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Penny Dreadful - Demimonde - Review

Well, I can’t say I saw that one coming, hmm. This episode of Penny Dreadful has redeemed the series in my eyes. The mystery has deepen through the now thoroughly entangled relationships we see on our screen and for me that is the best part of this show. Four episodes in and all our characters stories and actions are beginning to weave in and out of each other, forming a net that may prove to trap them all id they are not too careful. A few favorite moments from this episode were scenes where we saw all our protagonists interacting, forming what could be deemed a big dysfunctional family. A large portion of the episode centers around the goings on at a theater performance and one doesn’t have to read too closely to see how the actions on stage reflect the story of Penny Dreadful we’ve come to know.

The episode opens with a sexy party at Dorian Gray’s home. There is flesh as far as the eye can see, and while this debauchery momentarily entertains the host, one can see Dorian’s attention quickly straying to the paintings festooned around his house. Naturally, an immortal would grow bored with even the most devious of sex acts and the audience can sense his frustration as Dorian Gray reflects upon an empty room, long after his guests have left. We then see Dorian enter a secret door concealed by one of his many beloved paintings. I have the urge to quote Young Frankenstein and tell the immortal to “Put ze candle back!” In this hidden room, at the end of a short mirrored corridor, is a painting, The Painting. Dorian removes its heavy velvet covering and gazes at his portrait. Though the audience does not see the horrors that are surely displayed on this painted flesh, one can see that this piece of art instantly enthralls Dorian. He seems to be shaken by what is presented in the painting and yet he pulls up a chair and simply observes his portrait, possibly searching for or studying some new malformation that has surfaced thanks to that night’s activities.

We then cut to Vanessa, who is seated across the road from a church, watching the comings and goings of its patrons. A young precocious girl befriends her, inquiring as to why Vanessa doesn’t just go in. Could it be that the spiritualist is physically unable? That whatever demons are hiding beneath her skin will rebel or do harm if she tries to step foot on holy ground? The young girl goes on to explain that her mother has died and been interred, though ominously she assures Vanessa that her mother won’t stay under the ground, stating they “never stay, do they?” This causes the kindly smile on Vanessa’s face to slide right off and at first I believed this to be either a message sent by the vampires or another supernatural element to behold. It turns out to be just a fake out as the young girl meant her mother was to go to heaven. Though that does say something of Vanessa’s state of mind if her first thoughts jump to the undead. Creepy children aside, Vanessa soon spots someone who catches her eye, Mr. Dorian Gray, and after a moment’s hesitation, follows him.

Dorian is taking in the sights and smells of a botanical green house, where Vanessa watches him indulging in the scent of an orchid, then stroking the petals of another. His actions and caresses are almost like those of a lover. While not poisonous, orchids come in many varieties and are delicate flowers, requiring a careful had to keep alive. After making her presence know, Vanessa is invited by Dorian to partake of something extraordinary further along in the garden. They take a moment to quite literally stop and smell the roses, though it isn’t roses that Dorian invites Vanessa to observe.
The immortal coaxes the spiritualist to deeply dissect the fragrance and shape of a plant unknown to her. This causes some urges that have been lurking beneath the surface to slip past Vanessa’s lips and be made known. I sense a budding (pardon the pun) romance here. The plant she is so taken with, the one that seems to call out to Vanessa to be touched and consumed, is that of atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade. Seen throughout pop culture as the go-to gothic poison, Vanessa is surprised that something so beautiful and enticing can conceal so much harm. But then again, isn’t that the case for both Dorian and herself? They finally come to the plant that Dorian wished to show off, a rare orchid colloquially known as Rothschild’s Slipper. Paphiopedilum rothschildianum is an extremely rare plant, only growing in one area of Borneo. This orchid takes years to mature and flower before dying quickly. One can guess that Dorian’s fascination with mortality is what brought him to this specific plant, the idea that years and years of maturation only yield beauty for a few moments.

Over at Sir Malcolm’s place, Doctor Frankenstein and the hematologist are hard at work examining Fenton’s blood. The hematologist is addressed as “Professor Van Helsing” and hearing that name did give me a bit of a thrill. In the Bram Stoker novel, Van Helsing is usually addressed as “doctor”, though he carries with him a wide variety of accolades and hold many obscure interests. This is one of the reasons, in the novel, that Van Helsing is called upon to help cure Lucy Westenra’s mysterious blood aliment.

