Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 4 “Demimonde”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Dearbhla Walsh
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
There are a lot of things suggested in “Demimonde”; mainly, that everyone isn’t who they appear to be on the surface. A fine way to twiddle thumbs in the middle of a season, sure, but in this week’s Penny Dreadful, there isn’t anything underneath these not-so-vague hints that Vanessa got involved with the King of Vampires (as I’m guessing “It” was in her bedroom), Ethan might have an alter ego that tears human beings apart, and Dorian Gray has a very special portrait in his basement.
It plays on the things we already know – or at the very least, infer – about these characters and the world they’ve been dropped in. But it’s all surrounded by empty theatrics: orgies, conversations about beautiful, but deadly flowers (“the darkness within” is quickly becoming a drinking-game worthy word on this show), and a well-staged, but ultimately silly theatrical performance, a play that attempts to act as a symbolic metaphor for numerous characters (though the Wolfman bit is pure, unadulterated Ethan allusion, I would think), but only feels like a thin distraction from the fact there isn’t a whole lot to see in this episode.
Even things that aren’t happening on-screen are repeating themselves in this episode: Malcolm mentions a trip to Africa, one he’s apparently planning simultaneously while battling a vampire army to save his daughter (and apparently help Vanessa redeem her soul; it appears she’s partially responsible for what’s happened to Mina). Vanessa points out he’s probably not going to go, since he talks about it a lot but never does anything, leaving his cartography equipment scattered about the house as a sign of good intentions.
In a way, Malcolm’s behavior makes a perfect metaphor for the episode constructed around it: it certainly walks and talks like it’s going to take the next step into its story (and actually give us something concrete to consider, instead of all these coded bits of dialogue and allusions of what happened/is to come), only to sit around the house in last week’s clothes and completely ruin one’s momentum for growth and discovery. For a large majority of the episode, that’s exactly what “Demimonde” is; right down to Frankenstein’s monster, who reminds him that he’s supposed to be making him a wife, not learning about Hannah’s Wink from Professor Van Helsing (the actual vampire hunter or his father? We’re never given a first name) and getting jealous that Ethan is going to Africa with Malcolm.
That’s not to say “Demimonde” is void of entertaining moments: Billie Piper is magnificent as Brona the living skeleton (her words, not mine!), capturing the gothic beauty of a woman enjoying what is sure to be her first and only visit to the theater (though the title of the season finale suggests it doesn’t have to be). Of course, that beauty is drenched in the blood she coughs and the heavy anecdotes she lays on Ethan about abuse driving her to whoring, and how they need to break up because she’s dying soon – when it reaches to make Brona an “interesting” character, it’s nowhere near as successful as it is, when it’s watching a dying woman take in the beauty of the theater of death, a venue that – in its own morbid way – celebrates death and the ugliness that comes along with it.
Essentially, “Demimonde” is at its best when characters aren’t speaking: when Vanessa is inspecting a flower, or Brona is admiring the atmosphere of live performance, “Demimonde” becomes a rather poignant look at the damaged characters of Penny Dreadful attempting to keep their personal demons at their back (“If I turn around, my sins will kill me”, Ethan tells Brona at one point), and the places they’ll go to try and escape them (Vanessa outside a church, Ethan with some absinthe and making out with Dorian… to each their own, right?). Unfortunately, “Demimonde” doesn’t have a ton of faith in the audience enjoying those moments – and when the episode becomes a string of hints (like what the fuck is up with Sembene?) about what is to come, or who these people really are, it’s much more of a drag.