Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1. Already seen Episode 1 of Season 2? Read on at the bottom for some additional spoiler-filled analysis.
“What is Frankenstein without his creature?” questions a red-eyed Rory Kinnear, as Penny Dreadful returns for a second season.
It’s impressive just how easy it is for us to slip back into the demi-monde of John Logan’s imagination, full of literary ghouls and poetic gore. The Skyfall writer crafted an unpredictable – and genuinely creepy – tapestry from familiar characters over the first eight episodes, weaving an ensemble of beasts all struggling to embrace, unleash or conceal their dark sides.
After the climactic brush with a Dracula-like vampire, who was part of an overall plan to bring Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to Satan’s bosom, Fresh Hell takes us, almost literally, to another chamber of evil. The general aim, we presume, is the same. Now, though, our characters seem to be slightly more prepared.
“Mina’s dead, the creature’s dead. We lost,” says Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), planning to flee as soon as possible, following his werewolf attack on a pub last season – a moment that we only experience through the bloodied aftermath of smashed windows and splintered woodwork.
“That was only a battle,” points out Vanessa. “Do you think the dark forces that converge on us can be vanquished so easily?”
Eva Green is as disarming as she was in Season 1, still fighting off demonic possession in her bedroom between glowering darkly at anyone around her. She was a perfect match for Dorian Gray, who doesn’t make an appearance here. In his absence, Logan pairs her up with Chandler, who also shares a similar, shadowy power.
While Miss Ives just about managed to keep a lid on Bad Things Happening, though, a sequence in a horse-driven carriage makes it clear that it won’t be so easy this time around. You expect either of them to boil over any second.
The other pair to take centre stage is Frankenstein and Caliban. Kinnear’s performance remains endlessly curious: after his time in the theatre, and his learning of language through Shakespeare, he carries an air of artifice about him, constantly attempting to act like a human to avoid detection. (A new employment opportunity, then, proves a natural place for him to reside.) With Frankenstein as his main model to imitate, though, his anger and loneliness only reflect upon the scientist; like Ethan and Vanessa, or Vanessa and Dorian, the duo are tied together through more than electricity.
As the creature urges his maker to produce a mate from the corpse of Brona (Billie Piper), Harry Treadaway strokes her body with a worrying affection, which hints at the direction in which the plot could be heading – as the line between god and creation becomes a triangle, things will surely be thrown out of balance.
That, after all, is what is happening across the board.
Director James Hawes, who has previous on Season 1 – not to mention a mastery of CGI and fantasy developed in the Eccleston and Tennant days of Doctor Who – brings new friends to the fray with a thrilling sense of pace. As much as Logan’s script takes its time to allow his characters maximum chance to mope in their existential misfortune, this hour rattles along at a speed designed to disconcert – as soon as we think we’ve reached a point of equilibrium, everything is thrown off kilter. It’s no wonder that the group reunite in Sir Malcolm Murray’s living room to take stock of events.
Calling her own meeting, meanwhile, is Madam Kali, who returns from her brief appearance in Season 1 to play a far bigger role. Helen McCrory’s medium seemed to be a fraud when we last encountered her, but she’s certainly the real deal here, singing, threatening and smiling with a horrible glee. It’s in her hands that the show’s biggest scares arrive: just the sound of her in the bath while we stalk through the hallway outside is enough to make you never want to wash again.
This new presence counters the good intentions of Miss Ives, bringing a fresh sense of peril to something that could otherwise be repetitive: where once she prayed by herself, now there’s someone chanting back.
“We are bound on a wheel of pain, thee and me,” Caliban tells Frankenstein. If it’s typically unsubtle dialogue from Logan, that’s because his monsters are well aware of their bonds. They understand how they keep one another in check and define each other’s existence. With new, unknown monsters on the cards, what impact will they have? One thing that is certain, though: Penny Dreadful has lost none of its ability to scare.
Season 1 to 3 of Penny Dreadful are available on Sky On Demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £6.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– “We have no more children for you to save… or to kill,” says Gladys to Malcolm, as they meet at Mina’s grave. More unsubtle dialogue from Penny Dreadful, but it’s revealing that we’re getting more back-story here: after all, Malcolm’s got to have something to do this season. (Don’t forget that scene at the end of Season 1 where he was flirting with Madame Kali. That romance is sure to be fun.)
– Caliban working in a grotesque showcase of things pretending to be human? What a perfect match his new job is – although it’s inevitable that the owner should have ulterior motives. We all know Frankenstein’s monster can’t have a happy ending.
– “Live!” “Live!” Remind us never to get invited round to Frankenstein’s place for a resurrection party. It’s well weird.
– So, Vanessa speaks Verbis Diablo, eh? And she doesn’t know she does? Next she’ll be talking to snakes and calling herself Harry Potter.
– “Satan took God’s language and turned it inside out,” comes the explanation. “A mythical language,” says Frankenstein, ever the scientist. “No, a dead language,” replies Ethan. Between this apparent knowledge of mythical/dead tongues and his impromptu exorcism last season, can this American be more than a werewolf? One of the witches call him “Lupus Dei”, if we heard them correctly…
– Speaking of the witches, firstly: what is up with them witches? Talk about creepy. Hair. No hair. Claws. No claws. Horse and carriage. No horse and carriage. Blimey.
– If a TV show doesn’t open with Helen McCrory bathing naked in a tub of blood, it’s not worth watching. All that and a cigarette to boot? Madame Kali just got bad-ass. The editing between her chanting and Vanessa praying is scarily good.
– “We shall have to employ stratagems…” Even Madame Kali, Queen of the Bathtub and Miss Hotpoint 2015, isn’t immune from the dopey dialogue syndrome that’s going around.
– “The master won’t be denied his prize,” she adds, confirming that – yes – we’re still on course for Satan to wrap his you-know-what around her you-know-wheres and do something. It’s amazing how having a plot re-hash conducted by a mad lady with a penchant for human-based bubble bath suddenly makes it seem fresh and new again.