Last week, in the premiere of Penny Dreadful, we were introduced to the machinations of Sir Malcolm and Vanessa Ives and their quest to recruit quasi-literary characters into their un-merry band of gothic compatriots. With Dr. Frankenstein in their employ, Malcolm and Ives are doing battle with vampires, maybe mummies, and Jack the Ripper. Their hired gun—Ethan Chandler—has some sort of deep dark secret and in “Séance” the plot of this genre mash-up thickens while questions of mortality, eternal life, and the end of the world are considered in hushed—and occasionally possessed—tones.
Plus there’s a lot more sex in this episode than in the first one. Actually, I’m confident there’s more sex in this episode than both of Timothy Dalton’s James Bond films combined.
Spoilers for Penny Dreadful episode “Séance”
Considering that the show’s premiere that was tonally mixed, Penny Dreadful seems intent on keeping us watching in spite of that with the following mission statement: create compelling storylines revolving around phantasmagoria in general, classic books dealing with those concepts, or sex. I mean if you don’t like sex, then surely you like phantasmagoria? I may not be sold philosophically on the patchwork parts of Penny Dreadful (which seem to be a 2 parts racy/violent cable TV show with 1 part literary reinterpretation) but all the individual plots in this second episode are working so well that we need to actually talk about what the hell happened.
“Séance” seems like less of a second “regular” episode and more like the second half of a two-hour series premiere. It’s paced well and doesn’t even allow its new Frankenstein’s monster to drag its feet around. With about four different plot developments, this episode sets up more potential in its brief non-quite-an-hour to easily fill a compelling season of television. Plus, it gives us two new characters! As I mentioned last time, each of the Penny Dreadful characters feels like a puzzle we’re supposed to solve, and with more of the pieces this time, things get pretty gripping.
After the teaser shows us the murder of a prostitute, we next see Ethan Chandler—the American gunslinger—waking up hung-over on the street, complete with cuts on his hands. Could they have been made by a prostitute he just murdered? Ethan has been sold to the audience as a basic good guy, but one who has some kind of weird past. In the first episode, when people in the street grumbled about damming Jack the Ripper, Ethan looked oddly pissed, as if to say, “Hey, don’t say that about Jack the Ripper, you don’t even know him?” Later in this episode, Ethan gets a telegraph, one from his father, telling him that his legal troubles “have been taken care of,” and that she should come home, presumably, to America. There’s nothing clear to infer from all of this, but my big theory here isn’t that Ethan has a secret past as Jack the Ripper, but instead, that there’s some kind of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on. So far, this show is all about twists and old-school novels, so if Ethan is some kind of villain on the side, maybe it’s not his fault, but Robert Louis Stevenson’s.
Ethan meets Brona Croft (Billie Piper) a prostitute who likes to drink whiskey in the morning and tragically has consumption. Brona and Ethan immediately hit it off and start day drinking and generally palling around. But, Brona also has a part time gig posing for dirty pictures, and it turns out she’s the photographic subject of the super-slick hipster-ish Dorian Gray. Whether he’s standing in front of some Rembrandts thinking about how badass he is, cooing at Vanessa, or getting turned on that Brona is dying, Reeve Carney plays this immortal thrill-seeker as someone who is both over everything and yet also up for everything. “I never say no,” he tells Vanessa in a later scene, but I bet if someone said, “give me all your money and stop acting like such a jerk,” that wouldn’t be true. However, the introduction of Dorian (and the fact that he can’t die and is into pain) is super-compelling, as it plays into what seems to be the larger theme of the episode.
Sir Malcolm and Miss Ives decide to attend a party of their academic foppish Egyptology expert Lyle (Simon Russell Beale). Next thing you know, it’s séance time because Vanessa begins speaking in tongues as though possessed by multiple spirits. Eva Green goes into full Zuul-from-Ghostbusters mode here. She barks, she cusses, she accuses Timothy Dalton of probably having sex with his daughter Mina and also leaving behind a young son to die. Actually, because Vanessa is possessed by (maybe?) more than one spirit things are a little muddled here. We definitely get the information that Sir Malcolm left behind a young son to die because he was out doing some Hemingway mountain climbing stuff. (Sidenote: how cool would it be if this show introduced a horror-version of Nick Adams?) Next, a new spirit says all sorts of rude, racy things about what a terrible person Sir Malcom really is; either he had sex with someone (Vanessa?) and Mina (his missing maybe vampirized daughter) saw it, or he had sex with Mina and someone else saw it. Either way, the party gets freaked out and Vanessa runs into the street to and finds a random stranger to have sex with (either possessed still or not) as Dorian Gray watches from the shadows.
Later, after looking at hieroglyphics from the monster everybody found in the first episode (maybe the Mummy?), Lyle tells Sir Malcolm about a spirit called Amunet who can’t ever get it on with the God Amun Ra, because if they do, the whole world gets destroyed. Is Vanessa Amunet and Dorian Gray Amun Ra? Are you the Keymaster?
Finally, we catch up with Dr. Frankenstein and his creature (Alex Price); who is shaping up to be a nice, sort of Lenny from Of Mice and Men kind of thing. He’s given himself the name Proteus after a random name-picking session from a book of Shakespeare. Frankenstein is starting to figure out that Proteus may have been a whaler in his previous life, and the two begin an almost sweet father/son relationship, complete with walking around town, eating chestnuts and shooting the shit with Ethan and Brona in the street. But then, Penny Dreadful pulls a fast one on us in its final scenes. Just as Frankenstein is sitting around talking to Proteus about the true meaning of friendship (seriously) a hand comes through Protesus’s chest and rips him apart. This new person/monster (Rory Kinnear) calls Frankenstein “father,” heavily implying he too is one of Frankenstein’s other “monsters.” Just when you thought it was safe to hang out with Frankenstein and his monster, Frankenstein’s monster goes all Frankenstein’s monster on you!
“Séance,” did what it was supposed to do, and though I still don’t quite trust Penny Dreadful to deliver on satisfactory answers to the questions it has raised, I am excited to see if those twists incorporate even more classic novels. With Dorian Gray and Frankenstein, could I not be far off with my prediction about Mr. Hyde? And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get some old-fashioned aliens, too? Heck, maybe the murders are being carried out by the Morlocks from H.G. Well’s The Time Machine.
With Penny Dreadful the sky isn’t the limit, but instead, the page of a classic old novel.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.