Warning: This contains spoilers.
“It’s not the like the music hall acts,” Dr Seward tells Vanessa Ives, after she begs the therapist to hypnotise her in Episode 3 of Penny Dreadful Season 3. “You will still have your free will,” she insists. “You will not behave in anyway outside your normal character.”
She’s clearly never seen Penny Dreadful.
If anything, that’s the one thing Vanessa Ives can be trusted to do: behave as far outside her normal character as possible.
Normality and abnormality have always been inseparable in the world of John Logan’s Gothic drama – as the episode’s title puts it, Good and Evil Braided Be. That central philosophy of duality is precisely why Dr. Jekyll is such a smart addition for this third run. As we see more of his efforts to treat patients in Bedlam, we witness first hand the truth of his work: the change he can bring about is only ever temporary. While you might expect a philosophical meditation from Frankenstein and Jekyll about the merits and shortcomings of science and psychology, though, it only offers a reminder of how sick the doctor’s really are: Harry Treadaway’s Frankenstein simply grins and declares that he can solve that problem with his old pal electricity, rendering any of Jekyll’s transformations permanent. Because his experiments with lightning turned out so well last time.
Their odd couple exchanges are only topped by Hecate and Ethan, as he traipses across New Mexico and she follows on his tail. The Wolfman is another monster facing a physical duality, and, tragically, he’s caught between two opposing perspectives on the whole thing: Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Kaetenay (Wes Studi) are pursuing him to rescue his good side, saving his soul or killing the evil he’s become; Hecate, on the other hand, knows he is the Wolf of God and seeks only to liberate that beast inside. Both kill to get their hands on him. Hecate does so with more bloodlust and a sinister grin, but the trail of bodies they each leave in their wake makes it clear that neither extreme is likely to bring about a happy ending.
Speaking of happy endings and extremes, how nice it is to catch up with everyone’s favourite happy duo, Dorian and Lily, on a more substantial basis. After Episode 3’s brief reintroduction of them (and their ward, Justine), we get a taste of their plans to recruit an army. For them, it’s not about balance, but about one thing. Equality? Hardly, laughs Lily. Mastery is the aim. “Liberty is a bitch that must be bedded on a mattress full of corpses,” she tells Justine – and Billie Piper rolls every last syllable off her tongue with relish. And, just in case you doubted their ability to give Frankenstein and Jekyll a run for the title of Most Unhealthy Couple, they seal the deal with a bloody threesome. Literally.
It’s disturbing, creepy and gob-smacking sight to witness – a dazzling reminder of Penny Dreadful’s unique knack for uniting high art and, erm, blood-soaked threesomes involving Billie Piper.
It’s not just good and bad at play. There’s also the duality of past and present that each character must deal with – Frankenstein lives in the past, struggling to let Lily go and losing his present in drugs. Lily, on the other hand, is embracing her present incarnation with zero inhibitions. John Clare, by contrast, is increasingly looking back from similarly undead present to his former life – and we now get flashbacks, for the first time, to what that entailed (a nice chance to see Simon Kinnear without his pale-faced make-up and with a bit more hair).
Flashbacks have primarily been the territory of Vanessa up till now – she has always been the one most able to switch between the extremes of past and present. But without her friends to help steady her balance, it’s far from her benefit here; her therapy sessions with Dr. Seward mine her past, driven by comments from Dracula’s henchman about “the white room” when she met his master before. But Vanessa is defenceless to the havoc these memories and taunts can wreak – and so she’s wide open to Dr. Sweet’s plan to woo her from both sides of the veil.
The standout moment of the episode is a chilling sequence in a hall of mirrors, which sees Vanessa surrounded by people, then, suddenly, left isolated from all directions. It’s even creepier when Dracula’s henchman slivers into view because we can see him in the mirrors – there’s no sign of Sweet or his servants being invisible in their reflections. Is that because Logan has discarded that part of the mythology? Or is there something else at play?
The minion’s sticky end, too, isn’t hidden from view, as it becomes apparent that Dracula wants his prey all for himself (although you wonder why he left Vanessa alone and vulnerable to the minion’s approach, if he was so protective over his victim).
Nonetheless, there’s no sign of Miss Ives resisting Dracula’s advances. After all, Good and Evil Braided Be and let no one put the bond between beast and his bride asunder. That bond goes back further than anyone realised, the episode eventually reveals, as we finish with a surprising discovery: that the man who visited Vanessa in her white room (cell) at the Banning Clinic was none other than the pre-Frankenstein John Clare. What does that mean for her? And Dracula? And Dr. Seward? And, as John Clare remembers more of his old life, what does that mean for Lily’s recollection of Brona’s life? Good and Evil Braided Be, sure – but the connection between people is just as powerful. How thrilling it is that Penny Dreadful is still only just starting to peel them apart.
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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