Last week’s recap was titled “Blood Lust,” but I should’ve reserved that one for this week. We just witnessed an hour of hemoglobic gore, people. Therefore, welcome to a recap that should be commonly referred to as “Breakin’ (Veins) 2: Electric Boogablood!”
We start this week’s episode with crimson streaks running down Kaetenay’s face as he appears to Ethan in another vision. This communion of souls wasn’t spiritually summoned by Kaetenay like last week’s, though. It’s just a dream Ethan has before jolting awake in the stable he’s been taken to by Hecate. After he went all werewolf at that Wild West watering hole, she helped him kill everyone in sight. Phew! This story line deluge is cut to the quick by deliciously shorthand dialogue:
Hecate: A stable of some sort. You’re safe.
Ethan: The others?
Hecate: Not so safe.
Meanwhile, Vanessa and Dr. Seward are likewise battling wits at her latest shrink appointment:
Vanessa: You’re exactly like [Joan Clayton] without the kindness.
Seward: And the abortions.
Here’s what I’m getting at: This episode of Penny Dreadful gets off to a great start. It’s brisk, knowing, and full of fun references to the show’s backstory. When Vanessa practically seethes as she paces Seward’s office, it feels like an encore to the old-school, black-eyed, deep-throated character who hasn’t really emerged this season. (I’ve been loving this year’s changed, warming-up-to-the-world Vanessa, though.) And in addition to buckets and buckets of blood, the duality of identity seems to be the recurring theme “Good and Evil Braided Be,” just as the title suggests. A couple scenes later, Jekyll foreshadows his own Jekyll-and-Hyde nature while talking to Victor:
Jekyll: Which is the real man, the beast or the angel?
Victor: We are both.
Jekyll: Are we? […] In the end, we must be that thing the world demands of us. We must take the lust and the avarice and the ambition and bury them.
Victor: We need not live on the fulcrum. We can be angel or beast fully […] We’ll create a choir of angels. One in particular.
Winky-wink cut to Lily, full of lusty ambition as she tells her recently rescued child prostitute, “All men are utter slaves to their desires.” She then declares that she seeks not “equality” among men, but “mastery.”
On this beat, I’ll fast-forward to the elements of the episode that lost me. The holy-moly, bloodstained ménage à trois between Lily, Dorian, and Justine was far too campy for my tastes. (Or at least, it was so campy that it took me out of the episode, struck me as more eye-roll-y than amusing, and just led to disinterest.) I get it: Dorian informs Justine that “in the dark ages […] you were not a legionnaire unless painted with blood,” and Lily tells Justine over tea that power is gained “by the throat slit in the dead of night.” A literal red wedding is one thing, but when a naked Dorian and Lily start uttering one-word sentences like, “Revolution,” “Freedom,” and “Liberty” in the style of a Greek chorus … well, is it cuckoo that Showgirls flashed through my head? That’s the level of flesh-baring melodrama we’ve reached.
Though a compelling figure, we don’t really know Justine just yet. Investing in her salvation and transformation feels like something we’re being made to do prematurely. Meanwhile, I’ve got the opposite problem with Malcolm. I want to see more of him, and I want to see him do more than sit alongside Kaetenay in a bar, on a boat, or on a train. (I will not make a Dr. Seuss reference.) The way he stands up to Kaetenay’s racist tormentors was one of my favorite standalone moments of the episode. More of that, please!
The greater issue? Too many story lines still exist. The season premiere seemed to hint that the family’s diaspora would be resolved sooner rather than later. We’re now one-third of the way through this season and a bulk of plot remains stuck in one character (or duo) tracking down another character (or duo) — Malcolm and Kaetenay (and also Bartholomew) trailing Ethan and Hecate; Sweet/Dracula and his minions (and also Renfield) skulking around Vanessa; Victor and Jekyll aiming to capture Lily; the Creature and his familial pursuits; and so on.
To be sure, I thoroughly enjoy ruminating on all these parallels despite their repetitiveness. When Kaetenay tells Malcolm about their “son,” Ethan, he basically parrots Victor’s plan for Lily from earlier in the season: “We save him if we can. If we cannot, we kill the evil he has become.” Hecate likewise mimics what Lily and Dorian say to Justine when she tells Ethan, “I want to liberate your truest self […] And when you are truly yourself, and we are painted with blood, I want to rule the darkness by your side.” Vanessa demands to know who the minion’s “master” is, while Lily seeks mastery over all of mankind. (And all of this in an episode with a hall of mirrors, too. Ha!)
As always with Penny Dreadful — and this is one of the main things I love about the show, as I do about all great shows that feel like literature — I’m not yet sure what insights or conclusions to draw from these developments. The show is certainly trying to tell us something, but what? My best stab (pun intended, as this is the stabbiest show on television) comes from Dracula: “When the time is right … when she begs for me, when she is helpless.”
For now, I’m helpless! Please join me in puzzling and piecing all of this out in the comments below.