Penny Dreadful Season Premiere Recap: Family Ties

Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Jonathan Hession/Showtime
Penny Dreadful
Episode Title
The Day Tennyson Died
Editor’s Rating

"So we walk alone." That's the sentiment we Dread-heads were left with at the end of last season, as our freak family flung themselves far and wide: Malcolm to Africa, where he'll deliver Sembene to a proper resting place; the Creature bound for the Arctic; and most heartrendingly, Ethan to America and away from Vanessa. Will the gang ever get back together?

But first, a word from our recapper!

Hey, Pennies! (Okay, let's figure this out: What are we calling ourselves? Should we go with Dread-heads? Just plain Dreadfuls? I want a name!) Thank you for joining me on Vulture's Penny Dreadful recaps — I'm super-psyched and only a little nervous. I've tended to be an offline Penny watcher, indulging in annual binges, which means I'm not totally familiar with the social buzz about the show. (Picture Vanessa caved up in her mansion drinking milk straight from the bottle. That's me, watching her.) And because of that, I honestly don't know if other people watch the show the way I do. Do all of you revel in its very understated humor, too? Do you find yourselves playing compare-and-contrast with other genre-bending shows? Have all the literary and historical references inspired you to catch up on topics you never bothered with in school? (I really hope I'm not the only one on that last point. Please don't say I'm the dumb one!)

The season premiere's opening sequence epitomizes what I'm talking about. Even before Ferdinand showed up to rile Vanessa out of her depression and inform her that Alfred Tennyson had died (yes, I've since done a Google cram on Tennyson), the wheels in my head were spinning with references. The house was very Grey Gardens, while Vanessa was looking very Miss Havisham. When Ferds shows up with his stylized manscaping and his "I love what you've done with the place" tartness, it's like (apologies in advance) getting a hit of post-Big Carrie commiserating with Stanford Blatch on Sex and the City.

What really struck me about "The Day Tennyson Died" was Vanessa's sheer solitude and inertia. As a standalone piece, the opening sequence is a rather blunt look at a woman in the grip of true depression — something not often seen on any show of any genre. Those visuals are then given voice by Ferdinand, when he recounts his own "state of ennui beyond compare … I was quite divorced from the man I was or wanted to be." The more I listened to his soliloquy, the more I wanted to stitch his words on a macabre sampler: "Life, for all its anguish, is ours. It belongs to no other." What hit me most was his declaration that he is now "resplendently who I am."

To put it another way: My mind can't help but dissect and compartmentalize this show a bit. My intention is to think more big-picture this season — which, as the premiere indicates, will be where Penny Dreadful is headed as well, at least geographically. To the New Mexico Territory!

Ethan is being extradited across the Wild West — until a gang of bandits manages to extradite him from his extradition after a bloody and gruesome shootout. (Even by Penny standards.) Ethan doesn't even bother to duck once the firing starts; is he just fine with dying or does he know, deep down, that all of this must be for him? Before there's a chance to ponder, we're in Zanzibar (a.k.a. German East Africa), where Malcolm tells Vanessa by letter that he's buried Sembene. He almost ends up suffering a similar fate in a back-alley ambush, but is saved by the mysterious Kaetenay, who later hints at his role as Malcolm's guardian while seemingly convincing him to head to the States to help "our son," Ethan. Meanwhile, on the ship at the end of Frozen, the Creature decides this whole dying-of-starvation thing isn't for him, nor is it for the young and infirm, so he snaps a young boy's neck and hightails it back to London.

With the exception of the scene aboard the Frozen boat, which made me viscerally uncomfortable, this stretch of "The Day Tennyson Died" was a little boring, even if necessary. It's wonderful to see the show expand visually — that overhead shot of Ethan's train is a beaut — but each story line is essentially just one character trying to convince another character that they have to go somewhere or do something. The Frankenstein/Jekyll sequence also follows in that vein, with the former filling in the latter on what's happened over the past two seasons. Once Victor shows Jekyll his lab ("the house of pain in all its glory"), the proceedings grow distinctly more intriguing. I loved how Jekyll got a little cocky at the idea of showing Victor his own creations. Also, their agreement sets a new Lily story line in motion: Help her or kill her?

Let's be real, though: The highlight of the episode is Vanessa's introductory meeting with her new alienist Dr. Seward — and what a kickass way to bring back Patti LuPone! "I've known someone very like you. Joan Clayton was her name," Vanessa tells her. The two engage in a back-and-forth, cat-and-mouse shrink session that brings a delicious grin to Vanessa's face for the first time this hour. And then Seward tells her, "You're drawn to dark, complicated men, ensuring your own isolation." (Damn, more Sex and the City!) Speaking of chemistry and suitable suitors, Vanessa and Dr. Seward clicked way better than Vanessa and Dr. Sweet. Did anyone else feel meh about him?

Vanessa returns home and starts cleaning up the remnants of her downward spiral, washing dishes and scrubbing floors as she tells Malcolm by letter, "I have left my faith, or it has left me." This seemed like the episode's kicker of sorts: Where will Vanessa go and who will she become, spiritually speaking, if she no longer has her faith? But that's not all. The kicker is Dr. Seward's slimy assistant and backwards-crawling creepy types and four whispered words: "My name is Dracula."


So, let's discuss: Which story lines are you most into? Is this the right time to introduce Dracula? Will we actually see him in human form? Could a Vanessa-Sweet pairing ever match her levels of Ethan heat? Penny for your thoughts in the comments below! That's the only time I'll make that awful pun. I promise.