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Penny Dreadful – Above the Vaulted Sky – Review

This season of Penny Dreadful continues to impress. It has grown leaps and bounds for me since the last season and episodes like this are what I crave from this show. Not only is there a fair amount of intrigue for all of our characters, but the way that their individual storylines are growing messier as they weave in and out of each other is providing some delicious tension. Last season was very compartmentalized; we saw our individual characters with their struggles but their lives never intersected unless they were dealing with their mission of finding Mina, which I have to say does not hold a candle with the current witch-related conflict. I was on the edge of my seat with “Above the Vaulted Sky” waiting for the storylines to smash together, half hoping they would and half hoping they wouldn’t. This Penny Dreadful season is rocketing by and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The episode begins with Evelyn in her terror doll chamber. The uncanny valley factor is high with these creations and they have to be one of the creepiest things Penny Dreadful has brought to our screen. I keep waiting for one to blink. The Vanessa doll isn’t Evelyn’s focus this time around, not yet anyway. She is working on a doll that looks exactly like Sir Malcolm’s estranged wife. Muttering incantations, Evelyn cracks the head of the doll open and reveals a very juicy brain underneath. But this witchery is interrupted as Hecate returns and presents Evelyn with the stolen lock of Vanessa’s hair. However, it’s Hecate who wants to do the honors of weaving this magic into the doll and after a moment’s hesitation, Evelyn allows it, returning to her previous task of driving pins into the brain of the other doll. Miles away, Sir Malcolm’s wife screams in agony as she holds her head. Again, I’m sensing dissention in the witch ranks. Hecate is toeing the line of loyalty with Evelyn very closely and soon we may see her take that step over.

By the end of the episode we see what effect the doll has on Sir Malcolm’s wife. The woman has to be restrained as she is literally foaming at the mouth from the pain and the enchantment goes deeper as the episode goes on and more pins are driven into that oozing brain. By the end of “Above the Vaulted Sky” Sir Malcolm’s wife is hallucinating that her dead children have risen from the grave in her room and are beckoning her. Looking for some sort of peace, Sir Malcolm’s wife slits her own throat, only to see before she dies that none of it was real. Evelyn Poole slowly, remorselessly, and deliberately tortured a woman to death without ever being in the same room as her. And just as a matter of tying up a loose ends. This witch is dangerous.

At Sir Malcolm’s, our team of protagonists are recovering from the attack. Ethan likens their situation to a siege and recounts a mission he was on during his time with the United States cavalry. He tells the tale of how the soldiers used brutal tactics to wipe out a tribe of Native Americans, of how he infiltrated the tribe’s camp when they least expected it, watching and waiting just as the witches did, until the time came to strike and the tribe was no more. Vanessa also reveals to the team what the witches were after in their latest visit. They were making a fetish, a likeness of her to use in their plans. Ethan points out that this is similar to a voodoo doll and from what we know if Evelyn’s recent activity he’s right. Sembene is familiar with such things and mentions the belief that if one consumes the flesh of their enemy they gain his power. This casual mention of cannibalism doesn’t raise too many eyebrows in the room, but I think we just got a hint as to the darker parts of Sembene’s past.

Ethan remarks that the tribe’s underestimation of their enemies’ ruthlessness was the key to their downfall and is a mistake they can’t make. While I agree, I think that Ethan underestimates just how deep the infiltration goes. He talks of defending their “cliff” from further attacks and we do see this happen as the team, including Mr. Lyle who obviously knows which way the wind is blowing, take measures both spiritual and physical to ward off the witches. I enjoy seeing each of our Penny Dreadful protagonists lending their aid in building up the defenses in their own way: Sir Malcolm spending money on a finely crafted iron door, Mr. Lyle ever the outcast donning a yamaka in private, Ethan taking up arms, Vanessa using the powers learned from the Cut Wife, and so forth. Ethan seems to be familiar with tribal mysticism, which only adds to the allure of his back story. However, the fact remains that the witches are already there; they infiltrated long ago and will be especially hard to uproot.

We see an example of the witches’ penetration as Vanessa goes through her nightly ritual, only for the weird sisters to appear before her. The medium is unsure if this intrusion is physical or if the witches were only in her mind, but regardless they are still able to claw their way to Vanessa despite the precautions taken. I loved the moment when the witches appeared, with Vanessa praying earnestly as one of the weird sisters hovered just inches before her closed eyes. The tension was thick here. Vanessa, spooked by the witches, goes to Ethan’s room where the Lupus Dei is dutifully praying before bed. She wishes to remain there for the night and both parties are chivalrous in this arrangement; there is no “funny business” between them though there is an affection. Before retiring they discuss their individual beliefs in God. Both Ethan and Vanessa seem to have a strained relationship with the deity; they believe in His protection, yet rely on themselves first. I predict that before the season is done Vanessa will have strained her relationship with God to the breaking point, turning her back on Him and giving in to her true dark potential to defeat Evelyn’s coven. This might even set her up as the big bad of Penny Dreadful season three and cause the prophecies surrounding the medium to be set in motion.

