Warning: This contains spoilers.
Snakes, horses, and werewolves, oh my. After Episode 4’s astonishing solo outing for Eva Green and Rory Kinnear, Episode 5 of Penny Dreadful’s Season 3 initially looks like we’re back on a wider playing field, but the series actually just zooms in on another player: Ethan Chandler.
Josh Hartnett has been given the performance of his career on Penny Dreadful, week in and week out, for several seasons. The heartthrob actor could be swanning about in a romantic comedy, leaning on posters, a la Matthew McConaughey. Instead, he’s wearing a hat, donning fake fur and chanting things in Latin. The result is one of the best characters of an excellent ensemble – but one who’s also been sadly underserved. All this talk of Lupus Dei and his running away with Hecate has been rushed along or brushed aside, as we race to catch up with all the other plot-lines going on.
It’s great, then, to have an entire episode devoted to delving into his back-story. On the downside, it means this is effectively an hour-long piece of exposition. On the upside, we finally get some answers about Ethan.
Those answers, inevitably, involve his father, Jared Talbot, whom we get to meet for the first time. And who should it be other than Brian Cox? (No, no the professor.) Cox is a perfect piece of casting as Jared, who swaggers into the frame all pompous, righteous and repugnant. You pity anyone who inherits his genes, and not just because of the wolfish tendencies.
But let’s backtrack a little bit: we begin with Ethan and Hecate being pursued by Rusk across the desert, and, in turn, by Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay. Between the two, we learn that Ethan was enlaced in the army by his dad, only for his troops to murder a group of Apaches, something that he felt guilty about. In exchange, Kaetenay punished Ethan by getting him to fight for the Apaches, only for the Apache forces to raid Jared’s house and kill Ethan’s family – except for him and his dad. It’s a smart piece of storytelling, in that the show uses both Kaetenay and Ethan to divulge the bloody history that ties these people together; it also means that, as Ethan opens up about his past to Hecate, we buy a little bit more into their blossoming relationship.
Hecate, of course, has her own plans: she’s manipulating him to become a force of darkness to wipe out all of humanity. Or something. The set piece of the episode, tellingly, isn’t Ethan’s at all, but hers, as she summons rattlesnakes from the ground to kill off the rangers on their tail – a sequence that director Paco Cabezas delivers at a chilling pace.
After seeing Ethan and Vanessa click so well together last season, it’s hard to cheer on this new couple, but that’s also part of the strength of the show: everyone in Penny Dreadful shares the same connection of being an outsider, so anyone can make for a natural (or, frequently, unnatural) bedfellow.
Speaking of outsiders, we do take a brief trip to London to catch up with Frankenstein and Jekyll, as they continue their tests on their subject, Balfour. Surprisingly, the idea of injecting electrified serum into the patient’s eyeball (look away now) works wonders – and unsurprisingly, it has the side effect of leaving Balfour unable to remember anything about his life. He’s cured, declares Frankenstein, like an idiot awaiting his downfall. Andrew Hinderaker’s script again, though, quietly undermines this growing partnership, as the seeds of a divide are sown between them; Jekyll, we learn, was kicked out of the faculty where they studied because he assaulted a (presumably racist) superior. Frankenstein, on the other hand, may have had a hard run of late, but has brought it all on himself. Just how much can the term “outsider” really unite these misfits?
Over in the desert, Sarah Greene does a great job of sinking her teeth into Ethan by playing on that common feeling of being an outcast, while Hartnett highlights his character’s desire for companionship, without losing his underlying uncertainty about the whole thing. By the time Malcolm catches up with them, Ethan’s wooed enough by Hecate to stop Murray killing her – and so the three of them end up at Jared’s ranch.
It may happen only briefly, but it’s a thrill to see acting heavweights Cox and Timothy Dalton go at one other – their chemistry bristles almost as much as their facial hair. But this episode is Hartnett’s show, and he seizes the cliffhanger with all the clout of a Hollywood star: as Jared demands repentance, Ethan seems all too ready ready to cast his lot in with Lucifer and let his dark side loose for a spell. But the tension lies in his not-entirely-convincing jump from good to bad. Whether intentional or not – it’s either Hartnett’s nuanced turn or the script’s frenzied dedication to completing his journey within a single episode, take your pick – what a treat it is to have a show that is confident enough in its characters (and their respective mythologies) to make each member of its ensemble the lead for an episode. The result may not be perfect every time, but long may it continue.
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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