David Paul Hellings checks out Ep 1, Season 2 of Penny Dreadful...
The premise of "Penny Dreadful" Season One promised much, but didn't always deliver as it could have done, often falling into the trap that "Van Helsing" did by throwing in every Universal monster in the hope that the mix would work. There were moments of quality, mainly from the talent, especially the ever marvellous Eva Green as the psychologically damaged clairvoyant Vanessa Ives and Timothy Dalton as the seemingly well-intentioned, but often manipulative Sir Malcolm Murray; as well as Harry Treadaway's fine turn as the tortured Dr. Frankenstein and Rory Kinnear's splendidly rejected Creature, whilst Josh Hartnett was underused as Ethan Chandler, (the hunter who just happens to be a werewolf), as was Reeve Carney's Dorian Grey. There was the occasional great episode - Vanessa's possession was a high point, but at times the danger was that it would become a gothic and lesser attempt at "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (the comics, not the awful film - nothing should compared to that). Season One veered between good episodes and disappointing ones, but the cast as well as great production value meant that "Penny Dreadful" was still worth watching in the hope of more consistency. It wasn't bad, but it could have been better.
Now, Season Two is with us, so where are we now and have the makers of the series put together a good reason to keep watching?
"Fresh Hell" (looking as sumptuous as ever) opens with Vanessa walking through a snowy London park in the pre-credits sequence, to hear the ritual chanting of Madame Kali aka Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory on good form as always, although I'm not sure I'd trust somebody named after the Hindu goddess of Destruction, although Time and Change might have some deeper resonance to a character who is yet to be truly revealed – until later in the episode and then we get the full reveal!). Vanessa falls to her knees in the snow, refusing the help of passing strangers. Is she still possessed? Does Madame Kali now have some form of control over the troubled Miss Ives? Whatever's going on, Vanessa is clearly in a bad place and rightly so. Cue the nice, moody music and stylish credit sequence and we're off once more into the world of "Penny Dreadful".
"Fresh Hell" (written as usual by series creator John Logan) begins with Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) waking from his murderous lycanthropic transformation seen at the end of Season One, bloody but fortunately not suffering the kind of werewolf change that destroys your clothes, to the grim realisation of the destruction he's caused. Hartnett is always good value on screen and it's no different here, (even if a werewolf does still feel like one monster too many), a troubled man aware of his curse who's now made the decision to flee England for the sake of those he cares about and himself. Chandler explains his decision in one of those 'I'm not who you think I am' speeches to a concerned Vanessa before their horse and carriage is attacked by seemingly pretty useless female vampires (that resemble the former inhabitants of David Bowie's drought killed planet in "The Man Who Fell To Earth") who are quickly dispatched by Vanessa's demonic speaking in tongues. Clearly there's something dark within Miss Ives that even these vampires are wary of.
Meanwhile in Frankenstein's lab, the not so good doctor begins work on the now dead streetwalker Brona Croft (Billie Piper, forced in Season One to deliver lines with a dreadful Oirish accent) under the watchful gaze of the hopeful Creature in a nicely played scene in which Frankenstein now understands that, whatever he does, he will never be free of his first son, a Creature that sadly not only wants a mate, but has to find a job (never a problem in Karloff's day).
At Sir Malcolm's, Vanessa is left by Chandler under the watchful eye of Sembene (the underused Danny Sapani) but only after Vanessa's claim that the vampires weren't trying to kill her. So, why were they trying to kidnap the damaged clairvoyant and why is one of them watching the house from the darkness of a wintry night? There are bigger plans afoot always in "Penny Dreadful", but thankfully not the kind of overarching plot that becomes too unwieldy too quickly in other popular TV shows.
Sir Malcolm and his estranged wife Gladys (Noni Stapleton) share a brief reunion at Mina's grave, nicely played, reminding us that they have now lost their two children, she accusing him of killing both son and daughter, no return home for Sir Malcolm, only a marriage in name remaining. Sir Malcolm's carriage ride back to London reveals again a darkness, which the talent that is Dalton plays with such ease.
The Creature's job hunt finds him at a local waxworks, (Rory Kinnear has created a multi-faceted and often touchingly tragic figure, despite his capabilities to terrorise and destroy), a possibility of employment in the recreation of famous crime scenes, including the most recent: the massacre at the Mariner's Inn (seen in season One), currently being investigated by Inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge), a moody (if there is any other kind?) policeman hunting whoever is responsible for the grisly murders taking place in old London town.
While a scared Vanessa Ives hides away in Sir Malcolm's house, Dr. Frankenstein begins an unhealthy connection with the yet-to-be-resurrected Brona, signalling problems to come for the troubled man of science; a scene that balances nicely with his Creature's brief job interview at the waxworks and a moment of sensitivity as the owner's blind daughter touches his face, Kinnear adding a pathos to the Creature not seen since the early Universal days. Tragic that the only reason he is given the job is simply because of his horrific face, a mere attempt by the owner to get more customers.
Sir Malcolm's return finally gets the main plot back on track as the assembled 'heroes', if you can call them that, consider the earlier vampire attack and the realisation that these are unlike the foes previously encountered and speak in the language of the Devil. "Nightcomers", vampiric witches, who we then see as the daughters of Madame Kali, herself seen in a bath of blood, victim on the floor, (in an obvious riff on Countess Bathory) in a suitably moody place of hiding. The daughters, led by Hecate (another name from the gothic history & mythology encyclopedia the writer clearly loves to raid), look like the classic brides of a vampire, their collective plan to kidnap Miss Ives to be the bride of the Devil.
As storm clouds gather over London, Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature prepare to try and bring Brona back to 'life' in basically a recreation of classic "Frankenstein" moments to the point you expect the Doctor to shout "She's alive!" (He doesn't thankfully, that would be one rip too many), still it's nicely done all the same.
Finally, Vanessa cuts her thumb and draws a scorpion of blood on the wooden floor of her bedroom, praying to her God, as Madame Kali does the same in her abode, praying to Lucifer and promising to deliver Miss Ives as his bride. The battle has begun.
"Fresh Hell" sums up the previous season: a collection of other people's ideas from gothic literature ending up as a monster mash, often "Penny Dreary" and sometimes "Penny Depressing"; a relentlessly dark tone in a world of perpetual gloom in which earnest characters talk of the severity of what is to come, and then talk some more. Episode One was talking without much doing, but perhaps that's how the premiere to the new season was meant to be? An often static set up for the mission ahead? As much as it can improve, "Penny Dreadful" continues to happily steal from previous, better works, yet is annoyingly watchable and keeps you hooked. Episode Two should be interesting.
David Paul Hellings