Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Episode Close-Up: Penny Dreadful - 3x01 'The Day Tennyson Died' [Spoilers!]


© Showtime | Source: Screen Rant
USA, Ireland, UK; 59 min.; drama, horror, fantasy
Series Creator: John Logan
Director: Damon Thomas
Writing: John Logan
Cinematography: John Conroy
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Rory Kinnear, Patti LuPone, Wes Studi, Harry Treadaway, Josh Hartnett, Christian Camargo, Douglas Hodge, Simon Russell Beale, Shazad Latif, Sarah Greene, Samuel Barnett

"Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives. It belongs to no other.” – Ferdinand Lyle


Welcome back to the demimonde! As someone who enjoys spending at least one day of the week revelling in Victorian gothic, I’m quite frankly over the moon that, finally, Penny Dreadful is back for its third season. With it returns an intriguing air of psychological repression and interpersonal drama, a prominent bunch of frightening underworld creatures, an enchanting set and costume design, a haunting musical score, marvellous cinematography and a gifted cast delivering one strong performance after the other. Quality TV doesn’t get much better than this, I tell you. So, without further ado, let’s dive right into the season premiere of one of my favourite shows out there.

“So we walk alone” was the very last sentence uttered in the season two finale. Everybody, it seemed, was determined to leave their toils and troubles behind, and start anew somewhere far away from established friendships and romantic connections. The Penny Dreadful gang had enough of fighting the dark powers that threatened to take over the world. The gang, apparently, needed a break to indulge in some thorough moping and pity-party-ing. The first episode of season three thus introduces us to a sad little bunch of characters that, to be honest, have never been in a more dreadful state.

The death of poet Alfred Tennyson as a backdrop presents the perfect frame. Grief is in the air. Sadness. That gaping hole that loss carves into your heart. At the same time, our beloved main characters are going through their own personal grievances. It’s all quite depressing, really. On the one hand, the season premiere functions as a kind of coming-of-age narrative in which each individual member of the gang has to overcome his or her demons and begin to actively participate in life again. On the other hand, we are introduced to the evil that might haunt the entire season – and a splendid evil it will be. But first things first.

© Showtime
“I love what you’ve done with the place” – Ferdinand Lyle

Vanessa Ives (the impeccable Eva Green) is in the grimmest state of all. The fact that, in the previous season, a few witches tried to lure her into their dark realm and sell her soul off to their sinister master has taken its toll on her. Miss Ives has lost her faith and self-confidence, and, on top of all this, has been abandoned by her father figure Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and her US American lover Ethan (Josh Hartnett). Her house in London is empty and covered in dust and spider webs. Dirty dishes pile up, and flies and moths roam the place. Vanessa spends her days lying in bed, wrapped up in her isolation, until her good friend Mr. Lyle (the great, the outstanding, the perfect Simon Russell Beale) refers her to a mental doctor. His kindness and support right at the beginning of the episode warms the cockles of my heart and brings a tear to my eye. Leave it to Simon Russell Beale to give some humanity and warmth to a gloomy, melancholic show.

Vanessa’s trip to the mental doctor throws some new mysteries at us. Dr. Stewart (Patti LuPone), it turns out, has an uncanny resemblance to Vanessa’s deceased witch mentor Joan Clayton (also played by LuPone). Apparently, there’s a distant family connection between the two but, I’m sure, there’ll be more to it than that. Anyway, what this means for now is that the fabulous Patti LuPone is back, y’all, and she has the strict, no bullshit psychiatrist down to a T. “I’m not your friend, or your priest, or your husband. I’m your doctor. You come to me to get better because you are ill, no other reason”, she says to Vanessa, “Do you understand that you are ill? Not bad, not unworthy – just ill.” I love how the show brings the emerging study of psychology into play here. On the one hand, this is probably going to give an intriguing look into the way in which mental patients were dealt with back in the Victorian Age – a truly dreadful chapter all in itself. On the other hand, with Dr. Stewart onboard, this storyline is destined to please us with yet another strong, intelligent female character. 

© Showtime | Source: The Star
 “You don’t want to kill Lily. You want to love her.” – Henry Jekyll

Meanwhile, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) shows that his circle of friends includes another infamous literary character. Rejected by the love of his life, his creation Lily (Billie Piper), lovesick puppy Victor pretty much spends his days like Vanessa – only adding drug abuse to the mix. Along comes his old acquaintance Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif) to take him out of his desolate state and make him happy again. “What if I could tame her?”, he asks about Lily, “Domesticate her? Leave her purring like a kitten on your lap?” And Victor, it seems, is totally game with this rather vicious plan of female oppression.

The Frankenstein storyline has always been one of my favourites because Victor is such a likeable and yet morally ambiguous character. He’s always been a true friend to Vanessa and stood by her side when evil powers tried to overtake her. However, he’s also performed some actions that are downright despicable – killing Ethan’s girlfriend Brona to resurrect her corpse as Lily comes to mind. Now, his affiliation with Jekyll is bound to cause some exciting drama this season. Not only are Treadaway and Latif trying to duke out who’s got the most gorgeous eyes of the two (random note, sorry) – no, the Jekyll character has also been endowed with an exciting backstory of his own. As a man of half-British, half-Indian descent, Henry knows rejection and menace first hand and, over the years, has tried to control his rage against mankind. His work, he says, is dedicated to “taming the beast within”. Well, we’ll see how that goes for him, won’t we?

