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Penny Dreadful – Verbis Diablo – Review

I found this outing in Penny Dreadful’s second season to be much more enjoyable than the premiere episode. Perhaps it’s because the audience wasn’t burdened by the reestablishing of characters and plots, but I found the pacing of this episode to be a bit tighter. And goodness was it creepy. These are the kind of scares I’m looking for when I watch this show. That final scene had me squirming in my seat. Also, Evelyn Poole is quickly becoming my favorite character. Something about how cerebral her approach is, how she has every possible angle covered and is playing mind games with our protagonists is just fun to watch. I’m happy to see the return of Mr. Lyle, who I know I turned my nose up at in my season one reviews, but this character has either toned it down a bit or has grown on me because I found his scenes lighter and bit fun. What I’m less happy with is the return of Dorian Gray and not for the actor’s portrayal, which I thought was fine as always. I worry that Penny Dreadful is squandering an interesting resource when it comes the Dorian and his well-known story. But that remains to be seen.

The episode begins just about where the premiere left off. We see Vanessa, huddled in the corner of her room as the cold, grey light of sunrise washes in. It looks as if she hasn’t slept all night. Vanessa patters down the hall to Sir Malcolm’s room and is allowed entry, the explorer looking as if he’s just woke. The medium explains her restless night; that the weird sisters came to her. Vanessa is distraught that even in her prayers she cannot find peace and this threat continues to loom over her head. This is exactly what Evelyn wanted, to break Vanessa down, though it’s surprising to see her plan is so effective after one night. Sir Malcolm understands Vanessa’s fear; he too has been haunted by “twisting things that move in the night”. I can only imagine what the explorer has seen in his journeys and goodness does this character get the best lines. Sir Malcolm vows to not leave Vanessa’s side as he embraces the medium to comfort her. Vanessa whispers that she doesn’t know what she would do without him. I feel as if we are being set up for a tragic loss of some sort. The show keeps reiterating how close these two have become. Sir Malcolm has an idea of how to help Vanessa find peace and asks her to accompany him on an outing later that day.

Over in Dr. Frankenstein’s workshop, Brona is sitting in silence as Caliban questions their creator about his new bride’s abilities. Frankenstein is very short here, almost like an exasperated parent with an overly curious toddler. Caliban thinks that Brona is perfect and goes to take her hand, only Brona to shrinks away. Caliban of course wants to fill Brona’s heart with poetry, but the ever practical Frankenstein is more concerned with giving his new creation language. He stresses to Caliban that they must go slow, that Brona is learning to live again and the process will take some time. However, Brona seems to be a quick study for she does end up reaching out for Caliban and the pair connect, touching fingertips. It is here that Frankenstein sends Caliban out so that he may work with Brona. The good doctor mentions Proteus, his second “son” when he speaks of how language will come back quickly. And then Frankenstein drops the bomb that memory will also return soon if Proteus is any model to go by since he was just beginning to remember before Caliban ended his second life. The creature does not wish to be reminded of his past sins and cautions Frankenstein not to forget his own. I am beginning to grown slightly weary of Caliban lording over Doctor Frankenstein and am looking forward to the change in dynamic that Brona may bring. Speak of which, the good doctor gestures to the silent Brona, calling her another “sin”, but Caliban sees her resurrection as atonement since all the affection denied Caliban can be given to Brona. As Caliban leaves, Doctor Frankenstein goes to the leery Brona and examines her surgical scars. He looks as though he wishes to stray further down, but the good doctor resists temptation and covers Brona up. He introduces himself as “Victor” and Brona repeats the name right away. A very quick study indeed.

Back to Sir Malcolm and Vanessa, who we find are near the river banks in a sort of warehouse district. The explorer is explaining that his wife was involved with the work here and he took it up as well. Sir Malcolm hands Vanessa a face mask telling her it’s for her own good since the area is rampant with cholera. It was a common misconception in the 19th century that cholera was spread by foul air when in fact contaminated water was the source. There were many outbreaks of cholera in London in the 19th century, most notably 1832 epidemic with resulted in the development of quarantine measures, and the 1854 outbreak that led to the discovery of contaminated water as the spreader of the disease. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa find themselves in one of these quarantine situations as they enter an underground tunnel lit only by the orange glow of candles. As Sir Malcolm remarks on the suffering we see groups of people, families, huddled together in poverty and illness, with babies crying in the background. It is a very pitiful sight. The explorer takes Vanessa to an area set up as a makeshift soup kitchen and dons an apron. Vanessa realizes that the explorer works here and Sir Malcolm confirms, adding that he contributes funds as well. This all makes him feel like a better man, but I wonder how much of this is out of the goodness of his heart and how much is atonement for his past sins. The peace he finds may not be in others but in thinking that he can wipe his slate clean with good works. Sir Malcolm hands Vanessa an apron and they both get to work.

