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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Penny Dreadful: No Beast So Fierce

Oh Penny Dreadful. You and your terrible anti-climaxes. After the abrupt deaths of Mina and Evelyn Poole in prior seasons I suppose I should be used to it now, but still, taking out two of your significant supporting characters with blink-and-you'll-miss-it gunfire has certainly raised the bar for your "it's not about the destination because the destination ain't that interesting" mode of storytelling.

Okay, so I'm slathering on the sarcasm here, and the truth is this show does compensate for its let-downs by providing great build-up, but this time around the discrepancy in trade-off was a little more pronounced.

Talbot Ranch hosts one of the most awkward dinner parties of recent memory, with Inspector Rusk and Marshall Ostow arriving just as everyone else – Malcolm, Jared, Ethan and Hecate – gather together. I've no idea just what Rusk and Ostow were attempting to achieve by entering the place without any backup, but Jared sees no reason not to serve everyone a meal.
It's a collusion of motives, agendas and vendettas all poured into one room that's surrounded by armed men – I bet John Logan was wriggling with delight when he concocted this scenario for himself: 

Jared insists that Ethan say grace. Ethan responds with blasphemy. Malcolm tries to talk sense. Hecate whispers poison. Rusk brings up the snakes. Ostow mentions the dead lawmen on the train, promises retribution and is duly shot. Everyone else gets back to their meal.

