Penny Dreadful episode 4 review: Demimonde

Review Becky Lea 11 Jun 2014 - 07:30

Penny Dreadful delivers its most shocking episode yet. Here's Becky's review of Demimonde...

This review contains spoilers.

1.4 Demimonde

Opening with a scene featuring enough lingering boob shots to put a Westeros brothel to shame, Penny Dreadful returns this week with an exploration of theatricality and a few more hints to our characters’ darker sides. Chandler’s relationship with Brona veers from one extreme to another whilst Vanessa finds herself more infatuated with Dorian. Murray continues to question the vampire trapped in his basement as Frankenstein juggles both solving that mystery and fending off the demands of his Creature.

The interactions between the various characters are fast becoming highlights of the series; the cast share an easy chemistry and add a nice thread of humour to the proceedings. Frankenstein and Chandler’s constant sniping at each other is particularly amusing and writer John Logan has drawn each personality so well that these clashes feel organic. Likewise, Vanessa and Dorian prove to be a fascinating combination and there’s a constant sensuality to their conversations that sets them apart from the more brutal occupations of their colleagues.

That contrast between violence and beauty is drawn throughout the episode, which contains some of the most shocking moments of the series so far. Animals certainly don’t do very well here, but it is in the theatrical sequence that the contrast is most successful. The scenes at the Grand Guignol are great fun, flitting between the melodrama and effects on stage and the behind-the-scenes work of the Creature in producing them. Like any good Gothic production, there’s a blonde maiden awaiting to be sacrificed to a monster (a foreshadowing of the Creature’s mate perhaps?) as well of oodles of blood.

Whilst it provides an insight into Victorian theatre, it also offers a commentary on the way in which we still digest entertainment. Sat watching Penny Dreadful in 2014, we’re not too dissimilar from the Grand Guignol audience of the 1890s, gasping at a shocking moment or delighting in a grisly demise. The only real development is the medium through which we receive this entertainment. John Logan is weaving these stories into something new, but it is still the same thrill audiences have always had from reading these texts or seeing them performed. Brona’s rapt expression is the perfect image of the thrill that storytelling can evoke.

Of all the characters now in play, it is Brona though who feels the most under-developed. Billie Piper is gamely making her way through the proceedings as best she can, albeit with a ropey accent, but Brona pales in comparison to the other characters. There are flashes of something more interesting, particularly her breakdown about her relationship with Chandler in which the torment of someone facing death comes to the fore. However, these are too few and she seems only to serve as an impetus for Chandler’s ongoing narrative, rather than as a functioning character in her own right.

It is especially noticeable given the renewed focus on Chandler here who had also felt a little two-dimensional going into this episode. As some of you pointed out in the comments last week, it looks like our American gunslinger may be, in fact, a werewolf. It’s also looking increasingly likely that he might be in some way responsible for the brutal murders of the mother and daughter from the first episode, perhaps in wolf form. There are many hints towards a hidden monstrous side here such as his horror at the dog fighting off the rats or his refusal to donate blood, but most interesting of all was his affinity to the trapped vampire in Murray’s basement.

He becomes the voice of morality in the group, where previously he was notable for his ability to perform questionable acts without much comment. It suggests that he has perhaps experienced a form of torture himself, or at least has witnessed something equally brutal. After his relatively background role, Chandler is fast becoming one of the more intriguing mysteries, particularly in the most surprising development of the episode as he ends up in the arms of Dorian.

Logan has masterfully weaved these disparate characters together so far and it has been wonderful getting to know them and their world over these last few episodes. He clearly has a keen understanding of the Gothic genre and its literature, which constantly informs the onscreen proceedings. There’s a cute moment in this episode with the blood transfusion, administered with little regard to the consequences for the patient, just as it occurs in the Dracula novel. There are other moments, such as the first appearance of Van Helsing or Dorian’s portrait, that tease and hint at further developments.

Yet, there a few flaws starting to creep into Penny Dreadful’s otherwise very pretty surface. The aforementioned lack of development for Brona is one and the other is that, despite being four episodes in, there has actually been very little plot development. It’s not entirely to the show’s detriment; it has been very careful at feeding us just enough narrative to keep the story moving whilst revelling in the atmosphere. However, this teasing of mysteries is starting to feel a little over-used and there are only so many questions you can raise before you either start answering them or the audience begins to get bored.

I’m enjoying this show far too much to be at the latter stage just yet, but with only four episodes left, there needs to be a few more revelations and a little less teasing.

Read Becky's review of the previous episode, Resurrection, here.

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I gotta say that I'm still enjoying the hell out of this series. And it made a nice change to have some levity introduced into the proceedings. I don't think outright gaffuws are appropriate in the programme but I did laugh hard when the unfortunate kitty was introduced.

I don't necessarily agree about Pipers character being underdeveloped though. I didn't see any similar complaints about Ros in GoT being underdeveloped, but I suppose she did drive some of the narrative forward. I'm gonna call it now that Brona will be the 'bride' so that's where her character will go.

With that ending I also agree that she will end up being the "bride"

I am a big fan of Victorian set dramas and the potential for this series is great however I have been very disappointed with how it has progressed. Unlike the reviewer I find flimsy plots and weak characterization to be the downfall of a serial drama that relies on holding the interest. The dialogue is at times poor relying too heavily on casual profanities to qualify as edgy. I think Chandler’s secret is more likely to be that he is gay rather than a werewolf judging by his liason with the insipid Dorian Gray at the end. Taken with Frankenstein’s overtly homo-erotic relationship with his first creature it affirms writer Logan’s preoccupation with a gay subtext that seems a little
anachronistic at times. This would all be okay if the pace of the show had gripped but it just feels mired in excess at the expense of narrative and a waste of the talent involved. Let us hope that John Logan remembers how to write before the next Bond film or else we will just have Q flirting with Bond for an hour and F bombs and gore pushing the 12A certification to breaking point.

Chandler as a werewolf would be fab, if only for the obvious American Werewolf in London joke.

Since Chandler could have sex with Brona without throwing up he's not gay. He could be bi perhaps, or Dorian could be an incubus as well as being immortal. I'm rather puzzled by the "flimsy plots" comment too. Considering its only been 4 or 5 episodes by now rather a lot seems to have happened. Many American shows wouldn't have even introduced the plot yet, while Penny Dreadful has 3..4...5..maybe more..ongoing story arcs already in place with characters and events beginning to intersect.

I'm not sure with I agree with the Brona comments. The accent is a bit off sometimes granted but I feel her character is very well contrasted with Vanessa. Where as Vanessa is more introverted and enigmatic, Brona has much stronger emotional core and seems to be more affected by the harsher world around her, which makes her interesting.
The weakest character, I would argue is Dorian. He doesn't really seem to fit into the story as well as the other characters and his emotional detachment to things doesn't really seem to work as well as, for example Hiddleston's performance in Only Lovers Left Alive, which was a far more charismatic performance. It seems to be a bit of miscasting but it also feels that the writers don't really know what to do with the character.

I said it last week and I'll say it again, I'm sure Brona will become the Bride and after what the article mentions about her being the weakest developed character I'm thinking it even more. I still think Dorian is an excellent character - just a casual observer of all the madness going on around him, his detachment from the main story reflects his detachment from real life. It's as if he's the only character who's comfortable with what he is.

My only issue is that after 5 episodes (I've seen next week's too but I wont spoil it), there doesn't seem to be much development in the way of an overall story arc. Just a bunch of episodes about mostly individual characters who occasionally cross paths. Even for a debuting series that's pretty bad and with only three episodes left I'm not sure where it's really going.

I would be very happy if Bond and Q flirt..I have no issue with that !

It's not remotely anachronistic. I'm pretty sure same-sex attracted peeps have existed for a really long time even in contexts where it was considered sinful. Like I dunno, Oscar Wilde?

I loathe to see the show officially set into a pattern of Vampire Hunter Team investigates mysteries in Victorian London! The individual characters moving around and interacting with each other, the implicit mysteries and the stellar acting are enough for me. It feels more true to life that a show's cast is not quite galvanised into a single unit yet but rather intersect with each other naturally.

Patience, Ms Lea. Patience.

I agree that turning into "Buffy 1890" would be a bad idea, I'd just like a bit more cohesion in the overall season plot. Obviously Vanessa and Malcolm are supposed to be trying to find Mina but it doesn't feel like there's that much drive to get there considering we're halfway into the season. Frankenstein and Dorian Grey are fine as they are, existing in their own stories and Chandler is a decent link between the sets of characters but it seems like they've spent so much time introducing these characters at the expense of the narrative. Which seems an odd choice considering that most of the target audience will already know who half the characters are supposed to be anyway.

I agree. Most of us have better things to do than wait until episode 10 for some urgency to be displayed by some of the characters. So far I can't really see what would have drawn such a fine cast to do this other than a fat cheque. Perhaps Logan's somewhat overrated reputation contributed. I will give it a few more episodes but if story doesn't take precedence to characters naval gazing I will give it a miss.

It's clear this show is going to follow the usual pattern of nothing being really resolved in anticipation of the second season. I'd really like to see a season tell a complete story one day - no cliffhangers, unresolved storylines, etc. Just a beginning a middle and an end.

I know what you mean. I mean Dexter started to get pretty poor towards the end but at least each season had its own story which was wrapped up in the finale (Season 7 aside) and shows like American Horror Story are cool as each season is its own separate story with completely new characters.

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