We cut to a hospital, where Inspector Rusk is on his way to see the survivor of the Mariner’s Inn Massacre. The surgeon leading him explains that the survivor will live and that wonderful things are being done with plastic surgery nowadays thanks to efforts coming out of India and the Transvaal. India was a leader in rhinoplasty back in the day, developing a method for rebuilding noses lost as a result of punishments for things like adultery. And the “Transvaal” is a name given to the area we modern audiences know as South Africa, so no doubt this surgeon was referring to the Second Boer War given the timeline of Penny Dreadful, a conflict that gave birth to state of the art army surgery facilities for that time. Rusk seems familiar with all this and I find myself wondering more about his past. Has he undergone reconstructive surgery? Is he a veteran of the Second Boer War? This man has a secret and I’m dying to know about his past.

Since the survivor’s case is so disturbing he has been kept in isolation. It is unknown if he will ever speak again since the gruesome truth is there is not much left of his face. When we do finally see the survivor he is swathed in bandages with only a single eye peering out. I got some heavy Joseph Merrick vibes here, this visual reminding me strongly of that famous picture of the Elephant Man. Merrick did go to live at the London Hospital later in life, so perhaps we are seeing an homage or a twist on the Elephant Man story. Rusk tells the survivor, Mr. Roper who was one of the men after Ethan, to get well as they have much to discuss. Now the clock is ticking and Ethan has a finite time that his secret is his own before Roper gets better. I do also wonder if because Roper survived will he become a werewolf too?

Back at Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory, Brona is exploring the good doctor’s bookshelves while Frankenstein makes notes. Brona has lost her thick accent, much to the doctor’s surprise. Frankenstein seems fascinated by Brona and how quickly she is developing, though he thinks it best to keep the details of her rebirth from her, claiming there was an accident and she is his cousin. I don’t know if this is a kindness or not as it less traumatic for Brona, but even with the best of intentions Frankenstein is taking advantage of her. Frankenstein also gives Brona the new name of “Lily”, a flower which represents rebirth and resurrection. It is also a symbol of purity and beauty. This makes Brona sad, though she doesn’t know why, which alarms her further. This is actually a very powerful moment in the episode, only a minute or so of screen time, but seeing Brona’s visceral reaction to something as simple as a flower, knowing that swimming deep down within her is another person who knows how wrong this all is, it gives you a lot to think about. Doctor Frankenstein is of course quick to comfort her and Brona declares she is at his mercy. I doubt he will be able to keep his hands to himself in the next few episodes.

Back with the cholera patients, Sir Malcolm has to take his leave to attend to a personal matter and Vanessa opts to stay a while longer. Before the explorer leaves, Vanessa is sure to thank him for this opportunity. The medium goes about her business, bringing soup to the invalids when she comes across a man sitting off by himself. It’s Caliban. Finally our world of Penny Dreadful shrinks once more. Vanessa asks to sit with the creature and he allows it, seeming nervous to be in the medium’s presence. It goes without saying that Caliban doesn’t have much experience with people, though Vanessa is incredibly at ease. Vanessa’s quip that the nuns make her nervous launch the pair into an intellectual conversation about religion verses nature that I found lovely to follow along with. Vanessa is sure the Lord and she are not on speaking terms at the moment, while Caliban admits to having read the Bible, but found it lacking when compared to Wordsworth.

Caliban goes on to talk about how the glory of life triumphs over the fear of death for a pagan because they aren’t preoccupied with getting into heaven or an eternal reward; they live in the now so they can be themselves. They are accountable to no one but each other. Vanessa questions Caliban’s beliefs further since she is currently wrapped up in problems rooted in the world beyond. The creature, however, only believes in this world, which is interesting since he has been brought back from the dead. Is this confirmation that nothing lies beyond this realm? Caliban finds mysteries at every turn within life and quotes William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” as if to prove his point. However, Blake’s poem is as much collection of paradoxes as it is a celebration of innocence and the mystery of life. Vanessa seems to not think as idealistically as Caliban, claiming to see no “wildflowers” in the den of disease that they now sit. The creature simply tells her to look closer. As Vanessa is called away, she thanks Caliban for the conversation and tells him he has beautiful eyes. I like that Vanessa is still very good at reading people and probably knew Caliban needed that boost. Also, this could be her way of acknowledging the “wildflowers” present in even the ugliest of places.

