This review contains spoilers.
The second episode of Penny Dreadful begins with another horrific murder on a foggy London street and whilst not mentioned again for the rest of the narrative, it re-affirms that the city at night is a dangerous place. The focus then shifts to the characters we were introduced to last week, but with some new faces in amongst the familiar. Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is still coming to terms with the events he has just witnessed and finds himself drawn to Brona Croft (Billie Piper). Meanwhile, Murray (Timothy Dalton) continues to work with Vanessa (Eva Green) to search for his daughter whilst Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) introduces his new creature, Proteus (Alex Price) to the world for the first time.
If the first episode was merely a taster of the kind of nightmares that John Logan was willing to unleash with Penny Dreadful, then Séance is a hearty main course full of sex, intrigue and lots of death. There still haven’t been any major progressions in terms of plot, but what is teased is enough, particularly where Vanessa is concerned. Logan is far more interested in seeing these characters operate within this world, or rather on the fringes of it. The Gothic as a genre has always been concerned with what happens in the shadows, on the borders of respectability or that place between life and death. It is where these characters reside, linking back to the demi-monde Vanessa spoke of with Chandler.
The series is setting itself up to explore some of these intriguing binaries and the spaces in between. It’s hinted at towards in the excellent opening credits, a series of images that clearly relate to plot developments. Like all good credit sequences, it perfectly establishes the dark atmosphere of the show, but it is also carefully constructed to reflect some of the wider themes that are emerging in the first episodes. Each shot is an image of two halves, filmed half in shadow and half in light. The colour scheme also reflects the murky society that the characters reside in as well as the fact that each of them appears to be hiding something, caught in the middle between shadows and light.
The episode makes much of the idea that these characters exist on the borders of this world from broader strokes like Vanessa’s communion with the dead to little textual references scattered throughout the characters’ interactions. For example, the poem Frankenstein and Vanessa quote is Wordsworth’s Lines Written In Early Spring, a time between the death of winter and the burgeoning life of spring. This theme of life and death was established swiftly with Frankenstein’s speech to Murray in the first episode and further emerges as an important strand here. Each character is tied to death in some way or pursuing the prolonging of life.
Another emerging theme is that of consumption, literally in the case of Brona who bloodily coughs and splutters her way through scenes both risqué and tame. Murray is consumed by his grief and it is influencing his every decision. There is clearly something from his past that Chandler is running away from whilst Vanessa is consumed wholly by another entity during this episode. Each character is being consumed by something from within, a monster they have to keep hidden. For Frankenstein, there is a physical representation of this in Proteus, but the final scenes reveal that Frankenstein too has something else that threatens him.
Alongside this is the introduction of the enigmatic Dorian Gray. In a wonderful reference to his literary counterpart, Gray is first seen positioned within a frame of a portrait behind him. Reeve Carney is every bit the louche aesthete, but he stands opposite to the other characters in that he appears to be the one consuming rather than the other way around. Art surrounds him in his home and he actively engages in creating it with photography. He observes other characters and deduces from their appearance and even tastes them at one point. His scene with Brona suggested a fascination with death and, if he is true to his literary counterpart, he has also discovered a way in which to prolong life, a motivation which is shared amongst various characters existing within that boundary between the two.
All of these themes clash spectacularly at one mesmerising point in the episode. The séance is a breakdown of these boundaries where life and death collide to torment the living. Eva Green’s performance in this scene was simply astonishing, combining some excellent vocal and physical work into a chilling, almost heart-stopping scene. Director J.A. Bayona produces something very unsettling in the way he shoots Green, opting for high and low angle shots and range of close-ups, cutting quickly around her performance. Coupled with Vanessa’s possession and the constantly shifting perspective, the scene is highly unpredictable and as a result, wholly captivating. In fact, it’s so good it nearly overshadows the rest of the proceedings and it certainly eclipses Helen McCrory’s Madame Kali (though I am looking forward to seeing more of her in future).
Perhaps the séance would have overshadowed the episode if it hadn’t been for the closing moments. Connecting back to the idea of something threatening from within, poor Proteus is ripped apart from the inside by Frankenstein’s first born creature. The episode had previously built up Proteus’ relationship with his creator into something quite tender, aided with the tranquil sensory perception scene in which Proteus discovered the outside worked. The arrival of the first creature shatters that instantly, along with the nerves of the audience.
With that cliffhanger and the narrative preceding it, there is an overriding sense that everything is shifting and uncertain, making it wonderfully unclear what Penny Dreadful will unleash on us next.
Read Becky’s review of the previous episode, Night Work, here.
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