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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Penny Dreadful: This World is Our Hell

After last week's Bottle Episode, it was a no-brainer to ensure that this week the show's scope opened up to include previously untrod territory not only in the geographical sense, but in regards to Ethan's backstory. (And the drastic change in scenery was probably convenient for the showrunners considering they could film this and the last episode concurrently).
It's about as far as you can get from a single-room episode.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about this foray into Ethan's past is not what we learned, but what we DIDN'T learn: we still have no idea how or why Ethan is a werewolf. It was widely supposed it was a curse laid upon him by the Apaches after he slaughtered their people, a theory strengthened by the appearance of Kaetenay at the start of this season, but if Kaetenay is the reason for Ethan's monthly transformations, he didn't take responsibility for it in this episode. 
What we get instead are two sides of the same story told by Ethan and Kaetenay to Hecate and Malcolm: that Ethan joined the army on the behest of his father and participated in Native American genocide. It ended with him murdering his commanding officer and offering himself to the Apaches to scalp.
Instead Kaetenay turned him into a weapon to use against the white invaders, which eventually culminated in Ethan giving the tribe details of how to best steal weapons and food from the Talbot Ranch. Though he stipulated no one was to be harmed, almost his entire family was brutally slaughtered, which pretty much explains the entirety of Ethan's character and his prevailing hatred toward his fathers.

Daddy Issues are at the root of many an antihero, but John Logan steers the familiar trope into interesting waters with the unique setup and payoff this episode brings. We've got Ethan and Hecate attempting to reach Talbot Ranch, Inspector Rusk and the American lawmen chasing the two of them, Malcolm/Kaetenay following close behind, and Jared Talbot's men out hunting for everyone.
Everyone is chasing a monster: for Kaetenay it's Hecate, for Rusk it's Ethan, and for Ethan it's his father. Other interesting patterns and parallels emerge – that both behind and before Ethan is a father figure he dearly wants to kill, and beside him a woman coaxing him to embrace his dark side. That both Hecate and Kaetenay attack Inspector Rusk's camp at the same time with essentially the same goal. That when Malcolm Murray and Jared Talbot come face-to-face, the latter immediately picks up on the similarities between them, drawing a comparison between their lost children, the slaughter Malcolm must have partaken of in Africa and Jared's current hatred of the Apache. There's even a similarity he didn't know about when he says: "there are mountains named after me."
It's a rather sorry state of affairs when the best father-figure in the vicinity is Malcolm Murray – even scarier when you consider he's got the most level head when it comes to what's happening and how it should be handled.
John Logan also does a great job with his foreshadowing: we learnt in previous episodes that Ethan feels nothing but animosity towards Kaetenay, but here it reached an unforeseen level of hatred. Kaetenay tells Malcolm: "Ethan will kill me the first chance he gets" (doing a lot to explain why he sought out Malcolm in Africa) and on seeing Kaetenay dying from a snake bite, Ethan orders his father's men to let him die slowly, claiming that: "he ain't worth the bullet."
Not only extremely harsh, but an echo of the words said by Ethan's commanding officer in the Native American massacre (the one Ethan killed before deserting) – so we know by this point that whatever Kaetenay did, it's enough to make Ethan repeat the words of a man he clearly detested.
Later at the Talbot Ranch, Malcolm sees a picture of Jared with two sons, and Hecate wakes up in a room filled with dolls. Clearly Ethan had siblings, and though the nitpicking part of my brain initially thought their existence should have been established much earlier in the season, it soon conceded that it made perfect sense Ethan would keep quiet on the subject of his family.

