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Penny Dreadful – What Death Can Join Together – Review

These are the episodes I enjoy more, the ones that showcase each character. And yet it seems that as the season draws to an end an awful lot of events are occurring and yet nothing is happening. All our characters, despite the audience gaining further insight to their lives and motivations, are still in the place they were at the start of the season. While this is promising for the second season, I can’t help but wonder how long this search for Mina will drag out, how many near misses will occur. Despite this, the episode seemed to move along at a faster, tighter pace than what we’ve seen in the past. There definitely were some great bits too. The vampire melee scene was one for sure. It was very well choreographed and exciting. I also enjoyed what we saw of Van Helsing in this episode, as well as the nods to Victorian literature that I love so much.

This week’s episode opens on the evidence in Vanessa’s room of the fatal battle with the vampire master. No one has though to tidy up the window cell where Fenton met his end, so there is still blood everywhere. In fact, Vanessa seems disgusted by the whole thing, which makes me wonder where exactly she was writing her letter in the last episode. I assume the letter writing was meant to have taken place at any time recent to the events of the episode. Sir Malcolm asks Vanessa if she senses anything since the vampire has been in the house and Vanessa reminds Sir Malcolm that her “power” cannot be flicked on and off like a light switch. There is a tension between these two that is all the more obvious now that we the audience are aware of their shared past. I feel that they were not always so aggressive with each other in past episodes though. There always seemed to be an uneasy alliance between these two, each holding cards the other could not see. Now that we know the wrongs of Vanessa’s past, I feel the writers might be playing that up a bit in this scene. In the end Vanessa agrees to try and channel what information she can through her own methods.

At the seaside pub, Ethan returns to Brona, whose condition has not improved. He makes the room more comfortable for her, removing her blood-stained pillow and so forth. When asked where we was Ethan simply says he went out with Mr. Gray, there is no further reference to their dalliance in this episode. That encounter was such an interesting burst of raw emotion and passion from Ethan, it would be a shame not to bring reference back to it in the future. Brona apologizes for her behavior at the theater and Ethan brushes it off. The sharpshooter is resolute in not forgiving himself for some transgression. I’m confident that we will see his back story this season, though with only two episodes left, who knows. Brona reminds Ethan that everyone has sinned and despite this Ethan is a good true man. Before he leaves for the day, Brona insists on giving the sharpshooter her pendant of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost souls or lost causes. Ethan balks at first (maybe he thinks the pendant is made of silver?) but accepts her gift. I don’t dislike Brona’s character but I feel at this point in the season she has only really served the purpose of Ethan’s morality pet, to show the audience how loyal and caring he can be before his dark hairy secret is revealed.

Back to Vanessa, who is at her cards, trying to divine any information she can. We see the beginning of the Celtic Cross once more, with four cards drawn in a plus sign. Suddenly, Mina’s ethereal voice can be heard calling out for the spiritualist and two cards a jarred out of place. They are the Five of Cups in the spot signifying the recent past and the Moon in the place signifying the immediate future. The Five of Cups is often depicted with contents spilling from some of the vessels and usually a figure is present. This card signifies loss and regret, “crying over spilt milk” as it were. The Moon carries the meaning of fear, anxiety, and insecurity. It can also point to illusion, which does not bode well for any truth-seeking that may occur. Vanessa ruminates on these cards and while she does we hear various maritime noises along with blood curdling screams that grow in volume and intensity. Vanessa reports to Sir Malcolm that her readings suggest a ship, though in my opinion the cards more than likely point to her own past and future and not to the goings-on at Sir Malcolm’s house.

Dorian Gray comes to call, sporting a jaunty scarf and desiring to take Vanessa out on an adventure. It makes more sense now, having her back story, as to why Vanessa’s usual icy exterior melts so easily under Dorian’s affections. Despite my dissatisfaction with last week’s episode, having that knowledge and understanding of why Vanessa is so keen for companionship does add to her relationship with the immortal. Aside from meeting at the egyptologist’s party, I think this is the first interaction Sir Malcolm has had with Dorian on screen, so the greater question to me is why Sir Malcolm is so keen on getting Vanessa out of the house. Is it because, as we learned, he and Vanessa’s relationship is tenuous and he still bears resentment towards her or that he wishes to go about his business without Vanessa interfering? Or is it a flicker of the fatherly relationship he once had with the spiritualist?

