Wednesday, 3 June 2015

PENNY DREADFUL, 2.5 – 'Above the Vaulted Sky'

Wednesday, 3 June 2015


It's hard to predict if Penny Dreadful will succeed in making its various storylines, and individual lives of its main characters, converge in a satisfying way. That's obviously a goal, of sorts, but there are times when I wonder if it's going to happen in a clever, natural manner. For instance, the beginning of "Above the Vaulted Sky" again saw Vanessa (Eva Green) petrified with terror over her nocturnal visitations from "the nightcomers"—are they real or imaginary?—but soon after she was all smiles during a dinner date with Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his "cousin" Lily (Billie Piper). While it's unrealistic to expect Vanessa to be shaking with fear constantly, there are gear changes Penny Dreadful demands that feel very awkward and abrupt...

It's an unfortunate byproduct of the show having to service four storylines—Ethan (Josh Hartnett) coming under suspicion for the Mariner's Inn Massacre; the witches interest in Vanessa Ives; Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) romancing a transgender prostitute; Caliban (Rory Kinnear) attempting to endear himself to a fellow "monster" unimpeded by ugliness, who actually loves their mutual creator, Frankenstein—but nevertheless it's an ongoing problem. There are plots here that don't feel particularly relevant or necessary, although hopefully more will coalesce given time. More than anything, "Above the Vaulted Sky" felt like it was trying, desperately, to draw parallels across all of its plots—mainly through the idea that many of the characters are engaged in weird relationships, that turned sexual for most during this hour. Some of that worked, some of it didn't.

I have the most patience for Vanessa's storyline, as she's by far the show's best character, although there wasn't much about this episode to get excited about for her. Although it's fascinating that her relationship with "Mr Clare"/Caliban is a great deal more touching than most others on the show, and one of this season's better ideas. They have a mutual interest in poetry and Vanessa sees past Caliban's superficial facial scarring and alabaster complexion, but is he mistaking her kindness and acceptance for the romantic love he craves? I'm inclined to say yes, although it would be interesting to see the story take them both down the path of true love. Trouble is, giving Caliban a suitable-but-unexpected girlfriend in Vanessa robs the drama elsewhere with "his bride" Lily falling in love with the creator he despises. What would he care if Vanessa's his soul mate?

Ethan has always been a difficult character to enjoy—as it feels like he's this show's version of the ill-advised 'adult Tom Sawyer sharpshooter' character the film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen introduced to appeal to the U.S market. However, putting Detective Rusk (Douglas Hodge) on his tail, together with the disfigured survivor of the Mariner's Inn Massacre, bodes well. I just wish they'd cast someone different to Josh Hartnett, who's merely competent, when a more charismatic actor would elevate the admittedly sketchy material he's given to play.

However, the show's biggest problem remains Dorian Gray—whose love for transsexual Angelique doesn't seem to be in the slightest bit relevant to the grander storyline, or very entertaining on its own merits. It actually felt weird to me that Caliban's improvised story about Lily demonstrating her acceptance of him in front of intolerant drunks (by kissing his hand to signal her love), was echoed in the reality of Dorian doing the same when some upper-class homophobes poked fun at Angelique. It just felt like a very unlikely way to link the two storylines, however vaguely, because otherwise it remains very unclear why Dorian's still on this show. He's a good character to explore the era's approach to sexuality, as he's into pretty much every fetish imaginable, but as a part of this specific universe's supernatural leanings? I'm not convinced his presence is required, as of right now.

The situation with Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) romancing Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) was returned to stronger, in the sense they've now had sex and she's taken a pinprick of his blood for whatever voodoo she's planning. Vanessa has correctly surmised their enemy is creating a mannequin of her, to focus black magic on, but I must admit this strand of the episode's narrative lost me when Evelyn was seen embedding hot skewers into the cracked-open skull of a doll that contained a human brain. The show hasn't done a very good job making Sir Malcolm's wife very recognisable or sympathetic, so I must confess I had no idea who Evelyn's unfortunate victim was until the hallucinated gravestones of Mina and Peter Murray appeared to her one night.

Overall, there were moments to savour in "Above the Vaulted Sky", and a handful of developments that felt purposeful. I'm growing to like the weird Lily/Victor/Caliban love-triangle, and Ethan's rehabilitation continues in earnest, but the show still only really comes alive when it's completely focused on Vanessa's battle with the witches and her own psychic tribulations. Other things still feel like distractions, or aren't interconnected enough to make Penny Dreadful feel of a piece. I'm hoping Ethan comes to realise Frankenstein's new girlfriend is his missing Irish ex-lover Brona, that Caliban's new friend Vanessa is his creator's work colleague, and that Sir Malcolm's lover is his surrogate daughter's mentor's evil sister, before this season's over. It could all become terribly confusing and irritating if not.

written by John Logan • directed by Damon Thomas • 31 May 2015 • Showtime