A tip of the hat to creator and writer John Logan. Beyond the occasional pacing issue, he’s kept Penny Dreadful a rich and smart show, but most of all treated the audience with respect. He’s avoided drawing out plots that could easily become frustrating — Hecate (Sarah Greene) attempting to seduce and distract Ethan (Josh Hartnett) lasted less than 15 minutes thanks to the latter acting intelligently, for example. And now, with “Memento Mori,” Logan’s given payoff to not only this season’s plotline, but the previous one as well. It’s easily the show’s best episode, and it still sets up enough for the remaining two.
The one big problem with season 2 is that it’s brushed aside the Egyptian apocalypse cult and the vampires that defined the first. Last week brought it back in a conversation between Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), but now everything is put into place thanks to the finished translation of the Devil’s memoir found in the Verbis Diablo. In a grand twist on Biblical theology, it’s not just Lucifer and his fallen angels who were cast out, it was also Lucifer’s brother. A brother cast down to earth, to feed on the blood of the living, as Lucifer feeds on the souls of the dead. The vampire coven of last season and the Satanic witches of this are two sides of a shared struggle: A struggle to find the female being that, by uniting with, with allow one of the brothers to seize Heaven. That being? Amunet of the Egyptian apocalypse cult, AKA Lilith of Biblical lore, and most likely a being seeking to possess Vanessa Ives. Now it’s clear why the vampires and the witches are so interested in Vanessa. It’s not a matter of trying to damn her; she truly is an object desired. Suddenly, everything from the last 15 episodes and this one are put into a clear context, and the direction of the show is set. The “Master” each enemy has referred to is actually a different one, one of the demonic brothers. This is the perfect kind of payoff. Logan answered a number of questions and gave context to his grand plot, but he did so without simply tying up loose ends, instead he’s pushing the story to greater and darker heights.
And along with that grand reveal, Dalton is back. Oh, he hasn’t been bad lately, far from it, but the brainwashed, impotent Sir Malcolm that Evelyn Poole created wasn’t as interesting as the intense beast that is Dalton’s main take on the character. Like Hecate’s deception game, the brainwashing doesn’t last long enough to feel like padding. Poole’s enchantments are strong, but it seems that Sir Malcolm’s true self is too stubborn and dark to be turned into a happy person. Perhaps the environment of Granditch Place provided constant reminders. But he’s back. And it comes to a head during the examination of the Verbis Diablo, when Poole casts a demon into him. It’s a great call back to Dalton’s terrifying take on the Devil in season one, and even with the buildup, when it finally takes hold, it’s the scariest scene in a scary episode. But it’s quickly resolved, thanks to a big reveal about Sembene.
Sembene’s background comes in bits and pieces along the way. It’s been suggested that, in defiance of the life-debt cliché, Sembene is more protective of Sir Malcolm for a different reason. Aside from being a hunter, he was “something else,” and shows a clear knowledge of the supernatural. Here he manages to undo a Satanic witch’s brainwashing. His occult skills might be limited, but they’re useful. He’s Malcolm’s guardian, and the way he springs into action, half-talking Malcolm down, half-enchanting is some of Danny Sapani’s best work yet on the show.
It’s minor to this episode, but big in the grand scheme of things, but Inspector Rush (Douglas Hodge) stops by Granditch Place as well, before all of the supernatural events to question Sir Malcolm about Ethan Chandler. He still is utterly clueless about what’s actually going on and doesn’t have hard evidence, but he’s starting to see a case form. More than anything, it gives Hodge some good material. His apparently aware of the supernatural detective is pretty undeveloped on his own, but Hodge’s brisk rapport with them main cast makes for fun television. He’s so blunt it forces others to react. Ethan’s still out on the moor, but his enemies are closing in back in London.
Although he’s not a major player this episode (and it seems aside from spending time with Lily, remains wholly unconnected to this season’s proceedings, once again), Dorian gets his best scene of the season yet. Angelique’s (Johnny Beauchamp) jealousy of Dorian’s time with Lily finally gets the better of her, and a loose door on a hidden passageway leads her and the audience to a ghastly sight: The picture of Dorian Gray. When Dorian finds her, he’s not forgiving. With Angelique dead, Reeve Carney finally gets to show off the cruel and paranoid side of Oscar Wilde’s famed hedonist that the writing wouldn’t let him do until now. And the portrait is revealed, appropriately grotesque and surprisingly in it, Dorian is chained. His soul trapped in a hell of Dorian’s making? It’s a new take on the portrait that raises many questions, but immediately creates a chill down the spine, mainly when it moves in Dorian’s presence, unsettling even him. Wherever his story goes next — hopefully to becoming more interconnected with the rest of the cast — this cruel figure is the Dorian that should dominate it.
Not finished after making Dorian interesting, Logan also delivers major payoff and shocks from the Frankenstein manipulation triangle. It turns out that Lily the Corpse Bride isn’t just a murderer, she remembers her past as Brona, from her profession to her death. All of those comments on Victorian gender roles built to a dark reveal. It seemed hard to top Dalton’s scenes earlier in the episode, but the final Frankenstein sequence does. When John Clare, the Creature formerly known as Caliban, still bearing all his misogynistic, sexist entitlement, barges into Lily and Victor’s flat, it seemed like set up for a cringe-worthy scene of assault. Rory Kinnear is wonderful, but Clare is a despicable being. And then the script flips. Lily, in Billie Piper’s best work in the series by far, attacks Clare, reveals her true nature, and descends into a performance that can only be described as crackpot terrifying. Her misanthropy and superiority complex are the worst fears of Shelley’s Frankenstein realized, and with no one suspecting her motives, and Clare now terrified of her, she’s the wild card for the rest of the season.
The one undeveloped part of the episode is the subplot about Hecate trying to overthrow her mother. She’s trying to coerce Lyle into helping her, but he’s already under Poole’s thumb. Helen McCrory remains unpredictable in a great way, but Hecate feels like a cypher, even at this point in the season.
But, “Memento Mori” isn’t the climax just yet, even if it does set up the endgame in a strong fashion. Not just for the season, but for the series. If there have been glimpses of Poole’s master as the demon possessing Vanessa, the vampire master — Lucifer’s brother — remains unseen, but is the creature behind the vampire coven. And based on Victor and Malcolm’s comments on Mina Murray’s involvement to its scheme, that brother is Count Dracula himself. With the third season confirmed, it looks as if Dracula is the big bad of it. Or, considering that Vanessa’s still dealing with the Demon inside of her, and just damned herself to the Devil, that won’t be resolved in the final two episodes of this season, but leave both Lucifer and Dracula to contend with next year.
Logan’s pulling his plot threads together. The deceptions are gone and now every character is closing in on each other. After this episode laid the revelations on heavy, the next two should be big on conflict and consequences.
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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