As Penny Dreadful enters the back-half of its second season, the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together, and they paint a dark picture for the heroes of the story. In the previous episode, Ethan (Josh Hartnett) described the heroes as being under siege, and said they need to bunch up and prepare for a fight. His advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears, and even Ethan finds himself distracted here.
The big surprise of “Glorious Horrors” is that Dorian Gray actually becomes important to the plot again. After five episodes off on his own, he finally interacts with the rest of the cast, more of them than he’s met in the entire series so far. Being shuffled away in his own side story hasn’t done much for Reeve Carney. But the second he shares dialogue with Green, he becomes better. Dorian works best in Penny Dreadful when playing off the others, as his scenes with Vanessa and Ethan last season proved. It’s a shame Logan didn’t have him meet up with the others sooner. His meeting with Victor (Harry Treadaway) is endlessly amusing, and there’s a twinkle in his eye at the sight of Vanessa. In fact, Dorian is what ties this episode together, bringing the cast to his manor for a ball in honor of his lover Angelique (Johnny Beauchamp). When she suggest discretion on their relationship, he dismisses the idea as “anathema,” and then adds “in this house, we celebrate the unusual.” So far Penny Dreadful has treated Angelique’s status as a transgender woman with respect, but that one line from Dorian is definitely cringe-worthy.
On a bigger picture note, it’s finally clear what Penny Dreadful‘s approach to Dorian is, and why he’s felt off since the start: Logan seems to have taken Oscar Wilde’s incarnation of hedonism and turned him into an incarnation of defying social norms. He revels in “the thrill of the forbidden.” It explains a lot about why this Dorian is different from Wilde’s, and his habit of never fully matching appropriate attire, but it does feel like it misses the point. It makes him someone out to actively challenge the strict social norms of the Victorian era, rather than someone who seeks pleasure above all else, regardless of norms.
The most unsettling element this week comes not from the psychic bloodbath in the final scene, but from how Madam Kali (Helen McCrory) has sunk her claws into Sir Malcolm with her love spells. Timothy Dalton plays Malcolm like a preying lion, his voice a serious purr. The man is far from noble, but his intensity and focus on the greater picture gives him a presence unmatched by any of the others. To see him outright chipper, his purr turned into a sing-song voice, is disturbing, for viewers and for Ethan and Vanessa. Even Sembene (Danny Sapani), his long-time companion in arms, is unnerved, the first time he’s ever been on the show. It won’t be the only time he’s unsettled this episode, but it’s still the most shocking.
Unsettling love isn’t only for Malcolm though, Victor Frankenstein gets into the mix. His general happiness at his relationship with his “cousin” Lily (Billie Piper) feels almost as off as his Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship with the woman he basically treats as an experiment of his. Still, it gives Treadaway a new take on Victor to show off, and he rises to the task. The only moments Victor’s joy falters is when he realizes that Vanessa met his Creature, but his joy with Lily quickly overwhelms it. Lily finally starts to remember something of her life as Brona Croft. It’s been a long time coming, especially since Victor’s previous work of reanimation, Proteus, remembered elements of his past life rather quickly. Seeing Dorian catch on quickly to her identity is nice, and it allows Carney to play Mr. Gray as a much more cunning figure than he has been.
In fact, the party scene is a delight, if only to see most of the cast assembled and playing off one another. Vanessa and Madam Kali finally face-off again after the second episode of the first season, and it doesn’t disappoint. Green and McCrory manage to match wits and give vague threats that still sound terrifying. And Hecate (Sarah Greene) shows that she truly is conspiring against her mother with a more direct attack on Vanessa. There’s a clever bit of costume work at play, with Vanessa and Poole wearing dresses of opposing colors and Hecate wearing one of the same colors as Vanessa, but with an inverted pattern. Victor gets to throw in some delightfully sardonic lines, and Angelique — in a reversal from her so-far vaguely mysterious, possibly evil presence — gets to join him in a bit of jealousy when Lily the Corpse Bride catches Dorian’s eye. But one of the best elements of the climax is the gloriously camp Ferdinand Lyle. Simon Russell Beale’s delivery of French platitudes is one of the show’s best bits. Even better is his body language, subtly delivering Lyle’s nervousness even as his words are over the top. He’s even showing backbone against Poole’s manipulations, and it will be interesting to see where that leads.
Outside of the grand ball, Ethan, finds himself distracted from the threat of Madam Kali thanks to the coming full moon. Mr. Chandler receives a visit from Roper (Stephen Lord), with his crude Phantom of the Opera-meets-Richard Harrow mask, makes vague threats to Ethan and his friends, but there’s actual terror here that the show doesn’t address. According to lore, and both excellent versions of The Wolfman, someone who survives a werewolf bite becomes one as well. A wolfman-on-wolfman fight seems in the works for the rest of the season.
A visit to the Putney wax museum’s recreation of his last werewolf massacre hints that he now seems more aware of his lycanthropy than ever before. And most interesting of all, Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) seems to be aware of it too. The show’s hinted that Rusk is familiar with the occult, but how is he familiar with werewolves? On the subject of lycanthropy, it’s worth noting that the Devil’s memoir that the group is translating (the translation remains the same as last week, clearly whatever they are failing to translate is plot relevant) keeps using the phrase “lupus dei,” which Ethan and Lyle take to mean “hound of God.” It shows how far Logan has researched into werewolves. Thiess of Kaltenbrun was a late-17th century man who claimed to be a werewolf and a “hound of God.” He said that he descended into Hell to do battle with witches. Considering Poole and her coven, the reference to Thiess in relation to Ethan is incredibly apt. With Ethan now revealing his secret to Sembene, it seems he will definitely try to control his curse.
It’s strange in a way how Penny Dreadful is changing. The first season presented a fascinating theme for the show: That death was the natural state of the world, and any attempt to cheat it — be it vampirism, Frankenstein’s work and Dorian himself — was unnatural and wrong. Season two seems to have abandoned that idea. No more abattoirs or vampire dens fill the show. Instead it’s much more a classic good versus evil narrative, focusing in many ways on stark or bleak Victorian landscapes with the truly Gothic and grotesque reserved for Poole’s mansion. This season is captivating and exciting, but it does lack that dark, philosophical theme of the first.
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Nicholas Slayton is a journalist and writer who has contributed to the Atlantic, the Wire, io9, Comics Bulletin and more. You can follow him on Twitter @NSlayton