Review: Penny Dreadful ‘Fresh Hell’

Showtime’s Penny Dreadful returns with a sequence that, I suspect, establishes the main thread for the entire second season. Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives is taking a relaxing stroll in a snow-covered park. Snow drifts lazily from the sky. Families play. Children laugh. It’s a moment of tranquility that lasts about 20 seconds as, gazing from the distance, Madame Kali (Helen McCrory of the Harry Potter series) chants something in a foreign tongue, causing Ives to fall to her knees in some sort of overwhelmed seizure.

Madame Kali, who was earlier thought to be a psychic fraud in Season One, apparently truly deals in the black arts – more specifically, devil worship – and has a focus on Vanessa Ives as her master’s bride. Given the focus on the two women in the Season Two premiere, the confrontation between them seems likely to dominate the second season. It’s a wise move, giving Penny Dreadful a flesh and blood villain on which to focus. It seems to have re-invigorated the series after a lackluster Season One finale.

Kali has a brigade of women, shape shifters who are able to transform themselves from bald, scarred monsters into beautifully alluring seductresses, in her service who attack Ives and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). The scenes are gruesome yet, oddly, seldom gratuitous for the requirements of the material. Sure, there’s a scene in which Madame Kali literally bathes in a pool of blood, the source of which lies lifeless at her feet. But, hey, that’s de rigueur for this sort of thing.

Other characters from Season One do feature in the episode with Chandler fleeing the scene of a crime he potentially caused and Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) working with his Creature (Rory Kinnear) to restore Chandler dead lover Brona (Billie Piper). In fact, one of the more creepy scenes of the episode involves no blood at all as Frankenstein mildly molests Brona’s corpse. The Creature, on the other hand, prepares for his future bride by going out and finding employment at a wax museum with a taste for the macabre. It’s a perfect fit for him and for the series as it features vivid recreations of the Jack the Ripper murders, among other things. It’s candy for those who love this stuff. The most significant absence from the premiere is Reeve Carney’s emo Dorian Grey.

The star of the show continues to be Eva Green, throwing herself into the role of Vanessa Ives completely even if, admittedly, the pilot doesn’t give her as juicy material as the highlight episodes of Season One. Based on the early evidence, though, it appears that Helen McCrory has come to challenge Green’s position of dominance, giving the villain Kali a wicked sense of ruthless purpose and drive. The episode closes with the two actresses praying to their respective gods with psychotic fervor and, of course, spilt blood. It’s an engaging and fascinating scene that highlights both actresses’ willingness to contort/distort their bodies and their natural beauty.

That said, Green and McCrory are nearly upstaged by the impossibly beautiful set design. The snowy streets of London (which, admittedly, do resemble the Diagon Alley set of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter). The macabre wax museum. Madame Kali’s skull-filled satanic den. All of it is awe-inspiringly beautiful in that perfectly dark Penny Dreadful way and looks like it cost a fortune to mount. It would be challenging to see any other series match this significant work at the Emmys – that is, assuming Emmy voters can stomach the material itself. Maybe we’ll just show them sanitized pictures instead.


Showtime’s Penny Dreadful has its Season Two premiere tonight, Sunday, May 3, at 10pm EST.

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