Penny Dreadful Season 2 is Again a Macabre Good Time
by Kristin Battestella
Penny Dreadful’s sophomore year opens with a recap of the the Showtime series’ debut before picking up the Gothic sophistication right where we left off – this time with ten episodes of scorpions, witches, monsters, and devils.
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is attacked by a group of Nightcomer witches led by Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), but ex-gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) protects Vanessa along with Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – whom Madame Kali pursues romantically. Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) helps translate a mysterious demonic tale written on a monk’s relics alongside Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), but Frankenstein is distracted by his work on the late Brona Croft (Billie Piper) – now resurrected as Lily Frankenstein at the request of the Creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), himself going by the name John Clare for his new job at a waxworks museum. Unfortunately, Lily eventually sets her sights on the decadent Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) instead.
White snow, demonic language, and dangerous carriage attacks waste no time starting “Fresh Hell” alongside excellent tender moments and graves dug from last season. Where Year One was about meeting the team and facing a largely unseen evil, now Penny Dreadful puts a more human face on our company’s threats with evil women and meddling inspectors. It’s a delightful step to share the gruesome aftermath while we get to know this enemy – a little demon family to mirror our flawed fighters. Monstrosity is just everywhere in Londontown!These naked witch ladies should be alluring but they are not, and new biblical threads arise in “Verbis Diablo.” Even prayers are no longer sacred amid pity projects, cholera ills, and enchanting deceptions. New character interactions infuse Penny Dreadful, anchoring the stories of possessed holy men, titular puzzles, disturbing infant abductions, and unique voodoo uses. That’s one diabolic arts and crafts room! There’s sup
erb war room plotting in both our houses – and a mole between them – so it is perhaps unusual to have an all Vanessa flashback episode so soon in “The Nightcomers.” However, the Victorian meets Baba Yaga magic, symbols, and protection motifs are excellent thanks to critical past information that will be important later and sublime guest star Patti LuPone (Life Goes On). This well paced character drama fills in history from the First Season and serves it with quaint do no harm and brutal persecution.
The demonic riddles and unique character confrontations continue in “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places.” Deception always wears such a pretty face yet Penny Dreadful makes time for our darkly clad band to enjoy some lighthearted social moments before a creepy chameleon siege upon Sir Malcolm’s house that has the viewer studying each frame for clues. While padding time and unnecessarily stretched out scenes are apparent in this longer season, the final moments here are an appropriately simmering, silent unease. “Above the Vaulted Sky” has some fine true horror as extensions of our family pay a terrible price, and recalled Apache atrocities parallel the montages of faith and battle preparations. Are steel doors, guns, prayers, and totems enough to face the devil? It’s pleasing to have time dedicated to the turmoil and lying in wait for harm to come as evil and the authorities close in on our company. Penny Dreadful has touching poetic moments before major ghosts encounters and hefty scares. However, the sex scene finale here is very poorly edited with intercut frightening erroneously mixed with what should be tender bedroom moments. The morning after in “Glorious Horrors” is non too peachy either as influences are asserted and bloody fatalities become as simple as replacing the carpet. Can one be oblivious to threats when everything is connected and nothing is happenstance? Funeral talk and awkward balls shape a deliciously off kilter splendor, and Penny Dreadful puts all its players together in a twisted little bloodbath with intriguing character asides, jealous pairs old and new, superb revelations, and gruesome showdowns.
“Little Scorpion” is a shorter Penny Dreadful episode at only 49 minutes, but this Ethan and Vanessa-centric block has lovely one on one character moments questioning solitude and the growing distrust among our eponymous team. The tormented have some small, delightful comforts away from the inescapable monsters and demons at their backs, making for some dangerous tension and steaming dancing in the dark storms. Superior hours where not all the cast appears suggests Penny Dreadful creator John Logan may be juggling too many storylines or characters, but “Memento Mori” trades deadly toppers for swift interrogation filming. Askew up close shots, intercut tension, and lies contrast softer fireside conversations and waxing regrets. Can you look at yourself inthe mirror when you do what has to be done in the fight against evil? The ongoing demon incarnate puzzle solving ties together pieces from Season One as mirrors and dual camera tricks heighten the character heavies. Although the evil plans seem too wishy wasy at times with back and forth possessions and reversed enchantments, this episode allows its three plotlines to play out as uninterrupted acts, bucking the A, B, C standard television story structure to elevate its scary revelations.
