Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Penny Dreadful: The Series - Season 2

Cody looks through the season 2 episodes of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful.

Episode 1: Fresh Hell

Back in 2014, I was drawn to the Victorian era Showtime series Penny Dreadful not just because it dealt with classic horror characters, but also because the show was created and written by John Logan, co-screenwriter on the incredible James Bond film Skyfall, and executive produced by that film's director Sam Mendes. And they weren't only Bond alums involved, as two of the leads were a Bond girl (Eva Green) and a former Bond (Timothy Dalton). My passion for Bond and horror was colliding; this was a show I had to watch. And I did, watching each episode as it aired, writing up reviews that were posted on Yahoo Voices.

How things change in two years. Yahoo Voices doesn't exist anymore, I missed the entire second season of Penny Dreadful as it aired, and Logan and Mendes have since disappointed me with their second entry in the Bond franchise, last year's SPECTRE. Despite that, and the fact that the first season of Penny Dreadful had moved along at a surprisingly glacial pace, I've remained interested in continuing to watch what I felt was a well made, respectable horror show. And since I wrote about the first season, I might as well write about the second season. With the third season already airing on Showtime, this is long overdue.

Season two picks up immediately after the season one finale, in which goals were accomplished, although not in the most ideal way, but plenty of story threads were also left dangling. For example, it was revealed that American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is a werewolf, and after tearing a couple guys apart he is understandly ready to get out of London. Circumstances hold him back, however, when an all new evil, supernatural threat shows up on the scene to threaten the show's MVP, Green as the spirit-besieged Vanessa Ives.

Vampires had been at the center of season one, but these new creatures who announce their presence early in the episode are much scarier to Vanessa than those bloodsuckers were. She's even more unnerved by them than by her hallucinatory interactions with Satan himself. These things, which we first see as nude, hairless, screeching, female creatures not completely dissimilar from last season's vampires, are a coven of shapeshifting witches that sport the mark of the devil and speak a language created by Satan.

They're called Nightcomers, and the reveal of their leader is quite a surprise. It's Skyfall alum Helen McCrory as Evelyn Poole, a.k.a. Madame Kali, a character introduced in a rather innocuous way last season, where she was the spiritualist at the head of a séance where the possessed Vanessa made quite a spectacle. I wouldn't have expected "Madame Kali" to be a character like this, seen bathing in blood and slashing the throat of a disappointing lackey.

This episode primarily serves to establish the Nightcomers in a very intriguing way, but there are cutaways to a subplot with Harry Treadaway as Doctor Victor Von Frankenstein and his creation Caliban (Bond series regular Rory Kinnear) as Frankenstein endeavors to make Caliban a mate from the corpse of Ethan's lost love Brona Croft (Billie Piper). "The Bride of Frankenstein" does rise by the end of the hour, but I have a feeling there's going to be some kind of love triangle going with the blind girl who works at the wax museum where Caliban has just been hired... I'm definitely interested in seeing where things go there, but above all it's the Nightcomers that will be drawing me back for episode two.

Episode 2: Verbis Diablo

In a way, the second episode of season 2 mirrors the second episode of season 1. Much of the previous season's second episode was dedicated to showing the interaction between Dr. Victor Von Frankenstein and his second living dead creation, Alex Price as Proteus. That episode ended in tragedy when the doctor's first monster Caliban showed back up. In this episode, we have Dr. Frankenstein interacting with Brona, the bride he has created for the instantly smitten Caliban.

At least, her name used to be Brona, when she was a tuberculosis-stricken Irish prostitute who was being romanced by Frankenstein's associate Ethan Chandler. Before Frankenstein smothered her with a pillow. The resurrected Brona is renamed Lily, and when she speaks she no longer has an Irish accent. She has a British accent, like her creator. And she's frightened, turning herself over completely to Frankenstein so he can teach her how to live again and fill her mind with memories of a past that never existed.

It will be interesting to see how Ethan reacts if/when he finds out what Frankenstein has done to his girl.

