Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 6 “What Death Can Join Together”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Coky Giedroyc
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
The first thirty minutes of “What Death Can Join Together” is a fairly predictable, often awkwardly delivered metaphor about transformation: characters are constantly speaking to each other about uncontrollable changes, be it physical, mental or spiritual. For the last fifteen or so, though, Penny Dreadful finally ratchets up the story to the batshit crazy levels I’d hoped for earlier on, with vampire mind-controlled witch-things, a further look into Dorian Gray’s mystery, and the possession of Vanessa Ives, which closes the episode on a high note. With two episodes left, it was high time for Penny Dreadful to get to the point – and “What Death Can Join Together” does, allowing the series to start delivering on the promising start of early episodes.
That the third – and best – act of the episode is catalyzed by the goofiest development (Frankenstein and Caliban) speaks to the place the show finds itself in after delaying things for five hours: with only two hours left to go, things need to start happening, logic be damned. Caliban’s murder of Professor Van Helsing only occurs after his attempts to woo the theater’s leading lady (obviously) fail, his anger and hurt teaching him how to cry, but apparently not how to exercise patience with something as difficult as resurrection. There’s really two faults of logic at play here, working against each other: Victor doesn’t seem to give a fuck about Caliban’s feelings, which hasn’t worked out well for him yet – yes, we see him drawing in a notebook, but there’s no sense of urgency to Victor’s attempts to find Caliban a wife (though with Brona and the leading lady, we’ve got two possibilities for the butt-hurt undead) – just as there’s no attempt on Caliban’s part to understand that Victor can’t just raise a man from the dead by spitting in his palms and rubbing his nipples. Both characters are simply acting to serve the plot line: Victor and Caliban both remain ignorant to the realities of their situation, and both act like idiots, despite being some of the most well-read, intelligent characters in this world.
But for all the frustrations with Frankenstein and his monster, what follows Caliban breaking Van Helsing’s neck is everything this show is about: creepy sequences, brutal action scenes, and lots of ruminating on the soul, and whether change (either welcome or forced) redefines who we are as creatures. For all of these people, there are things brimming under the surface they’re trying to control; and for most characters, it’s only making their lives more difficult. Can embracing the darkness within ourselves be a good thing? For all Vanessa has fought her possession, it’s brought her nothing but anguish and pain: and the second she loses control (in blissful ecstasy, after tearing into Dorian Gray’s skin with her fingers, teeth, and a knife he brandished), something evil slips in, taunting her and teasing Malcolm when she arrives home in the closing moments.
As Chandler so plainly points out to Malcolm, “there are some changes we just cannot control” – and although I think Chandler’s a bit of a hypocrite for it (being a man trying to control his fate, and I’d even suggest a certain beast within himself), it rings true in the climactic moments of the episode. Malcolm doesn’t want to show his weakness when the vampire teases him with a clearly influenced Mina, just as Vanessa strives to keep the evils inside her hidden from Dorian and the rest of the world: their inability to accept events and things beyond their control is almost what damns them, like Brona essentially dying alone, trying to push Chandler away as her condition worsens considerably.
Again, some of this is delivered in less-than-desirable fashion; there are plenty of conversations and moments that hit this point directly on the top of the nose, throwing subtlety to the wind (like the meta moment when Van Helsing shows Victor an infamous penny dreadful). But the final act does so much work (and in Vanessa’s case, last week’s episode) in establishing the emotional stakes of these situations, it makes the vulnerabilities so much more devastating, than just relying on the cool factor of Vanessa doing her The Exorcist impression, or the awesome fight scene where Malcolm, Sembene, and Chandler take out a pack of attacking witches. It makes that final moment, where Vanessa and Malcolm’s internal battle against their weakness is lost, so much more resonant – and on the heels of Chandler’s comment about losing battles, a poignant closing to an hour that has me really excited for the final two episodes of this surprising first season.
– I wish they’d just show us Dorian Gray’s portrait already; the buildup is coming to such a fever pitch, it’s only going to disappoint.
– I really hope we get a Sembene flashback episode in season two, if only to see him whip those blades around again.
– Lots of teasing, “almost” moments: Chandler starts talking about his exploits in America before Brona cuts him off, the Dorian Gray scene, the burning log preventing the battle between man and vampire, Malcolm’s words to Vanessa at the end… it’s the dramatic equivalent of “edging” (Orange is the New Black fans understand this), and boy it can be frustrating.