Jump over to an outdoor café where we see Dorian Gray, alone and contemplating a picture of Vanessa. He is interrupted as a coy woman in red comes up and flirts with him mercilessly. This is Angelique, no last name, who is a bit bubbly, a bit sultry, and one hundred percent interested in Mr. Gray. Dorian declines an offer to take a tour of Angelique’s bedroom, but accepts her card should he wish to mend the heart that Vanessa broke. Angelique knows of such things and in a serious moment in their conversation, admits that by not allowing anyone near her heart again, her life is sadder. Dorian later on does call upon Angelique at her place of business. As the immortal enters her room, Angelique turns and reveals her secret; she has the body of a man. As I’m not sure how Angelique identifies I will only discuss what I know about Victorian transvestites since it is pertinent. The most famous example of Victorian Era transvestites were Fanny and Stella, two middle-class bankers who were brought to trial for homosexual offenses. This all goes back to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which made gross indecency a crime in the UK. The most prominent figure to be charged under Section 11 was Oscar Wilde, the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. While the legality is relevant, as we shall see later on with Mr. Lyle, I worry that this encounter was simply for shock value. I want Penny Dreadful to do more with Dorian Gray instead of having him simply running around London indulging the mildest of “unusual” appetites.

Elsewhere we see Sir Malcolm going about his business, visiting a perfumery to get a gift for Vanessa. There he comes across Evelyn Poole, who is delighted to see the explorer. It’s certainly not a coincidence that the witch just happened to be waiting for Sir Malcolm. I like the detail that Evelyn is startled by the pneumatic tubes used to transport items within the shop, complaining about the recent industrialization. Witches are traditionally grounded in nature, so Evelyn being mistrustful at this intrusion on the natural world may be part of her motivation on Penny Dreadful. Sir Malcolm does have a point when he reminds Evelyn that “one loses relevance if one doesn’t change with the times”. Again, Sir Malcolm gets the best lines. While Evelyn has Sir Malcolm’s attention, she wishes to gain his opinion on the various perfumes she is trying out. This is a very flirty encounter, made only more so by Evelyn dabbing a bit of perfume behind her ear for Sir Malcolm to sample. However, the witch’s ulterior motives come to light and we see her whisper an incantation into the explorer’s ear as he bends close to take in the scent. When Sir Malcolm draws away, he look positively bewitched.

Later on, we see Mr. Lyle has been summoned to Sir Malcolm’s home to advise him and the team. Being an expert on dead languages, Mr. Lyle is there to tell the group what he knows about the Verbis Diablo. Ignoring Doctor Frankenstein’s scoffs, Mr. Lyle explains that the language has roots in Aramaic though it might be older and was an oral tradition, so it’s not lost simply forgotten. When Sir Malcolm reveals that it’s being spoken there in London, Mr. Lyle pauses, but plays off his surprise. There happens to be only one written example of the Verbis Diablo and luckily it’s in the British Museum’s archives. The story goes that in the 11th century, a monk known only as Brother Gregory was said to be possessed by the Devil, who spoke the Verbis Diablo to him. This tormented the monk, who recorded the devil’s language on anything he could get his hands on. Since there was no science back then to lend itself to the idea that Brother Gregory was simply mentally ill, he was locked away and eventually burned at the stake. This last detail disturbs Vanessa, who we know has a special relationship with demons.

The story of Brother Gregory reminds me strongly of that of Herman the Recluse, a 13th century monk and the sole writer of the Codex Gigas also known as the Devil’s Bible. This huge tome, nicknamed as such due to the large and unique illustration of Satan within, is an illuminated version of the Vulgate Bible, so it lacks certain books like Revelations. The legend behind the Codex Gigas says that the author broke his vows and was sentenced to be walled up alive. In order to save himself, he proclaimed that he would, in one night, write a book that would bring glory to his monastery and contain all human knowledge. As the hours went by, it became clear to the monk that he could not finish this task, so he implored to the Devil for help in exchange for his soul. Satan came to the monk and finished the manuscript for him, guiding his hand, and the illumination of the Devil was in gratitude for the help. Interestingly enough, the Codex Gigas contains a couple of magic spells and exorcism rites. And so, in the world of Penny Dreadful, the writings of Brother Gregory are where our protagonists must begin is they wish to unravel this latest mystery.