This shot is pretty hilarious though.
Amidst all the recriminations, perhaps the most interesting element was Jared's reaction to Rusk's story of the snakes. For the first time it became apparent that he has absolutely no idea of Ethan's supernatural side, and the mystery thickens as to exactly when and how his werewolfry began. Back in season two when I learned that Ethan's family name was Talbot, I pondered the possibility that it was hereditary. When Kaetenay turned up, I assumed it was a Native American curse. Now? I've honestly no idea.
I lost track of who exactly fires the first shot, but Hecate and Rusk are quickly dispatched, leaving Ethan and his three fathers (Kaetenay having miraculously cured himself of snakebite off-screen) to faceoff in the chapel.
Seriously? A bullet wound to the shoulder is all it takes?
In a scene that's reminiscent of the first season finale (in which Malcolm shot Mina) Jared all but dares his son to pull the trigger and commit patricide. I suppose there's a difference between the two scenarios, in that Mina was one of the undead and Jared still a living man, but Ethan refuses to go through with it – thereby rejecting Hecate's offer to sign up with Satan. In hindsight it makes her death feel even more premature, for surely she should have been witness to her failure to completely turn Ethan.
But just as Jared is swearing he'll hunt Ethan to the ends of the earth, Malcolm – who is all out of fucks to give when it comes to America – steps in and shoots him in the head. Though Ethan was led into temptation, he manages to reject it at what is staged as the final step into hell. On the other hand, Malcolm perhaps feels he's due for hell anyway – especially if he accepts Jared's observation that they're mirror images of each other – and so sees nothing to lose in the taking of one more life, especially if it's to save his foster-son.
(And for what it's worth, I did like his confession at the dinner table that he was a terrible father to Peter).
So ends our foray into the Wild West. It was a long detour to a resolution we all saw coming, but we managed to pick up Kaetenay along the way, set Ethan on the right course, see some great desert vistas, and enjoy a meaty performance from Brian Cox. What we didn't get was details on how/why Ethan is a werewolf, though my current theory is (what with all this renewed talk of the Wolf of God) that it's a heaven-sent directive and not a "curse" at all. All Ethan needs to do is put it to its proper use in the protection of Vanessa.
Of course, that idea doesn't explain why God has been letting His chosen one kill dozens of innocents under the light of the full moon, but honestly – I have never seen a werewolf story do less talking about werewolves than this one. Does Malcolm know about Ethan's condition? Does Kaetenay?
Back in London, Renfield is still giving Dracula information about Vanessa in exchange for blood (and possibly the promise of future vampirehood?) In a nice little detail, a single finger-twitch from Dracula commands all the other vampires under his control.
Meanwhile, Vanessa goes to visit Ferdinand Lyle only to discover he's (say it isn't so!) heading for Cairo, where he'll presumably stay for the rest of the season. Hey, they've got to cover for Simon Russell Beale's theatre work somehow. But before going he gives Vanessa a hug and a contact, one that Vanessa casually assumes is a man, which is a dead giveaway that the character will naturally be revealed as a woman.
And okay, we all knew Perdita Weeks was showing up eventually.
The show pulls off a classic Samus Is a Girl reveal, in which Catriona Hartegan pulls off her helmet after a fencing duel with a disgruntled male. As far as I can tell, her name may be pulled from two possible sources: Catriona is the heroine in Robert Louis Stevenson's sequel to Kidnapped, and Hartegan is the last name bestowed on the time-traveller in the 2002 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (in the book the character is given no name at all).
Too obscure? Perhaps, because short of introducing the subject of time travel, it's difficult to see how either of those characters could be incorporated here. So perhaps she has no literary precedence at all.
In any case, Vanessa is delighted – but not nearly as delighted as I was to see her talk in a friendly manner to a woman her own age. Joan/Doctor Seward were mentor figures, and Mina little more than an adored cypher, but the addition of Catriona could prove very interesting in exploring another side to Vanessa. We know she enjoys (perhaps even prefers) the company of men, and so far her feelings toward women is comprised of formal politeness to Lily, adulation towards Mina, and deference to both incarnations of Joan Clayton. Catriona however, feels like an equal, which is something much different.
The vibe between them is low-key flirting and mutual interest rather than suspicion or rivalry, and it leads to this fantastic composition:
Spin-off please!
Even if it's a little late in the game to be introducing new characters (only three episodes left this season!) I wait upon events with bated breath.
For now, Catriona provides a little exposition and advice. Though she stops short of identifying Dracula as Vlad the Impaler outright, there are enough contextual clues to assume that Penny Dreadful is following the well-established course of conflating the two of them, though she gives him the distinction of being the very first vampire, and a seducer in the oldest sense of the word: someone who leads men astray in order to corrupt them.
Her advice is for Vanessa to surround herself with loved ones. Vanessa admits her loneliness with Ethan and Malcolm gone (poor Sembene doesn't even get a namedrop) and goes to Doctor Seward, who promptly encourages her to seek out Doctor Sweet. I can't bring myself to enjoy the irony of Seward pushing for this development, or of Vanessa unknowingly warning Doctor Sweet about himself.
Then they go right ahead and bang on the floor. Because screwing a man in a room full of taxidermied animals worked out SO WELL the first time Vanessa did it.
Look, I'm not exactly pearl-clutching over this development, and I suppose in some ways it's in-character for the desperately lonely Vanessa who – whether I like it or not – validates herself just a little bit by having an array of adoring suitors. She also enjoys sex, and Sweet has been carefully playing his hand: telling her exactly what she wants to hear, letting her make all the moves, and assuring her of his love and protection. He even knows how to best figure in her heartbreak over Ethan, drawing her attention from the taxidermied wolf to the bat in a very smooth bit of symbolism (nice one, Logan).
But honestly Vanessa – you couldn't vet Doctor Alexander Sweet just a little? Maybe do some background checks on him? Use your psychic powers? Remember that the last time you had sex it unleashed a demonic presence that nearly killed you?
Most of all, I guess I'm just sad because it's all going to lead to more heartache for Vanessa. Every time she trusts someone it ends badly, and this is perhaps the worst betrayal of all, built as it is on a sustained and careful deception. Say what you will about Hecate, but at least she was open and honest about who she was, what she wanted, and how she intended to get it. Dracula is pretty damn cruel by comparison.
Over in Fuckboy Laboratories™, Jekyll has supplied Victor with a serum that will knock out Lily long enough for him to bring her to the asylum, doing so in a way that feels as though he's testing him. If the test is that yes, Victor is that much of a creeper, then he passes with flying colours.
Meanwhile ladies of the night have been arriving at Dorian's doorstep in order to get lessons on self-defence from Lily, who demonstrates the best stabbing/slitting/gouging techniques with Dorian. Considering she's careful to point out they're only to do this to men who would harm them, it's difficult to see too much of a problem with it.
As she says, they'll protect themselves and be called monsters for it, but that's the world's crime, not theirs.
However, Dorian is not having as much fun as usual, especially now that little Justine is (in his eyes) getting a little too big for her britches. She deliberately cuts into his neck, and I'm not entirely sure whether she's caught on to his healing abilities, or is (as he puts it) just pushing her luck.
In a strange way I could feel a little sorry for Dorian – after all, it's his house and money that Lily is using for her crusade, but then I remember what he did to Angelique and I get over it. 

