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Penny Dreadful – Grand Guignol – Review

Well here we are, a full season of Penny Dreadful under our belts. To me, this was an episode of foregone conclusions. If you’ve been paying attention to the story so far, it was fairly easy to predict some of the revelations that occurred during this outing. As a regular episode found within the season, “Grand Guignol” was great. As a season finale, I felt this latest Penny Dreadful offering was a bit weak. Perhaps it’s because I’m conditioned by network television to expect some huge event when a season closes, but I expected more from this episode. It’s true we did get some resolution for our main characters, even if some of their stories this season didn’t end on a happy note, but for others, like Dorian Gray, it feels almost as if their story lines have ground to a halt. I’ve always had a problem with the pacing of this show and I still believe that the point where the story ended up in this eighth episode could have been reached in four episodes. I understand Penny Dreadful’s goal, to create a slow burning serial akin to the publications that share its name, but at some point in the story something has to happen. However, if the episodes were crammed with action, we would not be afforded the glimpses into the deeper workings of these characters which solidly adds to the enjoyment of this show.

The finale begins right where the last episode left off. Vanessa is informing Sir Malcolm of her dream and her suspicions as to Mina’s location. The explorer goes off to alert the rest of his team to their next bout of “night work”, but not before he confides in Vanessa that when he finds his daughter, we will do everything in his power to save her, but if she is too far gone, Sir Malcolm will surely end Mina’s suffering. Perhaps his history with Peter, which he references, as well as witnessing the suffering Vanessa, a surrogate daughter, went through has changed Sir Malcolm’s tune from the man we saw in earlier episodes.

As Sir Malcom exits, Vanessa begins shuffling through her deck of tarot cards, and though we do not see which cards she reveals, the spiritualist seems to sense the presence of Mr. Dorian Gray before he is announced by Sembene. This is a very awkward encounter, with Dorian expressing his relief that Vanessa has recovered from her illness. The immortal claims he tried to visit, but I remain skeptical since we never saw him stop by the house. I’m still wondering at his intentions. Dorian also sheepishly mentions that when he was unable to visit Vanessa, he turned his attention to Italy and picked up some manuscripts. Could this be a reference to the plot of season two? The best example of occult manuscripts in gothic fiction I know of off the top of my head is the Sigsand Manuscript of Thomas Carnacki, a detective modeled after Sherlock Holmes who specialized in mysteries of a supernatural nature, though his stories weren’t published until 1910. Carnacki’s manuscript offered the detective protection while he conducted his investigations. Sounds like something Mr. Gray might be interested in after seeing Vanessa’s darker side.

Dorian, in an effort to alleviate the painful awkwardness between them, asks Vanessa to read his future. The spiritualist declines, stating that some people don’t have a future. This could be a reference to Dorian Gray being frozen in time or the spiritualist telling Dorian that they have no future together. I wonder how much Vanessa has been able to guess regarding Dorian’s state of being. Vanessa also declines to read Dorian’s past as it would ruin the mystery of him. It seems that Vanessa wants to preserve her memory of Dorian Gray just as it is, for when Dorian eagerly invites her to a meal, desiring to talk to her, Vanessa blows him off. The immortal tries one final attempt to connect with Vanessa, assuring her that at a certain time that afternoon he will be at Rothschild’s Slipper, the rare plant they bonded over a few episodes ago, but Dorian is cut off as Vanessa bids him a good day.

Elsewhere, Sir Malcolm is preparing for the latest hunt with a trip to the gun shop. This seems to be a prearranged meeting with the proprietor, who takes Sir Malcolm into the back room and shows him a prototype gun with an automatic firing system. I must confess I know very little about guns, but the weapon Sir Malcolm inspects looks to me like a Mauser, a company that made guns for the German armed forces. I’d be interested to know how this gun was procured. As Sir Malcolm is leaving with his new acquisition, he runs into Madame Kali, or rather Eveline Poole, when not performing at parties. For the sake of simplicity we’ll continue to refer to her by her stage name. Madame Kali seems to take quite the interest in Sir Malcolm and there is definitely a flirtation between the two of them. However, I strongly sense that Madame Kali is up to no good. She is introduced into the scene by pointing a weapon at Sir Malcolm, as if innocently examining it. However, though I may not be great shakes with firearms, one thing I do know is the first rule of gun safety is that the gun is always loaded, even when it’s not loaded. Considering Madame Kali’s claim her late husband was a gun nut, you’d think she’d exercise better safety measures. Her finger is on the trigger even! Also, there is the very ominous way Madame Kali assures Sir Malcom that she is sure they will meet again. Considering they are reintroducing this character in the season finale, coupled with her shady behavior, and the fact that she was the only person aside from Sir Malcolm who identified Amunet at the séance, and I’d bet anything Madame Kali knows more than she’s saying and will have a significant role to play in season two.

