Penny Dreadful Recap: Sweet Devotion

Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler. Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME
Penny Dreadful
Episode Title
This World Is Our Hell
Editor’s Rating

Oh, okay! I get it now. I get Penny Dreadful.

The theme of this show is liberation. That's the duh-doy message telegraphed during this week's "previously on" prologue. After Hecate told Ethan, "I want to liberate your truest self. The beast that prowls around your heart," it all came together for me, images from past episodes cascading through my memory: Lily and Dorian liberated Justine from her sexual master/pimp. The Creature (in his pre-Creature form) tried to liberate Vanessa from the clinic. Dr. Seward is similarly trying to liberate Vanessa from her inner demons. Victor wants to create a "choir of angels," and what is an angel if not a mortal liberated from the bodily form?

Unless the theme of Penny Dreadful is devotion. What is faith if not a refusal to liberate yourself from the religious entity that informs your every action and utterance? "I want to rule the darkness at your side," Hecate tells Ethan in that same clip. What does "liberation" even mean if "liberation" is merely doing the Devil's bidding?

Welcome to my weekly mind-stew of Penny Dreadful thoughts. Let's try to figure out what it all means.

We open with a sweeping overhead shot of horses galloping through the desert. (Showrunner John Logan loves sweeping overhead shots through the desert this season, and can you blame him? They're gorgeously filmed, as well as a simple cue toward visual liberation.) Ethan tells Hecate that his father, the heretofore unseen figure standing between Ethan and his truly liberated self, "wants me to answer for what I've done." Although Ethan clearly resents his father for that burden, he also feels that "the only decent thing about me is the shame I feel."

"Spoken like a true servant of God," Hecate counters. "This God that would make you a glorious monster and make you hate yourself for being so monstrous." (Liberation versus devotion!) "There is only one way to free yourself of guilt," she tells him. "Embrace your sins."

We cut to a new scene. It feels like one of those cuts that is itself meant to be foreshadowing, and so we see … Victor. Embracing his past sins, perhaps? He's still working to make things right. Not with his internal monster, but his external one: Lily. At the same time, Victor is straight-up trolling Jekyll ("Oh. There's that rage. You really ought to keep that in check, Doctor") as they work side by side in the latter's lab to perfect their de facto reincarnation process. "You will reenter this world an innocent lamb," Victor tells their once-cray-cray subject. "After all, it is our memories which make us monsters, is it not?" (Side note: YIPES! EYE!)

What comes next is a back-and-forth between Ethan and Hecate and Malcolm and Kaetenay that frankly didn't do it for me. It's a blunt opinion, but I'm tired of Ethan saying "my father" this and "my father" that all the time. My peeve has nothing to do with Josh Hartnett's delivery or John Logan's writing — okay, maybe it has a little to do with John Logan's writing. I've had my lifetime fill of watching male characters grapple with the sins of their fathers. (I've seen every Tom Cruise movie; I've even seen In the Name of the Father! I get it!) Beyond that, crosscutting between these twosomes isn't clever; it's lazy. It's just a way to tell the same continuous story with a built-in hack that allows you change up the visuals. It's too easy, especially compared to the aforementioned Hecate-to-Victor edit. And I hate backstory that's delivered solely through monologue. (For more of these a-wonder-mazing-ful insights on inefficient storytelling, please check out my Sleepy Hollow recaps, as that show consists of little but monologues that serve as backstory filler.)

The joke's on me, though: After Ethan agrees with Hecate to "unleash demons" and Kaetenay tells Malcolm he'll "take care of anyone in our way," the pat interplay culminates in a tense-as-hell sequence at the Rusk & Co. campfire that's got … well, everything! Snakes! Horses! Gunfire! Slit throats! Mass murder! Spells! (Hilariously, the sequence opens with a gratuitous shot of Rusk's assistant. Who else knew he was a goner from that moment on?) Any complacency I felt about "This World Is Our Hell" was smashed to bits in this moment — and then obliterated all over again when Victor and Jekyll's subject suddenly awoke after four comatose hours in his pre-"YIPES! EYE!" state.

And just as quickly, the joke's not on me. That smashed-up complacency was quickly glued back together by yet another ride on the Ethan-Kaetenay scene-cutting roller coaster. (It all goes down after Hecate and Ethan retreat to the cave marked with hieroglyphics, when they're down a horse and look like the next goners.) I don't mean to beat Ethan's dead horse (pun SO intended), but I'd rather one image of Victor hoisting up Lily's submerged dress than another campfire retelling from the Wild West or another drawn-out, we're-getting-thirsty sequence. "Darkness will soon be upon us, Malcolm," Kaetenay says. "If we lose Ethan to evil, the night will never end." Please, let it end!

It does end, but not before Ethan declares, "I will send my father to hell and laugh while I do it. I'm done trying to be good!" Eye-roll. And then he shtups Hecate doggy-style. Double eye-roll. "I'm done trying to be good" is something Charlotte would say on Sex and the City.

Thankfully, the episode gets back on track after Ethan finally encounters Malcolm in the desert and says, in a laugh-out-loud guffaw moment, "What? The fuck? Are you doing here?" The good stuff continues at Ethan's father's house. First of all, let's give a huge round of applause to Penny Dreadful for casting Brian Cox in the role of Ethan's father. Like, WOW. (I hope my liberated use of all caps conveys just how impressed I was by the final third of this episode and the casting of Cox.) (P.S. My money was on Stacy Keach for the role, which is such an on-the-nose guess that I believe I still deserve a payout.)

Here's where I got back into my Penny Dreadful mind-stew, the thematic push-pull that sustains my love for this show. How could I not, when Ethan's father spouted his Biblical rhetoric at Ethan and Malcolm — "For this my son was lost, and now is found" and "Your brother Paul was like the Good Shepherd" — then unleashed a fountain of torture-porn grandiloquence as he recounted the hell-on-Earth scenario he and his family endured during the Apache slaughter: "[Your sister] suffered as the saints were made to suffer, and then he cut out her eyes so that she would wander blind and mute in this place of death. That's what he said, your Apache. You brought the devil to my door, son, and you gave him the key. You will repent or I will send you to hell myself."

Ethan's response? "I'm done repenting, and I belong in hell." In other words, he's liberated himself from this Earth … to a place where he'd be devoted to Satan. Gah! Cut to black.

So again, Dread-heads, I ask you: What does it all mean?