Spoilers Gory & Galore
Showtime’s hit series Penny Dreadful, whose second season premiered last night with “Fresh Hell,” might be advertising itself with photos of the major characters stating No Rest for the Wicked, or videos where the characters move in slow motion, in blurred and changing images, saying, “The Devil is in us all: that’s what makes us human,” but the real theme of Season 2 was revealed last night in the premiere, and it seems to be changing from its initial season.
In Season 1, most of the characters were hunting: for Sir Malcolm’s “taken” daughter Mina, for Creatures suspected of working for the unnamed “Master,” for a cure for Mina should she be found, for a mate for Frankenstein’s Creature, for Ethan’s secret that made him say things like “There are such sins at my back that it would kill me to turn around,” for Dorian’s secret to eternal youth and perpetual boredom, for a way to save Vanessa from her inner demons.
Last night the premiere of Season 2 revealed that virtually all the hunters from last season have now become the prey.
The premiere episode of Penny Dreadful Season 2 flowed seamlessly from the finale of Season 1 as if several months had not intervened. The writing was flawless, though the story itself still has a couple weaknesses.
Vanessa & the Night-Comers
Poor Vanessa (splendidly played by the talented Eva Green) had enough trials and tribulations last year with the “Master” hunting her for his bride, and with, unbeknownst to her, the “Devil” — in the form of Amunra — hunting her, as his mate “Amunet.” Also, her own inner demons were released each time she viewed someone having sex (Sir Malcolm with her mother in the hedge-maze) or participated in the sex act herself (with Mina’s fiancé Captain Branson, or with Dorian Gray) — releasing the psycho-sexual demons that the Victorians so feared, especially in females.
Last night, a woman from S1 E2 “Séance,” Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), who seemed so innocuous when Sir Malcolm (played by the excellent Timothy Dalton) met her later in the season and she revealed herself to be merely “Evelyn Poole from Brighton,” was shown to be “hunting” Vanessa for nefarious reasons.
We first saw Evelyn chanting in a language we did not recognize, but which we later learned is Verbis Diablo — the language of the Devil, or God’s language turned inside out after Adam was cast from the Garden. Evelyn’s chanting caused Vanessa to stumble and fall as she was leisurely strolling through the snow.
When Ethan (Josh Hartnett) came to tell Vanessa that he must go away so that he doesn’t hurt anyone he loves, the two were attacked. Vanessa was obviously the main target, and Ethan was considered — by Vanessa and the attackers — as her “protector.”
We later saw Evelyn bathing in the blood of a murdered woman — like Countess Erszabet [Elizabeth] Báthory, one of history’s most notorious female serial killers — while casually smoking a cigarette (also considered unfeminine, radical, and rebellious during the Victorian age).
The bald, nude, scarred, female attackers who went after Vanessa are shown, first at the side of the street, then in Evelyn’s home, as beautiful women, one of whom — Hecate — is addressed as “daughter” by Evelyn, and another of whom is murdered by Evelyn for “failing” to capture Vanessa.
Vanessa is so terrified by the attack, and by the fact that she vaguely understood their language and rebuked them in it herself without really knowing what she was saying, that she keeps herself locked in Sir Malcolm’s house. His faithful servant Sembene (Danny Sapani), who got a new coat this year — and more lines last night than he got the entire season last year — kept watch over her inside the house. (Ethan kept watch outside.)
When Sir Malcolm finally arrived home — he’d been burying Mina at their home in the country, and being told by his wife Gladys to stay away from her for the rest of their married lives — Vanessa flew into his protective arms. It was a touching moment.
Vanessa has, indeed, become Sir Malcolm’s “daughter” this season, but instead of hunting for her, as he had to do for Mina last season, he has only to protect her from the “Night-Comers” or “Witches” who are themselves hunting Vanessa.
Later that episode, though Vanessa tried to protect herself by drawing a bloody scorpion on the floor between two candles as she prayed, the naked Night-Comers appeared behind her: they are the evil behind her back this season. And it seems Vanessa’s prayers will not protect her since, as she was praying, Evelyn was pledging Vanessa to her own “Master” — Lucifer.
Vanessa had blood on the floor. Evelyn had blood on the forehead. Vanessa was praying in Latin to God — or at least to Jesus Christ on the crucifix before her — but Evelyn seemed to be “praying” in Verbis Diablo to Lucifer. As of the end of the show last night, Evelyn’s “prayers” and pledges seemed much more powerful. It seems that Vanessa has even greater cause to “be afeard” this season than last. More than one version of the Devil seems to be hunting Vanessa this year.
the Creature’s Bride
All last season, Frankenstein’s “first-born” Creature (brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear) — called “Demon” by Frankenstein himself, and Caliban by his fellow theatre workers — insisted that Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) create an immortal mate for him, partly in retaliation for Frankenstein’s cruel and heartless abandonment of the Creature after his “agonizing” creation/birth, and partly to alleviate his subsequent loneliness and isolation from the rest of mankind.