Over at the titular Great Guignol, Caliban and the actors are having a tech rehearsal. Unfortunately, the apparatus that was to make the lead, Simon, fly malfunctions and the actor takes it out on Caliban. Later, Maude, the young actress Caliban fancies, stops by the creature’s home under the stage. She feels badly at how Caliban was treated and offers him an orange as a sign of goodwill. Maude also has the presence of mind to thank Caliban for the book, which did indeed contain Paradise Lost. Caliban quotes a passage from Milton’s work that speaks to him, “O fleeting joys. Of Paradise, dear bought with lasting woes! Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay. To mould me Man?” Here Caliban is quoting Adam from Paradise Lost, a character who is contemplating why God would create man if he knew man would fall to sin, if that was His intention, something He knowingly allowed. This speaks to Caliban’s relationship with his own creator, of how he feels Doctor Frankenstein set him up for failure the moment Caliban was created by abandoning him. This is the creature’s own version of a fall from grace, a fall from the favorable eyes of his creator.

Maude seems to genuinely take pity on Caliban and kisses him on the forehead before leaving. I understand this was an act of kindness, yet I cringe because to Caliban the action meant so much more, giving the creature false hope. Later on, after he has cleaned himself up and donned a bit of stage make up to cover his scars, Caliban appears in Maude’s doorway with an orange as a way of courting her. Maude laughs at Caliban’s heavy makeup, already a poor sign, and things go from bad to worse as the creature slips up, revealing he has means of spying into the dressing rooms. Caliban tries to force himself on Maude, becoming violent as she resists only to regain his composure before he can hurt the actress. Caliban is then promptly dismissed from The Grand Guignol. We get a lovely scene where Caliban goes to shake Vincent’s, the actor who took him in, hand only for the old man to scoff and bring the creature in for a hug, showing Caliban the only genuine kindness he has ever known. There is also a great shot where Caliban looks around the theater, as if memorizing it while saying his good byes to the building, the camera creeping out to a wider and wider shot, framing Caliban with as much space as possible. This occurs a few times throughout the episode and it strikes me as very visually appealing, almost as if it’s a pause to reflect the character in the center of the shot. It’s like looking into a Victorian painting, a snapshot of that moment in time.

Meanwhile, Vanessa confronts Sir Malcolm, calling his honesty into question. Vanessa doesn’t believe Sir Malcolm was protecting her by not bringing her along on the failed hunt aboard the plague ship. The explorer doesn’t pull any punches and actually admits that what he is about to say shouldn’t be a shock to the spiritualist; Sir Malcolm would sacrifice Vanessa for Mina in a heartbeat. I’ll have more to say about this later on in the review because for me, Sir Malcolm’s actions in the climax of this episode don’t add up. The explorer also points out the fundamental difference between Vanessa and he, that Vanessa wishes to rid herself from the guilt brought about by her actions and Sir Malcolm does not. Sir Malcolm expresses regret and yet he owns his odious deeds. While this can be seen as upstanding, a sign of his penance for his actions, I believe this also points to a significant fact about the explorer; Sir Malcolm is perfectly fine with doing anything to reach his goals. And as we’ve seen that makes him dangerous, for while he may express regret, that doesn’t stop the explorer from habitually using others by risking their lives. I’m interested to see, after everything that occurs in this episode, what’s next for Sir Malcolm.