Meanwhile, Frankenstein is performing Fenton’s autopsy in the horror basement and finds nothing out of the ordinary with the ghoul, other than malnutrition and anemia. I could go on about porphyria here, a disease that mimics the symptoms of classic vampirism, but I feel that there is indeed a supernatural reason behind Fenton’s behavior. Frankenstein reports his findings and desire to confer with Van Helsing to Sir Malcolm, who has every newspaper and ledger with a nautical mention spread out around him in the parlor. With this new lead from Vanessa the explorer mentions that another spot of “night work” will probably be in order. And that the good doctor’s services will not be needed for it.
There is obvious disappointment in Frankenstein’s face. Knowing what we now know about Peter and the similarities Sir Malcolm sees between his deceased son and the doctor, I can understand the explorer trying to shield Frankenstein from any danger. Yet this seems like a step back in their relationship. Sir Malcolm was so encouraging to Frankenstein the other night and now seems to be brushing him off rather coldly. Could this be because he knows that Frankenstein is liable to seize up in a fight, as he did when Fenton and his master attacked? I feel as if I can no longer get a read on Sir Malcolm and I find myself questioning the sincerity of his actions. He withholds so much from those who work for him and I find myself questioning whether he is genuine in his actions or moving people around a figurative chessboard to get to what or rather who he wants.

Later on Sembene lays down a heaping helping of the truth to Sir Malcolm. He bring up the obvious question; what if Mina cannot be saved, what if she is already too far in the clutches of their supernatural enemy? He urges Sir Malcolm to make peace with what he must do if this is the case. It is quite obvious Sembene and Sir Malcolm have a history and not just because the manservant alludes to it. He addresses his employer simply as “Malcolm” without reproach from the explorer. This degree of familiarly tells me that these two have weather many storms together. I would like to know more about this character and how he got wrangled into Sir Malcolm’s crazy affairs.

Over at The Grand Guginol, Caliban is under the stage, noodling about on some contraption in need of repair, when the actress he is so fond of comes down to visit. Her blood tube is clogged and she needs him to unblock it. No this isn’t a euphemism for anything, for the actress goes on to state how everyone in the company is like family and likens Caliban to her brother, who was badly burned in an accident. Sorry Caliban, but that fact that she keeps referring to you with such familial terms is a clear sign that she isn’t that into you. The actress’s brother is named Lucifer by the way, and I honestly laughed aloud hearing this, it just seemed a bit heavy handed to me. It did give the opportunity for Caliban to display how well-read he is by leaving a gift for the actress in her dressing room, a book of the works of John Milton. I had hoped that Milton would be referenced as soon as I heard the brother’s name for one of Milton’s best known works is Paradise Lost, a poem that depicts Satan almost as a protagonist to some, telling the story of his fall from grace and temptation of Adam and Eve. The actress isn’t as impressed as the eavesdropping Caliban would have hoped however, as her lover and fellow actor arrives and she assures him that despite this “love token”, she is all his. Caliban is wracked with grief and cries in the most peculiar way over love lost.

Meanwhile, Dorian Gray has taken Vanessa to indulge in his favorite past time, getting her picture taken. Vanessa admits that she has never had this done before and alludes to something I brought up in my "Séance" review, the idea that one’s soul is ensnared by the photograph. Dorian admits that he prefers paintings as they can “capture eternity”. Well, he would know, wouldn’t he? I’m still dying to see how his portrait is portrayed on Penny Dreadful. As Vanessa prepares for the snapshot, an interesting shot of the camera lens is seen. Vanessa has a double reflection, and while this can simply be attributed to the lenses at work in the camera, I find it to also be a nod to the duality of her nature, that fact that she has made her deal with the devil and carries him with her always. I would be very interested to see what Vanessa Ives’s portrait will look like and whether or not something else is lurking within the frame.

