Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 5, “Above the Vaulted Sky”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Damon Thomas
Airs Sundays at 10 pm ET on Showtime
John Clare (the English poet, not the Frankenstein’s monster character who has adopted his name on Penny Dreadful) was a working class writer who penned beautiful poems dripping with lush descriptions of nature and alienation. Clare was only five feet tall due to malnutrition as a child, and eventually became quite mad, insisting he was both William Shakespeare and Lord Byron.
Because of his small stature and failing mental health, Penny Dreadful’s “John Clare” postulates that the real Clare most likely “felt a singular affinity with the outcasts and the unloved. The ugly animals. The broken things.” Those ugly animals and the broken things are at the forefront of this week’s episode, “Above the Vaulted Sky.”
The bulk of “Above the Vaulted Sky” focuses on the romantic entanglements of several characters, as well as revealing that Ethan has a lot more secrets than we realized. Inspector Rusk, who has so far been one of the weaker characters this season, finally gets a chance to do something. He and Ethan chat, and Rusk reveals that “Ethan Chandler” is some sort of stage name, and that Ethan has many things to hide (besides the whole “being a werewolf” thing). It’s only a small scene, but it’s nice that Douglas Hodge is finally given an opportunity to let his character get up off the sidelines.
Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) takes his “cousin” Lily (Billie Piper) to tea with Vanessa, which seems like a bit of a bonehead move, considering how close Vanessa and Ethan are. Doesn’t Dr. Frankenstein consider that Ethan might find out about this, and then be shocked to learn that his dead girlfriend Brona is alive again? Nonetheless, it’s a sweet little scene and shows that, despite his overall creepiness, Victor does have feelings for Lily. The same cannot be said of Lily with regards to the creature. When he comes to pay her a visit, it’s revealed that Victor has told Lily that she and “John Clare” were engaged to be wed. The creature regales Lily with a made-up story about their past: they were out for a stroll when a group laughed to see a lovely young women to be accompanied by a disfigured man. The creature tells Lily that she kissed his hand then, in what is no doubt a fantasy that he’s had many times over, involving whatever woman he happens to be fixated on. The fairy tale doesn’t do much for Lily, who is clearly uncomfortable around the creature, and is also clearly falling for Victor.
The best scene of “Above the Vaulted Sky” focuses on Vanessa and the creature sharing a sad, gothically romantic conversation where they discuss the poet John Clare, along with matters of the heart. It’s a quiet, simple scene, and Eva Green and Rory Kinnear play it so beautifully that it’s a tad heartbreaking. It also contains one of the best lines in Penny Dreadful history, wherein the creature asks Vanessa if she likes poetry, and Green replies in perfect deadpan fashion: “All sad people like poetry.”
The two take turns reciting John Clare’s somber, haunting poem “I Am”, beginning “I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,/ My friends forsake me like a memory lost…” and the sense of unremitting sadness that blankets the scene is one of the loveliest things Penny Dreadful has ever conjured up.
And while the creature’s story about how Lily kissed his hand may be a fantasy, elsewhere Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) gets to perform the real deal when he and Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) attend a party, and Angelique is scorned by a group of men who know that “she” is a “he.” It’s a harrowing scene, and Carney and Beauchamp hit the right notes of discomfort and affection. Though Dorian’s kissing of Angelique’s hand doesn’t make everything right again—the heckling men actually spit on her—it’s such a tender moment that it’s almost forgivable how much this show awkwardly shoehorns Dorian into episodes. Week after week, one gets the sense that writer John Logan just doesn’t know how the hell to make Dorian work in conjunction with the rest of the plot, but the relationship with Angelique remains, for the most part, well handled.
“Above the Vaulted Sky” crescendos into a vivid, lascivious finale where characters give in to their carnal desires. Dorian and Angelique, the latter reverting to being a man, have an intense sexual tryst; Lily, frightened of a storm, crawls into Victor’s bed, and before long the two are upon one another; Ethan and Vanessa share a moment on a staircase, where Vanessa tenderly touches the side of his head before leaving him alone; and Evelyn and Sir Malcolm—who had been out on a date while, unbeknownst to him, Sir Malcolm’s estranged wife sank further and further into madness—run out of the rain laughing like teenagers, only to end up in a hotel room going at it. Of course, Evelyn has enchanted Sir Malcolm with something from a small, thin point on one of her rings, but he’s obviously not very hesitant to jump between the sheets with her anyway.
After last week’s somewhat disappointing episode, “Above the Vaulted Sky” sets things right again for Penny Dreadful. It’s a lusty, creepy hour of television that plays to all of the show’s strengths. It’s an episode that truly has an affinity for the outcasts and the unloved, and for the broken things.