“Verbis Diablo” is a rare specimen. It is both Penny Dreadful‘s most minimalist episode and also it’s most terrifying. Nestled within it lies a wonderful look at Victorian hypocrisy and otherworldly manifestations of evil.
Penny Dreadful thrives on its exhaustive knowledge and application of Victorian literary characters and themes. For tone, though, Gothic horror reigns supreme. In the grand Gothic tradition, the drama, horror and scenery revel in detail and richness. Lush is the best way to describe and it. And yet, for the first half of “Verbis Diablo,” creator and writer John Logan and director James Hawes strip it all away. Picking up the morning after last episode’s frantic and intense finale, Vanessa (Eva Green) seeks a reassuring arm and voice in Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton). The minimalism is striking and up front from the start — the camera pulls back Vanessa’s bedroom, home last week to overwhelming terror and energy, is a large and sparse room, the candlesticks and bloody symbol on the floor but a tiny detail.
That sparsity continues to Malcolm’s room, and the two actors, both haggard from the night, share a raw moment, all composure thrown out. Vanessa is a haunted soul and Malcolm is a cruel man, but their concern for each other shines through their sins. Dalton and Green remain Penny Dreadful‘s most talented actors. The opening scene alone allows them to be at their most vulnerable, and it’s a moving scene. Give them all of the acting awards. When Malcolm takes Vanessa to an underground food bank for the poor and sick, the exposition is light and the stark bleakness of the visuals tell the story. If the show is Gothic, this half of the episode is positively Victorian in its ascetic nature.
So far, Penny Dreadful hasn’t focused on British societal ills. Class divide isn’t dwelt on, and illness simply serving the Gothic tradition of loss and metaphor. The closest the show’s come was in Vanessa’s flashback episode with its lurid and unsettling look at mental hospitals. However that was played for scares. Here it’s as if the show is stepping into a whole new world. It’s Dickensian more than anything. The Victorian era prided itself on being prim and proper, but under the surface it marveled at the taboo, be it plunders of the empire, sex or the macabre. But the sick and poor? They were cast aside. Later, one character finds himself blackmailed for tastes society frowns upon, a clear Oscar Wilde allusion. For Penny Dreadful to peek into the world of the impoverished and Victorian hypocrisy, it shows that it will not be ignorant to the reality of the period.
Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) finally returns, still rather unconnected to the going-ons of the main cast. At least his moping over Vanessa’s rejection adds a nice new touch — how does the immortal hedonist cope with that? In this episode at least, he finds companionship in Angeline (Jonny Beauchamp), a transgender prostitute whose focus on Dorian’s youth surely has some significance. But like the other characters and the tone, he remains subdued for the first half.
Even the horror is minimalist and subtle. The food bank scene gives off an uplifting moment of charity until Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) pops into frame beside Vanessa. It’s never remarked on, not a single scare chord is used and it is terrifying. The lingering cuts on Vanessa’s check from last week cast an unease every time she steps into frame. When Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) checks in on a victim from Ethan’s (Josh Hartnett) wolfman rampage, he walks into a pristine white hospital room. And yet all it takes is a doctor saying that there’s not much of the victim’s face left to induce chills.
And then, a few scenes later, Poole whispers a few words in Sir Malcolm’s ear and everything changes.
The Gothic richness the show thrives on returns in full force, perhaps the most intense it’s ever been. Ferdinand Lyle — Egyptologist, academic and dabbler in the occult — makes a welcome return. He’s camp embodied, but Simon Russell Beale effortlessly makes him fit into the show. He also brings with him demonic history lessons and ancient, occult relics. The episode’s titular language is more than just a throwaway line from the previous installment, and the relics’ secrets offer an interesting plot thread for the next few episodes. Hawes’ direction shifts drastically in the second half, but not in a jarring way. In contrast to the stark visuals of the first half, he dives into longer takes, pans and interesting framing. When Ethan and Lyle go to the British Museum, Hawes first casts the shadows of iron grates on them, and later shows them descend to a lower level, shot only from above through the grates.
But his best direction comes from the episode’s two big horror moments that close out the hour. Instead of gore and sudden scares, Hawes and Logan opt for slow-burn dread. When one of Poole’s witches stalking two parents and their newborn across town, it’s the anticipation that’s grabbing, not the blood. Every second longer the witch waits to strike, the tenser the scene gets. But even that can’t compare to the Gothic madness of the finale. Set in an old ornate manor in an actual dark and stormy night, Poole practices another occult ritual. It could be easy to call McCrory’s performance as Poole camp, but she crossed the line beyond camp and sacrificed it to the Devil to become pure terror. Aiding McCrory in the scares this time is a room filled with the creepiest collection of dolls and puppets. It manages to make the scene from the terrifying The Woman in Black look tame in comparison. It might be the single most frightening scene in all of Penny Dreadful. Honestly, at this point, insidious monks and haunting ghosts are the the few iconic horror tropes missing from the show. Considering Logan’s approach, there’s a good chance they might soon appear.
One of the great ideas Penny Dreadful raised in its first season was that death was the natural state of things. Each character was surrounded by the dead and the dying, and it was the attempts to stave off demise that were unnatural. The biggest display was in the Frankenstein “family.” Although their drama is kept separate from the main plot, “Verbis Diablo” spends a lot of time with them. Victor (Harry Treadway), when not with Sir Malcolm, is tending to the resurrected Brona (Billie Piper). She’s intended for his Creature, Caliban (Rory Kinnear), but the way he’s caring for her both reeks of a looming love triangle and creepy undertones. There is a fun little shoutout when he rechristens her Lily, as in Lily Munster, wife to the Frankenstein’s Creature Herman from The Munsters (and in a very clever roundabout shoutout, Lily Munster sported the same white streaks in her hair that Elsa Lanchester’s Bride did). As for her betrothed, Caliban is now firmly calling himself John Clare — the real Clare was a Victorian poet who longed for the pre-Industrial, pastoral life, a nice touch that keeps with the allusions to the Romantic setting of Mary Shelley’s novel — spends his time awkwardly saying how much he loves his unknown bride-to-be, and running into Vanessa at the food bank. The latter scene is Kinnear’s best yet. Getting to act opposite a main cast member who isn’t Treadaway gives him a whole new dynamic to explore, and Logan’s script offers a philosophical and clever discussion for Kinnear and Green to share.
But back with the “family,” the lingering tension of Frankenstein’s situation comes from his past resurrected being, Proteus, quickly regaining the memories of his past life. How soon until Lily remembers being Brona, and what Victor did to her? It’s a nice dilemma built from a simple but effective plot point from the first season (the episode is rife with callbacks to last season — a Grand Guignol poster hangs behind Vanessa and Clare during their chat, and among the dozens of Poole’s dolls, a few are of characters integral to the initial story as one Tumblr user pointed out).
Last week’s premiere felt like a solid set-up for the season, but it was just a tease. Logan unleashed the scope of his vision in “Verbis Diablo.” It’s the show’s most inventive episode yet, and a sign that the characters might be familiar to the audience now, but the show’s still full of surprises.
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