S2E09 “And Hell Itself My Only Foe”
“And Hell Itself My Only Foe” served as an epic set up for a season finale, filling itself with developments and cliffhangers, with the right pacing to keep the story moving forward. It also showed a marked improvement in John Logan’s pacing compared to season one. Although both penultimate episodes focused heavily on one character’s predicament — Vanessa’s (Eva Green) demonic issues there and Ethan’s (Josh Hartnett) lycanthropy here — this episode balances it alongside the other plotlines, instead of halting them. Even better, Logan proves he isn’t done mining Gothic tropes by throwing in not one, but multiple death traps! And in true Penny Dreadful fashion, the death traps are cerebral, terrifying and wholly logical and yet still surprising.
But before getting to all of the gloom and doom, Logan and returning director Brian Kirk still have to reunite the scattered heroes and get them up to speed. There’s some delightful expediency at work here. Sure, the Roper (Stephen Lord) plot thread is wrapped up in a quick fashion before the credits even role, but there’s still a proper amount of drama there. The disfigured Pinkerton managers to sneak into the Cut-Wife’s hut on the moor and get the drop on the werewolf and the witch. His slow, methodical approach to capturing Ethan, combined with finally showing his claw-induced wrecked face gave some suspense to the proceedings, but the action that ended it was great. Vanessa’s truly become formidable in physical fights as well as magical ones. The whole bit ends in comedy though, as Ethan and Vanessa’s kick-stab-kick-stab routine picks up a steady rhythm. No time to dwell on a dead Pinkerton though, Doctor Frankenstein is there to whisk them back to London to help rescue Malcolm. And back at Granditch Place, the ever-delightful Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) fills in the gaps. Logan is smart to avoid needless exposition, but focuses on the reactions the heroes have to Lyle’s betrayal.
Of course, much of the proceedings center around Ethan. One of the biggest surprises is that cunning-but-without-a-case Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) reveals Ethan’s real name. Ethan Chandler is really Ethan Lawrence Talbot. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Lawrence Talbot is the definitive werewolf. He’s the wolfman that Lon Chaney Jr. and Benicio Del Toro portrayed in the classic Universal Wolfman movies and the underrated 2010 remake. It fits though. Although the original film was set in a vaguely Edwardian time, the remake was a Victorian-set film, in the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper murders, much like Penny Dreadful. Of course, Lawrence Talbot’s always been a Welshman who spent time in the United States, not an American military veteran, so there are some differences. Interestingly, it’s the first shoutout to a direct version of a character, Universal’s own. Hmm. It’s pure fanservice, but oh what fanservice it is. John Talbot’s been portrayed as a benevolent and evil man in the past. Should Ethan’s father appear, it will be interesting to see which version he takes after.
Beyond his name, Ethan gets a few key heart to hearts with Sembene, whose backstory is finally revealed in full. He was a slaver in Africa, and now is trying to atone for his actions. And he values Ethan’s life more than his own. In perhaps the best scene of the episode, the two find themselves trapped in a stairway in Poole’s mansion, with a full moon rising. Kirk’s direction keeps it claustrophobic and foreboding, with attempted suicides, panic and forgiveness. Penny Dreadful is full of wonderful interplay between the cast, but Hartnett and Danny Sapani’s understated bond is a highlight of this season.
If there’s one flaw in a rather well-paced episode, it’s whatever is going on with Hecate Poole (Sarah Greene). She’s out to usurp her mother, that much is clear, but the whys and hows are still up in the air for the most part. Worse, the one bad scene comes courtesy of her. Before Sembene’s Sneaky Squad of Scoundrels leave for Madam Kali’s haunted mansion, Hecate sneaks into Ethan’s room to tempt him. She talks of his destiny and joining her, and it feels very out of place. Yes, Ethan is clued in on the Wolf of God element of the Verbis Diablo, but what Hecate’s selling feels very over the top. Plus, Logan already had her attempt to seduce Ethan fail early on in the season. This feels like something from an abandoned plotline.