The scenes with Frankenstein and Lily don't dominate the episode, however. This is an episode that has lots of character interactions to juggle. We have Caliban meeting Vanessa Ives for a discussion of religion and poetry while she seeks solace from the Nightcomers in quite an unlikely place - a cholera shelter where Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) volunteers. We have villainess Evelyn Poole using magic to woo Sir Malcolm to get closer to Vanessa.

We have Simon Russell Beale reprising the role of Ferdinand Lyle, an Egyptologist from the first two episodes of the previous season. Vanessa and Sir Malcolm call upon him to educate their group on the language of the devil, verbis diablo. Although he's telling dark stories, Lyle is rather delightful to watch due to the way Beale plays him.

And then we have the return of a character who I must admit is the least interesting element of the show to me, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Carney's performance is fine, but the character... he's just a creep who's eternally youthful. He doesn't do much for me. Here he hooks up with someone who works in a brothel, which is no surprise at all for this guy. What was surprising about this is the fact that this mysterious woman he hooks up with, Angelique, is actually played by a male actor, Jonny Beauchamp. I have to say, he makes for quite a convincing female, albeit one with slightly unusual features and a deeper voice. Angelique says she lives to shock, and I'm sure many viewers will be shocked with just how the show proves that the character is played by a man.

Still, this is just another tryst for Dorian Gray, something I would fully expect him to experience at some point, so I remain uncertain of just what his presence adds to the show. Jumping bones with Angelique should at least keep his mind off Vanessa for a while.

Gray aside, with the Nightcomers scheming (and the show pulls no punches in showing how horrible their Satanic rituals are) and whether or not Lily will really want to be Caliban's bride in question (at least their relationship isn't going as disastrously as it did in Universal's The Bride of Frankenstein), Penny Dreadful season 2 is getting me hooked.

Episode 3: The Nightcomers

Much of Penny Dreadful to date has taken advantage of its greatest asset, the performance of Eva Green in the role of Vanessa Ives, by delving deep into the character's mind and past, and here the show does it once again, dedicating another episode to Vanessa flashbacks. In this case, it's to give us some background on why Vanessa is drawing so much attention from these evil Nightcomer witches. To explain it, Vanessa tells Ethan Chandler about her history with witches, going back to the first witch she ever met.

That witch was Joan Clayton, played by Patti LuPone. Vanessa met her while seeking answers to the demonic curse that is upon her, coming across Clayton's shack in the middle of the countryside. She tried to walk up to the place, but found that some kind of magical barrier prohibited her from stepping onto the witch's property. So there Vanessa stood, through the night, in the pouring rain. She stood until Clayton came out and took her into the house.

The locals come to Clayton for help with their ailments, or to get abortions. Vanessa's problem is the "dark lover" that is coming for her, the devil. Her being there brings danger to Clayton, but the old woman doesn't mind. It brings spice to her last days.

Soon the Nightcomers appear, wanting Clayton to hand Vanessa over to them. As it turns out, Clayton is the sister of the evil Evelyn Poole and was once part of the Nightcomer coven. Since leaving, she has aged naturally, while the women still in the coven remain youthful. Knowing Vanessa will need to protect herself from these witches, Clayton educates her in witchcraft, preparing her for a battle to come.

And so this episode largely consists of scenes where these two women sit in the shack and talk. Although the story is interesting, the episode's script well written, and LuPone is flawless as Clayton, it does feel a little long-winded at times.

Of course, Poole is always scheming, so there are cutaways to her putting together a plan to oust Vanessa and Clayton from that little shack. This does help break up the low-key scenes between the two women, and brings in Ronan Vibert as a creepy jackass who falls under Poole's spell and has a confrontation with Vanessa that culminates in a great moment for Green.

It remains to be seen how much this glimpse of history really moves the story forward, but it's a decent episode while it lasts.

Episode 4: Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places

Witches. Black magic. Possessed monks. The autobiography of Lucifer. Being a man of science, Doctor Victor Von Frankenstein doesn't believe in any of this stuff that his associates are going on about, and yet he continues to hang out with Sir Malcolm Murray, Vanessa Ives, and Ethan Chandler.

