Can an episode of Penny Dreadful survive without the presence of its greatest asset, Eva Green? ‘Memento Mori’ strives to answer this pressing question.
Let’s bitch it out…
I will freely admit that before this episode, I dreaded an episode without Vanessa Ives. I’ve made no attempt to disguise my love for Eva Green, citing her as MVP innumerable times (alright, it’s probably closer to three or four times, but still). The episodes that focus primarily on Ives have consistently been Penny Dreadful‘s strongest, if only because Green dedicates herself so completely, often physically, to the character. Without her, I would have expected a lull in the energy and focus of the series. Then along comes ‘Memento Mori’ and I’m forced to eat crow.
Let’s begin with the least likely contender for recognition – someone I’ve never been all that impressed with: Billie Piper. I loved the early years of the Doctor Who reboot and Piper’s Rose Tyler was an integral part of the series, but she never really impressed me with her acting talent. Her turn as Brona, S1’s Irish prostitute, was arguably Penny Dreadful‘s weak link (up to and including her dodgy accent), and while Lily has been a marked improvement, I can’t say that I have ever been blown away by any of her scenes.
All of this to say that Piper burned the fucking house down here. For a few minutes, I nearly forgot that this was the same actress because her performance is so shockingly different. Some credit obviously has to go to creator / writer John Logan for giving Piper a tirade about sex and power to play, but roughly 90% of the success is owed to the actress, her line delivery and her compelling physical performance with scene partner Rory Kinnear. It’s the kind of performance that infuses a jolt into an episode, one that leaves tongues wagging and social media memeing (that’s totally a verb nowadays, right?). In an ideal world, this episode would spark awards discussion for the actress, but sadly Penny Dreadful‘s genre status will likely prove to be a detriment as long as it stays on the air.
What’s all the more impressive is that Piper’s not the only actor to raise their game in Green’s absence. The majority of this episode belongs to Timothy Dalton, whose Sir Malcolm assumes the de facto protagonist role. Despite the reinforcements taken to protect the house, no one can prevent Evelyn Poole’s (Helen McCrory) hexes, especially when she goes to work on her Malcolm simulacrum. What’s most surprising is how quicky Sembene (Danny Sapani) reacts, tossing his master into a long abandoned room of the estate where Malcolm remembers who he is by engaging with the ghosts of his dead family. The continued presence of dancing and balls this season is an interesting narrative and stylistic choice: here Malcolm dances with his wife, Gladys (Noni Stapleton), daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) and chats with son, Peter (Graham Butler). In a way Malcolm’s ability to release Poole’s claim over him via the memory of a ball is a reappropriation of sorts: he earlier lamented to Viktor (Harry Treadaway) his shame of dancing during his wife’s funeral. Here, the powerful memory of his family and their happiness allows him to break Poole’s hex and become an active, independent agent again.
Alas, Malcolm’s stubbornness may cost him. Poole and her Nightcomers lay a trap and take him out easily during a scene that cross-cuts between the episode’s climactic violent acts. Poole attempts to woo him back, but Malcolm refuses, prompting her to leave him behind to, in an ironic roundabout, face the literal ghosts of his dead family in reanimated form. The episode ends on a cliffhanger as the zombies appear to be closing in on him.
- The other climactic violent act is executed on poor Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) who discovers Dorian’s (Reeve Carney) secret: the notorious picture of Dorian’s true self. The secret passage where the portrait hides is marked by a subtle breeze that extinguishes candles, is such a gothic trope. The moment that Angelique senses it, her fate was sealed and the gothic element made me think that Dorian would strangle his lover (after all, we see him loosen his necktie when he sees the passageway is open). Instead it is tried and true poison that fells poor Angelique, a victim that Dorian does not believe will truly love him after seeing his true image.
- Sidebar: I’m not certain what I expected from the portrait, but I thought it would be more decrepit. The picture’s movement after Dorian’s latest murder, however, is well-executed.
- Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) continues to flirt with danger by seemingly playing both sides: he pledges fealty to Poole when they meet early in the episode, but he still dissects Lucifer’s narrative for Malcolm and co. Lyle clearly feels uncomfortable with Poole’s agenda, so I’m hopeful that he will make a stand in the finale. My concern is that Hecate’s (Sarah Greene) interest in usurping her mother will come at Lyle’s expense.
- Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) makes a surprise appearance at Malcolm’s door after connecting him to an earlier appearance at Scotland Yard. In truth this scene is the sole weak link for me as their discussion seems more designed for the remaining two episodes than anything else.
- Poole (after kissing Lyle): “You taste like a fat little man <spits>”
- Dorian (staring at his portrait): “Don’t we all want to paint ourselves as something better than we are?” I particularly like how this line is delivered with Angelique’s face (a clear example of a painted form of expression) in focus in the foreground.
- Lily (to Clare): “Women? I’ll bring you a dozen, we’ll fuck them together.”
Your turn: were you impressed by Piper’s performance? Did you expect Angelique’s murder? Are you impressed at Sembene’s quick thinking? Did you anticipate that Malcolm would break Poole’s link? And what did you take away from Rusk’s interview with Malcolm? Sound off below
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 10pm EST on Showtime