If last week’s premiere episode of Showtime’s ‘Penny Dreadful’ exhibited a lot of potential that the show almost, but didn’t quite, live up to, the second episode takes a huge stride forward and improves on it in most respects. If later entries can be this good, the series will be a lot of fun.
The show-stopping set-piece in episode ‘Séance’ is, well, the title séance itself. Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa (Eva Green) attend a society party hosted by flamboyant antiquities expert Ferdinand Lyle. The evening is capped off with the introduction of a renowned psychic medium named Madame Kali, who will put on a show of speaking with the dead. Kali may or may not be a fraud (she doesn’t have enough screen time to know for certain), but almost as soon as she starts the séance, attention immediately shifts to Vanessa, who appears to be possessed by spirits for real. She speaks in tongues and in several voices, one of which seems to be Malcolm’s daughter Mina.
(In case it isn’t clear, Malcolm’s full name is Sir Malcolm Murray, which means that his daughter must be Mina Murray, fiancée of Jonathan Harker and object of Dracula’s obsession.)
I’ll be honest that I’m not sure of exactly what happens in the scene. Speaking through Vanessa, Mina frantically, and in a thick accent, berates her father and tells stories of his neglect. She may also imply that he molested her, but I’m not certain of that. Is Vanessa dead, or simply undead? Can a vampire communicate through a medium? These are questions that will need to be cleared up later. However, the combination of the amped-up direction and Green’s delirious performance make this scene creepy and unnerving as all hell. Vanessa winds up so overheated that as soon as she snaps out of the trance, she runs out into an alley and fucks the first stranger she sees.
In a separate storyline, Victor Frankenstein tends to the reanimated corpse he’s created, whom he names Proteus (after a character from Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen from Verona’). Unlike traditional depictions, Proteus is not overtly a monster. Aside from the ghastly stitches visible on many parts of this body, he otherwise looks like a pretty average guy. He can speak and express at least rudimentary thoughts and feelings in clear English words. He struggles to recall memories from his former life. He is kind and friendly and loyal to Victor, behaving like a sad puppy left alone in the house when his master goes away. When Victor covers him in heavy clothes and takes him on a walk through the city, he goggles in wide-eyed amazement at the sights around him.
Proteus is a quite fascinating character. His development and relationship with Victor provide plenty of fodder for ongoing storylines. That just makes it all the more shocking when they return to Victor’s laboratory and a powerful fist punches straight through Proteus’ chest from behind. Then another hand comes through and tears the body in half. “Your firstborn has returned, father,” says a much nastier creature on the other side.
What a twist!
- The episode has an incredibly atmospheric and creepy opening, when a whore on a park bench is swallowed by fog and torn apart by something unseen. Was this one of the vampires we’ve witnessed previously, or Victor’s other monster?
- In a funk after his encounter with the dark side, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) tries to drown his sorrows at a seedy bar. There he meets a spunky whore named Brona (former ‘Doctor Who’ companion Billie Piper). He takes a liking to her, non-sexually, even when she coughs blood and reveals that she has Consumption.
- Trying to make a little money, Brona is hired to pose for risqué photographs by wealthy playboy Dorian Gray (as in ‘The Portrait of…’). When he learns of her Consumption, Gray becomes incredibly aroused. He licks the blood off her lips and screws her while the portrait photographer takes their photo. Ick! Later, Gray appears at Lyle’s party and flirts very heavily with Vanessa. He appears to have strong powers of seduction.
- Malcolm has Lyle translate the rest of the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the body of the monster killed in the last episode. He claims that they represent ancient gods Amun-Ra and Amunet, and foretell a prophecy about the annihilation of mankind. That can’t be good.
With the business of setting up the show’s premise taken care of in the pilot, the second episode is able to settle down and generate real spooky tension while building an intriguing mythology. Although comparisons to ‘American Horror Story’ are still inevitable, ‘Penny Dreadful’ is already working very hard to set itself apart and carve its own niche in the TV landscape.