Warning: This contains spoilers.
“There is only one defence against isolation: be with those you love.” That’s one of Penny Dreadful’s underlying themes right there – the strength of outsiders who would normally be alienated and alone uniting and supporting each other. How fitting, then, that it should be voiced by a new friend: Catriona Hartdegen, who is introduced to Vanessa by Ferdinand Lyle.
Perdita Weeks is only in the show for a few minutes, but she immediately becomes a favourite member of the ensemble – and not just because we first meet Catriona when she’s fencing (and, we might add, kicking male butt while doing so). It’s no wonder that Lyle (more Simon Russell Beale please, Penny Dreadful writers) should recommend Vanessa seek out such a wonderfully feisty figure. After all, she’s a thanatologist, someone who studies death. And right now, Vanessa needs help with information on lord of the undead: Dracula.
“He doesn’t want my death; he wants my submission,” ventures Vanessa, who trusts this new, impeccably dressed friend instantly. (Side note: Hartdegen is the same surname as Guy Pearce’s character in The Time Machine. Is that why she wears such modern attire?) “You seem to be a woman who would understand why submission to another would be intolerable,” continues Miss Ives.
Their meeting comes at a crucial juncture in Penny Dreadful’s narrative: after all the marvellous exploration of our characters individually in recent episodes, it’s now time for the show to start winding all the webs back together again. And, just like Dracula, a game of power and submission ensues with every character.
Vanessa, still fighting to be more than the Count’s prey, also seeks solidarity with Dr. Seward (Patti Lupone), who reiterates Catriona’s suggestion of being with those she loves. The problem? The one she currently loves is Dr. Sweet (Christian Carmago), who just so happens to be Dracula-ing it up on the side. Carmago is as slick, slightly nerdy and smooth-talking as ever – if you have a thing for librarians or creepy dead things (hello Vanessa), then he’s basically the perfect man.
It’s impossible to tell to what extent he’s Dracula and to what extent he’s Dr. Sweet; we see no hint of conflict over his actions and feelings, not compared to the other characters, who are typically divided between their human and monster halves. That makes him irritatingly hard to read, but fascinatingly so, which only feeds into the tension between the pair. Director Paco Cabezas (who also helmed the previous episode) shoots their inevitable sex scene with real class, allowing Vanessa’s long, flowing black dress to spread across the floor and around them both, like bat wings. It’s a gorgeous motif, which reminds us this is as much a Gothic romance as a horror show.
Being with the ones you love has never been more painfully hilarious then when we see poor ickle Frankenstein trot over to Lily and Dorian’s pad in the hope of somehow kidnapping her and injecting his electrified serum into her eyeball – you know, as people in love do. But Lily’s creator, who has long since lost his authority over her, walks into a whole other power struggle altogether, as Lilly and Dorian continue to train up their trodden-down women to be murderers or men.
“If they force you to kneel, you must be quick and you must be vicious,” barks Billie Piper with a grin, before diving into one of her rallies. “We are not women who crawl. We are not women who kneel. Women who are strong and refuse to be degraded and chose to protect themselves are called monsters. That is the world’s crime. Not ours.”
The script loves Lily right now and Piper is loving it even more, delivering these tirades with real passion and conviction – if it weren’t so disturbing and full of bloodlust, it would be inspirational. It’s certainly one of the most feminist things on TV at the moment, which is testament to John Logan and his team’s ability to juggle so many things all within the same show without losing tone, style or voice.
Her speeches, though, are perhaps a little too effective, as young Justine rises up and almost slits Dorian’s throat – she’s less about revenge and more about killing all men entirely. Lily, surprised, tells her to let him live, which just adds another layer to her character. On the one hand, she’s all hatred and loss. On the other, she’s thrilled by Justine and happily dances around with her. On yet another, she’s quietly soft for Dorian and doesn’t want him to go. And on even another further still, she has compassion for the pathetic man who brought her into the world.
Reeve Carney, meanwhile, finally gets more to do as Dorian than simply smirk and look attractive, as we get a hint of him perhaps agreeing with Frankenstein’s plan to subdue Lily before she, and her army, get out of control. (Incidentally, their fashion sense certainly isn’t – Justine is rocking the chevrons like nobody’s business.) Before, the only question we had about Dorian was how he managed to get away with such terrible hair. Now, it’s to what extent he really does love Lily.
And, on the other side of the Atlantic, the power play as gotten even more awkward, as Ethan, Malcolm, Hecate and Rusk all sit down at Jared’s table for dinner. Compared to the female-dominated moments in Lily’s lounge, it’s a gloriously macho affair, full of wine, steak and people staring angrily at each other. A hilarious grace by Hecate and Ethan later and they’re all tucking in to their meat and booze and testosterone – until, naturally, things turn sour.
How do a roomful of super-powered creatures settle their differences? With guns, of course. There’s something oddly old-fashioned about the bullet-strewn carnage that unfolds – you wonder how much Jared really knows about his guests at his table – but if it’s a shootout you want, Penny Dreadful sure knows how to delivers: Rusk and his man are dispatched in the blink of an eye, leaving Malcolm, Ethan and Kaetenay to storm the church and take on Jared. It’s a classic son-rising-up-against-the-father moment, shot with pure class by Cabezas.
It’s a shame that Jared should meet his maker so quickly after we meet him, but Cox gives good villain while he’s on screen and it’s a smart move to make sure it’s Malcolm who pulls the decisive trigger – Murray’s intervention means that Ethan’s conscience can finally be cleared to some degree, especially with Hecate apparently bumped up by a bullet wound. It’s an efficient, exciting piece of writing, cutting off the superfluous characters before they became distracting (Hecate ended up a weak subplot, but was kept around just for long enough to give Josh Hartnett some soul searching to do) and reminding us all that Timothy Dalton has still got it. Phwoar.
Again, there’s a loyalty between the two friends, as Malcolm remains determined to keep Ethan on the straight and narrow and away from both the dangerous Hecate and his even more dangerous father. Compare that relationship of mutual respect to the controlling one that Victor has with Lily. “I can take all your rage and make it go away,” promises the brilliantly sickly Harry Treadaway. “Make you whole and human.”
“My sadness is my own,” comes the reply from the independent Lily. “I want my scars to show.” Even Dorian isn’t sure about this side of her.
Dr. Sweetcula, though, really does get this whole love malarkey. “I love you for who you are. Not who the world wants you to be,” he intones to Vanessa. How much is that just a line to seduce her and how much is it Dracula being honest? Who knows? But it’s testament to the show’s mastery of relationships, and it’s ability to find the interesting conflicts that arise as everyone’s paths cross, that their unholy bond is the rare one that makes sense right now.
(Until Season 4, that is, when Ferdinand’s namedrop of Imhotep’s tomb is presumably going to pay off with the show’s latest new guest star. Now that’s a battle for power we want to see.)
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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