While watching Penny Dreadful, I sometimes wonder how I’d write about the show if I were back in college working on one of my lit-crit papers. (English-major dorks, unite!) My theories never stretch as far as I’d like them to, mostly because when I do this for funsies in my adult-ish life, I don’t actually crack open any of the great works of literature referenced in the series. (Maybe I should’ve done so more often the first time around — academic slackers, unite?) But if I had to draft up a paper on “Predators Far and Near,” I have a hunch I’d earn a solid B-plus on this solid A-minus episode.
Last week’s season premiere slightly disappointed me because, with so much catch-up needed for so many disparate story lines, the episode didn’t feel like it belonged to any one character. The one character I’m talking about, of course, is Vanessa — her quests, her dramas, her conundrums are what always draw me in. So I’m super-pleased that, after watching this episode, Vanessa’s story stuck close to my heart. Unfortunately for Vanessa, her heart tends to fling itself at what we might today call “emotionally unavailable” men, who, let’s face it, are pretty much as demonic as Dracula himself.
GAH! DR. SWEET IS DRACULA! How did I not see this coming?! Probably because Sweet’s demeanor is so saccharine that, like Vanessa, he strikes me as an earnest guy with a side of geekiness and just a trace of self-involved unctuousness. (The character detail that he repeatedly forgets Vanessa’s name is a brilliant one — so brilliant, in fact, that I’m still wondering if there’s even more meaning behind it than I already suspect.) What I’m fixated on now is just how much farther Vanessa might fall for him, if and when she discovers his true identity.
“Without my God I feel utterly alone,” Vanessa tells Dr. Seward at the end of her latest head-shrinking session. “I don’t even know who I am meant to be.” This is worrisome. After all, during Sweet’s reveal as Dracula at the end of the episode, he tells Renfield, “You will be flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood.” Is Dracula being established as a new deity for Vanessa to worship? Sweet’s instinct to play god is likewise highlighted when he gives instructions to the taxidermist at his zoo-arium (or whatever it’s called) to instill more “life” in their specimens’ eyes.
Simultaneously, Dr. Seward is actively, if inadvertently, urging Vanessa to further her connection to Dr. Sweet. After two consecutive sessions, she tells her to go do something “that you believe might make you happy, doesn’t matter what it is.” Yikes, Seward! Vanessa just confessed that she doesn’t want to remember her “shame or sin or foolishness.” Why push her to go out and do something foolish? It seems like Vanessa is being set up (by the show, if not also by the show’s other characters) to worship evil, to find her faith in the dark side, and to basically capitulate to Dracula. Her admission by letter to Malcolm at the episode’s end certainly suggests so, as she notes how bored she is by her life these days with the family flung apart. Resist the temptations afforded by sloth, sweet Vanessa!
Related question: Why are Dracula’s goons (the sickly looking boy and the even-sicklier-looking violin player) still tailing Vanessa when she’s now entwined in Dr. Sweet’s social life and a regular part of Renfield’s life with her daily therapy appointments? Just wondering.
Speaking of reincarnation and selling your soul to the devil … welcome back, Lily and Dorian! I’m honestly not sure what was more thrilling this week, Dracula’s reveal or Lily and Dorian’s Pulp Fiction–like opening sequence (complete with gimp!), but their story line likewise had me buzzing from start to finish. I’m not quite sure where Vanessa and Dr. Sweet/Dracula will wind up, I love the triangulated showdown that’s being established between Lily (the reanimated being with a thirst for killing men), Dr. Jekyll (the scientist who thinks he can tame her instincts) and Frankenstein (Lily’s creator, who seems to dream about being with her and destroying her in equal measure). And I loved the exchange between Lily and Victor that takes place when she discovers him snooping outside her window, especially what she says after he insists he must “save” her:
I need no man to save me … I created you more than you created me … It’s first love, Victor. You will recover … You will not like what I am becoming.
Again, the themes being bandied about in this episode are really intriguing. How much do we owe to our Creator? Is that really all faith is: a sense of obligation to the entity that created us? How are romantic love and spiritual faith one and the same? Or more precariously, what happens when we conflate and then try to extricate the two? In his own way, Victor is going through a crisis that’s similar to Vanessa’s. He has lost his faith because he’s been abandoned by his “Creator” — in the sense that Lily created him, as she suggests.
Though I felt sorry for Victor during his scene with Lily, it was heartening to see his spirits get a little lift in the presence of Dr. Jekyll. (Just as it was heartening, in a twisted way, when Vanessa went on her date with Dr. Sweet.) The scenes at Jekyll’s asylum were the episode’s most fun, which I can distill down to two terrific moments:
- I never knew that the word “bedlam” came from a place called Bedlam!
- I loved Jekyll’s tart delivery on the word “doctor” while correcting his orderlies on how he should be addressed. What a brilliantly subtle way to convey the inherent racism that Jekyll surely encounters.
Phew! That’s a lot to digest, and it still leaves so many juicy moments I haven’t even mentioned. (A few quick hits: Dr. Seward getting so freaked by Vanessa’s life story that she goes and lights herself a cigarette; Dorian and Lily’s waltz; that gimp scene.) To be honest, all of my pearl-clutching left me a little underwhelmed by the remaining action. It’s tempting to just yada-yada over Ethan’s brief werewolf transformation, and I barely even recall what was said between Malcolm and Kaetenay — although the (literal) meeting of the minds between Ethan and Kaetenay was pretty cool.
As I said after the season premiere, discussing Penny Dreadful in public forums is still new for me, as a heretofore closet binge-watcher. Please discuss below! Favorite story lines this week? Predictions for next? Any daring philosophers care to take a crack at those big questions about faith?