When Showtime’s Penny Dreadful arrived last year, it seemed — at first — like another tired rehashing of Victorian horror lit. How many times can vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolves be adapted at this point? But very quickly, Penny Dreadful (created by John Logan) set itself apart by not only creating a kind of super-goth team-up (sort of like a Victorian Avengers), but by exploring these familiar stories in completely new ways.
In the first season, the group’s patriarch, the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) essentially opened up his home as a halfway house for wayward supernaturals. In it he housed his adopted daughter of sorts, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the show’s heroine, who struggles against demonic possession, as well as Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American coming to terms with his werewolvism. Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) also sought emotional shelter there, especially from his creation, The Creature (Rory Kinnear). The group was also looked after and aided by Sir Malcolm’s mysterious, loyal assistant Sembene (Danny Sapani). It’s all just one big, vampire-fighting, largely-unhappy-with-their-lives family.
One of the most extraordinary things about Penny Dreadful is how wonderfully ordinary its situations for its group of heroes can be. But those situations are twisted and augmented by the inherent strangeness of their participants. In the new season, Sir Malcolm attempts to get Vanessa’s mind off of her fact that Satan is pursuing her by getting her volunteering. Why not? The Creature, who has renamed himself John Clare, goes looking for a job. A simply quest, except it’s at a waxworks museum that recreates gruesome crimes. And, of course, John Clare also happens to be the reanimated dead. Elsewhere, Victor is lonely, so he gets a girlfriend … by creating her from the dead.
Penny Dreadful is wholly engrossing and often wholly gross, especially since the new season has introduced witches, who love to take baths of blood, and dissect babies in rooms full of dolls who look on in terror. Though witches might seem like another tired narrative well to turn to, Penny Dreadful should never be underestimated in how it subverts familiar characters and their abilities.
In this case, the witches are led by Madam Kali, a.k.a. Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), who only had a bit part in the first season. Like the vampires of Season One, the witches are not glamourous when exerting their powers; they’re embryonic, mutant-like creatures who bare marks of the Devil all over their bodies, as they skitter around killing with exceptional efficiency.
Having Kali as the face of evil helps put a point on this season’s antagonist, since Season One’s spiritual villains were largely unseen (the vampire leader) or never seen (Lucifer and his legion of demons who possessed Vanessa). But Penny Dreadful‘s more esoteric spiritual considerations haven’t been lost — one of the first main clues for the hero team to figure out is the Verbis Diablo, the ancient language of the Devil. But there are also quiet, theological conversations about life, death, sin, the afterlife, and the nature of God, with Victor and his Creature acting as the skeptics and secular humanist opponents to Vanessa and the other’s knowledge of the realities of the spiritual realm.
In this way, Penny Dreadful tempers its extreme violence and gore with moments of great emotion and quiet dialogue, which it needs more than ever given how gruesome the new season seems set to be. That balance feels right, but there are other aspects that don’t fit quite as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) is still an outsider to the group, and his stories of sexual conquest are not particularly captivating (especially because he still doesn’t have much of a personality, and has never seemed very seductive). And, even as affecting as Vanessa’s plight can be, it can also feel overdone, with the imagery and iconography feeling too similar to long spells we spent with them in the first season. (Weak Vanessa is never as great as strong Vanessa, which we’ll hopefully see more of as her war with Kali continues).
Still, the introduction of Kali as Vanessa’s new rival helps establish a central story for all of the characters to revolve around, much like Malcolm’s quest to save Mina did in Season One. But it also allows each character to have time with their own, often far more compelling plots (like the rebirth of Brona, The Creature’s search for acceptance, and Ethan running from his past just as a new inspector begins closing in on him as the perpetrator of several local massacres).
Fans of Penny Dreadful should not find anything disappointing about this new season, which amps up everything from its first, in terms of violence, eroticism (and more meetings of the two), spells and incantations, blood, gore, and horror. The scariest thing, though, may be that it gives us just what we want. As Ethan tells Vanessa, “we can never escape ourselves.”
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Penny Dreadful returns to Showtime for its second season on Sunday, May 3rd at 10 p.m.