Tuesday, 3 June 2014

PENNY DREADFUL, 1.4 – 'Demimonde'

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

written by John Logan | directed by Dearbhla Walsh

A less showy episode than we've been getting with Penny Dreadful, but all the better for it. This is a show that doesn't have to rely on blood, guts, and monsters to entertain its audience, as the human characters are proving to be the real trump cards.

Quite a few people predicted US sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is a werewolf, and this episode provided more evidence without making it explicit. Most tellingly, Ethan couldn't stomach the sight of a dog slaughtering rats for the entertainment of gamblers in a secret location Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) whisked him to.

And yet, John Logan's script was being clever while appearing to be unexpectedly dumb. The secret identity of Ethan wasn't that he's a werewolf—as portrayed in The Transformed Man play he took Brona (Billie Piper) to see—but that he's successfully adopted a "role" of a gruff heterosexual American, when he's actually a closeted gay man. The episode's climax, with Dorian and Ethan sharing glasses of absinthe and listening to opera, mixed with snapshots of the horrors Ethan's witnessed (and perhaps caused in hairier form), ending with him kissing Dorian and undressing him... was, well, a marvellous moment and brilliant way to wrong-foot audiences. Although I've heard it said Ethan was role-playing with Dorian and just seizing a sexually stimulating moment, so perhaps hasn't been homosexual up until this opportunity tempted him. On which side of the argument do you fall?
DORIAN: I suppose we all play parts.
ETHAN: What's yours?
DORIAN: Human.
To ensure that last scene worked, "Demimonde" even spent serious time on the continuing attraction between Dorian and Vanessa (Eva Green)—first at an arboretum admiring rare plants, then at the theatre where they bumped into Ethan and Brona on their date. And while Dorian's almost certainly bisexual, I got the impression he's interested in Ethan sexually and Vanessa has merely piqued his curiosity because she's so inscrutable and mysterious.

This episode did a great job giving texture to Dorian's mindset, too, as the teaser confirmed he's immoral and has the infamous portrait of himself ageing in a hidden antechamber, and has grown weary with the eternity stretching out before him. He's done, seen, heard, and experienced so much that everything's humdrum—which explains why he's attracted to illicit pleasures (bloodsports, absinthe) and taboo (sexual orgies... um, whores with consumption vomiting blood on his face during sex).

The backbone of the Penny Dreadful mystery was kept in a holding pattern for this episode, although Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) learned that their bloodthirsty captive Fenton (Olly Alexander) can't be restored to normality by use of a blood transfusion, and there was a brief return of the vampire that's kidnapped his daughter Mina. So is that thing definitely Dracula, the previously mentioned nobleman who stole Mina? I only ask because the creature looks so feral, and it seems unlikely John Logan would avoid the opportunity to give us a Prince of Darkness more in the Hammer Horror tradition. Or have we only been seeing Dracula in a more predatory guise than his usual form?
CALIBAN: My bride must be beautiful.
FRANKENSTEIN: To match her mate?
Elsewhere, Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) being pressured to create a beautiful mate for his original creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), whom we got to see working as a "stage rat" (single-handedly bringing the Grand Guignol theatre's stage tricks and effects to life). Indeed, Caliban seems to relish his profession so much that you wonder why, outside work, he reverts to being an imposing figure of doom. Or is Frankenstein the only person on the receiving end of Caliban's hatred, and the creature is otherwise a shy but decent fellow? If you can look past the fact he wants someone dead and resurrected to become his eternal companion.

We're within sight of Penny Dreadful's eight-episode run already, and it's on a roll. I'm enjoying this show a great deal, although I'm not sure it would make sense for Showtime to renew it for another season in this current form. While there are definitely other characters from Victorian literature you could throw into the mix, will the show take a lead from American Horror Story's book and cast new actors and tell a completely different story? Dr Jekyll is surely a shoe-in, if that's the plan.

There's lots of stuff to look forward to seeing resolve in the remaining three episodes, too: Sir Malcolm's quest to find his kidnapped daughter, the team's attempt to prevent an Egyptian prophecy of doom (and the exact nature of psychic Vanessa's role in that), Frankenstein's creation of a lover for his monster (Brona seems the obvious choice to die of consumption and be reborn into that waking nightmare), and I wonder if the show intends to expand on that wonderful moment when genre legend David Warner (The Omen) appeared as haematologist Van Helsing.

1 June 2014 | Showtime