He is repaid for his loyalty - he gets Vanessa to help him choose appropriate clothes for his "second cousin" Lily, actually the bride he has made for his corpse creation Caliban. There does seem to be an issue with the Lily situation, however. She and Victor clearly have a much stronger draw to each other than she has to Caliban.

Caliban may not be left out in the cold regardless. Having moved on from working at a grand guignol theatre to now having a job at a wax museum where they're using the wax figures to recreate crime scenes (his professions always have a touch of morbidity), Caliban is starting to befriend the owner's blind daughter Lavinia, played by Tamsin Topolski. Of course, Frankenstein's Monster has a history of making blind friends that goes all the way back to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, and Lavinia is an interesting twist on the concept. She seems quite nice, being an advocate for kindness and encouraging Caliban to have hope in life. As excited as Caliban is to be with Lily, he also appears quite captivated by Lavinia.

But who am I kidding? That guy is never going to find happiness in this second life of his.

So Victor and Lily are getting closer, Caliban and Lavinia are bonding, Dorian Gray takes his new companion Angelique out on a date of ping pong by electric light, Sir Malcolm Murray is falling under the spell of the evil Evelyn Poole, Vanessa is Satan's intended. Where does this leave Ethan? His love Brona is dead and has been resurrected as Lily, his one night stand Dorian has moved on.

Well, Evelyn's daughter Hecate (Sarah Greene) makes a move on Ethan, but is a miserable failure. Ethan sees right through her, but doesn't realize she's a witch. He thinks she's another Pinkerton seeking to take him back to the states. Wrong conclusion, but at least it keeps him safe. And alone. For now.

Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places ends with another naked Nightcomer attack, which was a pleasant surprise. Not because of the nudity, which is offset by their strange appearance and the Satanic claw marks all over their bodies, but because it's always nice to get some action sprinkled in there, and so far it feels like Penny Dreadful season 2 has more frequent action beats and is moving along at a quicker pace than season 1.

Episode 5: Above the Vaulted Sky

Above the Vaulted Sky could have been my favorite episode in the entire run of Penny Dreadful, because it starts off with a scenario that reminded me of the George A. Romero masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, my most watched movie of all time. It begins with our heroes holed up in Sir Malcolm Murray's home, the doors boarded, preparing for another attack by the coven of evil witches called the Nightcomers. Preparing for a siege.

American gunslinger Ethan Chandler knows all about sieges, and he cautious his companions about them by telling them a tale of his time serving in the American Indian Wars, when he took part in wiping out a tribe of Apaches.

Every weapon at their disposal is loaded. Every superstition is put into play to guard their haven from their black magic-practicing opponents. Every ritual is performed.

The Nightcomers are performing rituals of their own, and these ladies get up to some strange, grotesque activities in these episodes. Sacrificing infants, creating life-size effigies, cracking open the heads of porcelain dolls with human brains...

Lest you think this episode really would be an hour long siege, keep in mind that this is Penny Dreadful we're talking about. This show is low-key, it doesn't really do the "action packed" thing. More often it does what it did here, build things up just to back away from them. After all that preparation, nothing happens during the night, and the next day the characters just leave the house and go about their business. No, no, no. That's not how it's done. You don't have nothing happen after you show characters fortifying a location and readying weapons. You don't have characters just leave that place to go have dinner. You keep them in that location until they're firing those guns!

Oh well. Above the Vaulted Sky blew its chance to be my favorite episode, but it does move some storylines forward. Caliban and Lily are looking more and more unlikely to be a couple all the time, and more interestingly Scotland Yard is catching up to Ethan in their investigation of the werewolf attack at the end of the previous season. There are great interactions between him and the lead inspector, Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge).

It's also intriguing how Vanessa is unknowingly finding herself in the midst of the Frankenstein love affair, knowing that Doctor Victor Von Frankenstein is falling for his female creation Lily (she thinks Lily is Victor's second cousin), not knowing that the guy she is quoting poetry and discussing relationship issues with at the cholera shelter is the rejected Caliban, who she knows by his alias John Clare, his homage to the "freakish" outcast poet. She advises him to follow his heart and gives him dancing lessons in a rather sweet scene.

