Last week’s episode of Penny Dreadful may have been the best of the season, if not the series itself, but tonight’s episode, “And Hell Itself My Only Foe,” was the one I was waiting for since the show premiered. Everything I laid out that I was hoping to see in that first review came to fruition tonight. No, there was no scene quite as riveting as last week’s coming out of the Bride of Frankenstein. Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 9 had an electrical current that ran constantly, AC and DC, right into the knobs in this reviewer’s neck.
A murder before the first credit? That doesn’t bode well for Vanessa and Ethan, but it’s great for us. The Wolf of God has one less hunter, but that doesn’t mean the hounds of hell have been heeled. The long arm of the arm may only be a phantom limb, but Scotland Yard inspector Rusk (Douglas Hodge) is an intelligent man who does not discount improbable causes for implausible claims of thievery in the neighborhood of Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton).
The grounded detective’s intuition tells him he is in the midst of something not quite real but completely true. The British gumshoe learns from the otherworldly wires that the wolfman he’s been tracking is none other than Lawrence Stewart Talbot. Yes, Larry Talbot, the classic, original, universal monster played by Lon Chaney Jr. Just hearing that name made my night. I jumped and clicked my heels though I was only wearing socks.
Chandler, the hunted hunter, has a special bond with Sambene (Danny Sapani). They both have a past to live down. Sambene was a slave trader. He wears the badge on his face, like the Mark of the Squealer in the gangster classic Dead End, an eternal reminder that he betrayed his own.
The creature masquerading as Mr. Clair is inordinately contemplative. He has seen evil and he has seen ugliness and he knows that the two are all too often mistaken. The devil is seductive, alluring, something that would make a hard choice of saving one’s soul or giving it away with the promise of damnation as salvation from isolation. The ugly need only a mirror to open a Pandora’s Box of bitter chocolates in a cruel inversion of any world according to Gump.
Rory Kinnear is sublime. Every kindness registers on his face like a depth charge, energizing him from within and spreading outwards. But the betrayals he keeps close to the vest. Mr. Clair is dumfounded to find himself the victim of such a cruel bid for success, but he doesn’t have revenge or rage in his eyes. He’s not even disappointed, really. He sees something inevitable and feels something familiar.
Mr. Clair is so completely taken in with the poetry of inclusion that he doesn’t let it go even after he knows he’s locked away from everything. Kinnear doesn’t even bring sadness to it, his reaction is completely unguarded, naked and a kind of implosive rebirth. It’s such a magnificent choice of reaction because it allows the audience to be the mirror in the box and interpret the emotion on their mind’s canvass.
The Bride of Frankenstein is in the artist’s den. Dorian Gray has had balls, as you know. He’s also gotten his share of pussy, but Brona is no purring kitten. Dorian Gray’s (Reeve Carney) smirk as he gets down on his knees was a wonderfully ambiguous gesture. I really couldn’t tell if he chose to bow before the mystical merging of Brona and Lily (Billie Piper) or if he was compelled. When Dorian mentions the Theosophical Society, one of the other tiny period details that I have been shrieking for, Lily’s eyes shine in grim wonder and dark anticipation.
The acting is so consistently interesting. I occasionally overlook the special effects. Penny Dreadful sometimes like to tease its more graphic frights, but they like to linger on some of the more subversive scares, like Hecate’s exit through the mirror. Her transformation into the witch was sensuality hung on its head. Her nude body, which already registered as the beautiful witch resplendent in youth, is mottled with the scars and satanic branding.
A junkie with a pistol – what could go wrong? Victor (Harry Treadaway) had just compared his own drugged bid for relevancy with Vanessa Ives’ (Eva Green) addiction to god and now his hands are wobbling under the weight of a Colt .45. Dr. Frankenstein repairs to the lair of nods with Sir Malcolm. What a fittingly gilded cage for the monster scientist. There is obviously some kind of dark enchantment on the room. Like a drug that causes hallucinations of the things that matter most. It is a family room most of all, but the families are at their most guilt-ridden and punishing.
The concepts behind the scenes are every bit as tingle-provoking as the scenes themselves. It’s unsettling that Sir Malcolm sees Victor as his dead son, but it’s completely unnerving to see the doctor fall into his own fantasia. Watching Dalton cower in the corners of the room was also discomforting. He used to be James Bond, you know, the master of cool.
The witches divide their foe on the precipice of conquest. Most are cordoned off in pairs, some cannibalistic. But the witches save Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) for a special reunion with Hecate, while her mother reunites with the one she branded. Vanessa also watched, helpless, as Evelyn Poole’s (Helen McCrory) sister, the Cut-Wife, burned.
I want to live in the witches’ castle. As Vanessa ascends past the centuries old art and the stonework, the majesty of the place is neither dark nor light, it is just majestic. A perfect setting for an unholy slaughter.
“And Hell Itself My Only Foe” was written by John Logan and directed by Brian Kirk.