Penny Dreadful’s wonderful second season concluded in a way that left its future in doubt. It split apart its group of demimonde sundries to the far reaches of the Earth, each on their own quest that made it feel like they might never reunite. The challenge of Season 3 is to give them a reason to, but more than that, it’s to do what the show does best: combine the new with the familiar.
Penny Dreadful’s greatest triumph is how it has taken popular characters (or character traits, like lycanthropy) from Victorian literature and made them feel completely fresh, while still holding fast to the things that made them great. The plight of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature (Rory Kinnear) is not like that of Mary Shelly’s tale, and yet, it bears the hallmarks of the story while giving the whole thing a fairly fantastic makeover.
Now that Penny Dreadful has established itself in its own right, it’s time for it to reinvent its own conventions in the same way it has these classics. The Season 2 finale was a way to wipe the slate clean and break the characters out of what was starting to feel like the oppressive box of Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) London abode. In fact, the Season 3 premiere represents that very sentiment in the way that Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has entombed herself there, Grey Gardens-like, dragging herself through dank corridors and subsisting alone among spiders and flies. When Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) visits her, he jokingly suggests they at least elevate her living situation to “mammalian.”
Most of the series’ leads find themselves alone and in pain like Vanessa. The Creature is on a boat trapped in the ice with a swiftly dying crew, while Victor has become a full-blown addict. In Zanzibar, Malcolm is restless and lost, while Ethan Chandler’s (Josh Hartnett) extradition to the United States has already left a trail of bodies, as he’s essentially passed from the custody of one violent group to another.
But Vanessa remains the heart of the story, and the first two episodes spend a lot of time with her coming out of the darkness. Lyle recommends a “mental doctor,” played by Patti LuPone (who also played the Cut Wife in Season 2). Smartly, the show connects the two characters, which also helps Vanessa (and viewers) feel at ease through the familiarity. The doctor is brusque but sums Vanessa up easily, and it’s a reminder of the pointed way John Logan writes his scripts for the show. There is a lot of time given to philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, crafted and spoken in such a way that feels like fact. It’s just one example of how confident Penny Dreadful has always been about the story its telling, and the way it wants to tell it.
In addition to LuPone’s doctor, there are several other new characters of note. One, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif) appears as an old friend of Victor’s. He’s Indian, which is notable for a number of the reasons, and the series doesn’t gloss over it (after the loss of Sembene last year I was hoping there would be more diversity among the cast this year). He also works at Bedlam among “cannibals, infanticides, and the criminally insane” where he is able to perform experiments. Whereas Victor is primarily focused on providing life after death, Jekyll wants to give new life to those overcome by their own darkness, which is a recurring theme in the series. He talks with Victor about the dual natures in all of us, the angel and devil, light and dark, and the constant battle that takes places between them. He frames it as driving our lives, but it’s also the foundation for Penny Dreadful’s tales from the demimonde.
Continuing its mix of the new with the old, the first uniting demonic force of the series were vampires, and it feels fitting that in Season 3 the show returns to their presence as the defining darkness, including that of Dracula himself. They creep, slowly, from the shadows of London and pursue Vanessa in sly ways — for now, building surely to another of Penny Dreadful’s typical final cacophonies.
Vanessa has also found a modicum of happiness at the start of the season with a kind zoologist, Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo), which should make the Penny Dreadful faithful immediately concerned. Is he evil incarnate, or soon to be the victim of it? Vanessa has gone through so much, and it’s lovely when she is allowed moments to feel normal, and to give herself over to true romantic feelings. It’s what made her time with Ethan so heartbreaking, and what made their parting so intensely unbearable. Vanessa doesn’t give her heart away lightly, and when it’s broken, we all feel it, which shows the power of the series’ character drama.
The second episode of the new season sees the threads starting to come back together. Malcolm heads to America with an Apache tribesman called Kaetenay (Wes Studi) from Ethan’s past, while Dorian (Reeve Carney) and Lily (Billie Piper) continue to put the pimps and johns of London on notice when it comes to their violent vigilantism. The pieces are all in play — there are many to keep track of, and it can at times feel increasingly unwieldy. But Penny Dreadful creates a splendor that’s easy to get lost in, as it drowns itself in the period, in opulence and squalor, in the darkness and the light, and once again seems primed to be one of the year’s most spellbinding tales. It doesn’t hinge on plot points or action, though there are plenty. It’s about these broken and shunned characters who find strength in their alliances, and fight the darkness while we earnestly join them.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Penny Dreadful Season 3 premieres Sunday, May 1st on Showtime.