PENNY DREADFUL: Our Family is Fractured and the Bells Toll for Tennyson

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Episode 301 “The Day Tennyson Died”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Damon Thomas

We find our family of misfits near where we left them, separated by great distances and emotions. Ethan bound and under heavy guard is returning home across the vast open desert of the New Mexico Territory. Sir Malcolm is experiencing his beloved Africa with sadness and disgust as he accompanies our fallen friend to his final resting place. Our lovely Vanessa wallows in filth and solitude like some deranged feline. Our sorrowful Creature sits in his accustomed solitude within the bowels of an ice-locked ship. His creator calls upon an old friend as his addiction gets worse.

This episode opens on Sir Malcolm’s home shuttered against the sunlight and silent, the first sound we hear is that of the mail slot opening and letters being slipped through to join the dust-covered pile of mail scattered across the entryway. As the viewer is drawn farther into the home we are shown filth and dust covering every exposed surface. Finally, we see Ms. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) laying corpse like upon the bed, her hand dangling limp over the edge of the bed. For a split second you think she’s either dead or entered another one of her fugues, then she blinks.

She rises, shuffling through the scant shafts of light that barely penetrate the gloom. Absent her usual poise and grace, she makes her way through the house to the kitchen service entrance. She drags grocer’s delivery through the door into the now putrefying kitchen.

Once inside with her prize she slumps down beside the food laden wooden crate and begins to consume its contents. She starts by opening the milk with her teeth and ravenously consuming it in a way that would make Michele Pfeiffer’s Catwoman take pause. Next, she moves to a loaf of bread larger than her head rips into it with the ferocity of a lioness.

Suddenly a knock at the service door echoes through the stench of anguish which you can almost smell permeating the kitchen.

In this split second, we’re reminded of the wondrous duality that Eva Green brings to Vanessa. So often Vanessa is beautiful and graceful, but in this moment, her face is transformed so perfectly into that of a feral frightened skeleton. The enchanting green eyes and lovely dark hair are forgotten and we are presented with the visage of a fiendish ghoul.

Enter the resplendent and always tactful Mr. Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), who of course loves what she’s done with the place. Because, well, saying anything else would just show poor manners, after all. Here we learn that the bells we’ve heard tolling in the background, but failed to take notice of, toll for the passing of the poet Lord Tennyson (“Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”). As they sit across from each other, Mr. Lyle voices his concern for Vanessa’s well-being and recommends a doctor who might be able to help her. But first, perhaps she might do a little something with her hair?

Next, we’re soaring above the vastness of the New Mexico Territory where a steam engine chugs through the openness. Within one of the cars pulled behind this beast of steel and steam is another beast under the guard of Inspector Bartholemew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) from Scotland Yard and several US Marshals. The rugged and cunning Ethan Chandler/Talbot (Josh Hartnett) sits in shackles. As he obviously glances at all exits and weapons throughout the car, Inspector Rusk and the Junior Inspector (Jack Hickney) accompanying him leave the car in search of a cup of tea.

In an adjacent car a rough-looking fellow, identified in the credits only as Scarman and played by Cokey Falkow, rises moves with malevolence towards the car holding Ethan. As he approaches the door of the car several other men rise from their seats to join him bursting through the door in a hail of gunfire. We are unclear whether he has been rescued or kidnapped, most likely a little of both.

With the marshals dispatched, the posse starts executing everyone else on the train. One of the gunmen makes an exception when a cowering woman beseeches him to spare her. The “defenseless female” is  the embodiment of demonic temptation, Hecate Poole.

Episode 301

Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm in Penny Dreadful (Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME)

We find Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) drinking alone in a seedy bar in Zanzibar. He’s disenchanted with his beloved Africa and what it has become. He’s returned the remains of his vigilant and intuitive companion, Sembene, to the land of his people.  His discovery that most of those people have been lost to the slavery of the ivory and rubber trade deepens his disgust at what has become of the land he spent so many years in. What is left in the world to discover and explore if not Africa?