A new slide of blood is prepared and stained. Staining slides, as one may remember from biology class, helps different cellular structures to be thrown into sharper relief, allowing them to be observed in finer detail. In the case of Fenton’s blood, this special stain cooked up by Van Helsing shows rather startlingly that there is a property in the blood that prevents coagulation. Van Helsing surmises that this property aids in the consumption of blood. Despite cinematic portrayals painting him as a vampire expert, in the source material Van Helsing does not seem to hold any extraordinary knowledge of the occult or vampires. The Penny Dreadful version, however, implies that the hematologist seems to know quite a bit regarding the nature of Fenton’s blood, but this idea isn’t elaborated on too thoroughly as Frankenstein is distracted, spotting Caliban lurking outside the house. Leaving to confront his creation, Caliban insists that the doctor hurry up with his endeavor and create for him a mate. But to do this Frankenstein needs money for “supplies”, hence the stalling. Interestingly, in the light of day the doctor doesn’t seem to be as cowed or fearful of his creation, though Caliban has no problem gaining the upper hand of the conversation and it is still clear the creature is in charge.

Ethan has arrived and so he, Frankenstein, and Sir Malcolm prepare Fenton for an experimental blood transfusion down in the horror basement. Sir Malcolm offers his blood for the transfusion after Ethan flat out refuses, stating that to do that would be a “bad idea”. Throughout this episode, the clues towards Ethan being a werewolf have become so frequent I’m not sure I even want to mention them all. His agitation at the discussion of the mutilation murders seen in earlier episodes is a dead giveaway. I do hope Ethan dos turn out to be a werewolf, otherwise all this foreshadowing will have gone to waste. Our trio must wait for Fenton to rouse from his sedation to see if the transfusion has had any effect, and here we come to my favorite scene of the episode.

We have Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Frankenstein all killing time in Sir Malcolm parlor and the way Ethan and the doctor interact, sniping at each other, reads as brotherly rivalry. Indeed, Frankenstein even addresses Ethan as “brother” at one point, while Sir Malcolm seems like a doting father, favoring the more action-oriented son over the bookish one when he invites Ethan to go on an expedition to Africa. Vanessa sweeps into the room, still in good spirits from her run in with Dorian Gray no doubt, and dismisses Sir Malcolm’s impending expedition, to which Sir Malcolm asks why Vanessa must always “denigrate his work” and I swear the dysfunctional family vibe just grows by the minute. Before things can get too sitcom-y, Sembene enters and announces that Fenton is waking up. In comparing our protagonists to a family unit I am in no way implying that they have all developed some platonic love for one another. What I see in this scene and why I enjoy it so much is that these characters are no longer single entities. Because of the nature of their task and the fact that they all had to quickly come together as a team, there is a trust and a bond forming between all of them. The pact they made last episode no longer lives in words alone and they all are forever connected.

And so Fenton is awake, his actions seeming to be timid and weary as he asks for food. Vanessa offers him the apple she had been snacking on (again whether this is the fruit of convenience or symbolism is up for debate) and for a moment the audience believes that progress has been made. Then Fenton wigs out, screaming and demanding fresh blood to sustain him. Clearly, as Frankenstein points out, this process will be a long and gradual one. I love that earlier, Fenton described his captors as “monsters”, and after Fenton wakes and screams for blood, Ethan appears to be bothered by their actions, wondering “how far do they go”. Duplicity of nature is a theme that runs strong throughout this episode and here we see the implication that there is doubt who the villains are in this drama. A villain always sees themselves as the hero of their own story and I enjoy the fact that this is being brought up in the episode. I always shy away from referring to our main players as “heroes”, preferring to call them “protagonists” for this very reason. The title of the episode, Demimonde, obviously refers to the world of the shadows, a place between light and dark, and fits well with the idea that each player in this tale is straddling that line, able to tip over to one side or the other at any moment.

A large portion of the episode takes place in the next scene, where Ethan treats Brona to a night on the town and takes her to The Grand Guginol Theater, Caliban’s place of employment. It is very sweet to see how much joy Ethan gets from doting on Brona, making the outing very special for her. Also, we see Caliban is still employed here, his mentor, the actor who found him in the alley still part of the theater company as well, along with the young actress he had his eye on. For some reason I had assumed that the events of Caliban’s back story had taken place sometime in the past and that some tragedy spurred him into action in finding his creator, but this isn’t the case. Caliban is still the sole stage hand, rushing about behind the scenes, bring the magic of the performance to life and one can see that he thoroughly enjoys his work. Perhaps it is this young actress who eventually falls to some awful fate and provides the “supplies” needed by Frankenstein to create the creature’s mate, but for now one cannot tell.

