Tuesday, 17 June 2014

PENNY DREADFUL, 1.6 – 'What Death Can Join Together'

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

written by John Logan | directed by Coky Giedroyc

I've heaped praise on Penny Dreadful most weeks, and I again enjoyed this latest episode ("What Death Can Join Together"); but it was my least favourite of the six episodes to air, so I thought it might be fair to be slightly more critical about the show and point out some failings and growing frustrations. I'm largely happy with the show, don't get me wrong, but considering there are now only two episodes left... has writer John Logan done a good job parcelling out his high-concept Victorian chiller?
MALCOLM: (regarding Brona) She will need opiates before long, for the pain. She will cease being who she is.
ETHAN: Then I'll love who she becomes.
One thing that's starting to irritate me is Caliban (Rory Kinnear), because nothing about that storyline his progressed enough since episode 3 ("Resurrection"). Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is still making negligible progress creating a mate for his monster, and Caliban's tendency to surprise his creator by killing someone close to him is wearing thin. It was a particular shame that Van Helsing (David Warner) fell victim to a Caliban neck-snap this week, as I was enjoying Warner's performance and hoped the character would stick around for longer because it's such a famous one. It's also slightly awkward that parts of Caliban's story evoke deep sympathy for his plight as an outcast (he entertained the idea of falling in love with an actress who visited him under his theatre's stage, before realising she was just being polite to his face), and the next moment he's murdered a fun character just to hasten Frankenstein's work. Penny Dreadful did take time to lay the groundwork about Frankenstein's horrendous treatment of the newborn Caliban, but is it wrong I'm on the doctor's side now? Caliban just comes across as far too unreasonable to me.

Last week's episode was a prolonged flashback, so it also felt peculiar that the climax of episode 4's "Demimonde"—where Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) shared a homosexal kiss—was completely forgotten about now we're back in the present. Are we now supposed to believe it was a crazy mistake or moment of experimentation on Ethan's part? I was rather looking forward to seeing how their sexual entanglement would impact Dorian's interest in Vanessa (Eva Green), and Ethan's relationship with terminally ill prostitute Brona (Billie Piper), but nothing came of it. Maybe it'll happen next week, but I wanted a more immediate repercussion.

At least there was a big development with Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) taking Ethan and manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) aboard a quarantined "plague ship" from Cairo, where they disturbed a crew of flaxen-haired female vampires and—at long last—the "master vampire" keeping Sir Malcolm's daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) prisoner. It was an exciting action sequence of gunfire and flame, and I also appreciated the show using the term "vampire" (thanks to Van Helsing's teachings with a genuine 'penny dreadful' issue called Varney the Vampire), but this story still doesn't feel weighty enough. I cut it slack because I was expecting swift reveals, but it's now episode 6 and I think we need major clarification about how Mina was abducted and why. Otherwise, I'm finding it increasingly hard to invest in Sir Malcolm and Vanessa's joint mission to locate and free her.
DORIAN: I prefer paintings. Photographs are so ironically... impermanent. They capture one moment in time to perfection. A painting can capture eternity.
Eva Green's been the stand-out of this drama, and again commanded your full attention in her scenes. Vanessa's dinner date with Dorian was every bit as strange, tantalising, and sexy as their previous flirtations have been, and culminated in a very raunchy sex scene where Vanessa was suddenly possessed by the demonic entity we encountered in last week's flashback. I really like how the show treats sex as something to be feared, in poised Vanessa's case, because the act of copulation results in an uncharacteristic loss of control that allows spirits to invade her. This episode as a whole cemented the show's interest in freakish transcendence; with Dorian favouring uniqueness (it's confirmed he's immortal and can rapidly heal), while Vanessa sees her psychic abilities as a curse.

Overall, "What Death Can Join Together" was admittedly the weakest hour of Penny Dreadful, so far, but it was still a decent episode with solid highlights. The show still has mysteries to shine a light on (Ethan's probable lycanthropy), plus a few storytelling knots to clarify (Mina's back-story), but I think there's enough time with two episodes to go. I just hope the Caliban/Frankenstein plot improves rapidly, because it's wilting after a very strong start; and there's perhaps too much confusion about the battle for Vanessa's soul. Hopefully, big answers are coming soon... but knowing Showtime have renewed Penny Dreadful for a second season, I'm worried the story's not going to end as conclusively as I was expecting it to.

15 June 2014 | Showtime