Only Penny Dreadful could make a breather episode so intense and fraught with developments. “Above the Vaulted Sky” features some big developments, but they are developments that set up the second half of the season and trouble to come. But best of all, the episode gives two storylines — Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Victor Frankenstein’s (Harry Treadaway) a chance to truly shine.
Hartnett is the show’s biggest surprise. Timothy Dalton and Eva Green dominate the show, with performances worthy of multiple awards, but Hartnett has shown that he can act with the best of them. With “Above the Vaulted Sky,” writer John Logan gives him the material to steal every scene he’s in. Ethan sets the tone for the episode early on, furiously preparing for a fight against Evelyn Poole’s Nightcomers and describing a massacre from the Indian Wars he participated in. The other characters get some good lines in, but the scene is Hartnett’s, who walks a fine line between guilt and anger the entire time. He gets some great work later in the episode, but his opening scene is the perfect blend of Logan’s script work and Hartnett’s skills.
Meanwhile, the Frankenstein plot heads in a direction that’s sure to cause trouble, but like Ethan, the first scene defines the storyline for the episode. Treadaway and Rory Kinnear as the Creature calling himself John Clare are well-balance off each other, but for the first time in the show, they finally get to go at each others throats. This episode introduces them with a new intensity, starting with Clare slamming his fists on a table and shouting “Enough!” The argument feels like a long-awaited payoff, and it’s their best work yet. The mutual hatred and co-dependency gives their fight many twists and turns that constantly feel rewarding.
And the third part of the Frankenstein love triangle, Lily Frankenstein AKA Brona Croft the Corpse Bride, takes her first steps out into the world. Billie Piper struggled as Brona last season, mainly with the Irish accent, but as Lily, she’s really come into her own. It’s not just her earnest enthusiasm, but the little touches of uncertainty she puts into the role. When she and Victor go to join Vanessa for tea, she nervously flicks her eyes toward Victor to see if she’s behaving correctly, and her hands tremble ever so slightly. The whole tea scene is great, mainly because of Piper. The only problem with it is that Vanessa fails to recognize Lily as Brona, who she had previously met. It’s jarring only because the show goes out of its way to show Miss Ives as an incredibly perceptive person, so this feels like an intentional but confusing move by Logan.
Along with those threads, clever and intriguing touches fill the episode. Clare and Vanessa meet again and prove that Eva Green truly does bring out the best of other actors. Seeing her and Kinnear recite poetry and discuss philosophy is a treat for the mind and the ears. Sembene (Danny Sapani) reveals a familiarity with totems, hinting at the “other” side of himself he told Ethan about last episode. Meanwhile, Ethan finally meets Inspector Rusk, who confronts him about the Mariner’s Inn massacre. Both men remain evasive, but it’s a delight to see Hartnett and Douglas Hodge match wits. Logan’s script plays their scenes in a great way, each testing the other. Dorian Gray continues to remain unconnected to the ongoings. As of the halfway point of the season, he hasn’t encountered another cast member once. His storyline with Angelique is offering a look at the struggles of transgender women in Victorian society, still relevant to today, but while the rest of the plot lines are moving forward in an interconnected and exciting way, it feels like a dead weight. At least in terms of visuals, the episode gives us a Caspar von Friedrich-esc shot of Reeve Carney amid his hall of portraits.
In fact, the episode is almost entirely devoid of horror, focusing on games of cunning and set up. A surviving victim stalks Ethan, a Nightcomer stalks the Murray manor. The only horror comes from Evelyn Poole’s voodoo torture of Sir Malcolm’s wife Gladys, and the hallucinations she suffers from it. The scene of her dead children rising from their graves almost veered into camp, but since it came after much buildup — and led to a terrifying end — it ended up being very effective.
Instead of horror, there’s a love of love and sex. Nearly everyone in the cast has some romance, some of which will have serious ramifications. Thankfully though, Logan keeps Ethan and Vanessa’s relationship chaste. Hartnett and Green have chemistry, but there’s something powerful in Ethan’s platonic devotion to Vanessa that a romance might weaken. An earlier scene where Vanessa seeks Ethan’s companionship after a scare shows why that works. He cares for her, and their relationship already works without any displays of romance.
“Above the Vaulted Skies” is both a breather episode and one with a lot of set-up. And yet it delivers on so many character moments. John Logan wrote an incredible script that lets his actors, some who have been underserved so far, truly shine. With the show about to enter the back half of the season, Penny Dreadful‘s set up for everything to metaphorically and possibly literally go to Hell. Now, if only Dorian’s story would actually have a point.
For more of Nicholas Slayton’s Penny Dreadful reviews:
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