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Penny Dreadful – Fresh Hell – Review

Penny Dreadful opened its second season much quieter than it premiered last year. I wasn’t blow away by this episode, but it was a solid return back to the demimonde. These new villains are bringing much to the table and I expect to see great and terrible things from Ms. Evelyn Poole. I’m very glad we are seeing the result of her return last season and think she will be a formidable match for Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and the rest of our protagonists. Seeing Vanessa so vulnerable and how subtly Eva Green plays her mounting terror shows that the stakes are raised in season two. The episode opens with a significant recap of the past season for newcomers. This also served as a great refresher for those returning to the demimonde. It hits all of the major events from season one, bringing everyone up to speed so we can dive right into the meat of season two.

Then we jump right in to our present story. We see Vanessa Ives walking through a snowy park amongst families laughing and playing. There is a wonderful visual here of Vanessa’s dark dress and hair contrast with the stark lightness of the snow, almost as if we are watching a black and white film. This is a fine way to open the second season of Penny Dreadful, it really sets the mood. In the distance, the audience can see another dark figure, that of Evelyn Poole aka Madame Kali from the memorable séance scene in season one. Vanessa feels her presence, or at least a presence associated with her as Evelyn begins to chant in an unknown language. It’s as if Evelyn is surrounding Vanessa even when she is nowhere near our heroine. As the chanting intensifies there are flashes of fire, mysterious books with pages covered in Hebrew writing and images of snakes, and The Devil Tarot card. Aside from the obvious implication, when this card is drawn from the tarot deck upright it represents bondage and addiction. To me this strengthens the notion that Vanessa is not entirely herself, she remains trapped and under an influence she can’t control. Evelyn’s chanting comes to an abrupt end, causing Vanessa to fall to her knees. The medium waves off help from passersby and remains huddled in the snow.

Elsewhere in London, Ethan Chandler wakes with a start, blooded on the floor of a darkened room. Thanks to the reveal last season we no longer have to speculate what happened here. As Ethan rises, we see he is in the tavern he frequented back in season one, only it is in shambles with massacred bodies thrown all over the floor. There is without a doubt his mind or the audience’s that Ethan’s animalistic side is to blame. The sharpshooter surveys the damage with a mask of shock upon his face.

Later on, Vanessa arrives by carriage to Sir Malcolm’s London abode. Ethan aggressively greets her, needing desperately to talk, but not within the house. So the pair hop in the carriage and go for a drive. The important talk Ethan needed to have with Vanessa was his need to say goodbye. The sharpshooter feels he must leave London before he hurt anyone else, before he hurts Vanessa. Ethan muses that perhaps he will find some war and join a side, doing what he does best. This speaks to Ethan’s skills as a sharpshooter, but one has to wonder if he hopes to somehow soothe his bloodlust with battle. But what of the war Sir Malcolm and the others are fighting against the forces of darkness? Ethan thinks they lost that war, what with both Mina and the creature dead. But Vanessa knows better. That was only a battle, there are dark forces waiting in the wings that are not so easily defeated. Ethan, ever practical, is more concerned with the darkness within. Vanessa believes he is referring to the evil within her and Ethan hesitantly comes clean, speaking about how he loses time and people get hurt when he does. Vanessa wants to help Ethan, but the sharpshooter believes no matter what, you can’t change what you are. I wonder if Ethan perhaps has tried folk remedies or other cures for his “condition”. We now know he is well versed in rites and rituals and I would like to see his back story this season and how he came to be the man he is today.