Dorian Gray is still completely removed from all the others, but his relationship with Angelique does take a dramatic turn in this episode. I struggle to see how this storyline could connect with the overall plot of the season, but Dorian and Angelique have some touching scenes here. Emotionally and physically.

As do Sir Malcolm and the evil Evelyn Poole. See, this is why you don't leave your fortified home. You end up in bed with the enemy.

Episode 6: Glorious Horrors

Evelyn Poole, leader of the evil witches called the Nightcomers, is putting together quite a collection of effigies. We've seen her drive Sir Malcolm Murray's estranged wife to suicide by manipulating an effigy of the woman, and now she has completed dolls of Vanessa and Sir Malcolm.

Sir Malcolm is not quite himself anymore, and it's not just a post-coital glow from his tryst with Poole. Judging by his uncaring, jovial reaction to the news of his wife's death, his mind is already under the control of the witch who's after his surrogate daughter Vanessa.

There are other characters who are becoming legitimately happy in their relationships, not because they have magical spells upon them. Dorian Gray is so pleased with Angelique that he's planning on going public with their relationship. Meanwhile, Doctor Victor Von Frankenstein and his female creation Lily took their relationship to a level that would be questionable even if she were just his second cousin, as he tells other people she is, but is especially inappropriate since she's a walking corpse.

And poor Caliban, Frankenstein's first creation. Lily was supposed to be his bride, but that idea is out the window. He has made a connection with the blind girl Lavinia, his co-worker at the wax museum and the daughter of the place's owner, but she becomes frightened when she touches him. That's not a promising sign for romance.

As if dealing with the Nightcomers wasn't enough, and as if the fact that a Scotland Yard inspector is on his tail wasn't enough of an additional threat, sharpshooter/werewolf Ethan Chandler now also has to deal with the threatening presence of Pinkerton agent Warren Roper (Stephen Lord), a character we first met in the last episode of season one. Roper has been sent by Ethan's father to take him back to America, and he has to be the most dedicated Pinkerton agent there ever was. During their previous confrontation, Ethan wolfed out, murdered Roper's partner, and tore off half of Roper's face. And yet Roper still intends to do the job he was hired for, boldly standing face-to-face with a man he knows to be a werewolf and feeling like he is in control of the situation. Quite an interesting character. We know he's not going to be successful.

Dorian's story finally intersects with the others thanks to the ball he hosts to show off Angelique. Nearly all of our heroes and villains show up for it, which allows for an interesting moment when Dorian is introduced to Lily, who he knew (and slept with) in her original life, when she was a prostitute named Brona. He recognizes her but can't place her. His comment that they might have met "in another lifetime" is more accurate than he knows.

There's also a great exchange between Evelyn and Vanessa, who doesn't realize she's talking to the witch who is making her life hell, knowing only that she's the woman who has been seeing Sir Malcolm, bringing about the change in his demeanor.

Much of this episode was taken up by scenes set at the ball, a scenario that brought about some captivating interactions, making Glorious Horrors an enjoyable viewing experience.

Episode 7: Little Scorpion

Ethan Chandler has finally revealed his lycanthropic secret to another member of our the series' core group, Sir Malcolm Murray's servant Sembene (played by Danny Sapani). He did this out of necessity, as he needed Sembene's help in playing out a classic werewolf scenario: he asked to be restrained during a wolf-out. It will be interesting to see where this shared information takes Ethan and Sembene, especially as Sembene is a bit of an under-utilized character. He's always around, he seems badass, but he rarely has any sort of a standout moment.

Well, that connection between Ethan and Sembene isn't going to go anywhere just yet, because Ethan bails on London soon after reverting to his normal form. Remember when the group was getting Sir Malcolm's place ready for them to take a stand against the Nightcomers at? If you do, it might be best to forget it. When push comes to shove, Vanessa Ives decides to abandon Sir Malcolm's place and seek refuge in the shack that used to belong to the good witch Joan Clayton. She takes Ethan with her for protection... But it's tough to be a protector when you have to leave for the night so you can become a wolf.

