Penny Dreadful / Screen

Penny Dreadful: “Fresh Hell”

Penny Dreadful‘s first season was an ambitious attempt at making a team out of various Victorian monsters, and while the season veered in various directions and wasn’t always satisfying the one thing that no one can argue with is Eva Green and her portrayal of the haunted Vanessa Ives.  The first season may have been scattered and all over the place, but Green was always on her game and her journey was the one with the most clarity. Season two has apparently picked up on this, as it zeroes in even further on Vanessa, now under attack by a coven of witches looking to unite her with the devilish figure who looks to make her into his wife. “Fresh Hell” begins in an idyllic snowy landscape, which is certain not to last even before Evelyn Poole’s chanting sends Vanessa to the ground with painful visions. It’s the beginning of what looks like the season’s push and pull between the two. They’re apparently somewhat equally matched, if also in conflict as Evelyn is set on gifting Vanessa to the devil. By rooting this season in Vanessa the show is already miles ahead of last season’s hopes of rescuing Mina, who was absent and thinly characterized throughout. We know Vanessa and care about what’s happening to her in more than simply abstract terms related to what she means to our heroes.

Vanessa’s once again the one everyone’s rallying around which draws up comparisons to season one episode “Possession”, but Ethan Chandler’s around too. After his rampage in the bar, he awakens bloodspattered and surrounded by dead bodies and resolves to flee London (which isn’t a bad idea considering there’s a single survivor who may be able to tell the authorities what happened). But he’s kept in town by Vanessa’s troubles,  even though Vanessa is unwilling to accept help from the others, purely because she doubts their abilities to stand up against this new threat.

When Vanessa and Ethan are attacked, the scene works by making use of the small space, the claustrophobic setting making the fight even more thrilling. It’s such a wild and sustained attack, with Vanessa and Ethan obviously outmatched, that the only way it could end is with the witches abandoning them. Only one returns to scream at Vanessa in some ancient witch language, which Vanessa can also speak. The show’s take on witches is an interesting one, though they’re almost indiscernible from last season’s vampires, but separating them from other witches by making them more monstrous does the show a lot of favors. But because Penny Dreadful isn’t the sort of show that can focus on a bunch of bald screeching women, the witches are capable of changing their shapes, morphing into beautiful women, Nightcomers, who conspire with Evelyn Poole.

Helen McCrory’s Evelyn appeared only a couple of times last season, and while her initial appearance as Madame Kali in that really awesome seance episode didn’t indicate anything unusual about her (other than her perhaps being a not-so-talented psychic), her finale appearance nodded toward this season’s plans for her. McCrory slides easily into the role of Big Bad, her chilly and impassioned performance making for a threatening evil. In one instance we find her soaking in a tub of blood and singing to herself (as we all do), what could be campy and ridiculous managing to   She’s leading the coven of witches (also known as her daughters) in bringing Vanessa to their devil master, which is cool and all. And getting a glimpse of the strange family dynamic existing between Evelyn and her daughters adds a nice counterpoint to the one with our heroes. Evelyn is the leader, coming up with the plan to seduce Malcolm and assigning dealing with Ethan to Hecate. And casually slitting the throat of Bette when she disappoints her.

The family dynamic among our heroes isn’t much better. I mean Victor murdered Ethan’s girlfriend, planning on giving her up to Caliban (and this episode leans toward necrophilia with his groping of a dead Brona’s body). But that’s something of an outlier, as everyone else is working relatively well together. Ethan’s got Vanessa’s back all the way, moving into the mansion rather than escaping London as planned. Malcolm is the same way, and some of this may be forced on him since his estranged wife has no interest in reuniting with him. But shrinking the barriers between them with Ethan joining Malcolm, Vanessa and Sembene in the house could be another step in building up the relationships among them which last season never quite got the attention they needed.

Stray Observations

  • Brona’s alive and she’s supposed to be Caliban’s girlfriend, but what about the cute blind girl who works at the grotesque spot? Caliban is a boring (at best) and annoying (at worst) element that I wish the show would drop, and I’m not looking forward to either romantic plot. But I hope, that even the undead Brona is able to announce that she very much does not want Caliban. And that she doesn’t want Victor either. Brona and Ethan were boring, but at least they weren’t skeevy.
  • Ethan’s living in the house now with Vanessa, Sembene and Malcolm. Let’s not invite Victor to this party please.
  • Ethan’s cool and all, but I’m not sure why the coven is all that concerned about Ethan as Vanessa’s protector. The fight in the carriage wasn’t very impressive on his part, and though he’s a werewolf those gifts are on a bit of a timetable.

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