The conversation is interrupted by a bump of the carriage and the passengers are thrown off balance. Something is going on outside. We hear a scream from the driver and whinnying from the horses, then all is still. As long time readers know, I am a big fan of “less is more” in horror. Let my imagination do the scaring for me since only I can come up with what will scare me the most. And this moment in “Fresh Hell” is a perfect example of that. Seeing nothing, but hearing the most frightening noises, then sudden silence is how you get an audience to hold their breath in anticipation. And so, Ethan cautiously tries to peer out of the tiny carriage window only to be attacked by a creature of some sort that comes bursting through the glass. And she brought friends. These creatures remind me of the ones who took Mina, but they aren't the same. They are scarred, feral, female figures that are somehow even more inhuman than the ones from season one. The female creatures seem to have capturing Vanessa Ives as their goal, though the medium and the sharpshooter manage to hold them off. The creatures then change tactics, flipping the carriage over. Vanessa and Ethan don’t seem to be seriously harmed by this. One of the creatures burst through the unhinged carriage door and spits at Vanessa in an unrecognizable language, the only decipherable word being “Lucifer”. Vanessa, surprisingly, responds back in the creature’s language fluently. This confuses the creature, who flees. Vanessa appears to be spent from whatever she conjured to make the creature leave and Ethan is shocked into silence. A nice action scene to open our season with, though I felt that the action scene from the pilot gripped me a bit more. Perhaps I’m just getting used to the intensity Penny Dreadful brings to the table.

The pair climb up out of the carriage wreck to survey the damage, seeing the horses eviscerated and the driver murdered. I love the shot of Ethan and Vanessa standing up on top of the carriage. The creatures have not gone far, watching our protagonists in the shadows before transforming from their hideous appearances to that of young, beautiful women. This trio strongly reminds me of Dracula’s brides from Bram Stoker’s novel. However, as we will so find out, these women are not vampiric. It’s interesting that at one point in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he refers to the brides as “weird sisters”, which a name commonly given to the coven of witches is seen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and shows up in pop culture fairly frequently.

The camera sweeps up from this gory tableau and then down again, coming through the skylight of Dr. Frankenstein’s secret workshop. The good doctor is busy preparing Brona Croft’s lifeless body for his resurrection process, intent on giving his creature, Caliban, a bride. Caliban is fascinated with the process, though in more of a spiritual way than a methodical one. He asks his creator if Brona will remember and Frankenstein says he doesn’t know. Not exactly true there, Victor. We’ve already seen Frankenstein’s second “son” Proteus begin to regain his memories of who he was before he died back in season one. I really wish we had gotten more time with Proteus. It was an intriguingly different take on the story of Frankenstein and his monster and I wish Penny Dreadful had pursued it further. However this truncated storyline does give us clues as to what might happen in this season. I predict that Brona will indeed begin remembering who she is and will seek out her former lover Ethan, complicating things with both Frankenstein and Caliban. Frankenstein states that he hopes Brona doesn’t recall who she was because Brona’s life was a short and cruel one. Caliban is romanticizing the whole affair, as he tends to do. The good doctor sticks with his cold hard science and presses on with the preparation. I like that he makes Caliban help lower Brona into the bath, as if to make the creature take responsibility in bringing Brona back as his bride. Frankenstein comments that now they must wait on the weather, no doubt meaning lightening. The idea of electricity being the key to resurrecting the dead within the story of Frankenstein was a detail made popular in the James Whale 1931 black and white movie. The original Mary Shelley novel didn’t detail Dr. Frankenstein’s process in bringing his creature to life. Galvanism was a popular study in these times however, one we have seen Dr. Frankenstein indulge back in season one.

Now that they are playing the waiting game, Caliban takes his leave, off to look for work now that his employment at the Grand Guginol abruptly ended. Caliban makes sure to throw it in his creator’s face that finding work will be difficult in this “steel hearted city of yours”. I love how this line rings out and shows just how much Caliban distances himself from the industrial aspects of life, even though he is a product of them. Caliban also assures Dr. Frankenstein that he will never be far, lurking as he did last season. Before he leaves, however, Frankenstein is sure to ask Caliban that if he does provide a bride, will Caliban leave him in peace. The creature unfortunately doesn’t think that possible and states, “What is Dr. Frankenstein without his creature”. A very meta question, being an obvious nod to the source material. It feels too self-aware to me, though it does raise a good point; what sets Frankenstein apart in the medical profession other than his secret work?

