For all the faults this season of ‘Penny Dreadful’ may have (and they are many), the show still excels at creating a creepy spookhouse atmosphere. Even as the main narrative makes no sense at all, individual scenes can have very striking imagery and visceral power.
In fact, that’s probably the most frustrating thing about the show now. If it bored me in all respects, I would have written it off by now. Instead, I still find myself hooked, even as I keep wishing that it would get better.
Malcolm in the Middle
Episode ‘Glorious Horrors’ opens with a maid discovering the bloody dead body of Sir Malcolm’s estranged wife, Gladys. Meanwhile, Malcolm himself slumbers in evil Evelyn’s bed as she surreptitiously steals a snipping of his hair for use in a new voodoo doll she’s making.
After Malcolm awakes, he returns to his mansion in a positively giddy mood. When Vanessa informs him about his wife’s death, his reaction is strange, to say the least. He cares more about needing to replace the carpet than he does about his spouse. Vanessa isn’t sure how to read his behavior (why has she turned into such a dunce this season?), but both Ethan and Sembene are sure that something is very wrong with him.
Malcolm contemplates shaving his beard to look younger for his new paramour. He declines attending his wife’s funeral, saying that he’s much too busy, but barely a few seconds later excitedly accepts an invitation to a ball that Dorian Gray is throwing.
An American Werewolf in London
The disfigured Pinkerton agent Roper brazenly appears at Malcolm’s mansion asking to speak to Ethan. Apparently, having half his face torn off wasn’t enough to get him to take the hint that he’s not wanted. He insists that Ethan will return to America with him, and threatens to break into the house and kill all of Ethan’s friends when he least suspects it if he doesn’t comply. How much money could Ethan’s father possibly be paying this guy?
Ethan stops at the wax museum to see the new exhibit depicting the massacre at the harbor inn. Inspector Rusk approaches him there, saying that all murderers eventually return to the scene of the crime. He tells Ethan that he’s determined to prove his involvement in the slaughter, and brusquely suggests that Ethan might find peace from his troubled conscience in suicide.
Ethan declines when Vanessa asks him to attend Dorian’s ball with her. Instead, he asks for Sembene’s help. In the basement, Ethan chains himself to a wall and tells Sembene to sit in a chair on the other side of the room and stay in it no matter what. Come nightfall, a full moon rises and Ethan transforms into a wolf before Sembene’s eyes. Sembene leaps from the chair. Why did Ethan need him to watch this?
Finally, after weeks of seemingly pointless digression, Dorian Gray’s storyline intersects with the other characters we care more about. As mentioned, he decides to throw a ball as a coming-out party for his girlfriend Angelique. He claims that he’s exhilarated by the “thrill of the forbidden” and wants to celebrate their uniqueness. This doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea considering the social climate of the day.
Aside from Ethan, pretty much all the major characters from the show attend the ball, along with half of London high society. Victor brings Lily, and she vaguely half-remembers Dorian’s house from the last time she visited there in her former life as a whore. Dorian recognizes her immediately but does not explain how. He insists on a dance with her. This makes Victor very jealous and resentful.
All of the witches are there, Evelyn with the freshly-shaved Malcolm and Hecate with Ferdinand Lyle. Vanessa speaks to Evelyn and obviously doesn’t care for how she has Malcolm wrapped around her finger, but Vanessa still doesn’t recognize her as a witch for whatever reason.
His loyalties divided, Lyle makes an excuse to ask Vanessa to leave the ball and let him escort her home. She agrees, but before they can exit, she spots Hecate and her sisters across the dance floor. This leads to Vanessa having a very stunning vision of a rain of blood pouring down from the ceiling onto all the dancers below, none of whom react as they continue to dance. Vanessa then passes out.
The blood-soaked ball is a marvelous visual sequence, but since it’s a dream, that means that the episode’s plot doesn’t really have a proper climax. Ultimately, nothing happens except that Vanessa faints. After all the time we’ve suffered with them, I should also expect a better payoff for Dorian and Angelique than simply providing a location and an excuse for this set-piece. Anyone could have hosted a ball. It didn’t need to be Dorian for any particular reason.
We still have a few episodes left this season. Perhaps there’s time for the various plot threads to come together better, but unfortunately I don’t have enough faith in the show to hold my breath for that.