One confrontation that is light is Vanessa finally taking on Poole. Both are relatively civil — there’s no bloodshed yet — while the rest of the mansion is filled with horrors. It seems that the witch duel is being saved for the season finale, although Poole plays her trump card with her fetish doll of Vanessa. In a show that’s featuring telekinesis, possessions, damnation spells and more, there’s an air of unpredictability in how their fight will go down. It should be good.
On the Frankenstein side of the plot, nothing looks good for Victor and his weird, murderous family. The good doctor’s morphine addiction is starting to get the better with him, even with Vanessa there to comfort him. It’s a small but lovely scene, and further proof that the Frankensteins are better every time they share a scene with Eva Green. Come the cliffhanger, Victor’s in his own death trap, the same kind that’s seemingly broken Sir Malcolm: Visions of a dead family. If the ghosts can break Sir Malcolm, Victor is in trouble. Meanwhile, his “son,” the Creature currently known as John Clare (Rory Kinnear) continues to have everything go wrong for him. The Putneys finally make their move and lock him up as part of their exhibit of horrors. Considering that Clare has superstrength and no hesitation with killing people, the exhibitors might be in trouble. And their betrayal looks like it will push the Creature firmly toward siding with Lily the Corpse Bride (Billie Piper) and her misanthropic agenda.
And as for the crackpot Lily Frankenstein, she’s off seducing Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Dorian finally admits he knows she’s Brona, and instead of being an idiot, he’s just been curious and biding his time. It seems that Lily is trying to recruit him to her crusade. She uses much of the same routine she gave Clare, but then again, she only knows Dorian as the light-hearted dandy. If the Angelique plot of this season was for any purpose, it was to show that Dorian is a cruel, dangerous person. So it seems that Lily might be in more danger than she thinks she is. And Logan and Kirk give a hint at how Dorian’s immortality works. After some foreplay involving a bitten-off ear, it makes sense in context, Dorian heals, but only after going to see his portrait. Does he need to stare at it for the immortality to come into affect?
As the credits roll, no one seems safe, possibly not even the resurrected misanthrope who thinks she’s on top. It’s a classic Victorian and Gothic trope, and it works to a tee here. A lot of the plot is deferred for the finale, including the big face offs, but Logan and Kirk keep the episode filled with enough drama and action to prevent any sense of filler. Now the only question is if the final episode of the season can provide satisfactory payoff. Well, that and who will survive .
S2E10 “And They Were Enemies”
Penny Dreadful‘s first season closed with a simple question to Vanessa Ives: Does she want to be normal? It was never answered, but by the end of the second season’s finale the show asked and answered if she even can be. It’s a resounding no. In a surprise turn, “And They Were Enemies” concerns itself less with the struggle of good and evil, and more on what it takes to break someone. In a season built on bonds of connection, Penny Dreadful shattered them all.
After last episode’s deathtrap-filled cliffhanger, the action wraps up in a quick fashion. It never feels rushed, but at the same time, showrunner John Logan is efficient at taking out the villains. Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) and her Nightcomers are dispatched within 20 minutes. McCrory doesn’t get much to do this episode, despite her presence throughout the season. But, her body language alone when events sour is captivating, all twitching fear and feral rage. And how the events sour is a treat in its own right. Confronted by Poole and her fetish doll of Vanessa (through which Lucifer is speaking, no less!), Vanessa gets her own last temptation. Speaking the Verbis Diablo didn’t doom her fully, she has to willingly give up her soul and be the fated Amunet. So, cue a familiar “perfect life” fantasy. But when Vanessa remembers she can never be normal, she throws the Devil’s own language back at him, shattering his vessel and forcing the Devil to take his powers from Poole. That frees up Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Victor (Harry Treadaway) from their own breaking points, while a wolfed-out Ethan (Josh Hartnett) finishes off the witch known as Madam Kali. So, everything’s fine, right?
Not even close. Traumatized and hurt by the confirmed death of Sembene (Danny Sapani), the heroes are left to process the last few months. And the next 30 minutes are a tragic look at each character walking into a bleak solitude. This season explored why the company needed each other, and how their separation was a weakness. In the end, Poole and her daughters couldn’t break them when they were together, but they did it to each other. And, it seems, their self-imposed hells aren’t good enough; Logan keeps putting them in worse situations before the credits rolled. As Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) says to Doctor Frankenstein, it’s good to have a friend. But everyone ends up alone in the end.