The next day, Sir Malcolm has asked Evelyn Poole on an outing. They are at a shooting range and Evelyn is a dangerously good shot. Sir Malcolm on the other hand is a bit rusty, though he claims the gun is pulling when he can’t quite make a bulls-eye. Sir Malcolm shows Evelyn a semi-automatic pistol manufactured by Mauser. I am not a gun expert, but this looks like a Mauser C96, which was used in the Second Boer War, which we mentioned above and fits right in with the timeframe of Penny Dreadful. The show has done its homework this season. It is here that Evelyn casually asks after Sir Malcolm’s wife. The explorer explains that they are estranged, but there is to be no divorce since the scandal to her name would be too great and Sir Malcolm respects that. In Victorian times not only was there a social sigma attached to divorce, but the religious implications and the difficulty in obtaining one due to the laws in place made the entire act extremely undesirable. There is no love between Sir Malcolm and his wife, but he is bound to her. Evelyn takes aim with the Mauser and lets off a few terrifyingly accurate shots, remarking that it’s always good to have something to aim at. I sense Sir Malcolm’s wife may have an “accident” soon.

In the laboratory, Frankenstein is still spending time with Brona. Here we see he is washing her hair, a rather intimate act. Brona, still testing the waters of life, asks for Frankenstein’s memories of her. The good doctor makes up a few details about their shared childhood, telling Brona they were close. At this point I find Frankenstein’s actions manipulative. The doctor pulls out a bottle of hair dye and it looks as though he will be bleaching Brona’s hair. I assume this is more to disguise her identity than for cosmetics. Brona asks about Caliban and Frankenstein tells his newest creation that the creature is her intended. Brona inquires if she loved him and more importantly if she has to love him now. Already we are seeing the tangled love dodecahedron beginning to form between out Penny Dreadful characters. Brona is afraid, afraid of what life has to offer and what sensations it is thrusting upon her. The good doctor vows to protect her. Later on, the doctor finally presents Brona to Caliban. He has dyed and cut her hair and most of the trauma to her body has healed. Her eyes are not like Proteus’s; it’s as if Brona is a natural woman. Caliban’s breath is taken away to the sight of her, though Brona is still hesitant. Frankenstein asks both his creations to be patient with one another. And so “Lily” meets “John Clare” as Brona and Caliban shake hands.

Later that evening, we see Mr. Lyle and Ethan meet up outside the British Museum. They are going to sneak into the archives and retrieve Brother Gregory’s relics. This scene is a bit lighter than anything else in “Verbis Diablo” and it serves as a bit of a breather before the incredibly uncomfortable and frightening sequences that follow. We see Mr. Lyle fawning over Ethan, as well has having to fib that the sharpshooter is his brother when they are almost caught, not to mention the detail that both the British Museum and the Vatican have extensive collections of historical pornography. Finally Ethan and Mr. Lyle get down the business as the linguist searches the card catalogue for Brother Gregory’s entry.

While Mr. Lyle searches, one of many medieval relics catches Ethan’s eye. It’s a shield with a pair of wolves under a moon on it. The script on the shield is a bit hard to make out, it looks like "Uti costodient lupi" which Ethan says is Latin for "the hounds will protect". While Mr. Lyle is impressed with the sharpshooter’s ability to read Latin, I want to say the correct way of saying this phrase is "Canis Protegam" and I find it odd the sharpshooter would confuse the words for “hounds” and "wolves". That latter would be “lupus" in Latin, "lupi" is Italian. Mr. Lyle informs Ethan that the images on the medieval shield are not meant to strike fear in the hearts of enemies, but to act as guardians for the shield bearer. So the protective wolves could be a nod to Ethan, a werewolf, protecting Vanessa. Ethan doesn’t seem fond of wolves though, telling a story about timber wolves he encountered back in America. He seem disturbed when he recalls how silently and cunningly they hunted, almost as his he’s chasing a half forgotten memory. Wolves don’t protect, in Ethan’s mind, they feed. Mr. Lyle has finally found the correct card and the pair unearth Brother Gregory’s box.

Elsewhere that night, things take a turn for the creepy. We see Hecate, the favorite of Evelyn’s coven, waiting in the street, watching. A mother and father pass by with a tiny baby and Hecate makes her move. Keeping her distance, the witch follows the family down into the smoky train station, then on to the train itself. There isn’t any dialog in this entire scene, yet the tension ratchets up higher and higher because we know something is about to happen. As they ride along in the darkness, Hecate disappears from the train car, only to reappear in the shadows in her feral form. Just like the wolves in Ethan’s story, Hecate slashes the mother and father’s throats so they cannot scream, and ends up crouching over the baby, for what purpose we don’t know. I tensed up as Hecate leaned into the camera, convinced we were in for a nice jump scare, then nothing, which was actually more effective fright in my mind.

