Penny Dreadful has spent the last two episodes sprinting through setup and unveiling great scenes left and right. This week we take a breather to listen to some backstory and shuffle pieces into place for the next act. How much backstory? Someone tells Josh Hartnett something. That's how much.
I know, the idea that we've broken a perfect streak of Josh Hartnett being utterly in the dark is a sad one. The good news is that by the time it comes, you'll welcome it, because despite feeling slightly clipped for time overall, we get a 15-minute flashback as Caliban, Frankenstein's first creation, explains what he's been up to. Not that Frankenstein asked, because as literature tells us, Frankenstein is not a particularly stalwart soul in the face of having to deal with negative emotions.
Everything in this entire screencap could probably have been handled better. ("Were you really so naïve to imagine we'd see eternity in a daffodil?" snarls Caliban, not a huge fan of poetry. "Who's the child, Frankenstein? Thee or me?")
The thing is, literature does tell us this. Of all the stories we've been given so far, Frankenstein is the most recognizable. (The vampires and Mina certainly have recognizable imagery, but with the layering of the pulpy Egyptian-curse business, we're once again in the dark about the whats and whys.) So this monologue, besides giving Rory Kinnear a chance to remind us all what we were missing the last two weeks, is less about telling us something that, in essentials, we already know, and more about reminding us that old Victor has a seriously spotty track record of personal responsibility.
Caliban has actually fared well, thanks to Vincent (Alun Armstrong, along for the ride), who took pity on him and brought him to the Grand Guignol, "a place where the malformed find grace."
The creature might be new to kindness, but thanks to Rory Kinnear's acting, we understand the full poignancy of this moment, as he becomes suddenly, keenly aware what a theater kid looks like.
This is a smart interlude, since it allows for a very quick exploration of the Victorian mindset about life, which was that anything even remotely sinful was the worst and just terrible and oh heavens decency please, but also the voracious appetites for spectacle and dread that burst from their behind their prim little eyeballs and kept theaters like this packed for decades.
(My face, half the time I'm watching this show. Or any other show. We'll be seeing this audience again.)
This bit of meta also sets up some dynamics of longing, loss, and fixation on a woman that come back pretty hard on Victor, when the creature (now named Caliban) announces he's returned to make some demands of Victor. Victor, whose abandonment of his first creature was seriously not great to begin with, easily tops it for dickweedery by tossing out words like "demon" and viciously declaring he'll never ever love Caliban. Caliban, who is so over this guy already: "I do not seek YOUR love, demon." Nope, he's after a wife, and Victor's going to make him one or else he'll kill all Victor's loved ones. (I feel this would be a bigger threat if Victor was not a loner narcissist whom nobody likes and whose mother departed this life in a hail of bloody coughing, but Victor seems suitably appalled by the realization, so maybe he likes to think he has friends.)
Caliban warns him that if he doesn't get a wife, he'll be out to get Victor everywhere: "The brightest day, the darkest night." No jerkbag shall escape his sight.
Victor should take comfort that he's not the only one having a terrible day. Vanessa gets an otherworldly vision of Mina that comes with stellar lighting:
A downside of screencapping is that this cup freezes on its way down and hangs there during the vision, which I was into, but as this is a still photo, you'll have to take my word for it.
Having a better day: Ethan and Brona, who seem to be getting along great when she's not coughing blood. If I were the speculating kind, I might wonder if she is going to dovetail so nicely into Victor's mom issue and Caliban's desire for an undead bride that Ethan's going to find his ethical imperatives about all this tomfoolery brutally challenged! But I'm not, so here's a cap of them in the afterglow with the set decorator's carefully placed Victorian Useless Lamp front and center.
It's no wad of nautical rope hanging from the tallest hooks in the land, but it'll do.
But Ethan isn't going to sit back and let Brona die without medicine only to become the undead intended of a man with some emotional issues made by a man with even more emotional issues, is he? So it's off to Fancy London, where Vanessa and Malcolm are planning a trip to the zoo (actual plan). Criminally underused Sembene gets to announce that Mr. Chandler's waiting, with exactly the sort of disbelief you'd imagine.
This was the shot that convinced me 1) whatever these two have going, I'm in, and 2) this show knows damn well what it's doing keeping Hartnett in the dark.
But it was merely the beginning, since Malcolm hires Ethan for their dirty work, and heads out with the best parting shot in the world: "Miss Ives will explain the details, as far as she sees fit."
I laughed out loud. What an amazing subplot. I'm so sad when she starts explaining things.
