Penny Dreadful: Theater of Wonders

This week’s chapter of serial thriller Penny Dreadful, Demimonde, offers two divergent paths in its storytelling: the clichéd masked as art and the art masked as entertainment.

The more clichéd sequences tend to revolve around the increasingly tiresome character of Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney). Shirtless and sporting leather pants, he is first seen here in an orgy straight from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut – the “demimonde” of the episode’s title. The camera swirls through the scene from a God-like perspective with operatic music swelling on the soundtrack. Bodies writhing in passion litter his grand salon while he passively watches, observing them with the same ennui he gives the dozens of paintings hanging on his wall.

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Later, he walks with Vanessa Ives through a horticulture exhibit of rare and deadly flowers, underscoring a recurring theme in the show of the beauty juxtaposed with the horrible and nicely capping the idea with a memorable line of dialogue: “It’s the adder beneath the rose, isn’t it?” Grey is saddled with knowing all and yet surprised by none. His character suffers from a detached, emo quality that doesn’t yet mesh with the bloodlust and passion of the remaining cast. But perhaps that will remedy itself over the course of the series.

The highlight of this week’s episode to me was the highly entertaining and hypnotic Grand Guignol sequence. The introduction of the cheap thrills theater was an unexpected watermark in last week’s episode, and this week’s version is a pure visceral filmmaking.

Our guide through the wonder is Frankenstein’s Monster, still pulling the strings as the theater’s backstage man. The camera swoops through corridors and through floors as the Monster races backstage adjusting lighting, raising curtains, operating trap doors and rigging the gallons of fake blood required for theater of this type. The sequence lasts only a few minutes, but it feels like the center of the Penny Dreadful world. This is a creative team just having a great time, and the sensation is contagious.

The underlying point to the scene is most likely to be revealed later in a later episode. I suspect the name of the play, The Transformed Beast, indicates that a werewolf is among our assembled cast. I hope we return to the theater in future episodes. It makes an ingenious, almost Meta centerpiece to the Grand Guignol activities on display.

The remainder of the episode largely revolves around the man/creature Sir Murray captured in London Zoo in the last episode. While they curiously never say it, the man they have chained in Murray’s dungeon-like basement is clearly a vampire, craving blood and barking cries of insanity similar to Dracula’s Renfield. Dr. Frankenstein attempts a blood transfusion to cure the infection to little effect. One interesting side note in this story line is the introduction of famed vampire hunter and hematologist Professor Abraham Van Helsing, here played by British sci-fi staple David Warner. This appears to be nothing more than a cameo with Sir Murray largely playing the Van Helsing role. It’s a shame, though. Van Helsing remains one of my favorite characters, particularly the Anthony Hopkins madman from Coppola’s Dracula.

At the end of the episode, the creature frees himself and lures/meets his master, a bald albino creature with crimson-red eyes that decidedly looks nothing like Bela Legosi or Gary Oldman. The creature is in search of Vanessa Ives, presumably to fulfill the Egyptian prophecy of two mystical forces merging to bring about the end of the world. Or something like that. The details of the Egyptian backstory are somewhat insignificant. So often in shows of this nature, the fun is clearly in the journey, not the destination.

I’m not going to complain about the leisurely storytelling offered up in this midpoint of the 8-episode limited series. I still have complete confidence in writer John Logan’s vision. But if this leisurely storytelling affords such diversions as the Grand Guignol theater sequence, then I’m all-in for pleasant diversions.

Published by Clarence Moye

Clarence firmly believes there is no such thing as too much TV or film in one's life. He welcomes comments, criticisms, and condemnations on Twitter or on the web site. Just don't expect him to like you for it.