The afternoon progresses and we see Dorian Gray is alone at Rothschild’s Slipper, contemplating the wilting flower. I’m surprised when Vanessa joins him, considering how coldly she received the immortal that morning. The spiritualist remarks, when observing the flower before them, that the “bloom is fading”. I take this to mean for both Rothschild’s Slipper and the pair’s relationship. Vanessa insists that the two of them cannot be together, even despite Dorian’s desire to risk everything so that it may be, it’s just too dangerous. This next part really intrigued me, the fact that Dorian cannot sort out his emotions, that as Vanessa puts it, he is feeling rejection for the first time. As she leaves, Dorian even seems unfamiliar with the tears brought on by these events. Is it that Dorian Gray has been alive for so long, wallowing in excess, that he forgot what it was like to not get one’s way for once? Or have all his experiences desensitized the immortal to genuine emotion, the kind that Vanessa brings out?

Over at the Frankenstein place Caliban, now unemployed and homeless, begrudgingly returns to his creator’s workshop. The good doctor expresses his disgust in Caliban’s murder of Van Helsing, as well as the request that Frankenstein build him a bride. Caliban remarks that such a request is futile, that what makes him a monstrosity isn’t his face, but what has been in his heart and his soul this entire time. This is a particularly interesting vein for Frankenstein’s monster to take, no longer relying on being the victim but recognizing and agonizing that his actions have consequences and that perhaps he can no longer blame his creator. While Caliban is having his existential crisis, Frankenstein is remembering his sharp shooting lessons from Ethan. The doctor pulls a revolver out of his bag and points it at Caliban, who is still sorting out his emotions.
Caliban realizes that he would rather be dead than accept the things he has done and asks his creator to pull the trigger, seemingly aware of Frankenstein’s actions behind his back. However, the good doctor has been moved by Caliban’s realization of his monstrous acts and lowers the weapon, moving to lay a hand on the creature’s shoulder before they are interrupted by a knock at the door. This seems like a quick resolution to me. A few moments ago Frankenstein as unwilling to let the murder of Van Helsing go and after one speech from Caliban the doctor seems ready to embrace the creation that has been a looming terror for the majority of the season. I can see how Caliban’s self-awareness could influence Frankenstein, the doctor realizing that had he been a guiding hand in his creation’s short life, things would certainly be different for both of them, that things would be as they were with Proteus. I was just expecting Frankenstein’s acceptance of Caliban to be more of a process instead of things between the two suddenly being resolved.

The knock on Frankenstein’s door turns out to be Ethan, who is in desperate need of the doctor. Brona Croft is fading fast and no amount of latin prayer seems to be pulling her back from the brink. And no amount of medicine either, as Frankenstein can do no more than to make Brona comfortable. The doctor sends Ethan out of the room on an errand and while the sharpshooter is away, soothes Brona’s worries about where her immortal soul will end up by speaking of place that exists between life and death. Frankenstein then smothers Brona to death. Ethan returns after Brona has slipped away and is shattered at his lover’s passing. Doctor Frankenstein assures the sharpshooter not to worry, that he will “take care of the body”. I had to laugh at that last line, it just honestly seemed a bit cheesy. And obvious as to what Brona’s fate will be (go us for calling that one early). I’m actually surprised that Frankenstein didn’t wait for Brona to die naturally, that he robbed her of what little dignity she clung to in her final hours by murdering her. This wasn’t a mercy killing, it was a step further into the darkness for the good doctor. Instead of being portrayed as morally dubious, this act sets Doctor Frankenstein up to be more of an antagonist in season two by having him consciously take the life of an ally.

As Ethan goes to the pub to drown his sorrows, two Americans who had been following the sharpshooter all day finally make themselves known. They are in London on behalf of Ethan’s father and wish to take the sharpshooter back to the United States. These two gentlemen are employed by the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, a company that I believe is still in business today under a similar name. If you’ve played the video game Bioshock Infinite you’d be familiar with Pinkerton’s since that is who employed the game’s protagonist. This agency was known for its security work, as well as its role in labor strikes of the late 19th century, often employed to keep unionist out of factories and intimidate workers. It seems that these two were employed to intimidate Ethan Chandler, though they don’t do a very good job of it as Ethan quickly dispatches both men and then goes about his business.

