Who doesn’t love a good ball? Witches, apparently. Seriously, these ladies are absolutely no fun.
Let’s bitch it out…
One of the best aspects of Penny Dreadful is its capacity to create memorable images. We can debate endlessly about the show’s languid pacing and the length of time it takes these historically known characters to disclose their afflictions <cough Ethan cough>, but it would be a mistake to undersell the Victorian monster mash’s dynamic visual aesthetic. With this in mind, it’s no understatement to say that as a complete episode of television, ‘Glorious Horrors’ works best when the imagery combines with the sound and editing to create one of the series’ most memorable visual sequences ever.
I’m speaking, of course, about Vanessa Ives’ (Eva Green) Nightcomer-induced blood rain hallucination at the ball. After scandalously arriving at Dorian Gray’s (Reeve Carney) party solo (gasp!), Vanessa chats with a few people and then, as Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) implores her to leave, she is psychically attacked by the three witches. The result is one the show’s most vividly rendered scenes of horror: a tempest of blood that only Vanessa can see engulfs the other merry-makers. Part of what makes the scene effective is the use the aural distortion of the soundtrack to match the tilting dutch angles of the camera. The editing is perfectly executed to reinforce the fact that Vanessa alone is experiencing this sensation: everyone else continues to dance, even as their faces and clothes become garishly stained a scarlet crimson. There comes a point when the rain is so heavy that it pools on the ground, producing a red lake we see feet dance around in. It’s a horrifyingly gorgeous scene made all the more memorable by the contrast between the fancy period dress and the vivid red of the blood.
This one scene completely makes the episode for me, which otherwise continues Penny Dreadful‘s recent trend towards slow and mildly sleepy episodes. The demon narrative laid out on the dining room table is no closer to being solved, Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) is no closer to pinning the Mariner Inn massacre on Ethan (Josh Hartnett) and the A-plot of the witches vs Vanessa has become repetitive in its stagnation. Certainly the first real meeting between Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) and Vanessa since their encounter at last year’s ‘Séance’ is an enjoyably tense and contentious affair, but it makes Vanessa’s inability to protect herself all the more glaring. This is an intelligent woman who knows that she’s being stalked by forces of the night, but she has no protection at her side? Certainly Ethan’s refusal to accompany her due to his transformative time of the month explains his absence, but why doesn’t Vanessa have any protective spells or charms to prevent this kind of attack?
For now the answer appears to be that creator and writer John Logan thinks it is far better to offer up these kind of sensational visual sequences rather than outfit his characters with the skills and weapons to combat their enemies. Unfortunately the writer appears to have overlooked his own advice; when Wax museum owner Putney (David Haig) tells his wife that repetition is the death of sensationalism, he may as well be speaking of the show he’s appearing on. At this point, Penny Dreadful needs to stop spending endless episodes doling out beautiful soliloquies and advancing the narrative one tiny step at a time. Continuing on at this pace risks stranding beautifully sensationalist moments like the Blood Ball by themselves in otherwise underwhelming episodes.
- I did appreciate that Sembene (Danny Sapani) is now Ethan’s confidant of sorts. After their bonding experiences the last few episodes and Sembene’s awareness of individuals like Roper (Stephen Lord), Sembene finally learns Ethan’s secret. The question is whether he’ll have more to do in the future as a result.
- The ball ends up being both a grand affair and a huge emotional disaster, as any significant social event on these genre shows must. All it takes is a single dance between Lily (Billie Piper) and Dorian to expose the jealous cracks in both of their relationships; naturally the pair are curious about the other as they dance around their previous encounter last season. Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) and Viktor (Harry Treadaway), meanwhile, pout and simmer on the sidelines.
- With that said, the warm welcome into society that Angelique earns on Dorian’s arm is frightfully uneventful. After a less than receptive welcome by a former client out in society last week, Angelique couldn’t have hoped for a better “coming out” debut this week.
- It takes no time at all for Poole to steal a lock of Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) hair and literally take hold of his heart (via a new fetish simulacrum). Both Vanessa and Ethan note Malcolm’s unusual reaction to his wife’s suicide, but only Sembene actually voices his concern. If nothing else, Malcolm’s arrival at the ball sans beard should raise alarms in everyone. Everyone knows that haircuts in TV / movies = major emotional upheaval.
- I complain about the leisurely pacing on the series, but I’ll also hypocritically admit to enjoying the purple prose nonetheless. While it is a bit on the nose, Poole’s explanation of beauty, sin and her turn from God is a nice bit of insight into this season’s villain and Frankenstein’s poetic take on the nature of happenstance is similarly beautiful.
- At the Wax Museum, Putney’s daughter, Lavinia (Tamsin Topolski), clues in that John Clare (Rory Kinnear) is no ordinary man after she catches his colder-than-death hands. With every new development telegraphed well in advance and an escalating feeling of inevitability, this is another slow burn plot thread that feels like it should be moving along much more quickly.
- Finally, at the ball Hecate (Sarah Greene) tells Lyle that she has alternative plans than her mother. Does this mean we can expect Hecate to turn against Evelyn, or are there two devilish plots where Vanessa is concerned?
- Malcolm (after learning where his wife took her own life): “Oh I see. I shall have to have the carpet taken away then.”
- Lyle (to Hecate): “I’m not sure what game you’re playing, but I certainly enjoy watching the light catch your scales as you slither.”
- Angelique (after Dorian insists the countryside is full of poets): “And livestock.”
- Lyle (as he and Vanessa survey the dancefloor): “All the toys of love are out of the box and scattered around the floor.”
Your turn: what did you think of the ball? Was the blood rain as memorable for you? Do you wish Vanessa would learn to protect herself? Are you hopeful that observing Ethan’s transformation will give Sembene more to do? Did you enjoy the jealous antics between lovers at the ball? And how does Hecate’s plans differ from her mother’s? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 10pm EST on Showtime. Next week: Vanessa and Ethan escape to the Cut Wife’s cottage where Vanessa will finally learn to defend herself…perhaps in several ways. Here’s your preview