Ethan’s haunted by his murder of Sembene, and still terrified of his lycanthropy. Trying to save others, he turned himself in to Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge). But, death is not on the menu; extradition to the United States is. So the American werewolf leaves London, caged on a boat with Rusk accompanying him. Hartnett’s growing anguish with his curse this season was a delight. It wasn’t quite on the level of other the Talbots (Lon Chaney Jr. and Benicio Del Toro), but they had films dedicated to their anguish, so that can be forgiven. Ethan Talbot keeps trying to run, even to the grave, but now he’s stuck returning to the place he fears most: Home. His interplay with Hodge’s Rusk wields a great back-and-forth, so the latter joining him on the voyage should be interesting. Still, Rusk was underused this season, ultimately being a loose look at the Great Detective archetype, and his familiarity with the supernatural remains unexplained.
Ethan’s selfish attempt to be selfless pushes Vanessa into her own cage. Since the first episode, she’s been religious. Her prayers were her last refuge. And in the final moments of the episode, abandoned by Ethan, with Sir Malcolm gone to bury Sembene in Africa, her faith dies. She throws her cross into the fire. It’s a tragic, bitter scene, but earned by 18 episodes of her conviction. If Vanessa’s faith was all that saved her from Lucifer and his witches, how will she cope next? Her powers are strong, but her use of the Verbis Diablo puts her dangerously close to Hell’s grasp. She’s still the Amunet sought by the demonic brothers, so she’s not free. Only weakened. Still, Eva Green’s performance in the finale was a highlight. And she once again managed to make John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the Creature formerly known as Caliban dynamic.
Frankenstein’s creation isn’t one to be held in captivity long, as the Putneys found out. One of Logan’s subtler elements this season was an exploration of class in the Victorian world, and the working class Putneys and their middle-class aspirations showed off the nature of greed and spite that comes from it. David Haig’s loquacious pride in his new-found wealth is a great touch, but Mr. Putney is so consumed with money that he thinks Clare will be swayed by it, despite being caged. Like his literary counterpart, Clare has super strength, so his escape was simply a matter of when, not if. And once he does, he dishes out revenge in both quick and cruel ways. For a character who started the season with a new job and a possible bride, he now is at his lowest. He’s not even up for Lily the Corpse Bride (Billie Piper) and her takeover the world scheme! He tries to get Vanessa to leave London with him, but despite her kindness to him — poor Vanessa remains ignorant to the fact that just a few episodes ago, murderous Mr. Clare was out to all-but-rape Lily — she chooses not to go. Instead, in another callback to Mary Shelley’s novel, he ends the season on a boat to the Arctic, seeking isolation.
But for Victor, he might have one of the worst fates of them all. Already confronted in his hauntings by his Stockholming of Lily and abuse of her, he finds her gone. So a gun-toting Doctor Frankenstein breaks into the manor of Dorian Gray to find….Dorian and Lily dancing away dressed to the nines in white. And that’s where the scariest scene of the episode begins, oddly enough. Lily, dispensed of all pretenses, becomes the cruelest figure, and somehow tops Piper’s already stellar work this season. And as for Dorian, Reeve Carney finally makes the role work with a full embrace of evil. When Victor starts shooting them, a chucking Dorian starts calling him “sport” and it’s terrifying. Capping the scene, the unkillable couple dances away, blood spreading across the parlor floor. It’s a gorgeous, and utterly Gothic visual. And Victor is left only with his growing morphine addiction and dwindling usable veins.
When season one wrapped up, it wasn’t fulfilling, as it spent a lot of time setting up season two. With “And They Were Enemies,” Penny Dreadful again sets up what’s to come, but in a way that more directly deals with its characters’ suffering. It’s flung its heroes across the world, into deep pits of despair and even into the unknown. And there’s a great looming danger. Enemies are still out there. Season one saw both Lucifer and his brother — likely Dracula, from the vampire element to the source material the season drew from — both trying to claim Vanessa and failing. Lucifer sent minions this season, and that failed. It seems the other brother is up next. With evil still looming and those who can fight it broken and lost, this season finale leaves only a desire for more midnight terrors. How delightfully Gothic.
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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