Penny Dreadful returns for a second season of murder and mayhem with more of the same.
Let’s bitch it out…
There was a lot to like about Penny Dreadful‘s first season: its assured direction, its lush costumes and exquisite period detail, and its bevy of talented actors – particularly Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, who basically stole the show. I liked it enough to name it ninth best show on TV in the 2014 Bitch Awards. There was, unfortunately, also a few aspects of the show that weren’t as successful: the writing occasionally felt aimless and/or repetitive (especially when Ives was offscreen for too long) and some characters drew the short straw in terms of development and screen time. At only eight episodes long, this wasn’t a deal breaker, but it was certainly nagging at the back of my head while watching the second season premiere.
Let’s start with the good: basically everything that I highlighted as a strength above remains intact in S2. There’s a clear focus and drive in ‘Fresh Hell’, which is a very appropriate title for an episode that essentially re-launches the central conflict: the fight for Ives’ soul. The vampire-like creature that was the main threat in the first season may be gone, but the threat against Ives from the forces of darkness remains intact. One major addition is the introduction/expansion of peripheral character Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) as the new Big Bad and already she’s making a big impression. In her earlier appearances, it wasn’t clear what series creator John Logan hoped to achieve with the character, so it’s encouraging that her first scene in S2 is attacking Ives during a snowy walk in the park. It quickly and clearly confirms that Kali is on the hunt, which pays off when her bloody (bath) reveal occurs late in the episode. The final scene mirrors the first by pitting the women against each other, though there’s a suggestion that now that Ives is aware she’s under attack, they’re on more equal footing.
The move away from vampires to witches is interesting considering how male-dominated the series is. Despite Green’s tendency to pull focus anytime she is on screen, she’s the rare female character* on Penny Dreadful, which is basically a Victorian bro show. Kali’s insinuation that Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is Ives’ protector is simultaneously encouraging and frustrating: he is in service to her (feel free to make your own dog joke), but she’s also in need of a big, strong man. In the first season, that function was fulfilled by Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), so I’m a little frustrated that despite making Ives the most interesting character on the series, the writers of Penny Dreadful continue to see fit to make her reliant on a posse of suitors and father-figures for protection. Still, the gender dynamics of the series remain compelling in a way that few cable series are, so it’s more something to keep an eye out for than a real lament.
*Yes, I recognize that Billie Piper is also present, but as I argue below, she’s less than a three dimensional character.
- The least interesting characters remain inherently boring. Despite Harry Treadaway’s attempt to make his young scientist creepy/compelling, Frankenstein’s continued exploits with his Creature (Rory Kinnear) and their new adventure to turn Brona (Piper) into his bride do nothing for me.
- With that said, the Creature’s new employment at Putney’s Wax Museum has promise. Is the Wax Museum this season’s Grand Guignol Theatre? I wouldn’t mind that, especially with the horrific potential of macabre wax tableaus. My single request with this development: please do not replicate the Creature’s S1 obsession with a seemingly “perfect” girl. That was literally the only thing that came to mind with the introduction of blind Lavinia (Tamsin Topolski) – the look on the Creature’s face says it all.
- The Nightcomers attack on the carriage early in the episode provides a nice jolt of energy. Keeping the action confined to the interior makes it feel claustrophobic, especially since the camera work and editing make it seem as if the bizarre scarred, naked women seemingly come out of nowhere.
- What’s higher on the ick/gore chart: a Madam Bathory-style blood bath or slitting your daughter’s throat with a dual-pronged ring razor? I give the edge to the bath, although the infanticide certainly makes it clear that Kali is not a woman of sympathy or forgiveness.
- Finally, if there was any doubt that Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray is unimportant to the series’ overall narrative, he fails to make an appearance in the premiere. I know he’s back for S2, but this doesn’t fill me with hope that he’ll be more vital or better integrated into the overall narrative.
- Malcolm’s wife (putting an end to their marriage): “We have no more children for you to save, or to kill.”
- Madame Kali (after murdering her daughter): “Take that bitch away”
Your turn: what’s your take on the premiere? Are you excited that the villain is more charismatic and relatable right out of the gates? Did you hope that Vanessa would be stronger/more capable this season? Who survived Ethan’s rampage at the bar? Are you excited to see Brona as the Creature’s bride? Any thoughts on the wax museum? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 10pm EST on Showtime