One of my favorite things about Penny Dreadful is how realistic it is. Seriously! Save for Dorian Gray and Sir Malcolm, everybody on this show seems to have a job and that job is directly related to the plot. In a world of Vampires, undead corpses, and guys who wear leather pants, it’s nice to know that the economics make sense. Frankenstein wouldn’t have met these people if he didn’t need cash, and ditto for gun-slinging Ethan Chandler. Now, at the midway point of its first season, the Dreadfuls properly introduce us to the best of Victorian industries and get decidedly meta with a gruesome and revealing invitation to the theatre.
SPOILERS for “Demimonde”
At the top of the episode, Dorian Gray is chilling in his big room full of paintings, rocking pants he stole from David Tennant in Fright Night, and generally looking like he’s in a commercial for a new fragrance from Ralph Lauren. Up on the table there’s light bondage, people caressing each other, some dude licking Dorian’s nipple, and pretty much nobody questioning the lack of chest hair in this Victorian setting. Predictably, this orgy seems to depress Dorian Gray, which is awesome, because if you want to start an episode of television out correctly, I’m not sure why a botched, or at least, disappointing orgy isn’t depicted more often.
To really drive home the idea that Dorian is longing for something more, we see him go into some sort of sweet secret room where he stares into a giant painting which the camera never shows us. Spoiler alert for Oscar Wilde’s famous novel: if this painting somehow isn’t a portrait of himself as an old-man magically keeping his body youthful while his soul withers away, it will be an amazing twist. Can you imagine if Dorian is just staring into a big-old portrait of a panda bear?
Meanwhile, Vanessa Ives likes sitting outside on a nice bright day giving old churches the stink eye. After a conversation with a weird little girl about where people go when they die, she randomly sees Dorian Gray walking down the street. The two decide to go check out some plants at a local plant show and Dorian Gray makes some mention about how he likes to see at least one “extraordinary” thing every day, making him still really cool, but five short of a pulling a full-Lewis Carroll. Plus, it’s not clear if these people have had breakfast yet.
Dorian soon ditches Vanessa, and we’re introduced to Professor Van Helsing, who in his Penny Dreadful incarnation is played by David Warner. He and Dr. Frankenstein talk about creatures who can eat blood and Van Helsing suggests strongly that he knows all about this kind of stuff and has for a long time. Unlike his novel or 1931 incarnations, this Van Helsing isn’t Dutch, and like David Warner, speaks with a sort of English accent. But even though his appearance is brief and un-Dutch, Warner as Van Helsing is perfect casting, if only because he is totally an actor who belongs in a Victorian speculative-fiction mash-up. (Fun fact: David Warner played a Time-Traveling Jack the Ripper in Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time in 1979.)
At Dreadful Manor (or whatever Sir Malcolm’s house is called) the Dreadfuls are attempting to transfuse some blood into Fenton (the possible toady of Dracula) in order to get him de-vampired. Frankenstein suggests using Ethan’s blood to which he replies “that’s not going to work,” dropping yet another hint that Josh Hartnett’s character has got a secret and it’s probably monster-related.
Later, Brona Croft and Ethan Chandler are still getting it on and Ethan decides it’s time to go for a night on the town and it’s here where various threads of the episode start to come together in unexpected ways, complete with a play-within-a-play. Last week, a big dose of flashback got us all caught up on what Frankenstein’s first monster Caliban was up to before he started ripping apart other monsters from behind. This week, we learn that being a stage-hand at the local theatre isn’t something Caliban just did in the past, and in fact, it’s his current occupation. The drunk actor who took him in is still his best buddy, and Caliban runs the lights, the smoke, the mirrors, the fake-blood, and more importantly, faux-werewolf magic to keep the show running. The centerpiece of this night out is almost everyone seeing a play called “The Transformed Beast.”
The play is a werewolf narrative which delights Brona and makes Ethan super uncomfortable. Up in the box seats, Dorian and Vanessa eye each other from across the theatre, while Sembene lurks in the shadows, seemingly keeping tabs on all of these people. As a sort of hench-person of Sir Malcolm, Sembene hasn’t been doing all that much so far, but in this episode he snaps a cat’s neck to feed it to Fenton and here seems to be aware of way more going on than he lets on. I’m calling it right now: my money is on Sembene being a sort of deus ex machina of plot information later on in the season.
During the intermission Dorian and Vanessa run into each other who in turn run into Ethan and Brona. Everybody chats and half-flirts with each other, save for Brona who is made super uncomfortable by the fact that Vanessa sort of likes Ethan AND by the fact that she’s had sex with Dorian Gray. There’s a nice bit of class warfare here: Brona isn’t sophisticated enough for the social “graces” of everybody pretending to be something that they’re not, and flees. Out in the street, she turns all of this onto Ethan and breaks up with him on the spot, tragically sending her into a coughing fit which could possibly prove fatal. (Gee, if Brona dies, I’m sure there’s no way Frankenstein will pick up her body and randomly offer it as the bride of Caliban? Right? There’s NO WAY that will happen.)
Feeling like crap and wanting to get wasted, Ethan Chandler accepts Dorian Gray’s invitation to grab a drink and watch an illegal dog fight. Shockingly, watching a dog eat a bunch of rats doesn’t do a whole lot for either of these guys, and Ethan gets into a person-fight, and later ends up back at Dorian Gray’s house where the two start doing some absinthe. And just when you think Ethan Chandler is going to go full Lon Cheney on Dorian, and finally reveal he is a werewolf something-or-other, he instead…kisses Dorian. In a classic Dorian move, Dorian takes off his shirt, Ethan’s shirt, and the episode ends.
This was a great sort of twist, because just when you thought it was going to be all about the werewolf stuff, it instead, went into the sexy Dorian Gray stuff. Penny Dreadful is keeping its characters-as-puzzles thing going pretty well, I just hope it can keep surprising us as much as it keeps satisfying us too. With a brief appearance from “the Vampire” in this one, our appetite is all set for more monster pay-off. Will Dorian team up with Dracula to make more people immortal? Is the mummy going to show up at all? And what exactly is all this tangled family history between Sir Malcolm’s missing daughter Mina and Vanessa?
Hopefully next week we’ll find out, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, get to see Timothy Dalton and Eva Green try on some of Dorian Gray’s leather pants.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.