Penny Dreadful episode two, Séance, begins with a scene well known to those familiar with Victorian-era horror. Fog rolls in, covering the street and reducing visibility to zero. There’s an overdressed prostitute waiting for a gentleman caller – or the Ripper – to appear. Here comes an old man lighting the gaslights only to quickly disappear, snatched by something hidden in the fog. Shortly, the same fate befalls the prostitute, her severed arm tossed to the ground still clenching the green apple she had been eating.
The scene reaffirms the mysterious and gruesome deaths that peppered the pilot episode, but it also serves a different purpose. The dreamlike narrative of the episode places the viewer in something of a fog with characters and plotlines quickly revealed and as quickly taken away.
Let me be very clear: when I say the plot of this episode is bit foggy, I mean that as a high compliment. There is little in the way of linear progression. There’s Ethan Chandler waking up on a riverbank with strange cuts on his hand but little explanation as to how they came to be. There’s Vanessa Ives possessed by something spouting what appears to be secrets of her benefactor’s past. There’s newcomer Dorian Grey doing all kinds of nasty things. Nothing makes sense on the surface, but you go along for the ride anyway, hoping for a break in the fog. Fearful of what may appear.
If you’re not all-in by the end of episode two, then you never will be. Penny Dreadful does not wallow in camp. It is as vital and real as blood itself.
The séance of the title takes center stage as Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives attend a party hosted by the eccentric Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. It is not a social call. They want his expertise in reviewing strange markings found on a dead vampire-like creature (don’t ask). As was popular in parties of the era, Lyle has arranged for a seer to conduct a séance to titillate his guests.
The séance sequence takes its time to unfold, escalating in intensity as Ives – not the seer – becomes possessed. After blowing out all light in the room and shattering the glass table around which the guests are circled, Ives spews vitriol, describing someone’s (perhaps Murray’s son’s) death from dysentery and blatantly inferring to a sexual relationship between Murrary and his missing daughter, Mina. It is a bravura sequence fully carried by Eva Green’s committed performance. She cranes and cracks her neck in seemingly impossible ways, and she is able to transform her face in such a way as to suggest an actual person living just beneath her own skin. It is a testament to Green’s skill as an actress that she pushes just far enough without sailing over the top or chewing (too much) scenery. She acts like, well, a woman possessed. Color me impressed.
This episode marks our first exposure to Dorian Grey as played by Reeve Carney, best known as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the infamous Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Grey has an affinity for portraits and photography (no spoilers here) and has a particularly graphic and bizarre sex scene with a prostitute dying from consumption. When she coughs blood directly on his face, he smiles, licks it, and continues pounding her as one would, I suppose. Later, Grey meets Ives and strikes a chord in her, seemingly breaking through her intensely guarded exterior. Carney is fun in the role and will provide a solid foil for Green’s burning intensity.
But the biggest shock of the episode comes in the Dr. Frankenstein scenes. Much was written of the homoerotic bond between creator and creation, presumably because the Creature (later named Proteus) is presented with full-frontal nudity in the first episode. The second episode clothes Proteus but provides a scene in which Dr. Frankenstein suggestively teaches him how to eat. Through the episode, Proteus moves farther away from his father and begins to experience flashes from his previous life.
But just as Proteus begins to (re)master the English language, he is literally ripped in half by another creature who calls Dr. Frankenstein father, presumably the original Frankenstein’s monster. It’s a shocking, gruesome moment to the unsuspecting viewer, particularly given how much time we’d spent evolving Proteus as a character.
It’s a welcome shock that fits the series and especially this episode. As we wander through this pea-soup fog of a narrative, we are bound to be (hope to be) shocked and surprised. Given writer John Logan’s skill, we confidently push forward through the material, knowing something great and exciting lies just around the corner, obscured by thick Victorian fog.