With the evil Evelyn Poole having cast a spell on Sir Malcolm, though, it's probably for the best that Vanessa left his place. A werewolf is safer than the Nightcomers.

During their time at the shack, Ethan teaches Vanessa how to shoot a gun, and she's a natural. There's something a bit otherworldly about just how much of a sharpshooter she instantly becomes. In exchange, she gives Ethan dancing lessons, much like she gave Caliban lessons in Above the Vaulted Sky.

For a stretch, Little Scorpion (that's the nickname Clayton gave Vanessa) is a two-person show centering on Eva Green and Josh Hartnett as Vanessa and Ethan. While Penny Dreadful is always at its best when it's strongly focused on Green, as it frequently is, this was a nice opportunity for Hartnett to get a good amount of screen time. He's great as Ethan, but doesn't often get as much time in the spotlight.

Some other characters do get some attention in the episode, most notably Doctor Victor Von Frankenstein's female creation Lily. Just as it was seeming like Dorian Gray was falling head over heels for Angelique, he's wanting to hang out with the walking corpse of a woman he had a tryst with in her natural life. Or was it just a ploy to show her the Burke and Hare exhibit at the wax museum and get her started down the path to realizing what Frankenstein has done to her? Does he know who she really is?

Things get quite interesting as the episode reaches its conclusion, and while it's nice to see a certain someone get comeuppance that's been due for several episodes, it leaves question over what Vanessa has sacrificed for vengeance.

Episode 8: Memento Mori

All this time, it seemed that the greatest issue to worry about concering Doctor Frankenstein's female creation Lily was the dangerous love triangle she was becoming a part of. Or was it a love square? She was meant for his monster Caliban, but Frankenstein fell for Lily himself. Then there was the fear that she might go off with Dorian Gray instead. He may be in a serious relationship with Angelique, but you know nothing's permanent with him, the immortal cad.

That is all still going on, but affairs of the heart now look very minor with the revelation that Lily has one of those "Abby Normal" brains and is actually crazy, homicidal, and is developing one hell of an off-putting personality. Billie Piper gets quite a showcase moment later in this episode, when Lily goes off on a raging monologue to let Caliban know how she views the world.

Lily's murderous ways seem very minor themselves when put against the revelation made in Memento Mori, as Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle finally cracks the complete text of the story of Lucifer being cast out of Heaven. We learn that the vampire leader in season one was Lucifer's brother, and also what the devil wants with Vanessa Ives: to make her the mother of evil. Through her, Lucifer will be released from Hell and be able to finish what he started long ago. His mission to conquer Heaven. When Lucifer takes Heaven, the world will end.

Intriguingly, the text also includes mention of a "Wolf of God" who stands in opposition to Lucifer. Ethan Chandler, the werewolf?

With Lyle's connection to the evil witch Evelyn Poole, and to her daughter Hecate, who is doing some evil of her own behind her mother's back, it is tough to trust him, but I don't doubt his translations.

The only person among those Lyle tells about the Wolf of God who knows that Ethan is a werewolf is Sir Malcolm Murray's manservant Sembene, and Sembene has a nice standout moment here when he tries to reach Sir Malcolm through the spell Poole has cast over him. Sir Malcolm does get back into his right mind, but that doesn't mean he's done with Poole entirely.

So now we know that our characters are dealing with an apocalyptic threat (again), and they have just two episodes to get out of this predicament, unless this will be handled differently than the vampire storyline and actually continue on into the next season...

Episode 9: And Hell Itself My Only Foe

Persistence is not a virtue when you're pursuing a man you know is a werewolf. A man who has already ripped off half your face during a previous confrontation. Do you not realize how lucky you were to survive that werewolf attack? Leave the guy alone and get the hell out of there. Warren Roper is persistent to the point of ignorance, and his confrontation with Ethan Chandler, who is the werewolf in question, and Vanessa Ives at the beginning of this episode goes exactly where any smart person in Roper's shoes would expect it to go.