The Creature slowly fell in love with the actress Maude, and it seemed she might become his “bride.” Though kind to him occasionally, because he reminded her of her brother “Luke” whose face was burnt in an industrial accident, Maude rejected the Creature’s amorous advances. And got him fired.
Frankenstein was forced to seek another candidate for the Creature’s mate. He chose Ethan’s lover Brona (Billie Piper), a prostitute dying of consumption, hurrying her death along by smothering her with a pillow, instead of more mercifully overdosing her with morphine to which he himself is addicted.
In the premiere of S2 of Penny Dreadful, after the Creature helped lower Brona’s scarred body into a vat of water, Frankenstein announced that they had to wait for an electrical storm before anything more could be done. I’m not sure what the Y-shaped scar over Brona’s breasts and down her chest and abdomen are, unless Frankenstein replaced her consumption-ravaged lungs. Otherwise, Brona the intended Bride is un-scarred. Unlike the Creature himself, whose appearance frightens and disgusts onlookers.
Alas, for the poor, love-lorn Creature, Frankenstein himself seems to have fallen in love, or in lust, with the lovely Brona. Talking to her, telling her he’ll miss her when she was made into the Bride for the Creature, touching her dead body in an openly sexual way (without her consent, since she’s… dead), Frankenstein’s inappropriate lustful behaviour seems to be setting up a vicious conflict for this second season. I’m guessing that the beautiful Brona will be desired by both Frankenstein and by the lonely Creature.
The storm eventually came, with both men screaming loudly for her to come back to life Now! And slowly Brona’s hand, head, then her entire naked body appeared out of the electrified water. No doubt, both Dr. F and his Creature will want her. Whether she will want either of them remains to be seen, since Dr. F pointedly remarked that he didn’t know whether she would retain any memories of her previous life. She may decide to hunt her love, Ethan.
The Bride v the Blind Girl
Having lost his job at the theatre because of his love and sexual advances toward Maude, however, the Creature was forced to seek alternate employment. He found work at a family-owned wax museum. The proprietor hopes that his new “crime scene re-creations” — along with the Creature’s face — will draw new customers. His wife scolded the husband for choosing an employee with such a face, and was scolded in return.
A more significant conflict appeared, however, when the Creature, calling himself “John Clare” for employment purposes, met the proprietors’ daughter, who is blind. She needed to “touch his face in order to meet him,” and made no remark or reaction when she carefully examined his severely scarred face.
Because the daughter is not only blind but very beautiful, I suspect that she will come to care for the Creature, and he for her — even if he is torn with guilt about feeling “unfaithful” to his Bride Brona.
Of course, if Frankenstein’s feelings lead to a conflict between himself and the Creature for the Bride, who knows what will happen between the Creature and the blind girl? Will the Creature still be hunting for a mate, will he accept the potential love and affection of the blind girl, or will he continue hunting Frankenstein for taking the Bride Brona?
Ethan as Wolf-Man / Were-Wolf
Last season, a vicious killer murdered and dismembered a mother and her young daughter. It was gruesome. At first, it was believed that The Ripper had returned. In one of the episodes, the group hunting for the missing Mina was drawn to the London Zoo in the middle of the night, where they expected/hoped to find Mina and the (vampire) Creatures.
Instead, they found a pack of wolves. Ethan ordered everyone to stay still. Then he lowered his body and held out his hand. One of the male wolves, snarling, approached and tentatively took Ethan’s hand gently into its mouth, acknowledging Ethan as the Alpha male. The Alpha male wolf.
From that episode on, bloggers and reviewers of the show predicted that Ethan’s secret was that he was the Wolf-Man, though there is no literary piece of the period dealing with such a creature. There is a Penny Dreadful which features a Wolf-Man — Wagner the Werewolf — but no literature. Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris was the first literary exploration of the Wolf-Man.
I assumed that the bloggers, critics, and reviewers who were proclaiming that Ethan was the Wolf-Man had to be mistaken since creator & writer John Logan had repeatedly stated that Penny Dreadful mixed Victorian literary characters, re-imagined, with his fictional characters.
The Wolf-Man v Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
At that point, I was still convinced that Logan would introduce one of the most famous novels of the period which explores the nature of good and evil, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Wolf-Man simply did not fit into the entire scheme of the first season of Penny Dreadful, where the characters chose to do good or evil. The Wolf-Man is cursed or bitten or somehow turned into a violent and dangerous creature against his will. He doesn’t consciously decide to go around during the full moon, tearing people apart and eating some of their internal organs.
In Stevenson’s novel, however, Dr. Jekyll makes a conscious choice to explore the evil aspects of his personality by concocting a formula which will allow his personality to separate into two parts: one entirely good, the other completely evil. Mr. Hyde is the evil, immoral part of Dr. Jekyll.