At Sir Malcolm’s home, Vanessa Ives is huddled by the fire, steeling her nerves with a drink. Sembene and Ethan look on, with the sharpshooter telling Sembene to keep an eye on Vanessa, no doubt still shaken by her speaking in tongues. Sembene inquires as to what their attackers were and Ethan starts to reply that they were women, then changes his mind not sure of their foe. He is certain these creatures are different than the ones that terrorized them in the past and took Mina. Ethan moves to Vanessa’s side as a lone tear trickles down her cheek. The sharpshooter wants to help her in any way he can, but Vanessa is sure she cannot be helped. The medium admits she knew their attackers and if they had wanted to simply kill her she would already be dead. So, what do they want with Vanessa? To force her to join with them and lend her power to whatever cause they may have? Or to get her out of the way?

After Ethan leaves, Sembene goes to comfort Vanessa and she jumps horribly. She never acted this way when tangling with the vampire creatures last season. The medium asks Sembene if he believes the past can return. The manservant replies that he thinks the past never leaves us, it is who we are. Perhaps this is why Vanessa is spooked. Her recent brush with demonic forces has left her weak and vulnerable, and whatever past she may have with the weird sisters, something that perhaps she had thought herself free from, has come back to haunt Vanessa. I enjoy the wide shots of both Vanessa at the fireplace and Ethan out in the courtyard. They are beautiful visually and the use of space paints a picture of isolation in both characters, as if they are adrift. Unfortunately, Ethan is not as alone as he thinks as he is being watched from afar by one of the weird sisters.

Sir Malcolm is traveling back from his personal business, which was laying Mina to rest. That scene was not terribly important, but does help to contrast the fact that Sir Malcolm’s relationships are all falling apart, except his with Vanessa, which is growing stronger. Sir Malcolm’s wife has bitterly told the explorer that he had no more children left to save. Or to kill. But Sir Malcolm has Vanessa. Hopefully, he can keep her safe.

We see Caliban out on the streets of London, searching for work. He is desperate but every shop shows no vacancies. However, the creature’s attention is captured by a wax figure in a window display. This is Putney’s Family Wax Works and they are hiring. Waxworks were tableaus of famous historical figures and events that provided cheap entertainment in Victorian society. Caliban inquires within, seeing the museum empty and without customers. He seems very at home among the wax figures, perhaps because they do not judge him on his appearance. The creature laughs to himself as he comes across a section labeled “Grotesque and Gore”, no doubt seeing the irony. Here is where he finds Mr. Putney, the proprietor of this museum. Caliban at first hides his scars before deciding against this and approaches Putney uncovered. Putney greets Caliban amicably enough, remarking on how no one wants to be in there for too long as they find it unnerving. Caliban doesn’t mind it, in fact he finds his surroundings familiar. This could be because the wax figures, as he, are unnatural creations made in the image of man. Putney talks about putting the famous Madame Tussauds out of business with his newest attraction, his Chambers of Crime, which are tableaus of real murders ripped from the headlines, including that of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper keeps getting mentioned on Penny Dreadful and I wonder if that is because he is a staple of horror in the Victorian time period or that we will see murders that were once attributed to him end up being the work of other foes.

Caliban’s duties would be general upkeep of the museum, though the pay will be minimal. The creature is on board, but before the deal is struck he must come back later that evening and meet the rest of the Putneys. This is a family business after all, and I think if these people are as benevolent as they seem Caliban might take great comfort at being welcomed into the fold. Caliban thinks the familial approval is due to his appearance, but is assured by the proprietor that it’s not how he looks but who he is that they need to appraise. Before Caliban leaves, Mr. Putney is keen to show his latest tableau, fresh off the presses. It’s the Mariner Inn Massacre. This is Ethan’s doing and to me spells trouble for the sharpshooter as an intensive investigation is underway.