Monster does catch monster, and even the authorities consider otherworldly and superstitious possibilities in “And Hell Itself My Only Foe.” Upticked violence and hauntings find our team, and the witty dialogue and intelligent scripting add to the surprises. The subtle Talbot name drop is worth all the wolf mishandling in the First Season, and more self-awareness comes in the ugly waxworks entertainment. Evil is beautiful and seductive with temptations from Lucifer to display one’s inner beast. That internal made manifest leads to some stunning confrontations, indeed. $%#%(*&! The excellent multi-layered horrors and battle of wills continue in the “And They Were Enemies” finale as Penny Dreadful’s not so merry band is tested in enemy territory. Devils on the shoulder present a most convincing case – be it death, our darkest desires, or the brightest dream too good to be true. Once you cross the line toward darkness, what must you do to come back to the light? Can you save yourself at all? Granted, moments with the effigy puppetry and lookalike demonic language arguing become hokey quickly, a jarringly laughable moment amid the utmost heavy. After a hefty but quality slow build and some unnecessary treading tires and stalling plots, the final evil confrontation also feels too rushed by comparison. There are some wild surprises and a character denouement with time for reflection is a welcome change from an action finale. However, maybe the pacing should have been tightened to have an all battle second to last hour and then an entire sigh of relief end instead of a finale that feels too half and half. Fortunately, Penny Dreadful concludes with plenty of creepy nonetheless. Are our players moving forward stronger after these paranormal events? Their ships may be sailing their separate ways, but Year Three of Penny Dreadful looks to promise plenty! %%$%#$@#*@!
Evil just won’t let go of Vanessa Ives so easily, will it? Her strength to fight against demons inside and out glues the team together as much as it puts them in peril, and Vanessa needs them as much as they need her. She talks about what must be done and what she is capable of doing, and even when some of that is just delayed exposition issues, we believe her wrath because we’ve see her pain. For all the good she does and her ongoing struggles to keep this delicate balance, her ties to Amunet leave nothing but badness in her wake. How do you cling to faith when there is so much wicked? Vanessa endeavors to embrace her power within – but does that mean you abandon your belief in a higher power? Having religion doesn’t necessarily make you good, and Vanessa admits she and God are on challenging terms. Can we just be who we are or is that too much responsibility for one soul? Vanessa’s therapy is in her support of the boys about her – she is a confessor for each of them in different ways. Will solace be found in like tormented persons? She can soothe others but not herself, and Vanessa has some deliciously intellectual conversations with John Clare, adding a new damned soul to her repertoire – which looks quite cloudy for next season.
Likewise, Ethan Chandler is beginning to suspect his wolfy connections as more dastardly carnage comes to light. He’s perpetually trying to leave town thanks to his fear of admitting what he is capable of doing, which is beautifully foreshadowed in “Verbis Diablo” before the tenth hour finale. Ethan’s charming banter with Lyle deflects his inner lupus with Latin research, and Hartnett very nearly steals the show in his witty battles with Douglas Hodge (Red Cap) as the persistently not stupid Inspector Rusk. Like Vanessa, Ethan pegs people for who they really are, and his coy comes in handy as his pursuers mount. Even if he can face his affliction and its monthly consequences, he tries to protect Vanessa from his wild in a wonderfully unconventional romance – if it can even be called that. We don’t see the wolf outs for flash in the pan cool, but rather as choice visuals to emphasize the tormented monstrosity now fully realized on Penny Dreadful as it should have been all along. Danny Sapani as manservant Sembene also has more to do now that he helps Ethan bind his lycanthrope tendencies, adding to the fine moments he has with Sir Malcolm. This stalwart and strong but humble workhorse character provides a shaman wisdom while doing the dishes, baking, and waxing on how Ethan should see his moonlit changes as a blessing not a curse. Sembene shares his own past sins and guards his household kin with unwavering duty and respect, but by golly, audiences will be understandably angry at the treatment of the character. He still deserves more, #$%D#&*%!