The importance of Jekyll and Hyde versus the Wolf-Man to Penny Dreadful and Ethan Chandler’s secret is choice. Choosing to do evil, choosing to harm others for selfish reasons, intentionally hurting others to achieve personal satisfaction or pleasure at the others’ expense — these were all themes of Penny Dreadful S1, and all of the characters made those choices repeatedly (though Dorian Gray’s evil or cruel choices were not actually shown: I know this from the novel itself).
Just as the characters in Penny Dreadful consciously chose to do evil and to hurt others to satisfy their own selfish desires or to exact revenge, Dr. Jekyll chooses to allow his evil side to come out. As Edward Hyde, he seriously hurts children, dismembers women, and murders famous politicians. Hyde enjoys it.
Dr. Henry Jekyll enjoys it, too, because it allows him to do whatever evil he wishes — as Hyde — while maintaining his good reputation and respected standing in society as Dr. Jekyll. Unfortunately for Jekyll, Hyde also has free will, and he chooses to take over Jekyll’s life to the point where Hyde can gain control of their shared body at will, without any potion, and Jekyll is unable to get it back. Jekyll commits suicide when he realizes that the good part of himself is being subsumed by the evil part of himself.
Therefore, if the bloggers and reviewers who predicted that Ethan’s secret was that he was a Wolf-Man, it took away Ethan’s choice to do evil, which went against the very premise of the show in season 1. It also eliminated the literary basis for his story since no Wolf-Man literature existed till 1933, and the show takes place in 1891. Also, throughout S1, Ethan objected to extreme violence — unless it was in the interest of self-preservation or to save those he’d been hired to protect — as well as to cruelty, especially in the case of the captured Fenton (Olly Alexander), whom the others tortured and experimented on, in an attempt to find a “cure” for Mina, whom they’d not even discovered yet.
Imagine my dismay when, in the penultimate scene of the S1 finale, Ethan did transform into a Wolf-Man and murder the Pinkertons his father had sent from America to forcibly bring Ethan home, as well as everyone else in the restaurant-bar-hotel where Ethan was staying.
It wasn’t just a disappointment because Ethan’s being a Wolf-Man didn’t fit with the theme of the rest of the season 1 of Penny Dreadful. It was a disappointment because so many people had predicted it weeks beforehand, and they were correct.
It appears that S2 of Penny Dreadful is also eliminating Ethan’s choice to do evil, separating him from the remainder of the characters. He told Vanessa that he has blackouts, during which he assumes bad things happen, because there’s a lot of blood, and that he is the one who’s done them, since he’s the one who’s still alive.
The final episode of S1 showed that in addition to being a paid hunter, Ethan was also one of the hunted: the Pinkertons sent from America by his father were hunting him, determined to chain and drag him back home. This year, those hunters are dead, but since there was a survivor — mentioned once by Police Inspectors, and shown only briefly, completely bandaged, in a hospital bed — Ethan may be more prey than hunter this season.
The only major character we didn’t get to see in the premiere episode of S2 of Penny Dreadful was Dorian Gray, whom I also felt was greatly neglected and unexplored last season. Anyone unfamiliar with Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, had no idea what that secret, hidden portrait he was always looking at displayed.
The portrait is of Dorian, of course, and shows his external evil and ugliness in the portrait without its showing on his own face or body, but without reading the book itself, viewers could have thought it was a portrait of God, angels, Jesus, or the Devil. Of course, they could tell from the scene following his sexual encounter with Vanessa last year that the portrait has the power to heal physical wounds, but beyond that… Nothing.
Season Two Predictions
Of course, Penny Dreadful may be changing its theme of all the characters’ choosing to do evil this season. That would mean that the “weakness” of not giving Ethan a choice concerning evil would not longer be a weakness. Sembene has already been given more lines, so perhaps, he will “have a story,” this year, unlike last season. Dorian Gray has not yet appeared — which surprised me since creator & writer John Logan worked every other major character in the series into the premiere. In any event, unless Dorian radically changes his character, he will still be a hunter, seeking personal pleasure even if it involves the pain or death of others. Otherwise, only the Night-Comers — of which Evelyn Poole aka Madame Kali is the leader — are choosing to do evil as far as I can determine.
Ethan’s “curse” of being a Wolf-Man and his blackouts prevent his choice. Vanessa has become the prey rather than the “cruel little girl” who intentionally caused best friend Mina’s distress and ultimate entanglement with the “Master.” Frankenstein is attempting to give the Creature a Bride, though Dr. F is getting a little too involved with her himself, before she’s even brought back to life. Sir Malcolm has become Vanessa’s surrogate father rather than her judge and jury, constantly and cruelly reminding Vanessa of her “sin” and “betrayal.”
Since the S2 premiere so carefully integrated the various storylines set up in S1, I was surprised that we never saw Dorian, but I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. He’s probably just picking up some more manuscripts in Italy.
What I don’t know is if Dorian, too, will become one of the prey rather than one of the hunters.Catch up on Season 1 of Showtime’s horror-thriller Penny Dreadful on Amazon ($1.99-2.99/episode, SD v HD). Watch the premiere of Penny Dreadful S2 “Fresh Hell” free on Showtime Anytime.