Episode 4 of Penny Dreadful opens with a shot of Dorian Grey in some dark garret, looking with a detached curiosity at a painting. You know what the painting is, but how far has it progressed? The frame is large and gilt but the face his hidden from us. Slowly, the camera starts to move around, but it cuts away too soon. This is classic Penny Dreadful teasing, and Dorian Grey is the biggest tease of all.
Demimonde is very much Dorian’s episode and Reeve Carney manages to, ahem, pull off Oscar Wilde’s most famous creation with a kind of ethereality that sells the character completely. He’s sort of wandering through the death and chaos of the other characters’ lives looking for a thrill. Maybe he just senses that this is where all the really weird sex is at. He isn’t necessarily the Dorian Grey of the book, who is all quips and, written from the closet, straight. This is a queerer Grey, which somehow feels truer than the original.
A good chunk of this week revolves around a trip to the theatre and a play about man who reveals himself to be a monster – very on the nose. It’s a campy Victorian affair, though, and shows off some great period mechanics. In a slightly ridiculous development – even for a show that makes us believe in vampires – half the cast end up at the same performance. Are they trying to tell us something? Dorian Grey is most obviously the man with two faces, but what about Miss Ives (Eva Green)? Oh, you had better believe it. There’s something beastly about Ethan Chandler too. Also present is Sir Malcolm’s taciturn valet, Sembene (Danny Sapani), whom we know very little about other than that he gets stuff done when stuff needs doing.
The high point is Ethan and Dorian, having ditched the play, getting to know one another. They seem like the series’ two most opposed people, but they find they enjoy each other’s company and we get to see some fantastic work between the two of them. At one point, Josh Hartnett recounts a story of Chandler’s home country, seeing cave paintings by an extinct tribe of Native Americans. “They were primitive,” he says, then corrects himself. “No, they were simple. They were true.” For Dorian, though, only music can be true, because it is ephemeral. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, which shows us so much of their respective characters.
Episode 4 is the halfway mark of Penny Dreadful and with Showtime having confirmed a second is in the pipeline, it’s clear that it won’t end with anything like a neat resolution. The market for horror TV shows is pretty glutted at the moment, what with Supernatural, Grimm, and The Walking Dead et al. But Penny Dreadful runs rings around its competitors, chasing them down twisting streets into dark basements, where it drinks their heart’s-blood and shows them as they truly are: hollow and pale in comparison.
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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