I watch Penny Dreadful for two things: the what and the why. The what is the plot, the entertainment value of the story that unfolds onscreen. The why (a.k.a. What It All Means) represents the show’s larger message. And tonight’s episode was my favorite of the season because it was so kickass in both its what and its why.
Let’s first tackle the juicy, action-packed what. (Dare I say it was Tarantino-esque?) “No Beast So Fierce” begins where the last episode left off, with Ethan staring down the barrel of his father’s gun. His dad warns him, “You will repent or I will send you to hell myself.” Geez, dad! Enough with the guilt trip over slaughtering our family members! Or, as Ethan puts it, “I’m done repenting and I belong in hell.” Just when it seems there’s no way out of this standoff, Rusk barges in to arrest Ethan. The moment even compelled me to jot down, “Kinda like the end of True Romance.” It isn’t just a face-off. It’s a multidimensional WTF-off that, as much of a toe-curling treat as it is, will only bested as the episode unfolds.
These successive power plays — Ethan vs. his dad, Rusk trumping them both — set the stage for the rest of “No Beast So Fierce,” which plays out as a smorgasbord of brinkmanship and score-settling. Besides the gunfight at the Not-Okay Corral, there’s also Dorian and Lily’s newly launched Knife Skills for Prostitutes class, wherein they educate Justine on the fine art of filleting a john’s neck, using Dorian as a dummy. “You must be quick and you must be vicious,” Lily counsels her new charge and several other sex workers, but apparently nobody has to tell that to Justine. In addition to joining Lily’s quest for mastery over the male gender, this barely teenage girl has quickly mastered that patented psycho-kiddie look you see on so many creepy, possessed children in the movies. (You know, that chin-down-eyes-up thing with the slyly wicked grin and the unnerving, cray-cray stare.) Justine proves to be a fast study as well as a teacher’s pet, practicing her knife work on Dorian and asking Lily, “Would you like to see him drown in his own blood?” After a deliciously drawn-out beat — one that, as with Ethan and Co., triangulates the tension in the room and turns everyone’s allegiances cattywampus — Lily purrs, “Well then, who would the others practice on?”
Victor inserts himself into this layer cake o’ drama when he shows up at Dorian and Lily’s place, seemingly ready to deliver a dose of his and Jekyll’s soothe-the-savage-beast serum into Lily’s eyeball. (He’s the beneficiary of a hilarious cut in this scene, appearing right after the line, “There is only one defense against isolation. Be with those you love.”) He winds up eyeball-deep in bloodthirsty she-killers, with Justine practically begging for the opportunity to go scissorhands on his neck. And so, the alignments realign once more: Although Dorian and Lily are in agreement that Victor’s life should be spared, Dorian’s also ready to step to Lily as the last man standing in her war against the patriarchy. “Justine does not know her place,” Dorian tells Lily, who replies, “She says the same of you.” “My place is by your side,” Dorian says. “We are equals, partners, immortals.” I get the feeling that Justine will blow up in the back end of this season. After all of these power shifts portended in “No Beast So Fierce,” she’s ready to sucker-punch us all. Perhaps she’ll leap-frog the misandrist chain of command over not just Dorian, but Lily as well.
Even the episode’s cordial alliances are presented with a frisson of excitement. I loved Vanessa’s introduction to Catriona Hartagen — especially since their meet-cute was orchestrated by our dear Mr. Lyle, who tellingly informs Vanessa, “I think the two of you would make quite the formidable match.” Our first glimpse of Catriona comes at a fencing competition, her gender concealed beneath her mask. It’s a thematically on-point introduction, and their ensuing chitchat overflows with tart observations about how this womanhood shapes their outlook on this Gothic, monster-ridden milieu.
“I’m being hunted by him,” Vanessa tells Catriona about Dracula. “He doesn’t want my death; he wants my submission. You seem to be a woman who would understand why submission to another would be intolerable.” Vanessa later finds friendship and solace in another unlikely ally: the now-totally-sociable Dr. Seward, who has Vanessa over for drinks and some girl talk in her office. “Wouldn’t you rather be having drinks with that handsome doctor?” Seward practically giggles, and for a moment I thought I was watching Sex and the City. (Why does it always come back to this for me?) It’s a disingenuous beat, and it doesn’t help that Vanessa goes on to take Seward’s advice and screws Dr. Sweet right on the floor of his taxiderium (or whatever it’s called).
Here’s my beef with Dr. Sweet: I don’t dislike him because he’s the alter ego of Dracula; I dislike him because I just plain old dislike him as a person. I just don’t find him to be particularly enjoyable company. He’s way too into his studies to make a good suitor and he’s got that nasally voice. He’s a little unctuous, no?
Anyway, congrats to him for getting laid. Let’s move on. Or rather, let’s move back to Ye Olde Wild West, where things are about to get locked and loaded. Here’s where the episode really feels like a Reservoir Dogs/True Romance/Django Unchained mashup, a nonstop litany of grievances aired through bon mots and bullets. Ethan recites an evil-twin version of the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be spited on Earth as it is in Hell.” Hecate gets into the act with an insanely funny aside. (Ethan: “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory …” Hecate: “For a few hours longer.”) Ethan’s dad kills the sheriff who’s been chasing him at the dinner table — and everyone stays in their seats and keeps eating! (The look on Ethan’s face as he cuts through his steak is priiiiceless.) Hecate’s killed, but somehow Kaetenay’s still alive! (There was a particular shot, with Ethan flanked by Malcolm and Kaetenay in the church doorway, that was so visually stunning it made my heart leap.) And then to top it all off, Malcolm ends up silently pulling the trigger on Ethan’s dad — a move that saves Ethan’s morality and, in all the best ways, surprised the hell out of me.
And now, let’s discuss the why. Here’s the Grand Unifying Theory of Penny Dreadful that I’m working out in my head: This season is an attempt to almost re-litigate the Bible. (Ethan’s reinterpretation of the Our Father is one of several moments when scripture is quoted verbatim, or nearly so.) The show is exploring how the Good Book can be reapplied when a follower is no longer a disciple of the Big Guy Upstairs. That’s my why, but I’m still working on the how — as in, how does it relate to other parts of the season? Any thoughts?
Correction: A previous version of this recap mistakenly identified Victor as “Henry.”