It’s no spoiler that in the Harry Potter books He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is actually named Voldemort. And though those books didn’t make Voldemort’s name a spoiler at all, Rowling did pull back the curtain on Voldemort’s whole deal fairly slowly, giving us just a smidgen of information about her particular dark lord with each book. But if you’d already known who Voldemort was, say, because he appeared in an older book or TV show before, then the slow reveal of his machinations may have gotten a little old.
The latest Penny Dreadful keeps on teasing out the existence of “the vampire” or “Dracula,” but continues to relegate their version of this famous monster to not only to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named status, but instead to He who must not be named, clothed, understood, or seen for more than a few seconds at a time.
After last week’s flashback into the pasts of Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and his daughter Mina, “What Death Can Join Together,” brings us back to the morning after the crazy night in which Dorian Gray ditched Vanessa Ives at the theatre, got drunk with Ethan Chandler, and made out with him. Now, it seems as though everyone is doing their own version of the walk-of-shame. Ethan comes “home” to Brona Croft’s crumby flat and tells her he totally loves only her. Brona tells him they’re not really broken up after all and that she is sorry and they both agree that their lives are terrible, but they’re cool with that.
Hitting the Tarot deck fairly hard, Vanessa sees visions of a boat and tells Sir Malcolm about it. Both come to the conclusion that there are probably one or two boats down by the docks and high-five each other for using quasi-mystical powers to come to such astonishing conclusions. But before they can really start talking about which boat they’re looking for and why, Dorian Gray shows up and shamelessly apologies for ditching Vanessa the previous night. He invites her to go on and adventure with him, which ends up just being him having her photograph taken by one of his lackeys, though unlike previous photo sessions, this one doesn’t turn pornographic.
In full-on brooding and being a weirdo mode, Sir Malcolm frowns his trademark frown while Sembene warns him that even if they find Mina, there’s a real chance she’s already “lost.” Malcolm tries to play a little bit of a word game with Sembene, thinking it’s cute to say “if you find something, they’re not lost,” and Sembene looks at him like he’s a moron and essentially says “you know what I mean.” As I’ve mentioned before, I often feel like Sembene is the only character on Penny Dreadful who really knows the score. If he turns out to be an all-powerful Martian Manhunter style alien, I’ll be shocked and delighted.
In an attempt to unravel the secretes of the blood-sucking monsters, Frankenstein is checking out the body of Fenton, but concludes there really isn’t much weird about him, other than the fact that he acted weird. In an analogy that is slickly also a literal explanation of what is going on; Frankenstein likens the communication Fenton had with his “master” to that of echolocation and bats. We can’t see it but it’s there. Victor! If only you knew!
Soon, though, Van Helsing shows up and takes Frankenstein out for some serious bonding time and tells him all about vampires and actually uses the word “vampires” a few times. In a cool meta-move, Van Helsing pulls out a real penny dreadful called Varney the Vampire and claims that while it’s shoddily written, there are some truths inside of it. Score one for old-school genre literature! It may not look like much, but it’s got (vampires) where it counts.
All of this goes fine and it seems like Frankenstein is acquiring yet another father figure (Sir Malcolm was similarly nice to the good doctor previously) in the form of Van Helsing. But it is not to be, as Caliban—Frankenstein’s original monster—shows up from nowhere and snaps Van Helsing’s neck. Why I’m not more prepared for Caliban to show up and randomly kill people is unclear, but it seems to be a fairly consistent plot device of Penny Dreadful, one which is effective, terrifying, and fits nicely with the show’s unique blend of deadly earnestness and mild goofiness, too. Caliban, of course, is still determined to get his bride, and is newly pissed off about everything since he’s just recently had his heart broken by fellow thespian, Maud.
While Vanessa has a hot-and-heavy date with Dorian Gray, Sir Malcolm, Ethan Chandler, and Sembene raid a plague ship in the hopes of finding Mina and some vampire stuff. In a scene which echoes the aspects of the first episode, the trio look at a bunch of pale-faced almost-dead-women and conclude none of them is Mina. But after a brief glimpse of “the vampire,” all the ghost-faced gals awaken and start attacking the Dreadfuls. Ethan is doing the double-six-shooter-thing, while Sembene is rocking his curved blades. Wesley Snipes, John Carpenter, and everyone in From Dust Till Dawn is briefly homaged here, as this shoot-out ends in Sir Malcolm seeing Mina and (maybe) Dracula fleeing to evil safety.
Not content to have regular, nice sex, Vanessa is cutting Dorian Gray a little bit while they are getting it on, which she somehow seems to know won’t do him any permanent damage. However, whatever demon or possession inside of her awakens in the middle of this, and she gets up, and leaves, acting, if not the most possessed we’ve seen her, certainly the most frightened. While Dorian Gray goes to look at a “mysterious” painting, Vanessa heads back to Dreadful manor—and in perfect Ghostbusters style— levitates off the ground. Sir Malcolm is bummed out, because he really wanted to tell her something, and now, it’s going to be hard, because she’s levitating.
This was a super-exciting, bang-up episode of Penny Dreadful, and in many ways even if you hadn’t even seen a single episode yet, you’d still probably be totally hooked by this one. The writing seems to have a sense of urgency here, which makes a little bit of sense considering there are just a few episodes left. Still, I worry there’s a pay-off or two that just might not be coming. With both the mystery of Ethan Chandler, and the situation with (probably) Dracula, I wonder if because the writing is already on the wall, that much of what comes next won’t be a surprise. Because even a casual viewer is aware the vampire is a vampire and that Dorian Gray has a painting that makes him immortal, I’m not sure how the various plotlines in Penny Dreadful can surprise me in the next couple episodes.
To be fair, because the show is rooted in so many classic storylines, maybe everything here is meant to be a little bit predictable, and perhaps the point of Penny Dreadful is that being a satisfied viewer is not the same as being a surprised one.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.