Elsewhere, Frankenstein is seen sketching the most beautifully detailed anatomical drawing’s in his note book. The cardiovascular system is his subject, given all this talk about blood that’s understandable. He also has his eye on the window of a ballet school where we see many a petite ballerina practicing. Obviously the doctor is still on the lookout for a subject for his latest work. Frankenstein’s window shopping his interrupted by Professor Van Helsing, and the two indulge in dinner as they discuss their work. Van Helsing urges Frankenstein to enjoy life more, to not let his work control him.
Obviously, Frankenstein takes this literally, alluding to his current dilemma with his first creation, though this does go over Van Helsing’s head. Frankenstein mentions that a line from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais haunts him. This was the work the Caliban referenced when he referred to his birth as being uneasy in “Resurrection” (and I’d like to thank commentator drshell for clueing me in on the correct Shelley work after I published the “Resurrection” review. The Penny Dreadful pronunciation of “Adonais” did indeed throw me off). This poem was written by Shelley as an elegy for John Keats. Interesting since the devil was so fond of Keats. The poem starts out by urging the subjects of Keats's works as well as his contemporaries to mourn him and ends by asking the reader to mourn no more as Keats is now free and part of the eternal. The line that haunts the good doctor comes from the later stanzas and speaks to this union, that in death one is no longer divided from the bigger picture. It must haunt Doctor Frankenstein that in his meddling with the forces of life and death he is taking those who have joined the eternal away from their final rest and their place in the universe. Van Helsing knows there is much more to the doctor than poetry and anatomy and wishes to hear Frankenstein’s story. Another time assures the doctor. Hey, you already got your back story episode! (partially anyway)

Back at Sir Malcolm's place, Vanessa is showing off her outfit for her evening with Mr. Gray. There is an interesting camera pan down to her descending the staircase that gives us a glimpse of the Murray coat of arms. I checked some of the heraldry symbols and they all point to strength, endurance, protection, and an unwillingness to give up what one is seeking. If that isn’t Sir Malcolm Murray then I must be watching the wrong show. If you are interested in looking up the individual meanings of each color and symbol, a link to a guide can be found here. It soon becomes obvious that the fatherly approval Sir Malcolm bestowed upon Vanessa, that the two seemed almost to be slipping into their former roles before all the drama between their families, was for another purpose. As soon as Vanessa is out the door, Sir Malcolm grabs his hat and coat from a waiting Sembene. They are off to meet with Ethan Chandler for another hunt. Chicanery indeed.

This hunt, which takes place on a plague ship that came from Cairo, reminds me very strongly of the first bit of night work Ethan did for Vanessa and Sir Malcolm in episode one. It’s almost set up the same as well, with Sembene, Ethan, and Sir Malcolm poking around in the hold of the ship, examining the inert vampire bodies and not finding Mina among them. You’d think they would have learned their lesson the first time for sure enough, the vampires wake up and a brawl ensues. I have to say though, this action sequence is mighty entertaining. There is much shooting over each other’s shoulders, flipping around, and vampire decimating. Unfortunately, the brawl resulted in a lantern being knocked over, so the hold of the ship catches on fire. And who should arise from the flames with Mina in tow, but the master himself. Sir Malcolm tries to reach his daughter, but the fiery destruction of the ship’s hold proves to be too much, cutting off father from daughter. I’m almost certain that the master vampire, not sensing Vanessa’s presence, had no interest in these other mortals, which is why he fled.

While Vanessa and Dorian are on date night and Sir Malcolm and the gang are investigating the ship, Van Helsing is busy supplementing Frankenstein’s education on the supernatural. Van Helsing warns the doctor that while Sir Malcolm doesn’t truly understand what he is dealing with, it is not for them to enlighten him as the truth of the monsters they face is “unendurable”. He should know, as a result of knowing the nature of his wife’s “disease” Professor Van Helsing employed all the traditional methods of slaying a vampire. I should point out that this is not how his wife meets her end in the Bram Stoker novel; she simply goes insane after their son’s death. Van Helsing asks if Frankenstein knows the word “vampire” and to my knowledge this is the first time those creatures have been called by name on Penny Dreadful. Van Helsing isn’t surprised Frankenstein is clueless when it comes to these supernatural beings, attributing their appeal to a “small percentage of the reading public with a taste in a certain kind of literature”. That’s you, dear reader!

Van Helsing then pulls out a penny dreadful with Varney the Vampire emblazoned on the cover. You may remember my mentioning Varney in my review of the pilot episode of Penny Dreadful. I cannot express how delighted I was to see this reference on screen. Van Helsing goes on to educate Frankenstein with common vampire facts, bringing the doctor up to speed at how dire the situation with Sir Malcolm really is. Van Helsing sums up their situation with a quote that came as a pleasant surprise to me. “Denn die todten reiten schnell” is a line from Gottfried August Burger’s poem Lenore and has been immortalized in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a line uttered early on in the novel by one of Jonathan Harker’s traveling companions as the vampiric count makes his first appearance. How apt for Penny Dreadful’s Van Helsing to have this line, for as he and Frankenstein are walking home, the former showering the doctor with praise and advising him that he deserves a long life, Caliban swoops out of nowhere, drags Van Helsing into an alley, and breaks his neck. Honestly, with Van Helsing admitting his life is almost over due to his old age, I figured he wouldn’t survive the first season, but the dead indeed traveled fast here. This is especially a shame since it seemed Doctor Frankenstein was finally getting the fatherly approval he so eagerly sought. Caliban repeats his warning to Frankenstein; build him a bride or everyone the doctor loves will suffer the same fate as Professor Van Helsing.

