The occult. The hidden knowledge, the paranormal. John Logan’s Penny Dreadful immerses itself in the occult, and in its second season it finds itself asking if that knowledge should be learned. Are the secrets of the unknown more terrifying than ignorance? From the start, the season premiere “Fresh Hell” runs with the idea. Heroine Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) beset upon by a vicious supernatural force that she does not know. Gun-for-hire Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) finds himself staring at the bloody mess and the knowledge that he’s an American Wolfman in London. And then both are victims of a fresh attack, the culprits presenting the mystery that the season will try to unravel.
In its first season, Penny Dreadful presented itself as a fascinating work. It takes its name from the pulp fiction of the time, but Logan’s show instead is a smart and rich Gothic tale, with clever writing, horror rooted in suspense rather than shock, looking into the nature of human desire and despair. A literary mashup of characters and archetypes, it told its own take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, bringing together disparate souls to hunt vampires serving a mysterious “Master.” Alongside the main plot, Logan weaved in Egyptology, musings on Romanticism and the stage, and commentary on the British Empire. And “Fresh Hell” finds the cast soon after the finale of last season, each haunted by what happened. Logan deftly reintroduces his protagonists while building a slow-burn thread that moves the story forward, rather than stuck in the past.
With the new batch of episodes come a new adversary, and a take on how to portray that adversary. The first season focused more on introducing the leads than the villains. The elusiveness and vagueness of the adversaries made the cast’s struggles against them all the more tense. Could they fight the ethereal and occult? Was Count Dracula lurking around the corner? Now the villain is clear, and instead of diminishing from the conflict, that clarity adds fear. There’s a malevolence in this adversary. Here, Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) who first appeared as the medium Madame Kali, reveals herself to be much more powerful, and much more attuned to the supernatural than she let on.
But it’s the protagonists that once again steal the show. It’s Vanessa’s dilemma that carries the episode, and she bookends the episode. As with the first season, Green and Timothy Dalton remain the highlights of a very strong cast. Green’s range continues to impress, and her transformation from composed control to a terrified soul and back flows naturally. Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray is all simmering emotion barely checked under the surface of a perfect Victorian gentleman. Even now, with his character tinged by regret and exhaustion from the past season, he seems ready to burst in each scene, like a lion waiting to pounce. He only gets a few scenes in “Fresh Hell,” but his presence steals each one.
And the rest of the cast is in top form, if not better. Logan’s reintroduction of the other leads relies on subdued moments, letting the actors’ body language tell most of the story. When Ethan awakes from a transformation-induced massacre of an inn, the camera lingers on his unease and shock. Even when he composes himself to join the others, he moves with insecurity. Sir Malcolm’s ally Sembene (Danny Sapani) finally gets a meatier role, and Sapani delivers. Harry Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein isn’t given much to do this time, but his rapport with his creation Caliban (Rory Kinnear) carries over the depth of the past season and says so much in so little. A few brief moments hint at an intriguing, if unsettling storyline.
Part of the fun of Penny Dreadful is seeing how Logan weaves in actual characters from Victorian and Gothic literature alongside his own creations, who themselves are indebted to the archetypes of those stories. It gave us the actual Frankenstein and his Creature, but then worked in new characters tied to Stoker’s Dracula. There was a mystery of how each one was connected, and what archetype they filled. Green’s Vanessa at first seemed a kind of Great Detective, then teased as psychic, before revealing that thanks to a bit of demonic possession she’s a witch in the classical sense. And now the show has its own grand detective, Inspector Rusk (Doug Hodge), who should be a rather interesting addition going forward. The show leans on the works Gothic literature and Rusk is a much different kind of character.
But some of the best moments in the episode come from it’s approach to horror. Logan and director John Hawes not only weave the moments into the character arcs well, they rely on suspense and the strengths that come from their genre. Gothic horror built itself around the unknown, unease, and rich, almost hedonistic terror. The attack on Ethan and Vanessa shies from blood and gore, but revels in powerlessness of the characters against their attackers. When the deformed Caliban visits a was museum seeking employment, the steady dread of both the setting and how others react to him turns a job interview into a stomach-turning exploration of the macabre. And then there’s Poole, who gets a chunk of time showcasing her powers and evil. Much of her scenes could have veered into camp and scene chewing, but to McRory and the crew’s credit, it never does. Instead it commits to the lush scenery and instead of holding back with vague teases of Satanism and the occult, it fully embraces them. The result is an unsettling, captivating set-up for the season’s main arc, and a delightfully indulgent bit of storytelling amid a carefully restrained and somber episode.
“Fresh Hell” is aptly named. The protagonists carry over their torment from season one, but Logan and Hawes deliver a terrifying new storyline. The combination of Logan’s writing and the cast’s strong performances make the show compelling and nuanced. Penny Dreadful remains horror done right, and a masterful demonstration of how the Gothic genre should be delivered.
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