© Showtime
“Home.” – John Clare

Somewhere aboard a ship, stuck in a frozen ocean, Frankenstein’s first creature, John Clare (Rory Kinnear), has to deal with a small group of hungry seamen. The ship’s crew, desperate and out of supplies, is contemplating to eat an ill boy who’s also aboard. Clare, while protecting and cradling the boy, suddenly has an epiphany of his old self, stroking the head of another boy, watched upon by a woman somewhere in a cosy little cabin. Are these his son and wife? Nephew and sister? Friends? Clare, determined to find out, leaves the ship and makes his way through the icy desert and back to good ol’ England. Is this going to end in yet another disappointment? Or will he, finally, find peace and happiness? I have my fingers crossed for him. You go, John!

© Showtime | Source: Netflix screencap
“What romance I saw in Africa is done for me. The land is tainted now, beyond repair, and I want to be quit of the filthy place. What then? Are there no fresh wonders left? No worlds yet to conquer?” – Sir Malcolm Murray 

In the meantime, Sir Malcolm hangs around in Zanzibar, where he buried Sembene, and mourns the loss of his romantic colonial fantasy. Poor fella. When ambushed by a street gang, he’s saved by the Ciricahua Apache Kaetenay (Wes Studi) who later tells him to embrace his true destiny, that is “to fight the great demons of earth and sky until [he is] dead”. Malcolm, who’d rather drown his low spirits in some sort of alcohol or other, has not much interest in the Native American’s dramatic talk – that is until he mentions that Ethan is in need of help in the New Mexico Territory. Kaetenay, it is revealed, considers himself a kind of father figure to Ethan and wants to save him out of aggravating circumstances. I, personally, can’t wait for Sir Malcolm to put on his cowboy boots and blue jeans and embark on a wild west adventure. I mean, Timothy Dalton in spurs? Who could resist?

© Showtime
“Snake holes, wolf dens. And the animal bones. This whole country is built on skeletons... One would like a cup of tea, though.” – Bartholomew Rusk

So, yeah, Ethan is back in America – in handcuffs. In the previous season he had surrendered to tea aficionado/Pinkerton inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) and plead guilty to multiple murder in order to be apprehended and rendered harmless – hanged, that is. As we know, he’s a werewolf unable to control his power. But even more than this, he’s the Lupus Dei, a very powerful werewolf meant to protect Vanessa from the evil forces that try to enlist her magical abilities. Anyway, on the train, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a.k.a the desert of the New Mexico Territory, Ethan, in a violent ambush, is abducted by a group of men working for his detested father. Obviously, Ethan does not really feel hunky-dory about it but – just like most characters in this episode – couldn’t care less about his fate and surrenders to moping. Let’s hope spur-heel Malcolm and Kaetenay arrive soon to set him straight.

I like that, next to the well-established London location, we’re now presented with a new setting. The prospect of seeing Ethan return to his home turf and – hopefully – sort out his daddy issues seems promising. Additionally, it’d be exciting to have some of the Native American magical lore line up with the more European supernatural elements.

© Showtime
“My name... is Dracula.”

Speaking of supernatural elements: how fantastic was that final scene? Dr. Stewart’s inconspicuous assistant (Samuel Barnett) finds himself in an abandoned hall, surrounded by a bunch of creeping, crawling creatures. When the master creeper-crawler arrives – and we don’t see him, we only hear his voice and see the others react submissively to him – the assistant is instructed to spy on Vanessa and reveal her secrets to the master. If all this isn’t uncomfortable enough already – I mean, a cult-leading stalker, hello? – things become even more intense when the assistant is, suddenly, made to reveal that his name is... Renfield. The master then goes on to demand: “Bend your head back. Give me your neck. Give me your throat. Give me your blood.” And that’s when we all, without a doubt, realise that – yay! – Count Dracula has finally arrived. A special shout-out goes to Samuel Barnett, by the way, whose perfectly terrified portrayal of Renfield renders this scene as eerie and spine-tingling as it is.

Yep, Penny Dreadful is back with a bang. The season 3 premiere channels all the things I’ve come to love about the show – the references to classic literature; the gloomy, depressing atmosphere; the scare factor, the detailed costume and set design; the wonderful music; the outstanding acting; the strong-headed and complex ladies and gentlemen, the air of restraint and the subversive attempts at breaking the characters out of the strict Victorian order; the feminism; the diversity; the social criticism; the supernatural – and pairs it with exciting new premises for all the characters – old and novel. Consider me hooked, and welcome back, you magnificent show. I’ve missed you lots, Penny Dreadful!  

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POST SCRIPTUM
  • Who exactly is Dr. Alexander Sweet (Christian Camargo), and why has he a hard time remembering Vanessa’s name? Does the cute zoologist at the London Natural History Museum present a lovely romantic distraction for Miss Ives, or does he mean trouble for our favourite heroine?
  • How do we like Ethan’s new haircut?
  • What are Hecate’s (Sarah Greene) plans for Ethan? Does she follow him through the New Mexico Territory simply because she’s got the hots for him, or is she still about that come-and-work-for-Lucifer business?
  • What are Lils and Dorian up to? Any progress in smashing up the patriarchy?
  • Has Vanessa really cleaned that entire mansion all by herself? In one day?

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