So on to Dorian and Vanessa’s date night. The two share a romantic dinner while Dorian lists off the various “-isms” he was a follower of at one time or another. Much of their conversation has very thinly veiled subtext. Through it they discuss the pros and cons of being timeless and unique, jointly coming to the conclusion that if one were to find another like themselves, true they would no longer be unique, but then again they would no longer be alone. It doesn’t take long for them to return to Dorian’s abode and naturally proceed to get it on. Dorian has been teaching Vanessa to enjoy her uniqueness and see it for the power that it is which is why these two are so drawn to each other. Vanessa, from what we saw in her back story, always sought to be cherished and appreciated, both physically and spiritually, and Dorian Gray has given that to her. Their sexual escapades get rougher and rougher, as Vanessa bites and scratches the immortal, drawing blood but Dorian doesn’t seem to care. Unfortunately, the control Vanessa had spoken of earlier has slipped too far and something sinister has wormed its way out, causing Vanessa to beat a hasty retreat out of Dorian’s bedchambers.

Back at his London estate and after a dressing down from Ethan Chandler, echoing Sembene’s words that one can’t win every battle or control every outcome, Sir Malcolm broods by the fire as he does at the end of most episodes. Vanessa barges into the room, half dressed and barefoot and before Sir Malcolm can get two words out about the night’s events, the spiritualist’s head lolls back and her body begins to levitate off the ground, like a puppet being dangled by its strings. Clearly Vanessa is no longer home.

And there you have it, readers. What did you think, be sure to share your thoughts in the comment section!

While I enjoyed this episode, I do feel like we are seeing a lot of action without much advancement to the plot. Sir Malcolm is no closer to Mina than he was in episode one, Ethan is still a mystery of self-loathing, Frankenstein is still at odds with his creation, and Vanessa is still under the thrall of darker forces. Instead of character development in relation to their actions, we are seeing the characters deepen. The audience does have a better understanding of our protagonists’ motives, but these protagonists are no closer to their goals than they were five episodes ago. This show is a slow burn, one that I am enjoying as a whole, but to me there has been no game-changing developments, nothing to push our characters over the hump. The plot seems to be spinning its wheels at the moment and I wonder if the final two episodes of the season will slap us in the face with a formidable threat and a cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers.

Ethan said something very interesting to Sir Malcolm as they headed out on their hunt. Referring to Brona and her dwindling health, Sir Malcolm mentioned that the disease and pain will change her, to which Ethan assures the explorer “then I will love who she becomes”. I feel the sentiment can be applied to all of the characters in Penny Dreadful. Obviously Ethan hides a darker nature, as does Dorian, and certainly Vanessa with her most recent transformation. Even Sir Malcolm will have to face a changed Mina should he retrieve her. Past episodes have been about exploring that darker side, but this one certainly was about embracing it.

I may criticize the slower pace that Penny Dreadful is moving at, but I am really glad to understand the deeper aspects of the characters, particularly the cold demeanor Vanessa usually displays. Without her back story one would not have appreciated the control she must always put herself under, nor understand the repercussions of her letting go of that control. Now I wonder, did Dorian want Vanessa to abandon her composure because he had found a kindred spirit or because he was more interested in the darkness bubbling below the surface?

I find it understandable that Frankenstein didn’t know what a vampire was. After all, these creatures were things of local folklore, the good doctor doesn’t live in an age where vampires sparkle or keep diaries. That being said, it’s about time they mentioned vampires by name, though my reaction was more like “yes yes we know, why are you dragging this out”. The same thing goes for Dorian Gray. We see him gazing upon his portrait towards the end of the episode and as he does the wounds inflicted by Vanessa begin to heal and this reads to me as it should be taken as some big revelation. However, the one thing anyone familiar with Dorian Gray knows is that he owns a portrait that somehow sustains him. I feel the way Penny Dreadful is being written is as if we the audience have absolutely no familiarity with the source material, and yet the audience that would be drawn the most to these types of stories in this type of setting are the ones who enjoy this genre and these classic tales the most.

Next week’s episode is entitled “Possession” which means I’m sure we will get another show-stopping performance from Eva Green.

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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