Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 8, “Memento Mori”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Kari Skogland
Airs Sundays at 10 pm ET on Showtime
As Penny Dreadful nears the end of its second season, it decides to acknowledge that it has characters beyond Vanessa and Ethan. The pair don’t even appear in this week’s episode, “Memento Mori,” but there’s enough going on to fill up the void.
Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) has become aware of his enchantment by Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), and he doesn’t just mean in the romantic sense — he recalls how on the day of his wife’s funeral, he was at a ball waltzing. That’s simply not the kind of man he knows he is. Evelyn confirms his suspicions by possessing him and causing him to throw a tantrum, but Sir Malcolm is able to break the enchantment, and then unwisely goes off to Evelyn’s mansion to confront her.
Other elements of “Memento Mori” involve the fleshing-out of the Verbis Diablo — the narrative written out by a monk on various objects like bones, butterflies, and more bones, that Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) has been piecing together. He’s finished the translation and lays out a tale detailing that Lucifer wants to use Vanessa to bring about the apocalypse. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he also reveals that Lucifer has a brother, and the brother is the yet to be seen vampire master who captured Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina last season. The speculation has always been that this vampire master must be Dracula, since so many characters from Bram Stoker’s book appear. The prospect of the show finally introducing Dracula, and Dracula also being the brother of Lucifer would be a splendid touch, though perhaps that’ll wait until season three, which was recently given the go-ahead. The Verbis Diablo also mentions that something called the Wolf of God could be used to stop the demonic forces, which can only mean Ethan and which also means that series writer John Logan is finally finding ways to bring all his characters together.
All except poor Dorian (Reeve Carney), who remains an outlier, even if he is going on more and more dates with Lily (Billie Piper). “Memento Mori” allows us more insight into Dorian’s nature and finally shows us his infamous portrait, which depicts him as an ancient man prone and chained. Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) discovers the portrait, and though she says she can live knowing what Dorian is, he thinks otherwise and poisons her. It’s a tragic demise to what was once a rather sweet romance and it doesn’t really fit with what the season has been showing us so far in regards to Dorian. As a result, Dorian Grey continues to be the weakest aspect of Penny Dreadful.
While “Memento Mori” is an exposition-heavy episode, director Kari Skogland keeps it engaging with some truly stunning shot compositions and little creepy touches that make it all sing. A particularly stunning shot involves the creature John Clare (Rory Kinnear) standing on a wind-blown London street at night, looking with mournful longing as Dorian and Lily enjoy their date. It’s so simple, yet striking. Near the end of the episode, as Sir Malcolm encounters visions of all his dead loved ones in coffins, Skogland adds the effective touch of having the shrouds over the corpses’ faces suddenly suck inward as they gasp back to life — or at least afterlife — and arise from their coffins. This little detail makes the scene infinitely more chilling than just showing the ghouls rising up from their coffins.
The true triumph of “Memento Mori” comes courtesy of the reveal of Lily’s true nature. The previous episode ended with her picking up a man in a tavern and murdering him, and this week’s begins with her canoodling with the corpse and whispering taunts. On first glance, this seems utterly disconnected from the narrative this season has been building with Lily’s character — why is she suddenly a sadistic killer? But Logan’s script has an ace up its sleeve, and it’s aided greatly by Billie Piper’s fierce performance. When John Clare comes to confront Lily, she first pretends to be timid but finally has enough of his moping lovelorn ways. “You are blind — like all other men,” she spits, furious. Ranting in rage about how she’s tired of the ways women must be subservient to men, she also reveals that she remembers a lot more about her old life as Brona than we were led to believed, talking extensively of being violently used by male customers. She even briefly slips into her (still terrible) Irish accent from the first season. “We lose our dignity in corsets and high shoes,” she growls. “Never again will I kneel to any man. Now they shall kneel to me.” It could be hokey or even unbelievable, but Logan’s dialogue and Piper’s incredible delivery give it real life.
John Clare is a little terrified of Lily, and she soothes and seduces him. “Why do we exist?” she asks as she climbs atop the quivering creature. “We are the next thousand years. We are the dead!” This is all delightful, pulpy stuff — a gleefully twisted retelling of The Bride of Frankenstein with the Bride now accepting the monster, and inviting him to conquer the world with her. If there is a flaw in this design, it’s simply the fact that this plot development is coming so late in the season, after we’ve spent so much time on Lily’s other, now defunct development. It makes the sudden twist more impactful, but also comes across as too much too late. Her arc will in all likelihood carry over into next season though, where it will hopefully have more room to breathe. Lateness aside, this moment between Piper and Kinnear is one of the most compelling things Penny Dreadful has done with characters other than Vanessa. It’s exciting to think that Logan has finally found a way to make his secondary characters more interesting.
Oh, and Inspector Rusk showed up at some point and did some stuff. Does anyone care, at all?