After finishing his drink, Sir Malcolm weaves his way a little drunkenly out into the alley and stops to give money to a woman begging him to help the baby she’s holding. She asks him for more money in exchange for…services…then her eyes shift of Sr. Malcolm’s shoulder. In an instant, she’s holding a gun to his head and several men surround him.  Without warning an expertly thrown knife appears, buried in the woman’s face. Malcolm turns in the direction the knife came from and sees a Native American man standing outside the ring of attackers. There’s a brief pause as everyone registers what just happened and then violence erupts in the narrow alleyway. The melee is over in seconds, leaving Malcolm and his savior standing amid the lifeless bodies watering the dirt with their blood. Before the two men speak the mysterious rescuer kneels down and calmly slices off the woman’s scalp.

Episode 301

Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm and Wes Studi as Kaetenany in Penny Dreadful (Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME)

In another bar, the two men sit across from each other while Malcolm drinks and the new stranger kindly refuses the offer of spirits. Kaetenay (Wes Studi), as he calls himself, has been searching for Sir Malcolm for some time now and just missed him as he left London for Africa. As Kaeteney tells his story we learn he is cryptically linked to Ethan Chandler’s origins. It is unclear how this new character plays into the history of Lupus Dei; he refers to Ethan as almost a son.

Within the bowels of a ship locked in ice, men discuss hunger and survival over the taboos of society. Our lost Creature, John Clare (Rory Kinnear), listens in silence as the men discuss feasting on the bodies of their mates.  Everyone seems to agree that the young boy we see next has but a few days left of suffering before his own bell tolls. The man most desperately trying to convince the crew to descend into cannibalism rises, knife in hand, to end the boy’s suffering. Mr. Clare steps in front of the man, shielding the boy, and sits down beside him on the bed. Tenderly he sings the boy a lullaby, which brings on a scene from his old life. Assured the boy is suffering and will surely die, John Clare takes the child’s head in his hands and twists. In the silence that follows, he rises and leaves the crew to their fate. The last we see of him he’s far from the ship traversing the frozen tundra against the howling wind. The Creature is going home.

A well dressed Indian man walks through unsavory neighborhoods looking diligently at the buildings, obviously searching out an address while effortlessly dodging the night soil and insults thrown at him as he passes. He ascends a filthy stairwell and knocks upon the door he’s been seeking. When it swings open and we are met by Dr. Frankenstein, who appears mad and withered by his worsening addiction. Dr. Frankenstein greets Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif) and invites him to come in.

Episode 301

Shazad Latif as Dr. Jekyll and Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful (Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME)

What follows, is, I think is one of the most fascinating scenes in the episode. Narcissism, misogyny, homo-eroticism, power, control, heartache and lust all intricately woven in a brief scene so that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

The first time through, I noticed what might have been an attraction between the two whether it was an attraction of the minds or the flesh it is still difficult to discern.  What is very evident is their shared need to control all things they felt chaotic, especially women. When I watched it the second time I began to see so many layers I hadn’t noticed and even more the third time. Like a serial killer with their first live animal; lust, power and violence were all one complexly intertwined primal need.

As they converse we learned that they were classmates, friends and outcasts at Cambridge. At university, they both pursued their forbidden arts with the dream of one day showing those who mocked them that were the fools. Both men seem to share a mutual respect and acknowledgment of the other’s brilliance in their field.

Once the outline of their back story is complete they begin to boast and fawn over each other’s accomplishments. Eventually, talk turns to Victor’s lost Lily, who has been brilliantly played throughout the series by Billie Piper, but is sadly missing from this episode. The good doctor wants her back despite her desires to descend into depravity with Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) and see nothing more of the weak Dr. Frankenstein. Victor is willing to do anything to reclaim his possession of Lily and with a little seducing from Dr. Jekyll, Victor sees Jekyll’s concoction as an acceptable way to gain control of his lost creation.