Tonight’s performance is "The Transformed Beast", a tale of lovers torn apart literally and figuratively by the male lover’s transformation into a wolf-like creature. Whether Ethan as aware of the play’s subject matter and used Brona’s reaction to the performance as a way of gauging her acceptance of his secret or if it was all just coincidence is yet to be seen, but Brona certainly is captivated by the play. Shot of her and Ethan are shown over telling pieces of dialogue explaining that the bond between the lovers on stage will be tested by a conflict of an obscure and supernatural nature. Dorian Gray and Vanessa are also in attendance at this performance, though they did not arrive together. While they make eyes at each other from their separate balconies across the theater the dialogue of the play goes on to question whether love itself is a supernatural event, a “longing so deep and dark and rare” that only certain people are able to share it. As much as I enjoy the actions of the play obviously being applied to our main characters, paralleling their various situations, one might say that this is a touch heavy handed at times. Things do not end well for our players on stage, for while the young maid refuses to leave her lover’s side despite his warnings, his beastly nature rears its head during his transformation and the first act ends with the maid’s throat slashed by the wolf monster. Could this be foreshadowing to Brona and Ethan’s fate?

At the intermission, Ethan and Brona are grabbing more refreshments and the pair bump into Vanessa and Dorian. Brona is instantly uncomfortable, so much so that she abruptly flees the theater. When Ethan goes after her, Brona has an angsty moment. She claims that what she and Ethan share is only a farce, that their union is futile since she is dying. She seems jealous of the sharpshooter’s interactions with Vanessa and bids him to return to them, telling Ethan that if he wants to see her again, he’ll have to pay like anyone else, then disappears into the night, leaving Ethan at a loss for words. This seems sudden to me, the fact that merely happening upon Dorian Gray could cause Brona to turn her back on Ethan and what they share so quickly. It didn’t seem as if she was doing this for his sake, that ending their relationship would spare him the pain of watching her die, even if she said that was the case. I believe Brona isn’t used to being cared for or about. She mentioned earlier in the episode that she was engaged once to an abusive man, that his action are what drove her to prostitution so she could be financial sound without him. Brona Croft, it seems, doesn’t know how to trust others, given all she has been through.

While everyone else is at the play, Sir Malcolm and Doctor Frankenstein are still burning the midnight oil, poring over various notes and charts. Frankenstein brings up what Vanessa said, that the expedition will not happen and Sir Malcolm keenly picks up on the fact that Frankenstein is jealous he was not asked to accompany his employer. The doctor admits to self-doubt and Sir Malcolm assures Frankenstein that her is strongly reminded of his own lost son when he interact with the doctor and assures Frankenstein of his worth. This sudden closeness in their relationship is interesting and I would like to see it develop further. One has to wonder whether Sir Malcolm is manipulating Doctor Frankenstein in order to draw him closer and gain unwavering loyalty, or if this admission is sincere.

Meanwhile, Dorian Gray finds Ethan outside the theater and sees that the sharpshooter is in need of a distraction. He offers a way for Ethan to “be someone else”, feeding in once more to the theme through this episode of duplicity and straddling the line between one world and another. Dorian takes Ethan to a secret club where people of all walks of life are in attendance. The main event is rat-baiting, a popular sport of this time period, though frowned upon for its cruelty to animals. A terrier is released into a pen of rats and bets are placed to see how many rats are killed in the allotted period of time. This is grisly sight and the blood lust from the crowd is amazing. One shot in particular is striking, that of a well-dress gentleman in evening wear being splattered with blood and cheering, reveling in the carnage. This display unsettles Ethan, who makes a bee-line for the bar, in need of some whiskey. A bit late for “breakfast” I think. Ethan is then harassed by a group of gentlemen, who push the sharpshooter’s buttons to the point of breaking, causing Ethan to attack and dispatch his antagonists is a manner very similar to how the terrier is currently dealing with the rats in the pen. Paralleling Ethan’s actions with those of a blood thirsty canine only deepens my suspicion towards his dual nature.

Back at Sir Malcolm’s place, strange noises are heard upstairs. Realizing the house is empty, save for themselves and Fenton chained up in the horror basement, Frankenstein and Sir Malcolm go to investigate. In the dark. Because no one in this show has seen a horror movie and knows how bad of an idea that is. What happened was Fenton, sensing his master was near, chewed at his own wrists until he was free of his shackles. The ghoul creeps on the floor, following our protagonists up the stairs in the darkness. Fenton’s movement are unnatural and unsettling and despite the fact that there isn’t a jump scare from him, I still found myself being heavily creeped out by how he was tailing Sir Malcolm and Frankenstein.
But it isn’t Fenton who is responsible for the noises upstairs, as our protagonists follow the thumping to its source, Vanessa room. Inside, Fenton’s master, the vampire they have been seeking lurks. The vampire flees, defenestrating himself, leaving Fenton to attack Sir Malcolm as Frankenstein watches in horror. The adventurer soon gets the upper hand and Fenton is dispatched, impaled through the skull on a jagged piece from what is left of the window. When Vanessa returns from the play, having been ditched by Dorian Gray, she instantly senses something is wrong. Sir Malcolm, recuperating with a drink by the fire fills her in to the fact that the vampire was in the house, searching for her. Fenton was only a decoy. It’s interesting that Sir Malcolm quips that they practically invited the vampire master into their home since according to legend, vampires can only enter an abode if they are invited. This must have been Fenton’s purpose all along, to invite his master in. Vanessa comes to the realization that this ploy means Mina is manipulating the situation. It is alluded that there is no love lost between Mina and the residence of Sir Malcolm’s house, that Vanessa betrayed Mina sometime in the past. It is at this point that I now crave Vanessa’s back story, especially when Sir Malcolm claims that the spiritualist was “the daughter he deserved”. I want to know how she came to find Sir Malcolm and Mina and what transpired before the events of Penny Dreadful.

