Published on June 13th, 2014 | by Dapper Dan0
Penny Dreadful – Episode 4 “Demimonde”
This week’s episode of Penny Dreadful is a curious one. On the one hand we get some movement in the main plot, but on the other it all feels rather heavy-handed and a tad forced.
Welcome back, apologies for the tardiness on this article. Needs must as the Devil drives, eh? Rest assured next week the good ship Dapper will be righted and back on course.
Our opening scene, of an orgy at Dorian Gray’s home, seems lifted straight out of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut but does show the immortal libertine coming face to face with his famous picture. Throughout the scene, Gray looks bored and disinterested in the bacchanalian pursuits around him, but his demeanour when faced with the picture changes entirely. I expected him to show revulsion, as (if adhering to the book) it should show the cumulative effects his lifestyle would wreak upon his frame. Instead he looks curious, and fascinated. Quite an interesting take.
Gray then travels to Kew Gardens and runs into Vanessa Ives, who has just had a rather telling scene outside a church. Vanessa seems unwilling, or unable, to enter the church. Perhaps she feels tainted by something? I’m guessing the possession at the séance was not the first time she’d been host to something unpleasant…
The scene at Kew, where Vanessa’s restrained icy façade is well and truly shaken, coupled with his one with Ethan later, has given me the idea that Gray is not merely a charismatic PUA. He’s actually got some form of power, whether it’s mental influence, or pheromones, I’m not sure yet. Later in the hour, Gray has drinks at his home with Ethan and discusses cologne, and the effect different scents can have on someone’s mood.
Eyes down for your Penny Dreadful Bingo card, we’ve got a Daily Double! We’ve got a famous guest star alert AND another famous literary character appearance. The venerable David Warner is here as Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the haematologist that Sir Malcom mentioned last week. Van Helsing is helping Victor analyse the blood taken from ur protagonists prisoner, Fenton. The science here is all a little fuzzy but, essentially, we are told that vampirism exists. Not a huge shock at this point.
Victor cuts short the research to speak to Caliban, his recently returned first revenant, who has been spying on his activities at the Murray house. Again I’m jarred by Caliban’s well-educated vocabulary and speech patterns. I had to remind myself that he read all of Victor’s literature after his rebirth, and that this would explain much. While arguing over what he sees as Victor intentionally dragging his heels in creating a companion for him, Caliban utters a line that is so weighed down with meaning that you can practically hear the clang as it hits the floor.
“The future belongs to the immortal races; to me and my kind”
So, there’s the thread running between all of our characters, spelled out if you hadn’t realised it already: We are led to believe that Caliban is essentially ageless, that Victor can cheat death, that something akin to Dracula exists, that a picture can grant eternal youth, and likely more besides. *cough*Werewolves*cough* It feels a little heavy-handed to have it stated so explicitly in the show, when it’s been pretty clear all along. You’re clubbing the audience over the head with it, when you’ve not exactly been subtle with it up to this point.
At the Murray house, we see attempts to cure the captive Fenton of his unnatural hunger. These attempts fail, much to Sir Malcolm’s frustration as he believes such a cure is his daughter’s only hope of salvation. There’s some father/son subtext going on here. References to Sir Malcolm’s dead son (as revealed during the séance), friction between Ethan and Victor over Sir Malcolm’s choice of expedition companion. Sir Malcolm privately confides in Victor that of he and Ethan, Victor is the one he’s most inclined to think of as a son.
Fenton later slips his shackles and escapes the salubrious confines of the basement. Their attention drawn by the sounds in what should be an empty house, Victor and Sir Malcolm attempt to find him trailing him up to Vanessa’s room (Again, Vanessa is shown to be important. A vessel for a spirit seeking a foothold in the real world once more?). At this point we get a really close-up look at Fentn’s “Master”. Obviously we are led to believe that this is Dracula, based on what’s happened up to this point, but I’m still not sure that this creature is the big D himself. He does bear a passing resemblance to Luke Goss’ Nomak in Blade II, which remains one of my favourite vampire films.
Fenton’s death during the scuffle was wince-inducing and actually a little sad. He came across as incredibly broken, rather than out and out evil. A short scene between Vanessa and Sir Malcolm later in the episode covers admissions of betrayal of Mina, by both of them. One the one hand, Sir Malcolm neglected her in favour of his travels, while Vanessa feels guilty for a very specific incident that has yet to be revealed. Sir Malcolm really owns Vanessa in the exchange, an interesting turn given how aloof and in control she was in her earliest appearances.
A scene featuring Ethan and Brona has the ailing woman telling her colonial Casanova how she came to be working as a prostitute, and it’s a somewhat predictable “Fled an abusive relationship” tale. Clichéd? Possibly, but not inaccurate for many of the women in her position at the time. Another tale of woe for Brona and another reason why Ethan wants to help her and do right by her. (I’m maintaining my belief that she will be the basis of Caliban’s companion.) Later in the hour Ethan takes Brona to the theatre for a performance based around werewolves CLANG! There it goes again with all that subtlety the show is relying on this week. After a rather humiliating encounter with both Gray and Vanessa, Brona leaves in tears and tells Ethan that it’s over between them. Pushing him away physically and emotionally, she slumps in a doorway her tears lost amid the rain in London’s gutters. (That reference comes to you courtesy of Roy Batty, in Blade Runner)
After Brona’s departure, Gray leaves Vanessa’s side and goes to speak to Ethan, promising to take his mind off things. Next stop, a gambling den where you bet on the number of rats a dog can kill in two minutes. Oh Victorian London, you were such a cavalcade of whimsy. Ethan’s intense discomfort at watching the savage spectacle is a stark contrast to his laughter during the werewolf performance in the theatre. Ultimately, he gets in a scuffle with three upper-class toffs and leaves, along with Gray.
If I’m right about Gray having the ability to render someone more susceptible to his charms, it becomes a very (apologies for the pun) morally grey area. Has he essentially assaulted them against their will? This very topic was explored very well in Dan Slott’s acclaimed She-Hulk run from Marvel (recently collected in two volumes, fans!) with the Avengers team-member Starfox standing trial accused of using similar powers to engineer a liaison.
At the very least, he does give Ethan absinthe, knowing full well that Ethan has never tried it before, and continues to ply him with the green fairy. This leads to Ethan having hallucinations and flashbacks, including the woman killed at the start of episode 2, and the woman and child torn to pieces in episode 1. There’s no way for Ethan to know what that scene looked like unless he was there. Which he was. Because he’s a werewolf. Come on, people! They’re spelling it out for you here. He’s the original American Werewolf In London! After his flashbacks, Ethan walks toward Gray and kisses him, before they both undress. Crikey, I didn’t see that coming.
If it feels like a lot happened in this week’s episode, you’re right a lot did happen but it’s mostly “busy work” filling time that could be better spent advancing the core plot. Penny Dreadful is starting to feel a bit shapeless and aimless right when it should be refocusing and heading full-steam towards the season finale. Remember that there are only 8 episodes in this season and at the halfway point things are still thoroughly murky, just when they should be coming into focus.