Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 9, “And Hell Itself My Only Foe”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airs Sundays at 10 pm (ET) on Showtime
An overarching theme of Penny Dreadful’s second season has involved its monstrous characters trying to find their place in the world. On their own, they are fearsome, damned things, but together they form an almost familial unit. The struggle of the characters coming to terms with their roles in the grand scheme of things can be seen as a mirror for creator and showrunner John Logan trying to make his rogues gallery fit together.
In season two’s penultimate episode, “And Hell Itself My Only Foe”, Logan has his players embark on paths that may very well lead to their demise. With Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) still captive in the castle of witch Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), the Penny Dreadful gang rallies for rescue. Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) reveals he’s been in cahoots with Evelyn but very much wants to help his friends now. The team agrees to set out in the daytime, but since there’s no spooky fun to be had in the day, Vanessa (Eva Green) decides to strike out in the dark of night.
At Evelyn’s house, her rebellious daughter Hecate (Sarah Greene) continues to drop not-so-subtle hints that she’s not very loyal to her mother. “Children should walk before they run,” Evelyn warns her. The rebellious Hecate angle is a perplexing, dangling plot thread that hasn’t quite gelled with the rest of the season. We’ve seen too little of the character to get a feel for her, and as for Evelyn’s other witchy daughters, they barely exist as characters.
Speaking of extraneous characters, everyone’s least favorite detective Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) turns up yet again to warn Ethan (Josh Hartnett) that he’ll be watching him like a hawk. Rusk also lets drop that Ethan’s real name is Ethan Lawrence Talbot. This is a fun callback to the Universal monster movies that Penny Dreadful so lovingly takes inspiration from (though really, Penny Dreadful has always felt a bit more Hammer Horror than Universal), as Lawrence Talbot was the real name of the Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolfman.
Last week’s episode breathed new life into Billie Piper’s Lily, revealing her to be strong-willed and dominance-minded, ready to conquer the world. She turns her sights on Dorian (Reeve Carney), first making him kneel to her and then having him reveal his healing powers and seeming immortality. Lily wants to exploit and use Dorian’s powers for her cause, as if she’s building her own Victorian-era version of The X-Men. This sudden development is strong and it gives the impression that Logan has finally found a way to work Dorian into the show without being an outlier. In the same breath however, it continues to make the time Dorian spent with Angelique seem all the more useless.
As for Lily’s other partner in monster domination, John “The Creature” Clare (Rory Kinnear) seems less sure about his allegiance with Lily than he did last week, while she was mounting him. “True evil is, above all, seductive,” he says forlornly. His melancholy distracts him from the fact that the blind wax museum owner’s daughter who had been so nice to him up until now has lead him into a trap, locking him a cage in the basement. The wax museum owner intends to show off the freakish John Clare as its main attraction, a prospect which will only lead to problems. Or one can hope — where’s Clare’s rage when he really needs it? He’s so quick to push Victor (Harry Treadaway) around, yet when he’s actually in peril he just stands there.
Speaking of Victor, “And Hell Itself My Only Foe” gives Treadaway a moment to shine as he and Vanessa share a tender moment that captures what Penny Dreadful does so well. As Victor partakes in narcotics, he wistfully longs for the loss of the love of Lily. “I’m sorry you feel so unloved,” Vanessa sympathetically tells him. “You are a beautiful monster, and there are those who could love you.” Abel Korzeniowski’s lush soundtrack sets the scene, and it can not be overstated how gorgeous Korzeniowski’s work remains week to week. It is arguably one of the best scores for a currently running television show: beautiful, sombre, and precisely orchestrated. Vanessa’s hopeful message, that even monsters can be beautiful and find love, is echoed later by Danny Sapani’s Sembene. Sembene is one of the more tragically underused of Penny Dreadful’s ensemble, but Sapani’s quiet, strong performance always succeeds in making the character stand out. He and Ethan have a heart-to-heart about friendship, during which Sembene declares that amongst this ragtag group of freaks and monsters, he’s found “kindness among the unkind.” It’s a rather lovely summation of what Penny Dreadful longs to achieve.
As our heroes descend upon Evelyn’s castle, director Brian Kirk achieves some picturesque shots of the structure looming against the night like something pulled from a Victorian lithograph in a book of gothic prose. “And Hell Itself My Only Foe” ramps up the horror as it nears its conclusion, but one can’t help be left with a feeling that this is an episode composed of filler material–gristle before we get to the meat of next week’s season finale. Yet the more human moments between the show’s monsters in this episode, such as the exchanges between Vanessa and Victor, and Ethan and Sembene, make it worth feasting on for now.