Warning: Showtime released this premiere online, a week before its television broadcast on 3 May, so please only continue reading if you've seen this episode...
I enjoyed the first season of screenwriter John Logan's Gothic horror, which clearly owed a debt to Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (in how it assembled a mix of supernatural icons and literary heroes). But its problems became more noticeable as the season progressed—mainly an issue with sustaining a healthy pace, repetitive arcs, the unfortunate fact some of its surprises were instantly predictable—and the first season ended more with a perfunctory whimper than an exciting confluence of storylines. Those things coloured my perception of season 2's mediocre premiere, "Fresh Hell," or perhaps tempered my expectations is a better way of putting it.
To be fair, much of this hour was dedicated to catching up with the main players and introducing a fresh menace, so it achieved those aims perfectly well—it's just a shame most of the character's lives, presumably weeks since we last saw them, aren't in especially interesting places. Ethan (Josh Hatnett) is guilt-stricken over being responsible for a massacre in the Mariner's Inn (where he transformed into a werewolf), but the only development here was hearing him vaguely confide in psychic Vanessa (Eva Green) that he has a dark side; Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) was given token scenes of looking mournful at the graves of his two children, whose deaths his estranged wife blames him for; Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) finally resurrected Brona (Billie Piper), the terminally ill prostitute he smothered with a pillow, to become the companion of his other undead creation (Rory Kinnear); Vanessa was rocked by freaky visions, sent from Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), the fellow psychic whom we discover is the Satanic leader of a coven of witches (known as 'Nightcomers'); and Frankenstein's Monster, Caliban, found himself another low-paid job in a low-rent waxworks specialising in real-life crime tableaux.
Some of these storylines worked better than others, as you'd expect, but I was disappointed so many were incredibly dull or felt like rehashes of things we've already seen. Penny Dreadful's already in danger of becoming a self-parody of itself, at times, and I'm beginning to have real concerns with the longevity of a few characters—particularly Caliban, who seems to go through the same arc over and over again. Now it seems he'll fall in love with the blind daughter of his new employer at the waxworks, as I'm already predicting undead-Brona (who shows no obvious signs of appearing monstrous) won't become Caliban's fantasy lover. I really hope the writing will take things down a less obvious path, and perhaps it will, but the problem is I have less faith in Logan's abilities this time out.
As with last season, the best reason to be watching Penny Dreadful is to bask in the magnificence of Eva Green's performance as Vanessa Ives. In a show that too often does the obvious, or something less satisfying than you'd anticipated, Green has the uncanny knack of elevating the hoariest of material to new heights. She doesn't actually do all that much in this episode, but you can't take your eyes off her when she's around, and her scenes buzz with a feeling of unpredictability I wish the show exhibited more in the writing. I'll keep watching for her, and the fact this episode managed to lay the foundation of an epic struggle between Vanessa and Madam Kali—as McCrory almost gives her young co-star a run for her money, in the 'acting bonkers' competition while doing insane things like talking in tongues and bathing in human blood. One thing season 1 missed was a face of evil—a human antagonist for Sir Malcolm's misfit team to battle—so at least this premiere fixed that oversight.
written by John Logan • directed by James Hawes • 19 April (online) / 3 May 2015 • Showtime