Their countryside safe haven no longer safe, Ethan and Vanessa head back to London after burying Roper. Back to the city where inspector Bartholomew Rusk is waiting for Ethan and Evelyn Poole and the Nightcomers coven are waiting for Vanessa.

The Nightcomers have Sir Malcolm Murray in their cluthches, tormenting him with the vengeful apparitions of his dead family. They're luring Vanessa in this way. She wants to rescue Sir Malcolm, and a rescue mission is plotted when Sir Malcolm's manservant Sembene steps up to deliver a badass statement of intent: "We save that man. We kill that woman and all her like. It will be unholy slaughter."

It's usually frustrating to me when we have such an interesting Plot A going on and then we have to cut away to other storylines involving characters that have nothing to do with Plot A. When Vanessa's monster squad is planning an unholy slaughter, I don't care what's going on with Caliban, I don't want to go off and watch him ponder the seductive powers of evil things. (Like Lily, his undead intended.) And yet that's more interesting than cutting away to Dorian Gray, the most useless character on the show.

Still, I get more enjoyment from sitting through those scenes than I do from scenes in a lot of other TV shows... And one of these cutaways brings a shocking twist conclusion to a storyline that has been weaving through the whole season. A character thought sweet is actually a monster.

Not as shocking is the fact that the characters don't actually stick to the exact "unholy slaughter" plan they had, but I can't complain when circumstances force them into raiding Poole's home earlier than intended. They were going to go during the day, as you should when attacking a residence of evil, but Vanessa leads them there during the night. The worst time to confront evil. And the Nightcomers are ready for them as we reach the final episode of the season.

Episode 10: And They Were Enemies

Sir Malcolm Murray's manservant Sembene had really been emerging as more and more of an interesting character in recent episodes, stepping up and getting a little more to do. So it's not really a surprise that he has been killed off, and in quite an unfortunate way. It wasn't even an enemy who did it, he didn't fall while carrying out the unholy slaughter of witches he had planned, a witch manipulated the situation before he could get to slaughtering.

Penny Dreadful has a lot of unusual characters and creatures packed into it. Vampires, witches, werewolves, resurrected corpses, immortals. Now you can add to that list living dolls, as here we have an effigy of Vanessa Ives through which Lucifer speaks in Vanessa's voice. It's not exactly the new Chucky, but I'm sure it can creep out plenty of viewers.

Vanessa's companions are failing her while she's being confronted by this doll, they're busy getting tormented by witch mind games (Sir Malcolm and Doctor Frankenstein), getting choked (Ferdinand Lyle), running wild (Ethan Chandler), or being dead (Sembene), but as it turns out their presence isn't all that necessary. Vanessa is quite capable at handling herself. So capable that this threat of the evil Nightcomers coven and Lucifer's apocalyptic interest in Vanessa has already been resolved less than halfway into the episode. An entire season to reach that? That was anticlimactic.

The predicament Frankenstein's monster Caliban found himself in at the end of the previous episode is also wrapped up very quickly. I commend Penny Dreadful's creator John Logan for writing every episode of the show himself, but this ending feels rushed, like the situations barely mattered. It's like Logan was writing with a larger number of episodes in mind, then found out late in the game that he only had ten to work with.

Season three of Penny Dreadful is already airing on Showtime as I write this, and while I don't know what the plot for that season is, it seems that part of this finale is spent setting up what I assume is an important element of the new season, the horrific alliance between Frankenstein's female creation Lily and Dorian Gray. These characters annoy me greatly, but at least this will finally give Dorian a clear purpose on the show.

Finales usually build up to something big happening in the final moments, but instead this one reaches its peak early and then spends its final moments watching the characters come down from the events. That's an odd approach, and not an exciting one. Finales should leave you pumped up and anxious to get to the next season. This one leaves me shrugging, "Sure, I'll watch season three."

Despite disappointment in the ending, I did enjoy season two overall and remain captivated by the world Logan has created here, even if the low-key nature, slow pace, and lack of action does get to me from time to time. It is a well written show, and that's all on Logan. After SPECTRE I hope he's done with James Bond, but I'm happy to continue watching him craft stories around these characters.

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