And of course, Logan has been building up Daddy Talbot since the very first episode of Penny Dreadful, a character whose shadow over Ethan is finally illuminated in that final scene between father and son in the ruined chapel. For a character this long-anticipated, you need an actor like Brian Cox to carry it off.
Mercifully we were spared any flashbacks of the night Jared describes, instead allowing him to torture his son with the narrative he's obviously been rehearsing in his head for years on end. What a scene!
We also got some interesting material on Hecate. As Jared does to Malcolm later on, Hecate also pulls the Not So Different card on Ethan. Just as Ethan was enlisted in the army by his father, Hecate was enlisted into Lucifer's service by her mother when she was just a child – a reasonably sound Freudian Excuse, yet she still follows that master despite her cruel introduction to him.
So what's she really up to? Is she working on her master's orders when she seduces Ethan, or is she a free agent? I suppose her words to Ethan in addressing them as "thee and me" (a catchphrase also favoured by Lucifer in reference to Vanessa) and her instructions on what Ethan should say after he kills his father ("Lucifer, I am your animal") pretty much confirms the former.
But the waters are further muddied when she reintroduces the concept of Ethan as Lupus Dei (the Wolf of God), telling him that he could become a "glorious monster" (presumably in God's service) who is nevertheless haunted by guilt and shame. We've never been given a clear idea what God's plan is for Ethan – if there is one at all – but Hecate's words seem to match up thematically to the tribal drawings she and Ethan find later. According to Ethan, the cave drawings depict an Apache myth about how the creatures of the night were defeated by a young man, though Hecate speculates it might also be a prophecy of a coming darkness. In which case, what part does Ethan play – the warrior who ends the night or the wolf who loves it?
Logan is skating on thin ice when he places a white dude at the centre of a Native American myth, but Hecate's speculation fits in with what Kaetenay has to say about her. He and Malcolm are the only characters who recognize the true danger she poses, for it's not Jared Talbot, Inspector Rusk, or the waterless desert that threaten the world, but the possibility of Hecate corrupting Ethan's soul. Kaetenay has even had a vision about the impending darkness, involving Wolf!Ethan running amok in the streets of London, one he shares with Malcolm so as to impress upon  him what's at stake.
For what it's worth, I can buy that Ethan – knowing he's moving towards his hated father and feeling the burden of his guilt growing with each step he takes – would have a "screw it" moment and give in to Hecate's promises of relief. There is a slight double-standard at work, as I seriously doubt there'll be any long-term consequences to him having sex with Hecate, even though Vanessa gets violently possessed every time she so much as thinks about the subject, but I had to laugh at some of the reactions I saw in fandom.
Essentially Hecate is being called a bitch and a whore – but honestly, do you think she'd give two shits about being labelled either one? She'd embrace them wholeheartedly.
One of her conjured snakes did manage to bite Kaetenay, but I'm sure we haven't seen the last of him just yet (though I doubt he'll survive the whole season). He's done his best to pass the responsibility of Ethan's wellbeing to Malcolm, having recognized there's a greater battle going on in the world – one that will play out in a house containing a father who wants to kill his son, a son who wants to kill his father, and a witch who probably just wants to kill everyone.
The episode's subplot took place back in London and focused on Frankenstein and Jekyll, though there were some nice echoes between the two story-strands. Victor states that losing one's memories is the same as losing one's sins and being reborn as an innocent (contrasted with Hecate urging Ethan to embrace his sins and so lose his guilt) though it's not a procedure that he himself would sign up for.
The hypocrisy of what he's doing is therefore completely lost on him: he explicitly states he would never give up his own memories/identity, and yet not only done this three times already to Caliban, Proteus and Lily without their consent, but plans to do it again to Lily.
But his dickishness is not just limited to Lily – he gets to be a condescending prick to Jekyll as well, who points out that Victor's ostracism was due to his controversial methods, whilst Henry's was based in racism. Victor glibly dismisses this, blaming Jekyll's expulsion on his temper.
In any case, what they've learned is that a combination of Frankenstein's science and Jekyll's formula creates what seems to be a permanent cure to the Scotsman's madness. Victor is looking forward to using it on Lily who he describes as "perfect" when he first created her, even though she TOLD him she was performing right from the start, and that his definition of happiness is having a woman who is scared, dependant and doting. Urgh, I can't wait to watch her rip his ribcage out. Or Vanessa can do it. I'm not fussy.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I thought that making Hecate an animal lover was a nice touch, but honestly – this powerful witch can't even conjure water?
Rusk manages to be quintessentially English even in the middle of the American West:
We also get backstory on how he lost his hand – I'm not sure it was important or that anyone really cared, but at least now we know.
Innocence (lost or regained) was a big theme in this episode, mainly through it being discussed by those who have long since given theirs up. There was however, one true innocent here: Rusk's associate who is shot dead by Malcolm as he steals the horses. It was an odd little scene that didn't really add much to the episode – apart from establishing that Malcolm is still prepared to kill, I suppose.
Interesting that if given the choice, Jekyll states that he would chose to forget who he was and regain his innocence. I wonder if this will have something to do with how/why Hyde emerges. In which case, Frankenstein's declaration that: "it is our memories that make us monsters" is rendered false. Heck, it's already rendered false: Caliban was a monster until he started remembering who he really was.
Last season Ethan made a speech to the rest of the Penny Dreadful cast about "defending the cliff", likening it to how they had to fortify the house. I'm not sure how that story fits into what we learn about him here – perhaps it references the massacre he recounts to Hecate, though there's no mention of a cliff.
This was cute:
As Orphan Black rests upon the sins of shitmothers, so does Penny Dreadful thrive on shitfathers. The last season of both shows had some eerie parallels (namely the symbolism of the scorpion) whereas these past two weeks have had an emphasis on mouths: the worm-bot inserted into Sarah's jaw, and Vanessa's scold's bridle in the asylum. It's funny how unrelated shows can "talk" to each other.
Only four more episodes left and no confirmation of a fourth season. Should I be getting worried?

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