I hate to say it, but after last week’s adrenaline-pumping action, this penultimate installment of Penny Dreadful’s third season is merely interesting rather than enthralling. In other words, it’s a relative low point.
We open in a graveyard, where Lily consoles a grieving mother by cryptically promising, “We will rise,” and that her daughter “rests in good company.” Before walking away, Lily places a bouquet of flowers at a tombstone that reads, “Sarah Croft, 1890-1891. Beloved daughter.” ZOMG! This scene exemplifies everything I love about the way Penny Dreadful allows its narrative twists to unfold: It drops clues that don’t initially make sense (Why is Lily in a graveyard? Who’s the “good company” she’s talking about?), then delivers a plot wallop with a sly reveal. (Here’s a visual of Brona’s dead daughter’s tombstone … she was a bloody mum!) It lends a tantalizing tension to the start of the episode. That feeling is ramped up in the subsequent scene, when Renfield slithers along the floor of the “House of the Night Creatures” to lick Vanessa’s neck (damn, Dracula’s disciples love licking her) only to be confronted by Sweet, who lifts him by the throat, then unceremoniously drops him back to the floor.
Unfortunately, all that tension dissipates soon after, never to return. Perhaps that’s because I kept waiting for more on these two developments. I wanted to find out something about Brona’s baby. (The series premiere was set on September 22, 1891, so I’m very curious to learn more about the chronology.) And I wanted Sweet to finally kill off Renfield, who’s clearly crossed the line with his Vanessa obsession. After all, that other neck-licking henchman who confronted Vanessa in the hall of mirrors got eaten alive for his indiscretion, and it’s not like he really needs Renfield to spy on Vanessa now that they’re are making sweet Sweet love. Renfield deserved a bigger punishment than a stern look, is all I’m saying, and not getting that was a letdown. (Especially since Renfield is the worst.) The one silver lining to keeping Renfield alive? He leads the episode to its lone (and all-too-brief) scene with Seward, for whom I am officially head over heels. Yes, that’s at least 90 percent due to the fact that she is portrayed by the peerless Patti LuPone.
(Did you notice that Seward tells Renfield how she suspects Vanessa suffers from a split personality that “manifests three people”? Renfield asks her to explain, but his question goes unanswered. Is this possibly a reference to the Holy Trinity? If not, who else could those three people be?)
Vanessa heads home after her night at the museum to find Clare/the Creature waiting for her. “I’m in need of a friend,” he says in that plain, yet heartbreaking, delivery of his. In their subsequent heart-to-heart, Vanessa suggests that Clare attempt a reunion with his family despite his son’s freak-out, comparing it to her own decision to give Sweet a chance for romance. “And if we’re rejected?” Clare asks. “Can we be more lonely than we are now?” Vanessa replies.
Clare follows Vanessa’s advice and winds up getting the blissfully happy reunion he’s been craving with his wife and son. (Shut up, I wasn’t crying! YOU were crying!) It’s funny to me how Clare’s story line stands in such stark contrast to the rest of this season’s goings-on. Everything about him feels the purest, the most uncomplicated: his heart, his intentions, and his narrative arc. I’m inclined to say his reunion with his family was almost too simple. At one point, his wife even says to their son, “And we’re all going to be very, very happy,” which is either a bit of lazy writing from John Logan (kind of like Ethan’s “I’m done trying to be good!” declaration) or a foreboding jinx … or maybe that simpleness is the point? Maybe his story line is meant to serve as relief from the show’s do-or-die proceedings? (Here’s an aside from left field: I once watched Little Miss Sunshine with the commentary on, in which screenwriter Michael Arndt justified the chirpy demeanor of the diner waitress in the “à la mode” scene by explaining that there was no reason everybody in the movie had to be miserable. That stuck with me, and I think it applies here.)
Speaking of uncomplicated intentions and not being miserable, Ethan’s feeling quite liberated now that his dad’s been whacked (thanks again, Malcolm!), and he’s U.K.-bound with Malcolm and Kaetenay. “My people are in London now,” Ethan tells Kaetenay. “My friends. That is my tribe.” Some of us might argue that Ethan’s return took too long, but better late than never. Kaetenay experiences a vision of Vanessa, in which he delivers an only–on–Penny Dreadful line, “You are a great fertile bitch of evil … You are the woman of all our dreams and all our night terrors.” After the vision, Kaetenay tells Ethan, “I can see why you love her, but she is damned,” prompting Ethan to declare, “Not while I walk this earth.”
Show of hands: Who’s still pining for and/or expecting Vanessa and Ethan to get back together? I’ve professed that I’m a Sweet hater, but I don’t feel like the show has performed enough maintenance on the EthVan (Vanessan?) vibe since separating them. Their onetime magnetism has become something I’ve largely forgotten. Perhaps that’s why “Ebb Tide” later features a scene between Ethan and Malcolm reminiscing about old times, with Ethan laughing about how Vanessa originally hired him to do “night work, as Miss Ives put it.” It feels like a bit of a cheat, to suddenly bring up a first-season callback to remind us of their rapport. In the same vein, that scene also makes it obvious that Malcolm has been woefully underused this season.
Luckily, the episode “rests in good company” with Lily. Her monologue to her female charges atop the banquet table (a scene that opens with a priceless look of bored disdain from Dorian) offers up just the type of melodrama-teetering-on-camp on which Dreadful thrives. “Prove yourselves to me!” she bellows, finally instructing her recruits to go on their first misandric rampage while crawling across the tabletop like she’s in a Madonna video. (She also echoes her earlier “Rise up!” remark.) Later, a pile of severed men’s hands decorate that same table, and Dorian walks out in a tiff. Is he going to call on Victor for that favor he’s owed? Yes, he is! The surprise shot of Victor popping out of a carriage to kidnap Lily legit made me yelp, and I absolutely loved the scene in which she faced off against Dorian, Victor, and Jekyll in the laboratory. Nobody calls a dude a “fucking cunt” like Lily does.
And that leaves Vanessa, whose story line didn’t do much for me, surprisingly. For several episodes, we’ve been wondering how Vanessa would ultimately discover Sweet’s real identity as Dracula. The way it finally arrived — with Catriona telling her “he’s said to dwell in the House of the Night Creatures,” and whaddaya know, that’s the name of the very place where Vanessa and Sweet just boned! — felt too on the nose for my tastes. Then she takes a gun and she goes to see him, only to seemingly fall for a single line in his spiel: “You have tried for so long to be who everyone wants you to be, what you thought you want to be, what your church and your family and your doctors said you must be. Why not be who you are instead?” Yes, I get that some of these ideas were put into play during her conversation with Clare, but I just don’t buy that our heroine — she who has endured such endless pain and persecution — would turn on a dime just because she’s dying for some heavy petting. Do you? And if Vanessa breaks bad, what will happen during the two-part season finale? Leave your ideas in the comments, where they’re sure to rest in good company.