Sure enough the tableau fades into the actual scene of the crime. A new, no-nonsense inspector has been brought in, a man by the name of Rusk. I find it interesting that Inspector Rusk seems to hold a low opinion of the industrialization for London, speaking on how wood is preferable because it holds its history. The owner of the building is concerned that the Ripper is back, another reference, but Rusk believes otherwise because this time there was a survivor. Ethan is completely unaware at how he is on the very cusp of trouble. Though I doubt anyone will believe stories of werewolves, there is something about Inspector Rusk that leads me to believe he will be hot on Ethan’s trail in little time.

We jump to Dr. Frankenstein making notes in his lab, his back turned to Brona in her tank. There is a noise from the tank, perhaps something settling or an air pocket bubbling to the surface, but it causes the good doctor to jump. As the camera lingers on the lip of the tank, I could have sworn the audience would be getting a shot of Brona rising out of the water. But no, she is still lifeless. Frankenstein goes to the edge of the tank and gazes at Brona, wondering what she will make of her new life. He misses having someone to talk to and muses at who Brona will be when she is resurrected. Frankenstein reaches into the tank and takes Brona’s limp hand, questioning if she will find love. He then reaches below the surface to caress the autopsy scars on her chest, before traveling further down the lifeless body and fondling her. I feel as if this season we are going to see Dr. Frankenstein fall for Brona after she is resurrected, raising the conflict even higher between he and Caliban. If Brona reciprocates, then begins to remember, the stress of developing feelings for her murderer is going to tear Brona apart. A knock at the door snaps Frankenstein out of his fantasy. It is Sembene, there to fetch the doctor for Vanessa.

Later that evening, Caliban returns to the waxworks for is final review. He is scrutinized by the proprietor’s wife, but ultimately gets the job. Interestingly enough, Caliban gives the name “John Clare” when asked. John Clare was a poet who specialized in writing about the bucolic nature of rural life, a very fitting subject for Caliban to borrow a name from, though unfortunately Clare had severe mental problems and was institutionalized later in life. I hope this isn’t foreshadowing for what will happen to Caliban. Also, Caliban meets the final member of the Putney family, their daughter Lavinia. This young woman is blind, so she requests to touch Caliban’s face in order to “know” him. Caliban is naturally not very keen on the idea at first, but allows it. This is probably the first time anyone has done this to Caliban. This interaction reminds me of the blind character from Shelley’s Frankenstein, De Lacey, who also did not shrink away from the creature’s form. I think that this season we will see Caliban develop romantic feelings for Lavinia, rejecting Brona in the process. After all, the name “Lavinia” means “ripe for marriage”. After Caliban leaves, Mrs. Putney admonishes her husband for hiring someone who looks like the creature, thinking he will scare the customers away. Putney has other ideas, believing the customers will flock to see Caliban’s face. So much for the idea of benevolent employers.

Sir Malcolm finally returns to his London home and Vanessa is quick to run into his arms. They very much a family now. Frankenstein soon performs a check up on the medium while Sir Malcolm is brought up to speed on the latest threat. Ethan remarks that these new creatures were branded and Vanessa explains that this is the Devil’s Mark, caused by Satan raking his claws across the witches flesh to seal them in obedience and service of him. The idea of the Devil’s Mark or the witches’ mark actually has historical origins. This was one of the signs witch-hunters looked for during the witch trials of the 16th century.

Vanessa is very ill and needs rest but our protagonists press on in sorting through the information regarding these new creatures. Ethan believes the language the creatures spoke was Latin, but Vanessa corrects him, saying it was the “verbis diablo” or quite literally the “devil’s words”. Frankenstein rolls his eyes at this, saying such a thing is a myth, but Ethan is staunch in his belief that the verbis diablo is a dead language, a corruption of angelic speech. As we also saw in season one, Ethan is very well versed in Christian mythology and rites. I hope we get answers to this piece of his back story sooner rather than later. These clever writers, by the way, using Frankenstein’s words to deepen the layers within Penny Dreadful. The good doctor refers to all this talk of devil language as “Galilean fantasy”. In the Bible, when Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert, this was during his first Galilean ministry. So you better believe we are going to see the Devil tempting the hell out of someone this season.

