We gave it a B+
A serial about a league of extraordinarily screwed-up demon hunters culled from ye olde English fiction, Penny Dreadful is your typical monster mash of vampires, werewolves, witches, and mad scientists, but with more cable kink and heady wink. It’s the True Blood of intertextual horror studies. All the characters are walking, talking literary references, yet the scenarios speak to the nostalgia-swamped Franken-Pop of today. In the season 2 premiere, Frankenstein’s Creature, a.k.a. Caliban (Rory Kinnear), finds a job at a wax museum, merrily laboring for a showman whose latest big idea is creating sensationalistic tableaux of famous unsolved murders. To the Creature, it feels like home; to us, the collision of gothic fantasy, Victorian horror, and true-crime pulp feels like what television would become. Caliban sums up his awed reaction to this waxy wonderland in a word: “familiar.”
The sly second season of Penny Dreadful finds its drama in characters trying to shake shameful pasts that won’t stop haunting them, and finds rich menace in cunning folk and shape-shifting spirits who make thralls and puppets out of our heroes, robbing them of authenticity and self-determination. I’m not being fancy: Episode 2 has actual puppet making. Timely themes abound. The men of Penny Dreadful struggle with their historical hegemony and general hideousness, as so many TV men do these days. Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), the great hunter/explorer, aspires to atone for years of racist adventuring and gross entitlement, and in better ways than last season’s reckless redemption quest. Action hero Ethan (Josh Hartnett) tries to run away from the horror, the horror of apocalyptic epiphany—I’m a bloodthirsty werewolf!—before resolving to confront the violent nature that subverts his heroic archetype. There’s an intriguing subplot for Doctor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose efforts to create a mate for Caliban take a self-serving turn, and a whopper of a tale given to Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), the only character to boldly reach for something new.
But it’s the women of Penny Dreadful who drive the show. The locus continues to be antiheroine Vanessa (Eva Green), a not-so-innocent Christian woman demonized in manifold ways, including, perhaps, by her own belief system. This year’s Big Bad, the Satan-worshipping spiritualist Evelyn (Helen McCrory), comes on like hellfire and gives Penny Dreadful the strong antagonist it lacked last year. Evelyn’s some provocative female representation. She’s brutal to the sisterhood of feral witches that serves her, she delights in controlling powerful men, she jealously covets the perverse attentions Lucifer lavishes on Vanessa. A near-operatic sequence depicting spiritual warfare between Evelyn and Vanessa—both on their knees, begging for power from their rival (male) gods, a duet of dueling prayers—suggests they’re owned by the same damn coin, just on opposite sides of it. Overthink? Maybe. But Penny Dreadful cuts above the familiar creep-show clutter by being hyper-pop Grand Guignol with zeitgeist on the brain. And puppets! B+