Penny Dreadful doles out cruel and unusual punishment in an excellent penultimate episode that builds to a series of stunning cliffhangers.
Let’s bitch it out…
The second to last episode of the season face an interesting predicament. It can’t be a regular episode because hypothetically everything is getting set-up for the big finale. At the same time, however, nothing can be resolved…because that will happen in the finale. As a result, it’s a bit of a no-win situation: all set-up and no pay-off. How entertaining is that?
The answer, in ‘And Hell Itself My Only Foe’s case, is plenty. From the opening murder scene in the cottage to the myriad cliffhangers that end the episode, there’s plenty of “moving the pieces into position” (in some cases literally) and a few mini-resolutions. Throughout it all the episode feels energetic and exciting. Part of this is anticipation: we’ve been waiting for Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to face Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) for nine episodes and they’re on the cusp of an epic showdown by episode’s close. There’s also some nifty first season pay-off for both Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Viktor (Harry Treadaway) as the men face their demons – in Malcolm’s case his family (glimpsed last week) and in Viktor’s case, his “children” including Proteus (Alex Price)!. Add to this the bloody resolution of Ethan’s (Josh Hartnett) feud with mauled Pinkerton guard Roper (Stephen Lord) and it’s fun all around.
I’d be lying if I said that my view isn’t coloured by the final scenes. After realizing that no one is going to help her save Malcolm immediately, Vanessa sneaks out to Poole’s castle, with the others in cautious tow after they discover she’s gone. It’s clear long before Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) protests that this is a bad idea. If Hecate (Sarah Greene) can slip in and out of the mansion without pause, what hope do our heroes have against the Nightcomers at full strength…on their home turf…on a full moon? A: None.
That’s clear as soon as everyone arrives at the castle and a melancholy, horror movie soundtrack dominates. Never in the history of this show has the music and the tone worked in tandem so well to evoke a sense of dread. The group is picked off one by one, isolated by locked doors and staircases, forced to face their fears. As the minutes tick slowly by and the situation becomes more desperate, the tension multiples tenfold: Sembene (Danny Sapani) is in mortal danger trapped with Ethan in the stairwell; Malcolm and Viktor are locked in a hexed room and forced to face their dead loved ones; Lyle is caught in the death grip of a Nightcomer and Vanessa is encircled by her fear of dolls, including her very own simulacrum, out of whose gaping mouth comes the accusation “murderer.”
Give me next week’s finale immediately, you bastards!
- Rusk (Douglas Hodge) pays Ethan a visit to advise him that he knows he’s involved in the Mariner Inn massacre, as well as his true identity. Rusk thinks that he has Ethan trapped and under surveillance, so it’s likely that Rusk will end up providing the group salvation after he follows them to Poole’s castle. Perhaps after encountering the Nightcomers, Rusk will revise which monsters and crimes he wants to prioritize.
- Lavinia (Tamsin Topolski) and her family turn out to be far worse than we ever expected. All season long I’ve lamented how Lavinia was simply another doe-eyed damsel in distress for Clare (Rory Kinnear) to moon over and possibly murder. Instead she and her family have ambitious plans to further their business by adding real life freaks to their roster of attractions. Please note, American Horror Story: this is how you do freakshow exhibition horror properly.
- As always, Dorian (Reeve Carney) remains isolated in his own story line. After last week’s go for broke performance by Billie Piper, I’ll admit it was disappointing to see Lily and Dorian simply hang out in his hall of portraits and maul each other. Given her promise to John Clare, though, perhaps Lily and Dorian will be the ones who rescue him from his cell and put the Putneys in their place.
- The opening attack by Roper at the Cut-Wife’s cabin is shocking in its violence. I didn’t expect to see Vanessa’s head smashed against a table or Ethan stabbed in the shoulder, though Vanessa’s stab happy antics were less shocking (seriously, that girl needs an outlet). The placement of this scene in the penultimate episode is interesting: obviously this gets it out of the way before the events of the finale, but it also showcases how well the pair work as a team and reinforces to Vanessa what she’s capable of before she volunteers to meet Poole on her own turf. Don’t underestimate Vanessa!
- Finally, we last see Ethan with his jowls on Sembene, followed by the usual blood splatter from his fangs. All I know is that after teasing how awesome Sembene is all season and hinting at a redemptive arc for him, this had better not be it. I need more Sembene and will be gutted if he’s dead.
- Roper (riling up Ethan by threatening Vanessa): “What shall we do with all that pretty hair?”
- Sembene (describing how they will kill Poole and all her ilk): “It will be an ugly sort.”
- Vanessa (when Poole mocks her brand): “That flesh is dead”
Your turn: what are your thoughts on the penultimate episode? Did the scary music really build up those final scenes? Surprised to see Proteus again? Worried about Sembene? Will Lyle survive? Will Rusk play saviour? And do you agree with my rationale for the inclusion of Roper’s scene at the start of the episode? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful airs its second season finale next Sunday at 10pm EST on Showtime. Next week: looks like a lot of blood and angst!