As much as I enjoyed Showtime’s horror series ‘Penny Dreadful’ last summer, I’ll admit that I hadn’t paid much attention to its return date until I happened to spot my DVR recording a new episode on Sunday. I didn’t even realize how much I missed the show until I picked it back up again. I’m glad to have it back.
In fact, I think the season premiere may even be a notable improvement over some of the problems with Season 1. Namely, the plot in episode ‘Fresh Hell’ is clear and coherent without any deliberate obfuscation of what’s going on. We’re introduced to a new monster threat and told within the episode what it is and why it’s dangerous. In the first season, that sort of thing would have been teased along confusingly for eight episodes or more.
Yes, we’ve moved on from vampires to witches. They’re neither the traditional pointy hat, crooked nose witches nor the hippie-dippy free love kind. They’re something much scarier.
You’ll recall Madame Kali, the fake psychic first introduced holding a séance that caused Vanessa (Eva Green) to go a little batty. She voluntarily exposed herself as a fraud to Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) in the season finale, and revealed that she’s really an actress named Evelyn Poole. Beyond flirting with Malcolm a little, we were left with the impression that she’d be more important later. Indeed, she is.
Evelyn is not an actress either, it seems. She’s a witch and a Satanist intent on delivering Vanessa as a bride to her Master. (In the first season, when characters talked about “The Master,” I assumed they meant Dracula. But then the beast we thought was Dracula was killed, yet talk of the Master remained. I wasn’t sure whether Dracula really died or not. Now it seems clearer that the Master is actually Satan.)
When Vanessa realizes she’s being stalked, she asks Ethan (Josh Hatnett) to accompany her on a carriage ride through town to talk. The carriage is attacked by four naked female monsters that viciously slaughter the driver and horses. Vanessa is able to repel them by chanting something in an unfamiliar language. Out of sight, the monsters turn into normal women who don hoods and disappear into the night.
At her home, we find Evelyn bathing in a tub filled with blood. Her mansion is extensively decorated with human skulls and bones. The four girls are her daughters, and Evelyn is very disappointed that they failed to capture Vanessa. “The Master won’t be denied his prize,” she insists. One daughter, named Hecate, knows that Ethan is a werewolf. Another, named Bette, begs her mother for a chance to redeem herself, but Evelyn will brook no failure and slashes her own daughter’s throat, instructing the surviving girls to “Take that bitch away.” This woman is cold as ice.
After the death of his daughter Mina, Sir Malcolm had spent some time out of town to bury her. He asks his wife to take him back, but she blames him for the deaths of both of their children and wants nothing to do with him. Malcolm returns to London in time to hear about the carriage attack. Vanessa insists that the words she spoke came to her without prompting and that she doesn’t know what they mean. Malcolm identifies them as Verbis Diablo, the “Word of the Devil,” a tongue believed to be mythical. Vanessa clearly knows who her attackers were, but doesn’t want to talk about it. She calls them “Nightcomers” and says that this is a battle she must fight alone. Malcolm tells her that he lost one daughter and isn’t about to lose another.
What Sharp Fangs You Have
At the end of last season, Ethan was confronted by two Pinkertons from America who’d been hired by his father to bring him back home. At the dockside bar, Ethan wolfed out and killed them. He wakes up here with the bar a wreck, and we realize that he’s slaughtered not just his assailants, but also everyone else in the vicinity. Ethan apparently doesn’t have any control over himself when he goes wolf. He plans to flee London before he hurts anyone else, but changes his mind when he realizes that Vanessa needs his help.
A Scotland Yard detective named Rusk investigates the scene of the crime determined to find the culprit. He claims that one witness survived.
Victor Frankenstein promised his creation Calaban that he’d make him a wife, and killed Ethan’s sickly girlfriend Brona to facilitate that goal. He submerges her body in a tank of water, but must wait for a lightning storm to conduct his experiment.
Poor Billie Piper spends most of the episode dead and doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, but is required to be very, very naked through the whole thing – visible from pretty much every angle, often in close-up. Obviously attracted to her himself, Frankenstein even fondles her corpse during a very creepy, prolonged moment.
Meanwhile, Calaban must search for new employment, which isn’t easy for a man in his condition. He winds up at a wax museum run by a very friendly man named Putney, whose gimmick is that he creates very detailed, grisly recreations of real-life crime scenes – particularly the Ripper murders. Under the alias of “John Claire,” Calaban is interviewed by Putney’s stern wife and meets his blind daughter. After they offer him the job and Calaban leaves, Putney tells his wife that he has plans to make Calaban’s disfigurement its own attraction at their establishment.
Finally, a lightning storm comes. Amidst much screaming and flipping of rain-soaked electrical switches (that’s seriously got to be a Code violation), Brona rises from her tank, naked and shivering.
Pray for Us Sinners
The episode ends with Vanessa in her room. She slices her finger and draws the image of a scorpion out of her blood on the floor while she chants prayers to a crucifix. At the same time across town, Evelyn makes her own evil prayers to Lucifer. Their dueling prayers are rapidly intercut in a frenzy of unintelligible words. The three remaining daughter witches briefly appear in Vanessa’s room. She’s not confident that she’s strong enough to hold them off much longer.
The one thing I don’t like about this episode is that Vanessa spends most of it in a very weak, frightened state. We know her as a much stronger character than that, so I hope she snaps out of that quickly and learns to fight back.
Other than that, this is a really excellent season premiere filled with striking imagery and a high creepiness factor. I can’t wait to see what happens next.