New bewitching temptations and continued family losses grip Sir Malcolm once again on Penny Dreadful, but the in control, noble gentleman on the outside can’t use his suave to hide his pain. Sir Malcolm must face the questions and consequences regarding his daughter Mina’s death from Last Season, and he’s ready to trade his life and accept his punishment to spare his newfound family further torment. His internal demons provide ghostly experiences both positive and wicked. Dalton is charming in his unknowingly deceptive courting with Mrs. Poole, but the shaving of his beard is a surprising character development. It’s just so odd seeing the ex-007 sans scruff again, but the change is a perfect reflection of the evil influences at work. Despite some strong advice from Sir Malcolm and an interesting science versus faith intellectual pairing with Lyle, young Victor Frankenstein is also blinded by his wrong doings, chiding John Clare’s pressure on Lily while Victor himself is slowly but surely shaping his perfect woman. Frankenstein’s muddled monster making motives become increasingly creepy science for fetish alongside his now not secret drug addictions. He’s a little nasty, too, but bonds with Vanessa, trusting her to help him with his awkward shopping experience. Slowly Victor becomes aware of his mistakes, even admitting his addiction is affecting his freaky science, but by time he wants to escape his creations, it’s too late. Ironically, Dr. F. doesn’t believe in witchcraft, but evil knows what he has spawned and uses his deeds against him in smashing fashion.
Those wonderfully macabre waxworks and layered Victorian deceptions elevate the Caliban aka John Clare plots this season, and his scenes with Vanessa are refreshingly honest and mature. Clare speaks his mind without malice instead of his usual mine mine mine childish wants. Why are these Frankenstein men so pressed and gushing over every woman they meet? Clare’s friendship with Vanessa is his first genuine and healthy relationship. Kinnear has room to shine in the poetic recitings and quiet moments with Green, but the well read doesn’t do Clare any good if he won’t learn from his to err is human. Once again, he misuses his chance to do right, can’t catch a break, and ultimately must flee. When Clare finally looks past Lily’s beauty and his desperate need for companionship, he sees a worse ruthlessness and rightfully realizes that Pandora’s Box contains a mirror. Was Lily’s creation worth it? Though the short blonde hair doesn’t fit the period and it is unusual that Vanessa doesn’t recognizer her, Billie Piper is much better this year as Lily Frankenstein compared to the dead end and bad accent that was Brona Croft. It’s perfectly acceptable on Penny Dreadful when the resurrection of a character can fix all that was dislikable, and Lily smartly questions why women wear corsets and are meant to be controlled and appealing to a man. She seems innocent, but soon proves the dastardly of her rebirth and wrongfully remodeled by Victor is not for anything angelic. Lily learns how to lie, finds her deadly instincts, and grows tempted by Dorian thanks to elegant white frocks, gruesome blood stains, and a man-made monster superiority complex. We should like Lily – we don’t blame her for remembering the abuses of her previous oldest prostitution profession and using her strength for revenge. However, her twisted and wrong doing companionship with Dorian is anything but empowering to anyone but herself.
Unfortunately, I did not miss the absent Dorian Gray in “Fresh Hell,” and his brothel shenanigans feel more like interfering annoyances during the first half of Penny Dreadful this season. I’m all for more penis on television, but compared to the more serious, self aware, and better developed star roles, the character seems like an excuse for depravity mixed with would be modern social commentary. Dorian doesn’t even interact with any other main character until “Glorious Horrors” – or anyone else but Jonny Beauchamp (Stonewall) as Angelique for that matter. These scenes become shoehorned in titillation or sensationalism, a cruel and cliché storyline serving no purpose in the overall season arc. Angelique’s gender struggles in Victorian society and finally finding a tender relationship should be touching, but by slicing their aforementioned consummation scene with evil seduction and paranormal death scenes, are you saying gay sex is as bad as casting demonic spells on a man and using voodoo to kill his wife?!?! #$%$^$@*&! We know this tryst is fun and games for Dorian, but this is no fling to Angelique, and those consequences also unfairly stereotype Angelique as a nosy, jealous beotch when Dorian moves on to his next fancy. The about dang time reveal of his eponymous portrait and his blasé attitude toward it proves how ugly his true self really is, but we already knew that from his toying with Angelique. This entire unnecessary and unjust plot further proves Dorian Gray is a tug and pull supporting player who should only be recurring as needed – and Angelique should have been the gosh darn regular joining our dreadful company instead!
