Despite flagging ratings during its often incoherent narrative mess of a second season, Showtime brought its horror series ‘Penny Dreadful’ back for another round. I like the show and am glad to have it back. Let’s hope this season holds together better than the last one.
It’s too soon to cast any judgments on that yet. The third season premiere episode is pretty good, but I recall the second season premiere being promising as well. Things really fell apart as that season went along. The test of this one will be to see where it goes.
We start in London. Sir Malcolm’s mansion appears to be abandoned. Mail is piling up at the door. Cobwebs cover everything and bugs scurry around. The house isn’t empty, however. Vanessa is squatting there, living in squalor. She’s clearly depressed, which is a little confusing given that the last time we saw her, she claimed a victory against none other than the Prince of Darkness, Satan. Then again, she also believes that Ethan abandoned her, so perhaps that’s what she’s sad about.
Ferdinand Lyle pays a visit and refuses to leave until she talks to him. He’s concerned about her. He gives her the business card for an “alienist” (the old term for a psychiatrist) who helped him work through his own issues (i.e. accepting his homosexuality). Recognizing that Lyle is the only friend she has left, Vanessa thanks him and tells him she’ll consider it.
New Mexico Territory
At the end of last season, Ethan Chandler (né Talbot) surrendered to Inspector Rusk for the Mariner’s Inn massacre, expecting to be hanged, only to find out that Rusk intended to extradite him back to the United States. We pick up with Ethan in custody on a train. Rusk leaves him with a group of Marshal’s deputies as he stops by the diner car. Unbeknownst to either of them, the witch Hecate is also on the train, disguised as an innocent passenger.
A band of outlaws raids the train, murdering all the deputies and many innocent passengers. The head of the gang knocks Ethan unconscious. Rusk watches helplessly as they ride off with Ethan. Later, we get confirmation that the train robbers were hired by Ethan’s father to retrieve him.
Zanzibar, East Africa
Having honored his promise to bury Sembene in his homeland, Sir Malcolm wallows at a dive bar. He writes a letter to Vanessa bemoaning that the once grand adventure of being an explorer has lost its sense of wonder for him.
Malcolm is accosted in an alley by a group of thugs with ill intent. He fights them off but is almost overwhelmed until he’s rescued by a mysterious stranger. The man (Wes Studi) is a Native American and already knows exactly who Sir Malcolm is. He scalps one of the attackers, saying to Malcolm, “Old traditions die hard.”
The man introduces himself as Kaetenay and says he’s an Apache Indian. He describes himself as almost being Ethan’s father. (I assume that means either he’s some sort of spiritual mentor, or possibly the leader of Ethan’s wolf pack.) He demands that Malcolm come with him to America to save Ethan.
After escaping from the wax museum, John Clare (a.k.a. Calaban, a.k.a. Frankenstein’s Monster) hopped on a boat to the Arctic to get away from the world. That was a nice tie-in with the framing device in the original Mary Shelley novel, but unfortunately it doesn’t amount to anything. The boat gets trapped in the ice with little hope of rescue. As the crew debate whether to resort to cannibalism or allow themselves to die with their humanity, Clare saves a sickly young boy from a particularly hungry crewman. This opens up some memories of his former life before being resurrected. As soon as that happens, he has a change of heart and snaps the boy’s neck to spare him a drawn-out death. No longer caring about anyone else on the boat, he bids them good luck and hops off, trudging through the ice and snow back toward civilization.
Victor Frankenstein is paid a visit by his old medical school friend, Dr. Jekyll, who’s depicted here as a man of mixed race, half-Caucasian/half-Indian (the kind from India, not another Native American). I only mention his race because it’s made an immediate plot point when some random old hag sees him walking down the street and screams racist obscenities at him.
Jekyll finds Frankenstein a mess, in the depths of his opium addition. Victor tells him that he has conquered death, but only made monsters in the process. He asks Jekyll for help killing Lily. Jekyll, a chemist who has experimented with “taming the beast within,” suggests that he may be able to turn Lily back to her original, innocent state as she was before she turned evil.
Vanessa takes Ferdinand Lyle’s advice and goes to see the alienist, a woman named Dr. Seward. She’s immediately taken aback when she discovers that Seward looks exactly like the Cut-Witch (Patti LuPone). She asks the doctor’s family heritage and learns that she may be a distant relative of her late mentor.
Seward has an extremely brusque personality and tersely explains that, “There are no manners here.” She sees right through Vanessa’s façade of weakness and civility and does an amazingly accurate job of pegging the root of her problems (at least, the ones that aren’t supernatural). She tells Vanessa that, to start, she needs to do something that she’s never done before. Vanessa likes this woman and agrees to come back.
On her way out of the office, Vanessa is stalked on the street by a strange man in glasses. Following the doctor’s orders, she stops at a place she never has before, the Natural History Museum. There, she meets a very friendly zoologist named Dr. Alexander Sweet, who talks far too much. She takes a quick liking to him.
Feeling much better about the state of things, Vanessa opens up the mansion, cleans the mess she’s made there, and writes a letter to Sir Malcolm.
At the episode’s end, the strange man in glasses pays a nasty prostitute for a quickie. From his appearance and behavior, it’s not unreasonable to assume that he may be Jack the Ripper. However, before he can get down to business, an invisible force kills the whore and violently yanks him away. The man wakes up in an abandoned building with a bunch of scary vampire freaks skittering along the floor and over the walls. Suddenly, they scurry away and the man falls to the floor. A dark and ominous unseen voice orders him to learn everything he can about Vanessa Ives. The voice calls the man Renfield, and reveals itself as Dracula.
This episode is titled ‘The Day Tennyson Died’. Ferdinand Lyle explains to Vanessa (who hasn’t kept up with the news) that the city of London is in a state of public mourning over the death national poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. At the time this episode was written, whenever that may have been, this was probably intended as a simple gag to demonstrate how much modern culture has changed since the 19th Century. Honestly, how many people today could name a single living poet, much less identify the current poet laureate? However, it seems to me that musicians (specifically those that write their own songs) have taken over the role of the poet in modern society. I think this storyline may have an unexpected amount of resonance right now given that the episode aired so soon after the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. Or perhaps I’m reading entirely too much into that.
As far as the plot of the season premiere goes, I’m relieved that it’s free of any appearance by Dorian Gray, one of my least favorite characters on the show. Unfortunately, with Frankenstein’s talk about Lily, it’s inevitable that she and Dorian will still be major players this season.
The addition of Dr. Jekyll to the cast of characters is interesting. I’m curious where the show will take that. I’m less sold on the decision to bring Patti LuPone back in a new role, which feels less motivated by the narrative than motivated by the producers wanting an excuse to keep an actress they like around.
The big reveal that Dracula will be a major villain this season (if not the major villain) is oddly anticlimactic. The show’s first season featured a vampire monster that I assumed at the time already was Dracula. Although that turned out not to be the case, the next season had the team face down the Devil. What can Dracula offer to top that?
I’m hopeful that this season will be an improvement, but can only be cautiously optimistic for the time being.