At Frankenstein’s laboratory, the creator and creature are getting into a heated argument. This is one of the only times we’ve seen the good doctor really stand up the Caliban, who wishes to see Brona. Frankenstein is about done with Caliban’s dramatics and insists he go and do as he pleases if he feels that’s the right course. It’s very telling that Caliban is so hesitant though. He is knows what he wants and yet he is unsure of the motions. Caliban is too hung up on his being different; he wears it as an armor to keep those who could hurting him away. It is obvious that Caliban doesn’t see himself as a whole man but he is a man, one with dreams and poetry. This is why I’m rooting for him and Lavinia now. Obviously she can’t see his face but she doesn’t need to in order to appreciate Caliban for who he is. Frankenstein escorts Caliban to see Brona, and leaves them to bond, though he doesn’t go far and eavesdrops on their encounter. Unfortunately, Brona is very unreceptive and Caliban is just plain awkward. Brona is very smitten with the good doctor even after Caliban tells a fabricated story of how she once accepted him for his looks, even if she doesn’t do so now, as a way of getting Brona to like him. This seems a bit manipulative, but then again everything both Frankenstein and Caliban have been telling Brona has been. Brona only wishes to be friends with Caliban for now, though it’s clear even that makes her uncomfortable. The pair sit in awkward silence.

The next day, Ethan is out for a bit of shopping, buying ammunition in his effort to keep the witches at bay. He is confronted by Inspector Rusk who wishes to have a word with the sharpshooter back at the station. Ethan plays nice, seeing Rusk’s men in the crowd, and goes with the inspector. At Scotland Yard, Rusk lays all his suspicions of Ethan out on the table, of how he is unemployed yet living comfortably in London, how he is buying some heavy duty ammunition, and most importantly of how he once resided at the Mariner’s Inn. Later on, Rusk even picks apart Ethan’s accent, showing a familiarity with America. Ethan plays it cool for the most part despite Rusk’s thorough research. Also, it seems that “Ethan Chandler” might not be the sharpshooter’s real name. His back story is going to be a doozy. Also, and I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before, but Rusk is without one of his arms. I don’t know how I didn’t pick up on this detail before, but it explains some of Rusk’s demeanor and attitude. He lost it in the Transvaal, presumably during The Boer War as he mentions that enemy by name. This makes the surgeon’s remark about plastic surgery a few episodes ago all the more interesting.
Ethan takes his leave of the inspector and manages to shake the tail Rusk set on him. Unfortunately, Ethan was followed back to Sir Malcolm’s by another. It seems Roper is out of the hospital and his memory isn’t as afflicted as he’d like the authorities to believe.

Such a delicate game of cat and mouse, or rather cat and wolf, was played here. I was so tense watching Ethan get interrogated, especially when Rusk produced file after file of research. I was sure the inspector would have more answers and would reveal all there is to know about the sharpshooter. However, I believe Rusk tipped his hand too early. Clearly he mentioned the survivor of the Mariner’s Inn Massacre to smoke Ethan out and make the sharpshooter go after Roper. But now Ethan is aware that there are eyes on him and I think the wiser course we are going to see is Ethan being more careful. It’s also interesting that Rusk mentioned contacting a chemist in New York in his search. Perhaps Ethan was trying to control his werewolf symptoms?

While this is going on, Vanessa makes good on that promise and has tea with Frankenstein and his “cousin”. Now, I’m a bit confused. I know Brona has gone through a transformation, losing her accent and changing her hair, but the change in her appearance isn’t that drastic, so why does Vanessa not recognize her? We know Vanessa is observant, picking up on the affection shared between Frankenstein and Brona, but there is no indication, not even the slightest twitch showing that Vanessa recognizes the woman she once met with Ethan. The tea is a short meeting, with Brona taking her social cues from Frankenstein. He’s coached her on the correct responses to give so as not to set off suspicion, but her answers are so canned. I must know Vanessa’s true read on Frankenstein’s new lady friend.

Vanessa had cut her tea date with Frankenstein and Brona short to continue her work at the cholera colony. Again she meets with Caliban and the pair engage in another round of philosophical discussion. Is it just me or has this season of Penny Dreadful be heavy on the exposition regarding the different quirks and Victorian details the show includes? Vanessa outright explains the significance of the name “John Clare”. I know this is for the benefit of the audience and it does make my job in these reviews easier, but for someone familiar with the material it can seem a bit jarring for these characters to constantly explain details of Victorian life that they should naturally be aware of. Anyway, Caliban speaks of how he feels a connection to the poet John Clare and begins to recite Clare’s poem “I Am”, the final line of which gives us the title of this episode. Vanessa joins him and this poem exemplifies the theme of this episode. The speaker in the poem talks about their lonely existence, that the absence of companionship in others makes them feel adrift. And yet while the speaker wishes to be isolated to avoid the pain of rejection, they feel even more pain in their loneliness, though they eventually find peace. I feel as if this poem could apply to any one of our Penny Dreadful regulars, each wrapped in their individual secrets and darkness yet all striving for a connection with others. We’ll see the result of some of those connections in the final scenes of this episode.