Later that night, the sharpshooter meets up with Vanessa, who expresses her condolences at Brona’s passing. She also thanks Ethan for his kindness when she was ill, prompting Ethan to question if what he did was kindness. Vanessa remarks that they should just say it is and it’s almost as if the two are sharing a private joke. I wonder if this is in reference to Ethan’s sudden spiritual action with the St. Jude medal, an act that does not get referenced at all this episode. They better flesh that out next season or Ethan’s action could be considered a literal deus ex machine. The rest of the team soon assembles and before they head inside The Grand Guignol, Sir Malcolm stresses that Mina is his responsibility alone.

What we have next is a frankly anticlimactic climax to the episode. Sir Malcolm and company are once again Scooby-Dooing their way around a seemingly abandoned area, clearly walking right into yet another ambush. At least this time they had the prescence of mind to bring flashlights, though this causes me to expect our protagonists to be crept up on in the shadows created by the beams. There would be tension in this scene if we hadn’t already seen this play out twice before. Sure enough, the master vampire wakes and evades conflict, while hordes of lady vamps fight Ethan, Frankenstein, and Sembene below the stage. One surprising detail is that Frankenstein isn’t that bad of a shot. The master vampire once again hesitates when confronted by Vanessa and I have to say that is actually something I appreciate. It calls back to the first episode, only we now know that perhaps it’s not just fear that halts the vampire, perhaps he stops to collect Vanessa from Amunet. Though the undead do have plenty to fear from what Vanessa holds in check. This pause gives Sir Malcolm time to skewer the master vampire, killing him and causing the hordes of vampire minions to recede into the shadows. Quick question: how did Caliban not notice an entire football team’s worth of the undead moving in to the Grand Guignol recently?

Anyway, Mina emerges from the shadows on stage and she and Vanessa embrace as sisters. This pleasant reunion lasts all of five seconds when Mina’s vampiric side comes forth as she holds Vanessa hostage. Vampire Mina commends her father for bringing Vanessa to her, questioning why they would think she would want to be saved at all. Vanessa was right a few episodes back when she suspected Mina of manipulating the spiritualist at the zoo. Sir Malcolm tries to talk Mina down, but the vampire keeps going on about how our protagonist’s tune will change one they give in to her master. So, the vampire that has been guarding her all season isn’t the master then? Could Count Dracula still be a threat for season two, or is this a different danger looming in the future? Vampire Mina goes to sink her fangs into Vanessa’s neck, but before she can do so Sir Malcolm shoots his daughter in the shoulder.
Mina begs for her life, reminding Sir Malcolm that she is his child. However, the explorer assures the vampire he already has a daughter and ends Mina’s life with one shot. Given everything we know about Sir Malcolm, particularly what he expressed earlier that day, does his putting Vanessa before Mina seem sudden to anyone else? I understand that this development has been a long time coming, but we never really saw Vanessa and Sir Malcolm work on this relationship, it was always other people discussing it for them, mostly Ethan.
However, Sir Malcolm does seem to show real remorse for the choice he made, hugging Vanessa tightly later that night when she looks in on the explorer. Sir Malcolm had been busy taking down his maps, admitting that he was never going to Africa. I like Vanessa’s line here, when Sir Malcolm suggests they get a Christmas tree, Vanessa suggests that “the boys” could come over to decorate, reinforcing the idea that all our protagonists have come together as a sort of dysfunctional family through their shared experiences. I also have to wonder, how long were Vanessa’s mother and Sir Ethan fooling around for? Could it be possible that Vanessa really is Sir Malcolm’s daughter? And why is this only just occurring to me?

Over at Frankenstein’s workshop, the good doctor unveils the body he intends to use as Caliban’s bride. If you guessed Brona Croft was the lucky girl, you win nothing because this turn of events became terribly obvious as Brona’s presence in each new episode diminished. Frankenstein practically told us his intentions earlier in the episode. I do hope though, with Brona being reanimated, that her character is fleshed out more. I felt there was potential for Brona when she was introduced, but then she just began to fade into the background. I find it interesting that Caliban joins Frankenstein at his side, eager to learn the secrets that gave him life. It’s almost a perverse father/son bonding experience.