Back at Sir Malcolm’s home, Ethan and Mr. Lyle have returned after absconding with Brother Gregory’s relics. The team begins unpacking everything, laying out items like plates, vases, and even a human skull on the table. This is my favorite scene in the episode even though it’s so short. Brother Gregory literally recorded the Verbis Diablo on anything he could get his hands on and the team recognizes bits of Latin and Arabic here and there. When we see the final overhead shot of all the items laid out, I love that someone asks if anyone is good at puzzles. Again the clock is ticking, our protagonists need to race to decipher this writing as forces, both lawful and occult, move against them. This is why I watch Penny Dreadful, for the mix of all these elements and the tension that builds with a good mystery.

Even later that evening, over at Evelyn Poole’s estate, the witch is less than pleased with Mr. Lyle. She remarks with amusement how over his head the linguist is given he is an amateur occultist faced with the real deal. Evelyn is cruel as she taunts Mr. Lyle, remarking on how his indiscretion has left him open to blackmail. Mr. Lyle prefers the company of men and unfortunately Evelyn has pictures to prove it. The linguist will lose his job, his wife’s money, and his place in society should all this come out. This goes back to the Section 11 discussion earlier in this review. And so this is why Mr. Lyle is in the den of the witches reporting on Vanessa Ives. He tells Evelyn the protagonists know nothing and despite offers to steer them in the right direction, Evelyn prefers the team to sort everything out themselves. She is so overly confident, this is sure to come back and bite her in the rear later on. When Mr. Lyle asks about Evelyn’s connection to Vanessa, the witch makes it appear to be a personal grudge. She then asks after Ethan, seemingly very interested in the werewolf, but before we can get much information, Hecate arrives. With a bag.

Evelyn appears to be emotionally overcome by what her daughter has retrieved and kisses her in a decidedly unmotherly fashion, causing me to question my assumption that they are related. Perhaps this is just to further reinforce the taboo of all these occult goings on for the audience. I don’t think the Victorian idea of female companions went so far as this. Evelyn takes the bag and goes to a private, hidden chamber. This is an extremely secure room and probably the creepiest thing we’ve seen on Penny Dreadful to date. Dolls. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling terror dolls. I was fidgeting this entire sequence, half expecting to see sets of glass eyes begin to move. Evelyn opens the bag and removes the body of the baby we saw get snatched earlier. The witch carves out the infant’s heart and sews it into one of her dolls, uttering incantation all the while. When she is done, we finally see this newest doll and it is the spitting image of Vanessa Ives. Good lord, the production team did a little too good of job with this one, it’s in the uncanny valley for sure. As Evelyn seals her spell, we see a quick shot of the real Vanessa and it’s almost as if she has been stuck by something, that some presence has descended upon her.

That was “Verbis Diablo”, how did you like it? Leave a comment below.

Inch by inch we are getting more back story for Ethan and Sir Malcolm, as well as a hint of something between Vanessa and Evelyn. I want to know more about the later pair. Was Vanessa a member of the coven? Is this here she cultivated her medium abilities? Perhaps her powers eclipsed Evelyn’s so she had to leave. And what of Ethan? Who is this “lupis dei”, this wolf who will protect? So many questions and we are only two episodes into this season. I must say I enjoyed “Verbis Diablo” much more than the premiere and hope future episodes follow its example.

I am so glad the chills are back in Penny Dreadful. Between the baby snatching scene and the very end with the dolls, I haven’t been that breathless watching Penny Dreadful before. I expect things to continue on the up and up, getting creepier but remaining as mysterious as ever. Gore can be scary, but the anticipation that something might happen, that someone might jump out of the shadows, that one the dolls might move, gives a more lasting scare in my opinion. I’d rather have these slow building nightmarish scenes over the fact-paced action oriented ones.

I am very interested in the story of Brother Gregory and the puzzle that is now laid forth in front of our protagonists. How soon will they uncover the monk’s message and what good will it do, what will it tell them? This season is just growing to be a powder keg about to explode, but what is going to be the spark that sets it all off? Will it be a confrontation with Frankenstein and his creatures, an outbreak of emotion between Sir Malcolm and Evelyn Poole, a revelation from the attack survivor, Roper? Anything can set this season off and blow the story wide open, spilling blood and secrets onto the London streets. I can’t wait to see how tension is ratcheted up further.

Tune in next week as we learn more in “The Nightcomers”.

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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