Vanessa mentions that today she saw the kind of peace the speaker of “I Am” found and speaks of Frankenstein and Brona and the fact that the good doctor is in love, finding calm in Brona’s touch. The medium doesn’t use Frankenstein’s name though I held my breath waiting for Caliban to find out this news from Vanessa. It wasn’t disappointing that the revelation didn’t come, in fact it just serves to entwine our stories further, making the eventual reveal all the more satisfying. Caliban also speaks of Brona, again using no names, and laments on how he does not know how to reach her. Vanessa thoughtfully seeks to boost Caliban’s confidence and teaches him to waltz, right there in the middle of the cholera-ridden caves, bringing beauty to the most woeful of places. The music that strikes up here is beautiful and really the entire score for this season of Penny Dreadful has been remarkable.

Speaking of music, later that night Angelique is being escorted by Dorian to the opera. They are having a wonderful time until a young man, a former client of Angelique’s, recognizes her and humiliates Angelique in public, remarking on the differences in her physical form. Doran does his best to comfort Angelique and show her that their words don’t matter, but the sting remains for Dorian’s companion. Not far off, Sir Malcolm and Evelyn are getting quite cozy over drinks. Evelyn, she of the lethal jewelry, manages to prick Sir Malcolm’s hand, setting her plans into motion.

At Sir Malcolm’s house, Ethan is regarding the moon which is growing fuller with each night. Considering our protagonists are on lock down, I wonder what’s going to happen once that moon is finally full and Ethan is forced to transform in front of his companions. Mr. Lyle calls Ethan over to the table with all of Brother Gregory’s writings. He’s pieced together a fair share of the translation, but is interested now in that familiar phrase “Lupus Dei”, which has been repeated over and over on many different objects like a mantra. They are so close to cracking this puzzle wide open!

At Dorian Grey’s abode, we see the effect those cruel words had on Angelique. She walks into Dorian’s portrait room dressed in his clothes and accuses Dorian of being attracted to her because she is something different, something to add “spice”. Angelique talks of always feeling “not as she was meant to be”, speaking of the ridicule she feels from those who don’t understand. Dorian cannot relate to this feeling, but he is upset that Angelique feels she should dress as a man and assures her that she is not alone. Angelique asks if she lived as a man would Dorian still stand by her and the immortal says yes and they embrace. I’m very pleased at the direction this storyline has taken. I was so worried that Dorian would do as Angelique feared, that he would toss her away when she became less of a novelty, but this isn’t the case. Dorian is there for the person Angelique is, not the gender.

And so the episode ends with quite of climax as a variety of romantic entanglements are seen. Dorian and Angelique consummate their relationship, while Evelyn has bewitched Sir Malcolm, who can think of nothing else but taking Evelyn to bed. She continues to poison Sir Malcolm with her ring, driving him wild. Our explorer is so heavily bewitched at this point I would be worried about the other characters discussing anything of importance in front of him. Also, to add to the list of dalliances, Brona is frightened by the storm outside and crawls into Frankenstein’s bed for comfort. And she gets it, as the cuddling turns to something a bit more adult. It’s important to note that Brona leads the way. We know she felt for Frankenstein, but this solidifies the fact that she never cared for Caliban. There is even ocular fornication as Vanessa, bewitched by the fetish, stops Ethan on the stairs and caresses his cheek. For a few minutes I was sure that she was going to kiss him and I think the sharpshooter felt the same, but after a long silent pause, Vanessa leaves Ethan on the stairs with a lot to think about.

And that was “Above the Vaulted Sky”. How did you feel about this episode? Leave a comment!

I love that with each encounter our characters were a breath away from having their secrets discovered by the others. Penny Dreadful is strongest when all the characters are in play and this episode has to be the best example of weaving everyone in and out of each other’s lives. So many confrontations have been set in motion and I wonder which will come first: Rusk discovering Ethan’s secret or Caliban uncovering Frankenstein’s.

The relationship between Ethan and Vanessa has grown more complicated and more intriguing in these past few episodes. Vanessa remarked that the pair of them are meant to be together for a reason and the role of Lupus Dei is evidence of that. I don’t really see these two as romantically involved. In fact, Evelyn’s meddling with the fetish of Vanessa, causing that charged moment between them on the stairs, might interfere with Ethan’s role as a protector. Evelyn is set to cloud Ethan’s mind in a way he can’t deny as he is irrevocably tied to Vanessa, but romance between Lupus Dei and the Devil’s Bride will only result in bad things happening.

Be sure to tune in next week for the promisingly titled “Glorious Horrors”.

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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