I’m a sucker for psychics. I can’t go past a sign without going in for the $5 reading. The palm on stop lights triggers me. The fakes are best. The more the con the better the show, like the Coney Island Sideshow, they put on the best performance when they’re making their pitch and forever upping the price. So when I heard Sir Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) was throwing a party on this week’s Penny Dreadful that featured a “Séance,” I knew it was a bash I wanted to crash. Mediums of all sizes are all the rage, or were, in the last decades of the 1800s. It was a golden dawn for what promised to be a golden age.
The parlor tricks are half the fun in Penny Dreadful. I’m not saying you should try these at home, but séances, done correctly, can entertain the kiddies for hours. For adults, it was all too often fakery. I am almost sure Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) was going to turn out to be a fake, all that hand-holding, stiff-shoulders and serious looks, and that’s before she turns into Maria Ouspenskaya. A bit over the top, most partygoers would say. Not Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) though, if ever someone were made to one-up a psychic at a party, Ives proves a Ouija board is better than a lampshade. Not only does she upstage the booked entertainment, Vanessa takes it to the streets. As John Lennon would say in Skywriting by Word of Mouth, “`I don’t know what came over me,’ said a passing stranger.”
Penny Dreadful takes place in Vanessa Ives’ world. Everyone else is only acting in it. This isn’t to say that Vanessa has more screen time, or eats more scenery, but there is more of a haze connecting her character to the other players than any other actor. I love how Vanessa susses out Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney), turning him into some kind of foreign specimen under a microscope, sizing him up as a competitor or prey.
I enjoyed watching Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) walking into the police station like he owned the place. He may very well be a majority stockholder. It is a venial reminder that cops are not public servants. They serve the rich who can use their stockades with impunity. Look for a beast, officer. You’re looking for a man. A man who might even look like Sir Malcom Murray, if he had less coin. Oh, while I’m Sir Malcom-bashing, he just leaves Vanessa to her own devices after she gets socially awkward at a party? Dorian Grey is the only person who even thinks about following her to see what kinds of trouble she might get into in that state? Of course, when Mr. Voyeur gets there he gets his jollies, but it is merry olde England. If you can be jolly in a London alleyway, the travel brochures I’ve been reading are worthless.
Harry Treadaway acts in earnest as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Occasionally acting each sentence individual. Not each word like William Shatner, more like a young Richard Burton if he were stuck in a Twilight movie. Treadaway can be surprised into a giggle, though, so I’m rooting for him. His nocturnal twin sons, once removed (or brains removed), Proteus (Alex Price) and his first-born, played by Rory Kinnear, the son of Roy Kinnear, from Help, Three Musketeers and all things Richard Lester, are the two sides of creation. Sweet and damaged beyond recognition.
Sembene (Danny Sapani) promises to be interesting. I may be reading more into him than I should, but I believe he is a passing reference to someone in a Dennis Wheatley novel. Not that he is based on the character, but this is a man who has some abilities of his own. Or he will, as the show progresses. I shouldn’t say more until I’m sure, though I probably will go on about it prematurely. Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler is kind of in repose this episode. He and Brona Croft (Billie Piper) aren’t quite on their way to an audition to Barfly, but you get the feeling they like their medicine neat.
Death sure is romantic to these gothic types. When Dorian Grey first senses death on the woman he’s intent on taking lewd photos with, we can see his eyes light up with the romance. Do creatures doomed to die young feel more? Penny Dreadful takes all these subjects very seriously. It may be on the edge of taking things a little too seriously, but there are dribs and drabs of humor spilling through. They’re going to have to take better advantage of that.
Sounds and shadows. I love sounds and shadows. The clanging of metal on a cobblestone road engulfed in an evening fog. That stuff turns me on. At the heart ofPenny Dreadful is the atmosphere. It is the star and it shines darkly. There might be a problem in the series with all these overlapping monsters. They might need a traffic light.
Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars