While there are a number of excellent television episodes that aired during the first half of the year, not all of them made our list, due to a number of reasons, chief among them the simple fact that there are too many episodes potentially worthy of inclusion for the entire panel to watch them all. This is …
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.
Evelyn Poole and her coven of witches have been fighting hard to deliver Vanessa to Satan, and “Little Scorpion” highlights one of the reason’s the devil wants Vanessa’s soul so badly: it’s steeped in darkness.
Last week’s Penny Dreadful ended with several of the main characters shacking up for the night. This week’s is very much a “morning after” episode. Gone is the glow of a night of unexpected pleasure, replaced by a dull feeling of “What now?”
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.”
Everyone pairs up in the latest episode of Penny Dreadful, “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places.” Penny Dreadful is obviously an ensemble show, but it’s always had a problem knowing quite what to do with its plethora of characters. After last week’s series highlight episode, which slowed things down and focused on a single coherent story, the show gets back to business, with “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places,” attempting to cram in as much information as possible relevant to season two’s main plot.
Vanessa Ives is cursed. That’s well established by now in Penny Dreadful, but this latest episode digs into the moldy, damp crypt of Vanessa’s past to show us just how cursed she is. Eva Green’s performance has and apparently always will be the best aspect of Penny Dreadful and the latest episode, “The Nightcomers”, knows this and exploits it to its fullest.
The game is afoot in “Verbis Diablo,” the second episode of Penny Dreadful’s second season. Whereas season one had a tendency to seem unfocused, introducing its ensemble rogues gallery of players, season two has its eye on the prize. That prize is Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), for whom secret witch and target-practice expert Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) has ill intentions.
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.
With so many rich characters and weird, supernatural plot lines to tie up, it’s no surprise that “Grand Guignol” feels over-stuffed – especially considering its short eight-episode length, which makes this first season more of a introductory mini-series than anything else. Dedicating two of those episodes to the back stories of Frankenstein and Vanessa Ives certainly didn’t help either, stopping major plots dead in their tracks to focus on one specific element within its larger machinations – despite being the best episodes of the season, they work against “Grand Guignol”, condensing plots to the point that the climatic moments lose all their dramatic weight when the show’s two central characters – and the same pair who enjoyed hour-long episodes focused on their pasts – are nowhere to be found.
There’s a very specific formula for success on Penny Dreadful: the more unhinged Vanessa Ives gets, the more interesting and colorful everything else in the world around her becomes. Part of this is by design: there is so much to discover with her character, there almost needs to be no other distractions around her character – but it’s also a by-product of performance: Eva Green’s command of her performance allows her to unleash or retract at any time, truly one of the best split-personality performances I’ve ever watched on film. “Possession” makes these strengths – and by comparison, flaws – quite clear in the episode’s opening minutes: but as the episode carries on inside Malcolm’s townhouse, the people around Vanessa become more three-dimensional, a symbiotic relationship between overarching plot and minute character development that makes for the show’s most thrilling, emotional episode yet.
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.
Led by Eva Green’s magnificent performance, “Closer Than Sisters” is a enjoyable, if predictable, origin story for Penny Dreadful’s most enigmatic and mysterious character. Soaked in atmosphere and sprinkled with musings on the true nature of evil, “Closer Than Sisters” only fails when its trying to justify it’s dramatic tensions, turning entire segments of the episode into slut shaming exercises. When it’s squarely focused on the characterization of Vanessa Ives, however, “Closer Than Sisters” wonderfully illustrates her seduction to the darker side of Penny Dreadful’s supernatural world.
There are a lot of things suggested in “Demimonde”; mainly, that everyone isn’t who they appear to be on the surface. A fine way to twiddle thumbs in the middle of a season, sure, but in this week’s Penny Dreadful, there isn’t anything underneath these not-so-vague hints that Vanessa got involved with the King of Vampires (as I’m guessing “It” was in her bedroom), Ethan might have an alter ego that tears human beings apart, and Dorian Gray has a very special portrait in his basement.
For a character who introduces himself by ripping his younger “brother” Proteus in half, and begins “Resurrection” by wiping Proteus’s blood on Viktor’s face, Caliban (the name Frankenstein’s first monster is given by a kind theater owner) is a surprisingly eloquent creature. Having learned English through Victorian poetry and Shakespeare, Caliban is yet another of Penny Dreadful’s horrendous and beautiful creations, a wildly entertaining re-imagination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel – and a force that drives the emotional undercurrents of resurrection and redemption established in the first two hours.
Boy, Penny Dreadful did not wait long to get batshit crazy. It’s hard to say a pilot boasting vampires, Dr. Frankenstein, and hieroglyphics is showing restraint, but “Séance” proves it can be, an hour packed with allusions to the undead, Frankenstein’s OTHER creature (the angry one), and a completely unhinged performance by Eva Green. It might not be logical – and with the sheer amount of things this show’s packed into two episodes, might not last long – but boy, is it off to a fun start.
There’s nothing like a show confident in what it’s doing. Of the dozens of pilots I watch a year, an overwhelming majority of them feel the need to explain themselves, over and over again: who their characters are, what matters to them, why the exist – and most annoyingly, why this particular story is the most epic, most original, best thing we’ve ever seen: in a world full of short attention spans, supremely critical audiences, and short-lived bombs with anemic audience draw, most pilots have to convince us that we need to be watching their show.