Vanessa has taken the advice of Mr. Lyle and made an appointment with the doctor he recommended. It is here that we meet Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone ) who bears a striking resemblance in both appearance and attitude to Vanessa’s former mentor. At the end of their session, the doctor challenges Vanessa to do something or go somewhere completely new or alien to her.
As she leaves Dr. Seward’s office, a pale creature falls in step behind her and signals to an equally pale boy ahead of her. The young boy steps out to sell her a ribbon and apologize for any discomfort his anemic appearance might be causing her.

 

Episode 301

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Christian Carmargo as Dr. Sweet in Penny Dreadful (Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME)

Following their transaction, she passes by the London Museum of Natural History and decides to take the doctor’s advice and explore the curiosities inside. Among the jars of scorpions, she’s approached by a handsome curator who introduces himself as Dr. Alexander Sweet (Christian Camargo). He explains that despite what one might commonly think, it is the smaller scorpions who are the most dangerous, especially those that lack color and appear bloodless (foreshadowing related to the pale follower and anemic young boy?)

There is an immediately obvious attraction between the two. When Vanessa inquires of his favorites within the museum he indicates that he favors the lost and unloved creatures, like the scorpion, the ones seldom visited.

She returns home to open the shutters and pull the dust covers from the furniture, allowing light into her world which has been so dark as of late. The desire to return to life is evident and that glow she seems to be able to switch on and off has returned.

The final segment of our tale starts in the darkened offices of Dr. Seward, where her secretary (Samuel Barnett), of whom we paid little notice earlier, is closing down for the night and filching money from a desk drawer.
He enters the seedy night of the London streets where red paper lanterns light his way, his eyes searching back and forth with caution and barely repressed hunger. He approaches an aging prostitute, whispers in her ear and follows her into the alley. The meek secretary we met in Dr. Seward’s office is gone as he pushes her face against the wall and with shameful lust begins the deed for which he’s paid. A wind blows and she’s flung against a wall by unseen hands, blood spattering from her head as she crumples to the ground.

He awakes on the floor of what appears to be an abandoned building. Unfamiliar with his surroundings he rises shakily to his feet and looks into the face of the pale creature that followed Vanessa from Dr. Seward’s office. When he clumsily turns to flee he finds the young ribbon salesman behind him. Shuffling sounds fill the air and from the shadows we see what appear to be people crawling unnaturally toward him with unmasked hunger.

The fiends surrounding him suddenly drop to the ground in prostration as an unseen presence enters and they scurry away frantically. While he lay trembling and apparently alone a voice fills comes creeping out of the darkness, enticing him to look upon its owner and fear not. A shadow stretches across Renfield’s neck then all is dark.

“My name is Dracula.” is the last thing we hear.

Episode 301

Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Shazad Latif as Dr. Jekyll in Penny Dreadful (Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME)

All things considered and taken together, I thought this was a great season premiere. I was a little disappointed not to see Lily and Dorian Grey after their chilling final scene last season; however, it wasn’t something I noticed until the episode was coming to an end. I hope to see them in the following episode.

Observations, critiques, and praise:

 

Is this new season going to center on fathers of the lost, forgotten or unloved? It seemed to be an underlying theme in this episode at least.  Ethan has his own father, Mr. Talbot whom we’ve yet to meet, along with Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay. Dr. Frankenstein has his creations, his original creature now knows that he was once a father. Finally, you have Dr. Sweet whose comments to Vanessa put what I was noticing into words. Of course there’s the fatherly relationship Sir Malcolm has with Vanessa that’s been addressed in the previous seasons. One could also count Dracula and Renfield if that relationship follows the one written by Bram Stoker. Perhaps I’m seeing something that isn’t there but I’m very interested to find out.

There have been moments in the show that have seemed a bit too predictable, cliché or hastily written and I’m not so sure it’s not intentional considering that many of the storytelling tricks and predictable twists first appeared in the original Penny Dreadful publications. This episode, however, had more of those moments than I’ve noticed previously. Perhaps I’m only noticing it this time since I’ve been waiting eagerly for this season to start or perhaps it is simply that I’m looking at it with a more critical eye now that I get the opportunity to write about it. Don’t mistake this observation into reflect in any way that I did not enjoy the episode thoroughly all three times I watched it. Only next week’s episode will tell.

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