Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 4, “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Damon Thomas
Airs Sundays at 10 pm (ET) on Showtime
Everyone pairs up in the latest episode of Penny Dreadful, “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places.” Penny Dreadful is obviously an ensemble show, but it’s always had a problem knowing quite what to do with its plethora of characters. After last week’s series highlight episode, which slowed things down and focused on a single coherent story, the show gets back to business, with “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places,” attempting to cram in as much information as possible relevant to season two’s main plot.
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Creator John Logan needs to find a new approach to his ever-growing cast of ghouls and werewolves and you can feel him sensing this here. His solution–pairing off almost every main character to move things along–gives the episode a fast, but clumsy pace and winds up reminding viewers of things we already know.
The highlight of these pairings is Harry Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein and Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives going on a shopping trip. While Vanessa and Dr. Frankenstein have obviously interacted already, they’ve never had a private moment like this. Victor ropes Vanessa into helping him buy some female clothing for his “cousin” who is coming to town. “Her name is Lilly,” Treadaway gets to stammer before hilariously clarifying: “Lilly Frankenstein!” Lilly is, of course, the re-animated Brona (Billie Piper), whom Victor is lusting after even though he’s the one who murdered her. The scene with Green and Treadaway works well because it lets the two actors do something neither of them get to do normally on this show: be funny. “You always dress so…you know…with the collars, and the…black things…” Victor awkwardly explains, as Treadaway turns the character into a bumbling Victorian-era Hugh Grant, stuttering over his words and getting terribly flummoxed. Vanessa is clearly delighting in Victor’s discomfort, but not in a malicious way. Green gets to be playful, and it’s a nice change of pace from her usual miserable-and-tormented routine (though Green does that wonderfully too!).
“John Clare,” formerly Caliban, formerly the Creature, gets to share a moment with Lavinia, daughter of his new employer. The Creature had Victor resurrect “Lilly” to be his bride, but he hasn’t shown any interest in her so far–his focus is instead fixed on his colleague at the wax museum. Lavinia makes all the wax figures for her father’s museum and she and the Creature are slowly developing an awkward bond that will clearly end in some sort of tragedy, because how could it not? Of course, the fact that Lavinia’s father is planning to bring in freaks for a freak show and keep them in the basement is probably going to cause some sort of issue.
Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) goes out on the town with Hecate (Sarah Greene), a woman he saves from a near-fatal horse carriage accident. The two have lunch and Ethan incorrectly surmises she’s been sent by his mysterious father to retrieve him when in fact, she’s one of big bad Evelyn Poole’s (Helen McCrory) witch-daughters. Penny Dreadful has been playing up Ethan’s father for a while now and the fact that the senior Chandler has yet to appear on screen suggests that Penny is building towards a big reveal, though perhaps they just haven’t figured out what the hell they’re doing with the character.
Speaking of characters Penny Dreadful doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing with, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) takes his new lover, transgender Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp), to play ping-pong! It’s a neat little scene and Carney and Beauchamp have a rather sweet chemistry with one another. The stares their closeness elicits from the more buttoned-up onlookers are bleakly amusing, but this is the one plotline that has yet to have any connection to what’s going on elsewhere this season. What is the end-game here? Is Angelique in league with Evelyn Poole, or will this arc have no bearing on the season’s main focus–the quest of the witches to claim Vanessa–at all? The season may be young, but this level of disconnection from the main plot is a miscalculation.
While we’re on the subject of squandered characters, Sembene (Danny Sapani), the most grossly unrepresented character on the show, gets something to do this week. He and Ethan have a moment of bonding where he reveals to Ethan his concerns for Vanessa’s health, but not her safety. “I’m not worried about her,” he says. “She’s a lioness.” Sapani does strong work with the minuscule material he’s given and it only makes one long for more from the character.
The final pairing of the episode is Victor and Lilly’s scene, where feminist undertones spring-up to counter Victor’s continued creepy feelings toward the woman he murdered and brought back to life. Lilly is catching on that Victor has at least a modicum of lust towards her, proven by the fact that he dresses her up in the clothes he bought with Vanessa as if she were his own personal doll. This in turn becomes a conversation centered around the corset and the high heels Victor is making her wear. Lilly complains she can’t breathe with the corset on, and Victor explains it’s supposed to be that way so women will not exert themselves. “What would be the danger if women exerted themselves?” Lilly asks. “They’d take over the world,” Victor unhesitantly responds. When it comes to the heels and their height, Victor says he got the highest heels possible because he “likes that in a woman.” It’s a strong, subtly unnerving scene, and Treadaway and Piper play it beautifully. Piper in particularly seems to be much more assured this season now that she’s no longer using the terrible fake Irish accent she was saddled with in first season. While this scene tangos with striking a blow for feminism–at least in the context of this show and the period it’s set in–and gives Lilly lines like, “All we do is for men, isn’t it?”, it stops short of a full-blown revelation. In the end, the only reason she does get to free herself from the corset is because Victor tells her it’s okay.
The rest of “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places” is spent with the characters trying to figure out the mysterious devil’s language that’s been scrawled on various objects, such as daggers, coins, bones, and more bones (there’s a lot of bones, because bones are creepy). And never fear, Inspector Boring is back on the case! Douglas Hodge’s Inspector Rusk returns, now investigating the murders of the parents on the train in the second episode–the parents who had their baby stolen so Evelyn could use its corpse to make a giant scary Vanessa-puppet. No disrespect to Hodge, who does the best he can with what he’s given, but Rusk is the very definition of deadweight so far. One can only assume that Logan has something up his sleeve for Rusk, but it would be nice if he got to it already. Rusk is convinced that the train murders are related to Ethan’s werewolf murders and while they are indirectly related and we the audience know this, why would Rusk draw that conclusion? Of all the cases in London, what makes him think a bar full of torn-apart drunks and a carefully orchestrated throat-slashing on a train are even remotely related? I know this is a show about Frankenstein, a wolfman, and Timothy Dalton all commingling while naked witches disguise themselves like the Predator, but Rusk’s leap in logic is just too silly, even for this show.
Strong character moments aside, “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places” is an altogether weak installment of the season. The bits of new info we get here are things we had already basically gleaned on our own and in driving home the same fact, that the witches want Vanessa, again and again, the show seems to be spinning its wheels and kicking mud up in our faces. “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places” isn’t the worst that Penny Dreadful has to offer, but after last week’s remarkable, poignant episode, it’s certainly a step in the wrong direction.