Thankfully, Simon Russell Beale is deliciously good fun as our team’s flamboyant Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. Despite the sophistication and heavy work at hand, Beale provides a covert humor and positive gravitas with his flirtations:
“American! I am undone!”
“Well, I do have a gun belt.”
“Stop!…Will you bring your gun belt?”
Underneath this fluttery chemistry, Lyle is unsure where his allegiance lies, and by admitting his conflicting circumstances and burdens to bear, he fits right in with the Penny Dreadful gang. The homoerotic undertones match the main story instead of being uncomfortably apart from it, adding flair to a character largely saddled with fantastic exposition. In addition to the already established Catholic iconography, Lyle adds more conversations on faith, reflection, and recompense thanks to all he has witnessed from Helen McCrory as that sometime Madame Kali and always evil Mrs. Evelyn Poole. Her enemy house not only has a medieval ossuary bent, but Sarah Greene (Vikings) as the ruthless but cool Hecate is ready to step out of her mother’s much older than she looks shadow. Madame Kali is in a powerful tit for tat with her demonic master, and she intends to gain new praise by delivering Vanessa to him – with Sir Malcolm as a dark bonus for herself. Her ambitions, Hecate’s rival desires, and their evil foil, however, do get stretched thin at times. These are formidable ladies cutting out hearts and invoking killer puppetry with more provocative tricks – The Pooles shouldn’t have to hurry up and wait to harm our dreadfuls. Nonetheless, such evil planning talks make for some juicy scene chewing for McCrory and other returning guest stars. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t reappear as Madame Kali sees fit!
Iffy CGI cityscapes, animated scorpions, and more sweeping scene transitions don’t always look right on Penny Dreadful, but the up close London streets alive with horses, waxworks, and period mechanization look the ghastly Victorian needed. The below the British Museum dusty, piles, statues, and maze-like clutter for good or ill is simply begging for some Mummy plots! More Universal Horror nods including the one armed inspector and swan style gowns layer the lush alongside a haunting score. The witch designs look of the past, with evil sprites coming out of the walls or mirrors and matching a colorful scheme of orange for evil firesides and gruesome greens for the dead. Candlelit patinas contrast the all gray and white ghostly while coffins, shrouds, gargoyles, and dungeon traps keep the macabre personal rather than today’s hollow torture porn gore – often with 55 minutes plus for full morbid effect. Sharp language uses mix old staples, making for a twisted new tongue where eerie terms like lupus and Lucifer stand out and force the audience to pay attention upon first viewing Penny Dreadful. The fashions are again scrumptious, and it’s lame of Hot Topic to go with scorpion tee shirts when this kind of long skirt and button up lace is on the runaway and ripe for a comeback. Penny Dreadful has an excellent attention to detail, and I’m surprised this uber sophisticated design isn’t receiving more technical awards.
Watching Penny Dreadful can also be tough thanks to cumbersome Showtime Anytime and Xfinity interfaces, loading and log in troubles, and expiring episode rushes but there are Amazon streaming and DVD options in addition to Showtime reruns. Ironically, the show’s premium channel home allows it to be top tier scandalous yet also makes Penny Dreadful difficult for viewers to find. Nonetheless, the series remains must see for Gothic horror fans. The sensationally spooky material and often outlandishly wicked are treated intelligently, and we’ve been waiting for Penny Dreadful’s kind of sophisticated, top drawer horror for too long.