One of Penny Dreadful’s biggest strengths is its ability to treat sex seriously. It’s not just for titillation – although it is certainly for that as well – but it is also used to progress the show’s plot and develop its characters. Sex is an inherent part of the show’s tapestry of psychological horror and Gothic drama. Shagging’s great. But it’s also about the shaggers.
So for anyone missing some of Season 1’s sexy times in the second season of Penny Dreadful, rest assured: Episode 5 has got you covered. It’s a sexy episode. There’s sexiness in it. It has the sex.
Coupling can mean a lot of different things to people. It can be a source of power, a gesture of affection, a chance for comfort, or even an act of transgression. Above the Vaulted Sky explores all of them in raunchy detail. It gets it on so much the whole hour might as well be soundtracked by Marvin Gaye.
We’ve written before about Penny’s penchant for splitting its cast into pairs – and that seems more apparent now than ever before. It’s to be expected, then, that the most interesting storyline here belongs to the most awkward threesome: Victor, Brona (“Lily”) and Caliban (“John Clare”).
Mr. Clare gets his first official date with Lily this week, an event that could be amorous, but, inevitably, turns out to be anything but. The fact that he is only ever referred to by his intended using his formal title highlights all the distance that could possibly exist between them: they are two of a kind, but far from one. If anything, Lily is more interested in her creator. “I like your dress,” offers Mr. Clare. “Victor picked it for me,” comes the reply.
Such a relationship would, of course, be a hideous breach of moral, scientific and natural laws – although it’s not as if Penny Dreadful hasn’t broken those before.
A more traditional date occurs later, when Victor takes Lily for lunch with Vanessa – an engagement that proves almost as entertaining as last week’s clothes shopping trip. Billie Piper continues to come into her own even more as Lily, displaying completely different character traits to Brona, but with the same, likeable lust for life: the way she eagerly spoons sugar cubes into her tea is delightful, a subtle reminder of how innocent and childlike she is, especially opposite Eva Green’s knowing, experienced woman. The question of whether Miss Ives will recognise Brona continues to linger – but memories will surely be triggered when Lily meets Ethan Chandler, given how intimately the two have been acquainted.
Josh Hartnett’s gun-slinging hottie, meanwhile, is mostly making eyes at the two men in his life. The first, Ferdinand Lyle, continues to fawn and swoon with hilarious excitement. “Oh, Mr Chandler, you dazzle me,” he gushes, as he continues to decipher the devil’s language from the diary of the possessed monk. (Watch out for Simon Russell Beale saying “Jacobean japery”.) The second, a police detective investigating the inn massacre from the end of Season 1, is a frostier companion.
“Why am I here?” asks Ethan, as he is politely interrogated. “Because you’re a mystery,” says the cop. Divesting people of their mystery is, don’t forget, right at the heart of intercourse; it is a process of uncovering another’s innermost self. No wonder, then, that Season 1 was so heavily focused on the dangers of unleashing the darkness within Dorian Gray and Vanessa Ives.
Here, though, sex has something to do with more than exploration or emotion. A lot of that is thanks to Evelyn (Helen McCrory), who has demonstrated the importance of sex to her authority. When not bathing seductively in the blood of virgins, she used her feminine wiles to dominate (literally) the mayor of the village where the Cut-Wife worked. In the present day, she’s using her same tricks to entice Sir Malcolm – with the help of some black magic brand of viagra, of course. For her, sex is about pleasure, yes, but also control. The more she sinks her teeth into Timothy Dalton’s Murray, the closer she is to realising her goals of capturing Vanessa. (A demonstration of what she can do with the voodoo dolls in her collection is enough to make you scared of that success.)
And what of Dorian? It’s quite sweet that one of Season 2’s central relationships is one that is so sincere: after last week’s ping pong date, Angelique and Dorian play ball in a far more adult way. Compared to Mr. Clare, who has to invent a tale of how Lily stood up for him to mocking strangers, their genuine loyalty to each other is striking. As Rory Kinnear is left to recite poetry melancholically with Miss Ives under the streets of London, he laments how even the act of taking another person’s hand can be lethal: “It leaves your heart at the mercy of another,” he observes. “So unprotected.” Angelique and Dorian’s lack of care about subverting society’s norms – willing to take each other’s hand, regardless of who’s judging – makes their copulation even more significant.
It’s a subtle contrast that typifies John Logan’s ability to write both honking sex scenes and gentle character moments – a feat matched by returning director Damon Thomas, who frames the most transgressive sex scene of all from a detached overhead perspective, allowing us to step back in shock from the union.
In between these moments, we see the group protect Sir Malcolm’s mansion from the inevitable witch invasion using “every weapon and every superstition”. They brace themselves for what is to come, with everything from Egyptian blankets and Christian prayers to Sembene sitting on the steps and staring at the door. (Has he moved all season? The poor guy.) But one human ritual is more ingrained than any other. And it occurs between the sheets. The scary fact that leaves you on the edge of your bed, awaiting next week’s episode? The villains know it too.
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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