmkay.
In any case, Kaetenay has seen the end of days in a vision and on hearing about Ethan's desire to return to Vanessa, promptly has another. Proving that you must Never Trust a Trailer, we see the much-discussed scene of Ethan running into Vanessa's arms in the London house, a mob of vampires close behind. Like everyone else, I had assumed this was the real Vanessa/Ethan reunion – now I've a sinking feeling it won't be seen this season.
According to Kaetenay: "one Apache can save us all", and that's Ethan. Yeah, they went there. A white guy is at the centre of an Apache myth. Let's give a little sigh and trudge on.
While on the boat back to England, Kaetenay decides to visit Vanessa in the spirit, during which several interesting (or less generously: odd) things happen. 1. Vanessa takes Kaetenay at face-value, giving no indication that she might think he's not who he says he is. 2. Kaetenay says: "you are a great bitch of evil and I love you for your fertility and your power." 3. While looking at him, Vanessa's eyes turn red.
Um...huh? Was this a real encounter with Vanessa or not? The fact that Catriona later notices the same books that Kaetenay comments on suggests that it was, but it's still a very confusing sequence. Why did Kaetenay go from gently reassuring to dismissive and cruel before veering back into "be careful" territory? When he first called her a fertile bitch, I assumed he was either revealing his true colours as a Hidden Villain, or that the whole thing was another visitation from Lucifer. Then when Vanessa's eyes glowed, I wondered if perhaps this was just a construct in Kaetenay's imagination, warning him that they had to put on speed to reach her in time.
And if it was real, then try to imagine what the experience must have been like on Vanessa's end: a complete stranger turns up, calls her a bitch, and tells her to stop doing things. I wonder if this was meant to be a direct lead-in to her acceptance of Dracula (or rather, herself) at episode's end.  
Which brings us to Vanessa.
The cruellest thing about Dracula's gaslighting is that Vanessa is attracted to Doctor Sweet's kindness, telling him: "you're too good." She's always been attracted to kindness in her suitors, with no self-destructive desire to "redeem a bad boy with love," a narrative we might have otherwise expected from a character like her, in a show like this. It was kindness that drew her to Ethan, and even to Dorian – though it was just a veneer, he put up a good show of charm and attentiveness while their liaison lasted.
Later Catriona turns up to share some more exposition (apparently all known vampire lore is meaningless – I'm betting this is an Author's Saving Throw for the whole "Dracula has a reflection in the House of Mirrors" deal) as well as to point some pretty blatant arrows at Dracula's false identity. He's nondescript! He'll try to seduce you! He's surrounded by night creatures! Thankfully Vanessa catches on in a matter of seconds, which is still a long time for a so-called psychic with an affinity for evil, but hey – at least this isn't going to be strung out till the end of the season.
Learning that Dracula is vulnerable while in his human form, Vanessa arms herself with both gun and Death Glare (I'll admit, I've missed it) and heads to the museum – though not before touching the wall where her crucifix used to hang. It's possibly the episode's most effective scene; the silent ones always are. 
This whole time the subject of Dracula has been in the air, I've been frustrated by the lack of discussion surrounding Mina. Remember her? Vanessa's childhood friend who was snatched away by vampires in a bid to lure Vanessa into their lair? She who got little in the way of three-dimensionality and died utterly anticlimactically? The object of Vanessa's devotion for an entire season? Well, Vanessa FINALLY brings up her name while confronting Doctor Sweet, yet the subject is quickly dropped as Dracula starts his salespitch.
I didn't buy it, but Vanessa sure did. I'm in two minds about this: clearly she had to submit for the sake of the story, but Logan makes a valiant effort to link it to a decision that Vanessa would make of her own free will. The magic words for Vanessa are: "I don't need you to be normal; I don't want you to be anything but who you truly are," and so it's important that she only lets him drink her blood after she declares "I accept me."
Yet it's still staged as a surrender, and a Very Bad Thing. Vanessa's decisions are consistently shaped by her understanding of herself in relation to men (whether it be God or Dracula or Malcolm or Ethan or Lucifer or Mina's fiancé) and it's difficult to really believe she's accepting herself when in the same scene she offers her neck to a vampire with full knowledge that this will destroy the world.
Maybe she's conning him. The problem is, I'm not sure I care anymore. If this is anything like the resolution to Mina and Evelyn's storylines, it'll be resolved in a matter of a few disappointing seconds anyway.
To reiterate what I said at the beginning of this review: I'm tired. The wheels of this story have been spinning for too long now, and the rewards are increasingly not worth the wait. Ethan's subplot for example doesn't seem to have brought anything substantial to the story. We met his father and glean some insight into his history, but still know nothing about the one thing that really matters (his werewolfry). His animosity toward his father is explained, but Jared is dead now, so ... moving on, I guess? His justifiable hatred of Kaetenay has been resolved without any mention of his butchered brother, mother and sister. He was tempted into evil, but resisted the desire to commit patricide so everything's okay now, even though he's still wolfing out every full moon?
I can accept that Hecate served her narrative purpose in failing to tempt Ethan to the dark side, but the casual death of Inspector Rusk is pretty unforgiveable. What the heck was the point of this guy? We spent ages with him, and the only thing of note he did was bring Ethan back to America, a task that could have easily been delegated to bit players.
As much as I like Kaetaney, it's difficult not to see him as a replacement for Sembene; another non-white cheerleader for the white male lead who is the subject of an Apache prophecy. Of course he is, and I put the odds of Kaetaney's death before the season's close at 85%.
Miscellaneous Observations:
So – Lily once had a child that died before she was a year old. Not sure whether this information will be relevant later, or whether it was just an excuse for this incredible shot:
The actor playing Renfield wakes up every morning and tells himself: "I'm going to be the most Renfieldy Renfield ever!" And he is. Not sure how the character managed to survive licking Vanessa's throat in front of Dracula though.
Doctor Seward only gets one scene, but in it we learn she thinks Vanessa has a split personality. Interestingly, her recorder has Vanessa repeating the words that Dracula/Lucifer said to her in the asylum, shedding some light on what her fugue state must have looked like from Seward's point-of-view.
Catriona remains more device than person, and though another feminine presence is welcome, she still feels like an obvious fill-in for Lyle. I liked that her first recourse was to offer Vanessa some tea, and that she's advanced so quickly to the "my darling" endearment. Please don't let her be evil.
Confirmation that Malcolm shot Jared to spare Ethan the task. 
Kaetenay's delivery of "so – you're in love" to Ethan made me snort, as did Ethan and Malcolm's instant, in-unison "yes" to Kaetenay's question of whether or not Vanessa has a feel for things not of this earth. Understatement of the year.
I said the word "bored" out loud before Dorian did, though we did learn something interesting from his talk with Lily. He tells her he's seen many revolutions, mentioning French guillotines and temples of Byzantium getting sacked – which makes him much, much older than Oscar Wilde's Dorian, who was a Victorian. His is another backstory we're still waiting on: if he's immortal thanks to a Deal with the Devil, then what exactly does the devil have planned for him?
A part of me feels it would have been a poignant choice to not have Vanessa and Caliban remember each other, making their history just a meeting of souls offering kindness in a dark place.
Should a parallel be drawn between Vanessa and Lily? Both are women now at the mercy of men, though as one embraces her identity, the other is having hers forcibly stripped away. When these plots collide (if they ever do) what would they say to each other?

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