Already seen Episode 2 of Season 2? Read on at the bottom for some additional spoiler-filled analysis.
“She held her own against Satan himself,” said Ethan Chandler of Vanessa Ives in the first episode of Penny Dreadful Season 2. “But now? I’ve never seen her frightened.”
There’s a lot to be said for Eva Green looking afraid: her face, usually as stoic as a china doll, could be hiding all kinds of emotions, with only her eyes to give them away. When she opens her mouth and those clipped, posh tones come out, it’s almost like a ventriloquist dummy has come to life. That’s what made her performance in Season 1 so shocking to witness, as her usually composed expressions contorted into all kinds of freaky shapes, eyes popped and teeth bared.
“I understand the fear of twisting things in the night,” says Sir Malcolm, as he comforts her following last week’s witch attack. But there’s also the fear of what lies beneath the civilised surface of Victorian society, be it demons, dead things coming back to life, or deviant sexual habits.
Victor Frankenstein, so timid and polite, is a textbook example, as he resurrects Brona Craft in his basement. It’s a striking transformation for Miss Croft, as Billie Piper dons some red contact lenses and – in a very smart move – talks in her English accent. Caliban is understandably smitten. “She is our future, Creator. Tread carefully,” he warns.
Rory Kinnear is a perfect fit for this world of barely concealed monsters. If Eva Green’s strength is her face; Kinnear’s is his voice, speaking softly – often poetically – one minute and spitting hatred the next. When the pair meet, during one of the episode’s best scenes, her reactions as he talks about heaven make for an absorbing combination. “I believe in this world and those creatures that fill it,” he intones, with a hushed magic. “Look around you: sacred mysteries at every turn.”
As writer John Logan broadens our horizons, though, we only encounter increasingly cursed mysteries behind each bend. The witches from last week continue their scary magic – a sight juxtaposed with the realism of a brilliantly realised period London Underground station – while Helen McCrory proves that she can enchant outside of the bathtub. Literally, in the case of Sir Malcolm, as the pair begin a flirtatious relationship. Timothy Dalton’s eyes and moustache have always been alluring and he smiles and twinkles like he’s still 007, taking Evelyn shopping and shooting like a suave gentlemen. It’s that same balance that keeps you on edge on their debonair dates, as you wait for the traditional ritual of courtship to be interrupted by something darker.
Much like Frankenstein and his two creatures, we know this relationship can only end badly. A more promising couple appears in the unlikeliest of places: Ethan Chandler and Sir Ferdinand Lyle.
Yes, Simon Russell Beale is back as everybody’s favourite lisping Egyptologist, who provides us with some exposition about this Verbis Diablo everyone’s been nattering about. And he’s rather taken with Josh Hartnett’s strapping sharp-shooter. “You’re so tall,” he gasps, when they first meet. Their hysterical interactions alone are worth watching the whole show for: Beale has never been funnier, or sweeter, as the swooning little man, while Hartnett smirks with all the sexiness you’d expect from a Hollywood heartthrob.
But Lyle’s not the only returning face: we also get Dorian Gray back for the first time this season. He cuts a decidedly sorrier figure than he did last time we saw him, after being heartbroken by Vanessa. We can tell this because he’s sitting on his own in a cafe. And because he’s not shagging everything that moves. Together, though, these old friends remind us that Penny Dreadful is as much about sex as it is about scares. Whether it’s a whispered seduction in someone’s ear, a closet homosexual in old-timey England, or the most disturbing love triangle since the film Splice, Penny Dreadful’s expanding mythology is accompanied by a profane underbelly itching to be unveiled. The climax sees a hint of that undercurrent flutter across Miss Ives’ face – and, perhaps for the first time, she looks genuinely frightened. It’s enough to set your nerves all aquiver.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– “I see no wild flowers. Only pain and suffering.” How curious that Caliban and Vanessa should meet in a shelter for those with cholera – and even more curious that Sir Malcolm should volunteer there by night. While others do naughty things under cover of darkness, he does something charitable. Is it all part of his efforts to ease his conscience following the deaths of Mina and his son?
– What did Evelyn whisper to Malcolm while they were smelling scents in the perfume shop? It’ sounded an awful lot like (dramatic pause) Verbis Diablo. And, given the way he smiled afterwards – despite having no memory of it – was it some form of seduction spell? Either way, after seeing how good a shot she is with a pistol, it’s clear that she’s trouble. And that she’s already executing whatever her plans are for Murray.
– Speaking of plans, it’s clear that Frankenstein is already hoping to keep Brona to himself. “Everything seems strange to her,” he tells Caliban, insisting that they be left alone so he can teach her language – and, crucially, fill her head with false memories. They were cousins when growing up? Yeah, right, Victor. Given how quickly Proteus’ memories came back in Season 1, we presume it won’t be long until that happens here. In which case things are going to get pretty awkward. Especially with Caliban so eager to recite poetry to her.
– And so, to Angelique. Dorian’s new lover came on strong at the cafe, while he was moping. At first, it seemed like she might be working with Evelyn – don’t forget those witches can change shape. The reveal that she’s a transgender prostitute, though, is far more in keeping with Gray’s subversive lifestyle; goodness knows what Queen Victoria would say. Dorian? He barely flinches. (Of course, she could still be in league with the bad types.)
– “Our lamentable separation has trebled my pleasure at seeing you again.” Do they deliberately give Simon Russell Beale lines that will sound funny in his wonderfully outrageous voice?
– All TV shows should feature a British Library heist in which Simon Russell Beale steals the historical records of Verbis Diablo.
– “Mischief is best in small groups… at very closer quarters, don’t you think, Mr. Chandler?” We could just quote Ferdinand Lyle for the whole of this review.
– “The British Museum holds the world’s largest collection of historical pornography – aside from the Vatican.” See what we mean?
– After that horrible attack on the train by Hecate, we’re never travelling on the London Underground alone again. But that was nothing compared to what the baby she stole from the dead couple was going to e used for…
– What the hell was up with that room full of ventriloquist puppets and voodoo dolls? And you thought the blood-filled bathtub was freaky. Helen McCrory is impressively well up for it, as she opens up the voodoo version of Vanessa Ives and puts the baby’s heart inside. Goodness know what that thing is going to do next. All we know is it’ll be freaky as heck.
– It’s inevitable, we suppose, that Ferdinand should be blackmailed by Evelyn over his sexual preferences to spy on the good guys. The question is: will he turn double agent for Malcolm and co?
– “I am undone!” Ok. We’ll stop now.