Back with Dorian Gray and Ethan, the latter is cleaning himself up after his brawl in Dorian’s opulent bathroom. This bathroom is seriously bigger than my apartment and the immortal has more bottles of cologne than I’ve had birthdays. The pair then indulge in a glass of absinthe, a spirit made from many different botanical elements with a high alcohol content that popularly is associated with psychoactive side effects, though the extent of which has been greatly exaggerated. And Ethan’s reaction to its taste is not inaccurate; to me the absinthe isn’t a pleasant drink. The subject of Dorian’s extensive art collection comes up, with the immortal slyly alluding that he does have a favorite paint, only it’s not one of the ones on his wall. Ethan speaks of paintings found in Anasazi villages, of how the painting are only of animals and nature, things these people felt important enough to remember. When questioned why he likes them, Ethan says it’s because they are primitive, before backing up and changing his answer to the fact that they are honest. I feel that the words “carnal” or “animalistic” might have been what Ethan was searching for, though not in the sexual sense. These paintings spoke to Ethan on a level that was bound to the earth. The represented a sense of animal yearning, a passion for the world.

The conversation of honesty in art moves on to music. Dorian plays for Ethan the Liberstod from Tristian and Isolde, a tragic opera similar to Romeo and Juliet. The Liberstod, as Dorian explains, literally means “love death” and refers to the theme of an erotic death, there the lovers involved consummate their love in or after their demise, again similar to Romeo and Juliet. As the music swells, it’s a bit obvious that Ethan has finished his drink and Dorian has barely touched his. Scenes from the past four episodes flash by, a mix of gore, violence, love-making, and beauty. Determined, Ethan strides up to Dorian and violently grabs his throat before kissing him with unbridled passion. Ethan aggressively disrobes Dorian, while the immortal is more careful with Ethan’s clothes and the two embrace once more. Consummating love in death indeed.

Well, what did you think of this most recent episode? Are you intrigued more than ever as to where all this is going? Let us know in the comments!

While I was not expecting Dorian Gray and Ethan Chandler to become romantically involved, I could sense something was up as soon as Dorian remarked that the sharpshooter “played his part well” with Ethan reacting in a startled manner. Homosexuality and bisexuality were illegal during this time period, so could this be the reason why Ethan had to flee the United States? And to what end did Dorian put all this into motion? I must say, for as much flack as I gave Ethan Chandler in my earlier reviews, his character has been growing on me more and more. He is starting to fit in better in this world of shadows and the supernatural now that his has his own struggles and isn’t just an audience surrogate.

The pacing of this episode was certainly better than the last, it didn’t seem to drag and then rush as other have. We also got some wonderful visuals, the blood spatter arcing up from the rat-baiting pit, showering those well-dressed gentlemen, showing their own animal brutality unleashed in that secret bar. Fenton’s ascent up the stairs, silently stalking Sir Malcolm and Frankenstein was also good, it was nice to see a return to the creeping visuals present in the earlier episodes. Honestly, I remain unimpressed with this recent development between Caliban and Frankenstein. It’s obvious to me that either Brona or the blonde actress will meet a sticky end and become Caliban’s bride. My enjoyment of this event all hinges on how it is handled.

Now, who was Sembene keeping tabs on at the theater? Vanessa is the obvious answer, though it seems that a few of the other characters were of interest to him as well. Vanessa is an almost indecipherable character to me. Every time I think I have a bead on her back story and what makes her tick, some other detail pops up and my theories are filled with doubt. I sense her back story is coming soon and I greatly look forward to more insight in her character. To me, she is by far the most intriguing element in Penny Dreadful.

This episode was very light on the Victorian shout outs I’ve had so much fun dissecting, though it is nice that they finally gave Wordsworth a rest. I enjoyed very much how each character seemed to embody the idea of the demimonde, that they all had their secrets and their parallel lives. Ethan’s revelation, Brona’s daily tightrope walk between life and death, Frankenstein who all at once seems to be a cold scientist and that scared little boy who realizes that there is no serenity in death. This was a tight episode that I enjoyed very much.

Be sure to tune in next week for “Closer Than Sisters” and please leave your comments below!

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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