Sir Malcolm believes the first step in besting their new foes is to decipher this verbis diablo, as Vanessa cannot recall the meaning of the words the creature spoke to her or what she said to drive the creature off. However, the medium does not think she can be protected, that this is a battle she must fight alone. Sir Malcolm is unwilling and unprepared to lose another child, his wife’s words cutting deep. The explorer reminds his companions how they stared the supernatural in the eye and came out victorious before. Sembene then asks the all-important question, inquiring to Vanessa as to what exactly they are dealing with. Vanessa calls them nightcomers or more colloquially, witches. The clues were there throughout the episode and I am intrigued to see how magic will work within the world of Penny Dreadful.

And speaking of witches, this next scene has to be the most exciting for me. These new foes are intriguing to say the least and Evelyn Poole gets a shocking reintroduction. We can hear her singing softly to herself as the camera winds up to a private chamber in her house on a dark and stormy night. The song Evelyn is singing will sound familiar to those hardcore Penny Dreadful fans since we last heard it back in episode two of season one. It’s an English ballad called “The Unquiet Grave” about a young man who mourns his lost love so persistently she cannot find eternal rest. I was severely creeped out when I realized this since the last person we heard singing this ballad was Vanessa as she was possessed by the spirit of Peter Murray during that memorable séance. When we finally see Evelyn Poole, we are in for a shock as she is smoking a cigarette and soaking in a bathtub filled with blood, her unfortunate victim still lying dead at its base. This image reminds me of Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess famous for slaying hundreds of young women and bathing in their blood as she believed it was the secret to eternal youth. This infamy has tied Bathory forever with vampiric folklore and she is sometimes referred to as the “Countess Dracula”.

Later on, after Evelyn has finished her soak, we see her conferring with the weird sisters, plus her own daughter who is named Hecate. Hecate is the Greek goddess most commonly associated with magic and witchcraft, so either this young woman is an extremely powerful witch or her mother thinks quite a lot of her offspring to name her after the goddess of their craft. It’s like someone naming their child “Yahweh”. Evelyn also refers to the weird sisters as her daughter’s as well, though I doubt they are related by blood as Hecate seems to stand head and shoulders above the rest. Anyway, Evelyn is disappointed in the coven’s efforts regarding Vanessa Ives. She remarks they are not as powerful as they originally believed. Vanessa has protection in the form of “lupus dei”, essentially “wolf god”. A nice title for Ethan. The sharpshooter is to be Hecate’s project, while Evelyn will begin to go after Sir Malcolm. Evelyn calls Vanessa an “old friend”, which is interesting as the pair did not seem especially familiar last season when they met. Perhaps Evelyn really is retaining her youth through the Bathory blood baths. Or whatever it is giving Evelyn her power is what’s familiar with Ms. Ives.

Evelyn goes on a rant about how her master will not be denied his prize, his bride. This ties back in with the end of the world prophecy that was introduced in season one. Suddenly, one of the weird sisters interrupts, asking for another chance. She was unprepared in her task since Vanessa knew the devil’s language. This shocks both Evelyn and Hecate, the former demanding to know what Vanessa said. Unfortunate for this witch, she can’t recall. This places the blame squarely on her head. Evelyn takes a moment to call attention to their surroundings, ornately decorated with skulls and bones. She recalls the origin of “memento mori” symbolic reminders of one’s own mortality. The literal translation of this phrase is “remember you will die”. Memento mori are often tied to religious themes and found in crypts. In Evelyn’s story, she tells of how Roman generals were humbled as they return from battles but slaves carrying tokens of death, chanting in Latin that one must remember death comes for us all. This history lesson ends with Evelyn slashing the witch’s throat with a concealed razor that pops out of her ring, striking like a snake. No doubt we will see this weapon again.