Luckily, it's not much: Mina was taken in by someone who may or may not be a vampire, Vanessa sees spirits and the whole biz, and they're going to make a visit to the Zoological Society to track her down, presumably because that was her favorite place in life and not just because everybody wants to take a field trip.
When they get there (walking under the sign for CARNIVORA), and we get a very interesting set of beats as Malcolm, Ethan, and Vanessa face off. Vanessa's listening for signs. Malcolm, warning Ethan not to get ideas: "Her gifts make her vulnerable. They also make her desirable." Ethan: "To whom?"
Eva Green, Over It at an orbital distance of approximately 500,000 miles:
She also shakes her head, and Malcolm changes the subject, so either we're not sure who desires her (pretty much everybody), or there's even more going on than we know. Probably the latter, since she picks up pretty quickly that something isn't right and turns on Malcolm with an amazingly subdued: "What haven't you told me?" I love how much of their relationship is kept in the dark, and how much they communicate with little glances at each other about what's going on around them. I can't wait to see it be viciously addressed.
Speaking of more going on, wolves show up!
Ethan, normal human man, calms them with the old "stick your hand in the wolf's mouth" trick.
The slightly disappointing denouement of the zoo visit is the capture of Fenton, a vampiric minion Malcolm proceeds to beat the crap out of. (Fenton licks up the blood, which is delightfully gross.) Ethan stops him, and they summon the doctor to further debate what can be done to obtain information about Mina from someone only interested in Vanessa. But the whole scene also underlines a theme in this episode of who's in power.
Caliban and Frankenstein, with the corpse of Proteus, as Caliban prepares himself to ask for a bride:
Malcolm and Fenton, as Malcolm prepares to beat Fenton into telling him where his daughter is:
Upstairs, everyone but Sembene (come on, show) has something to say about the dude in the basement:
(This is such a crucial establishing shot of the League of Ordinary Public-Domain Fictional Constructs, why didn't we pan up a few more inches and linger?
Amid sniping, the general consensus is that the good Doctor should do a transfusion of blood to Fenton to see if it clears him of his symptoms, in the hope the same could be done to Mina. Ethan has some ethical compunction that nobody else in the room cares about whatsoever, except possibly Vanessa, who was at least being civil during the interrogation. Finally Vanessa lays it out for Ethan, perhaps not a healthy assessment of everyone in the room but certainly an accurate one: "We here have been brutalized with loss. It has made us brutal in return." Everyone agrees to enter into a compact. Everyone else promises Malcolm. Ethan, staring at Vanessa and being very specific with intonation, making me more interested in him than I thought I could be: "I'm with you."
Worth noting that everyone else thought they were entering a pact to bring down a Mina-stealer; meanwhile, Malcolm knows that it's trying to bring down the apocalypse, through Vanessa. (When Vanessa calls him on it, he admits she was bait but denies knowing why she'd be of any interest to supernatural creepies. Vanessa, Over It at an orbital distance of 600,000 miles, clearly knows better.)
Hey, speaking of who's in power, here's Ethan and Vanessa chatting about Ethan's girlfriend. "Who doesn't love a lost cause?" Not Ethan, that's for sure! I am generally not a fan of the old love triangle, but we're essentially in a love hexagon at this point, which is so ambitious I'm going to let it ride for a while.
On his way out, Frankenstein delivers an extremely timely reminder that when he transfuses Fenton, whoever is left in there will be different (supernatural handwaving or actual Victorian science beliefs?' You make the call), and that they'll be responsible for whoever it is. They're all responsible now. They're all extremely, deeply, devotedly responsible to the guy in the basement, currently greeting the Dark Lord with a smile.
This is definitely a moving-pieces episode with a side trip to the zoo for no particular reason, but it actually asks some interesting questions amid its setup. Most obviously, Frankenstein. We've seen him as nothing but a loving and patient creator, suggesting he learned from prior mistakes. But the flashback, while not trope-shaking in the way other elements of the show have been, suggests Victor's kindness might just be because poor Proteus took his awakening more calmly and Victor never felt out of control like he did, and does. Maybe Victor himself doesn't know. It will certainly be tested now, with his dual projects in front of him. Vanessa, who has learned less about her condition this week than she has about how Malcolm is keeping things from her, is probably poised on the brink of disaster. (Though I'd love to see her sit down for a drink with Caliban first, just to see who could deliver the more intensely withering stare.) And Ethan, normal human man, is still reeling, which is what happens when people tell you things, a circumstance he's probably already regretting.