Penny Dreadful Season 2 Premiere Review: Fresh Hell

Penny Dreadful kicks off season 2 with dark romance and magic and explores a “Fresh Hell.”

Last season, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) was backhanded by God. This season it looks like she’s getting slapped down by the left hand of the darker father. She is pursued by demon harpies and witches are stalking her every winter stroll. Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), who throws séance parties under the alias Madame Kali, has been brushing up on her Hebrew, but it’s not for Bible studies. She wants to bring Penny Dreadful’s cursed heroine to her knees.

You can take the Wolfman out of the country but you can’t take the cowboy out of the Wolman. Ethan (Josh Hartnett) comes to in the aftermath of an epic bar brawl, a knock-‘em-down-drag-‘em-out so epic detectives will be talking about it for years. Wax museums will display it in all its gory glory in special exhibitions, but we get ahead of ourselves. It seems our Wolfman is a mass murderer. But it wasn’t just a drunken prowl, he was provoked. In last season’s closer Ethan was surrounded by men who would put him in chains and bring him back to America where he was too wild for the Wild West.

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Hartnett lets the memory of come to the audience through his own discovery. He does it all with his eyes. We see the recognition, the regret and the determination to get the hell out of there as the debris mingles with the blood. The audience can almost see him adding up the bar-tab, plus damages, in his head. He doesn’t even have to mouth the words “holy shit” for us to hear it in his head.

Larry Talbot rears his whining head as soon as Ethan hits Vanessa’s coach. “I don’t want to hurt you. I’m a bad, bad wolf. Curl up my tail and sit in the corner I will.” Werewolves can ladle the guilt better than a Jewish mother in a Richard Benjamin movie and a full moon is no chicken soup for the soul.

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Regrets? He has a few but not too few that he won’t mention: “Blackouts,” “there’s usually blood.” Vanessa is more tight-lipped even as she intones a forgotten language that she never studied. Miss Ives would make a good gangster. She gives away nothing during questioning except more things to ponder but she’s certainly got a mouth on her when those London skinheads come calling.  A rough scan of the Olde Language reference glossary translates it as “fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

Blood looks so pretty in the snow. Did I see a poster for The Who at the Isle of Wight?

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SPOILER ALERT: Frankie’s monster is gonna be jealous. Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is a budding necrophiliac. He really should get out more. The dating scene would definitely be kinder to him than it would to the Creature (Rory Kinnear), who has to have hit mates tailor-made. Not that the doctor is an off-the-rack guy himself, but he keeps so many tonics and tinctures on his that he barely has room for an Edwardian collar.

The creature is the most well-adjusted character on the show. A lunch-pail working man with an artistic heart, he has a knack for gainful off-the-grid employment. Last season he found romance and a paycheck at the Grand Guignol, but the putty-nosed monster clique was as bad as the Heathers in his high school. Now he stumbles into the other horror movie cliché that will never die, the wax museum. He also finds another sympathetic soul, the blind daughter of the proprietor. I predict the Creature will find love among the wicks and Dr. Frankenstein will suggest a little bride-swapping.

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Sembene (Danny Sapani), or waffle face as the kids called him in his school days also finds solace in his work, but I don’t see him in an inter-office romance.

All the actors on Penny Dreadful are nuanced. Their performances are layered and the characters are often acting on something in the present while their thoughts are on something else. The overall style is stylish, with British reserve and a stiff upper lip. No one’s lip is stiffer than of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and if any lip should be quivering it is his. His folly and hubris brought him and his wife a permanent empty nest syndrome and he’s being packed off back to London so she doesn’t have to think about what he’s done. “No more children for you to save or to kill,” she tells him as she dismisses the misadventurer to his monsters.

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The sets are all magnificent in Penny Dreadful, even the snow is perfectly placed and yet looks realistically difficult to walk on. Every little knob and tube in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab appears to have some scientific sense behind it. The full immersion of the body makes a visual scientific sense because water is a good conductor, but what do I know. Everything I know about science, I learned from H.G. Welles.

The Penny Dreadfuls were the comic books of their time. Gothic novels printed on pulp paper and sold for as little as currency would allow. Penny Dreadful treats these popular horror stories, and the low-budget thrillers of cinema that shadowed them, with the utmost respect. These pulpy white knucklers are given classy makeovers with a sense of high literature when, really they are only monster stories. Francis Ford Coppola did similar things with Dracula, he elevated the story from the ghetto of the horror genre to pick at the literary core beneath the fangs.

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London is so picturesque on Showtime. Even the fetid sewers that the monster passes have a sheen about them. The broken furniture in the bar looks old, but clean. The constable sees concrete replacing wood as a crime against the ages. Wood holds its history. Blood can be cleaned and stained over, but the essence remains in the grain.

“A Fresh Hell” is an atmospheric start for the new season. The pieces are in play.

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Rating:

4 out of 5