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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