Speaking of things that Dorian has done, I'm still a little confused as to what exactly Lily's feelings toward him are. She appears genuinely grateful and affectionate, and yet surely she can't have forgotten what Dorian did to her during Brona's lifetime. Likewise, Dorian all but spells out here that he considers himself superior to others due to his immortality, which is the only reason why Lily is afforded his respect.
Not exactly the best basis for a partnership, but before it can be explored properly (are they genuine or are they just playing each other?) Victor turns up for the world's worst kidnapping attempt. Justine has him at knife-point, and he pulls a classic "for your own good" argument when he tells Lily he wants to take away her anger and hate.
Urgh. Once again Lily is very, very clear about what she wants (which is: not his help) but Dorian – not doubt seeing an opportunity – speaks on Victor's behalf. I smell betrayal in the air, especially when Dorian tells Victor he owes him one.
Last of all, John Clare goes to visit his son, who struggles for breath while he sleeps but dozily refers to him as "father." It plucks all the heart-strings and is straight out of a Dickensian novel – but then he opens his eyes and starts screaming at the man standing over his bed. Yikes, that was tough to watch and even worse for John to experience.
We do know however that he's promised to get his son some medicine – does that mean he's headed back to Victor? And will this intersect with Victor's nefarious plans for Lily?
Miscellaneous Observations:
So the theme of this episode was rejecting submission: Lily is staunchly against it, Catriona would rather cheat than give into it, and hey – Doctor Seward killed her abusive husband with a cleaver! But in the midst of all this, Vanessa decision to seek out Doctor Sweet at Seward's behest and take Catriona's advice to surround herself with loved ones as protection feels even crueller in its irony. Even if she was on top.
This show isn't great with its diversity, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a black woman among Lily's followers.

I haven't mentioned it before, but great casting on Justine. The actress has a vampirish little face, and I can't help but feel her wardrobe is based on Morticia Addams.
Perdita Weeks is lovely, but she also looks quite modern in this. Perhaps it's just lingering memories of Game of Thrones that's put time travel on my mind, because surely it won't get introduced here.
Where we meant to regard Rusk as brave or stupid for his ample confidence in entering Jared's home and expecting him to just hand over his son? Of course, there's a slight chance that he survived his gunshot. I suppose we'll find out next week.
Not exactly the smile of an intelligent man.
Dracula refers to Ethan as "the wolf". Interesting – I really wish I knew what his place in all this is. Clearly there's some sort of prophecy in place, but we know so little about his curse that it's impossible to figure out what it might be.
So Lyle has gone to Cairo to see the tomb of Imhotep – The Mummy! That looks like laying groundwork for season four's Big Bad, not to mention a return (hopefully) of the whole Amon-Ra/Amun-Net prophecy.
Bring back some cursed artefacts for me!
In all, this was a rather choppy episode, with Ethan's story getting wound up and Vanessa's kicking into gear what with the introduction of Catriona and her relationship with Doctor Sweet consummated. Even with the loss of Hecate and Rusk (who feel wasted in hindsight, even though I knew they weren't long for this world) there are a heck of a lot of balls still in the air, and the lack of a fourth season announcement has me worried.
John Logan seems to be sowing the seeds for a continuation, and the list of things we don't know about or can reasonably expect to happen is piling up: we still don't know how Ethan became a werewolf, how John Clare died, how Dracula kidnapped Mina in the first place, or how Dorian became immortal. We still haven't seen Mr Hyde, or an Ethan/Brona reunion, or a Vanessa/John Clare reunion, or any resolution to the whole Vanessa-is-Amun-Net business. Should we start a prayer circle for a forthcoming season four?


  1. Now I'm worried about possible cancellation too. But, on the other hand, this is Showtime, well-known for erring on the generous side of renewal decisions, and I don't think this show is THAT expensive. I hope.

    Lily is still being way nicer to Victor than he deserves. The number of chances she's given him, at this point she can do practically anything to him and we'll be thinking, "well, it's not like she didn't warn him ... several times ..." Victor is (deliberately, I think) a lot harder to take this season because we don't get to see the side of him we like, which generally only comes out when he's interacting with Vanessa or Ethan or Malcolm.

    A question, though - is there some kind of tension between Vanessa and Victor that I've forgotten about? I know they both turned in on themselves after the S2 finale, but they're both still in London and somehow Vanessa never even thinks of him when she's lamenting her lost family or instructed to surround herself with friends. Last time we saw them together, from what I remember, she looked on him as practically a younger brother - remember when he was the one she entrusted with her location when she went to the Cut-Wife?

    I wondered about Rusk too - he just storms in and expects all these people to hand Ethan over (and did I mishear or did he arrest them all?). All I could think was, great job giving all these people who hate each other a common enemy.

    I thought they were writing off Ferdinand permanently - so glad his jaunt is not so open-ended after all.

    1. Didn't mean to make you worry! John Logan certainly seems to be writing this season with a fourth one in mind, but I'm under the impression that we already knew about the renewal this time last year. Which again, doesn't mean much - but I don't want to lose one of my favourite shows prematurely.

      I suppose the reason for Vanessa/Victor being separated is the general theme of the gang splitting up before being reunited, though Logan didn't really give us an in-story reason for that. I do wonder though if Frankenstein is going to be permanently rejected from the Monster Club once Vanessa/Ethan find out about John Clare/Lily.

      If that's the end for Rusk, it's certainly a case of dropping a bridge on him. Aside from getting Ethan to America in the first place, I'm not sure what the point of him was at all.