At the seaside pub, Ethan drinks alone. The sharpshooter gazes out over the docks, where the full moon reflects on the water. Yes, here is the moment I have been waiting for since I began reading the signs. Ethan’s “friends” from Pinkerton's Agency return and begin to taunt the sharpshooter, who looks to be in pain. As he bows his head, gripping the edge of the table, we see Ethan’s knuckles begin to twist and warp as he turns on his would-be captors and reveals himself to be a werewolf before tearing through the two men like fresh bread. Insert all your American Werewolf in London jokes here.

Now, a couple of things. I’m slightly surprised at the design of Ethan’s werewolf look. I was expecting him to be bulkier, since we’ve seen him tear the limbs off of people, but he was in mid transformation, so I’m willing to wait and see what else changes when the transformation is complete. I’m also on the fence with Ethan looking reminiscent of the werewolf in the 1941 version of The Wolf Man. I can’t decide if I like it or not. Hopefully in season two we see more of this side of Ethan, particularly how this lycanthropy came about. I honestly would have been disappointed if this revelation hadn’t occurred this season. If you knew what to look for, the clues towards this development have been slapping us in the face since day one. Now, the biggest question is, how much control does Ethan have over his animalistic side? Is it safe to say he was responsible for the murders seen in the pilot, or is there another beast on the loose?

The episode and the season end with Vanessa, who has just entered the church she admired from afar a few episodes ago. I half expected the walls to bleed spiders upon her entrance, but all seems well as Vanessa seeks the counsel of a priest. She wants to go down the avenue of exorcism to cure herself of her literal demons. The priest is very resistant, telling a story where an entire village died during the exorcism of a young boy. He also does on to put a very interesting spin on Vanessa’s situation. The priest compares her possession with being touched by the “back hand” of God. This makes her sacred and unique, so the priest asks Vanessa, does she want to be normal again? This question seems to stymie the spiritualist, who pauses for a very long time. And just as she is about to speak her answer, the episode ends.

What did you think, dear reader? I’d love to hear how you liked the episode in the comments!

Ultimately, my feelings, which may be in the minority, are that Penny Dreadful has not delivered the promises it made in those first two episodes. Those first two episodes blew me away. I was creeped out, intrigued, and kept guessing. They were consistently visually interesting, very smart in how they wove the literature and art of the time into the story, and delivered fresh takes on old favorites (oh Proteus). Seeing that séance scene so early in the season gave me great hope for what the finale would bring. And as the episodes continued to air, it felt as though something had changed, a certain spirit, I can’t put my finger on it, that was in those first two episodes was missing. It’s like explaining the difference between chocolate pudding and chocolate mousse. They are both fundamentally the same, both good, yet one is elevated and richer than the other. It’s the same case, for me at least, when comparing episodes one and two of Penny Dreadful to the rest of the season.

Many resolutions and events that occurred in “Grand Guignol” were a long time coming, building up over eight episodes. Unfortunately, these resolutions seem to occur in the blink of an eye. For example, how the conflict between Mina, Vanessa, and Sir Malcolm ended. As I feared, everything was wrapped up in a neat little package. And despite this, it feels as if I should expect another episode next week. There wasn’t much of a hook into season two for me, the dangling conflicts that will lead us into the next season are things that I and you wonderful readers have been predicting for a long time, such as Brona becoming Caliban’s bride or Ethan being a werewolf. And other plot points, like Ethan’s sudden religious proficiency, Frankenstein’s drug habit, or even Ethan and Dorian’s night together seem to have been ignored or simply inserted in the story for shock value. I failed to be surprised with this episode and I do wonder what would have happened if Penny Dreadful hadn’t been picked up for a second season. Would the resolution we saw in this episode have served as a satisfying end to this gothic tale?

What did you think of “Grand Guignol” and the season as a whole? Will you be tuning in for season two? What do you hope to see when Penny Dreadful comes back on air?

Well, all I can say now is thanks for reading, thank you for all the comments, and I’ll see you when season two starts. In the meantime, be sure to check out my season four reviews of Once Upon a Time, coming this fall!

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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