Jump to Dr. Frankenstein and Caliban, preparing to harness the storm’s lightning and bring Brona back to life. Caliban seems to serve as Frankenstein’s Igor in this scene, helping the good doctor ready all the switches and toggles. They open the skylight and raise the lighting rod, rain pouring into the laboratory. It’s as if nature has decided to invade this den of science. As preparations are almost met, Caliban finds himself at the side of the tank, pleading to the corpse, willing it to come to life. Frankenstein flips the switch and both he and his creation scream at the heavens as lighting finally strikes, throwing Caliban back as it electrifies the tank. Dr. Frankenstein powers down the equipment and Caliban slowly rises to his feet, both staring at the smoke rising from the tank. After a short pause we are finally rewarded with the sight of a hand rising from the water to clutch at the tank’s side. The figure rises to its feet and Brona Croft lives again.

Back at Sir Malcom’s London estate, Vanessa retires for the night. Ethan remarks that he has seen that look on her face before, after they have tangled with the forces of darkness. He believes the medium will be more forthcoming in time. Despite his earlier notion to leave town, Ethan decides for the sake of Vanessa to stay and take a room in Sir. Malcolm’s home. Ethan and Vanessa share a long wordless moment before both go to their respective rooms. Both of them have a muddled hidden past that continues to haunt them to this day, a past that is coming to light with a frightening ferocity.

In her room, Vanessa takes a few candles and places them on the floor. She slices open her thumb and kneeling begins to paint the floorboards with her blood. The image she is creating is that of a scorpion. Scorpions can be found throughout Egyptian mythology and are the symbol of Serket, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, nature, and magic. As Vanessa finishes the image, a whisper in the night can be heard; something is there. On her knees, Vanessa begins to pray. Back at her own estate, Evelyn Poole is in a similar position. The witch also slices her thumb and uses the blood to anoint herself with the Cross of St. Peter, more commonly seen in pop culture as an anti-Christianity symbol. Evelyn calls upon her master Lucifer, assuring him that she will makes Vanessa his. She will haunt every waking moment of Vanessa’s life, invade her dreams, and make sure the medium knows only suffering. Evelyn then slips into a trace and begins speaking in tongues. We jump back and forth between this and the praying Vanessa and it’s as if we are witnessing a battle of wills. Unfortunately it may be that Vanessa is the losing party for in a flash of lighting, the weird sisters in their feral form appear silently behind Vanessa, drawing closer and closer. Vanessa senses them and whips around, but they have already vanished. It is clear though that nowhere is safe.

And that was “Fresh Hell”. How did you enjoy the Penny Dreadful opener? Leave a comment below!

I found this episode to move along rather slowly. I don’t want to say I was underwhelmed since so much happened in season one and quite a bit of story was retread to establish season two. I just found the episode light on action, focusing more on the building mystery of who these new enemies are and what they are after. I am grateful thought that action sequences like the one with Ethan and Vanessa in the carriage served to move the plot along as opposed to just being there for the sake of shaking things up. The episode was full of atmosphere, but short on actual scares for me. I was not as creeped out has I have been in the past with Penny Dreadful. That being said, I do look forward to the story the writers are building with this new season.

I did like how self-referential this episode was without spelling everything out for the audience. Upon first viewing I did not catch on to the song Evelyn was singing in the bath, but bringing that detail back around for this episode displays great continuity. Also, the references to history and Romantic literature were on point in “Fresh Hell”. I love seeing these Victorian easter eggs, they are one of my favorite things about Penny Dreadful and I hope to see much more of them throughout this season.

It seems that aside from Vanessa’s struggles, everything hinges on Brona this season, which is going to sufficiently complicate the relationships within Sir Malcolm’s team. Frankenstein could fall for Brona, Brona could remember who she is and try to go back to Ethan, and Caliban could reject Brona for Lavinia. This sounds so soap opera-y, but I think with Penny Dreadful this love dodecahedron won’t descend to the melodramatic and simply result in just being a tragedy.

Be sure to tune in next week and we dive further into the shadows with “Verbis Diablo”.

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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