Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 1, “Fresh Hell”
Written by John Logan
Directed by James Hawes
Airs Sundays at 10 pm ET on Showtime
Season one of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was a gleefully gruesome gothic experience, firmly rooted in pulpy sensibilities and clearly influenced by Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. While it was not an altogether solid season of television, it had a ghastly charm, reminiscent of lurid Hammer horror films of the past.
The first season saw a rag-tag group of Victorian-era Londonites, including the demonically possessed Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), American gunslinger (and secret werewolf) Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), and Dr. Frankenstein himself (Harry Treadaway), doing battle against ultraviolent vampires. The group banded together to embark on a quest to rescue Sir Malcolm Murray’s (Timothy Dalton) lost daughter Mina. Season one climaxed with Sir Malcolm realizing his daughter, now turned into a bloodsucker, was lost forever. He put a bullet in her and accepted Vanessa as his surrogate daughter in her place.
Now Penny Dreadful returns for a second season, one that seems to be keeping its Grand Guignol inspirations in check while venturing into new territory. A lot was packed into the first season finale, and it left the question of how exactly Penny Dreadful would continue its story. More vampires, perhaps?
Nope—witches! While the vampires of season one were suitably creepy, what that first season lacked was a distinct Big Bad for our heroes to go up against. Everything seemed to be hinting at none other than Dracula himself, but the Count’s name was never uttered, and he failed to make an appearance. Season two looks to rectify a lack of boss-level baddie by bringing back the mysterious Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) in its first episode, titled “Fresh Hell.” Evelyn was a seemingly charlatan psychic in the first season, but in “Fresh Hell” it’s revealed that she’s in fact the demonic head of a coven of shape-shifting witches. And what an appropriately dreadful introduction she gets: after a brief appearance in a bit before the opening credits, we find her smoking a cigarette while bathing in an ornate bathtub full of blood. McCrory is clearly having an absolute blast with the character, and it’s apparent that one of this season’s highlights will be watching her sink her teeth into her villainous performance, as she seeks to claim Vanessa’s damaged soul for Lucifer once and for all.
As a whole, “Fresh Hell” is mostly setup mixed with continuation. The episode delves into the aftermath of Ethan’s werewolf hijinks from season one’s finale: he wakes up in a bar where all the patrons are dead and he’s covered in their blood. It’s worth mentioning that, despite the blood, he’s still impeccably dressed, with not a single stitch of clothing out of place; he must be one of the neatest werewolves in supernatural history. Elsewhere, Dr. Frankenstein honors the whims of his creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear) by creating a mate: Brona Croft (Billie Piper), Ethan’s old girlfriend, recently killed by Dr. Frankenstein. With any luck, her re-animation will fix Piper’s terrible attempt at an Irish accent from the first season. Meanwhile, Caliban finds himself now working in a wax museum, because apparently Frankenstein’s Monster just really needs a job. Vanessa is still struggling with her demonic possession, and she’s very much aware that dark forces are aligning against her. Green continues to be one of the best elements of the show, and her performance as the perpetually tormented Miss Ives is simultaneously alluring and disturbing. As long as Penny Dreadful sticks with her character, it should succeed.
Although “Fresh Hell” boasts some truly gorgeous direction from James Hawes, accompanied by the dependably beautiful music by Abel Korzeniowski, something feels off about this first episode. Even though “Fresh Hell” begins with a scene in which Ethan and Vanessa are attacked by a group of bald, naked, shrieking witches, the episode lacks energy. It only really comes alive near the end, when McCrory’s Evelyn Poole arrives to shed some blood. This season premiere hints at the gory fun to come for Penny Dreadful, but let’s hope there’s more than just hints in the following episodes.