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'Penny Dreadful' premiere recap: 'The Day Tennyson Died'

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Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Penny Dreadful

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
2
run date:
05/11/14
performer:
Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton
broadcaster:
Showtime Networks Inc.
genre:
Suspense, Thriller, Drama

Everything you’ve missed about Penny Dreadful — Eva Green, taxidermy, characters who say things like, “This whole country is built on skeletons. One would like a cup of tea, though” — is back. In the wake of a season 2 finale that scattered its main players across the globe, the gothic drama returns with a few new tricks up its sleeve, but it expands to cover new territory without losing its old sensibilities. London is still another world at night. The score is still haunting. Our literary heritage still informs everything. “The Day Tennyson Died” picks up on the day the world lost a poet who concerned himself with the legacies we leave when we die. Is it possible for a fleeting experience to echo past its end? “‘Tis better to have loved and lost,” Tennyson argued, “than never to have loved at all.”

Vanessa is testing that theory. She’s lost Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and her faith all at once, and it’s thrown her into a state of depression at a time before there’s a word for that sort of thing. When she shuts herself away from the world — Eva Green strips all civilized influences from her performance; she shambles down shuttered hallways and gnaws full loaves of bread like an animal — it’s Lyle who refuses to give up on her, encouraging her to seek help from a “mental doctor.” It’s exciting to see Penny Dreadful tackle the stigma around mental illness, especially because Lyle, in drawing upon the “unique nature” of his sexuality, aligns that stigma in particular with the ire directed at anyone who doesn’t conform to societal norms. As a woman, Vanessa has more cause to feel isolated from society and fewer resources to help her address that isolation productively.

Lyle sends Vanessa to Dr. Seward, who promises to be a vital new addition to our cast of characters mainly because there’s something not-so-new about her. She and her assistant, Renfield, bring the story back to Dracula after a season away, but the real significance (so far, at least) lies in the actress who plays her. Patti LuPone, last season’s Cut-Wife, is back as an imposing American psychiatrist — known in the parlance of the day as an alienist — who goes toe-to-toe with Vanessa in their first meeting. I’ll be needing one Patti LuPone pep talk per episode, please. Dr. Seward does not tolerate polite lies, does tolerate screaming, and needs Vanessa to know that she’s just ill, not bad or unworthy. She sizes up her patient in 10 minutes:

“You’re not a woman of convention or you wouldn’t be here, but you like to pretend you are so people don’t notice you. But you sometimes like that as well and can dress to draw the eye. But then you think the men who look at you are fools or worse to be taken in by such an obvious outward show, so instead you’re drawn to dark, complicated, impossible men, assuring your own unhappiness and isolation — because, after all, you’re happiest alone, but not even then because you can’t stop thinking about what you’ve lost, again for which you blame yourself. So the cycle goes on: The snake eating its own tail.”

But Vanessa has something about Dr. Seward figured out, too. She recognizes the uncanny similarity between the woman in front of her and the woman who mentored her out on the moor, and although the doctor explains it away as a family resemblance — her ancestors were from the West Country — the whole exchange has a kind of supernatural resonance that inspires some confidence in Vanessa. She believes that Dr. Seward needs her as much as she needs the doctor, and that gives her power. It’s a meeting of equals that looks set to drive the season.

NEXT: Run and Hyde[pagebreak]

The science of the mind also promises to play a role in Victor and Lily’s story. An old schoolmate of Victor’s, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif), shows up to check in on his friend, who’s not doing so well. Victor is shooting himself up with drugs to deal with his guilt at what he’s created. (“I’ve conquered death and I’ve created monsters — none more so than the man who sits before you.”) He wants Jekyll to help him kill Lily, but Jekyll has another idea: He could “tame her, domesticate her, leave her purring like a kitten on [Victor’s] lap.” That sounds cool to Victor. Given that Lily’s motives are all tied up in the injustices inflicted on her by men in Victorian London, it’s no accident that this episode gives us a woman using psychiatry to help another woman while two men attempt to use it to force a woman’s affections. Jekyll is himself ostracized from society as a half-Indian, half-British man — another marker of the character’s signature duality — but that doesn’t excuse what he wants to do.

Here’s hoping that Vanessa is having better luck. At Dr. Seward’s insistence that she do one thing she’s never done before, she goes to the Natural History Museum, where a zoologist by the name of Dr. Alexander Sweet (Christian Camargo) charms her with his enthusiasm for scorpions and sheep. (“Glorious animals.”) Sweet is more open and playful than Vanessa can afford to be, but he understands the allure of frightening things, and he shares Vanessa’s need to watch out for the unloved. There’s a spark between them, and for today, that’s enough to send Vanessa home to throw open the shutters and clean the house. She writes to Sir Malcolm, “The old monsters are gone, the old curses have echoed to silence, and if my immortal soul is lost to me, something yet remains. I remain.” I’ve missed her.

On the same day Vanessa writes to Sir Malcolm, Sir Malcolm writes to her. He’s just buried Sembene in the mountains of Africa, and he’s moody because the continent no longer lives up to his white colonial fantasies. “What romance I saw in Africa is done for me,” he writes. “The land is tainted now beyond repair, and I want to be quit of the filthy place. What then? Are there no fresh wonders left? No worlds yet to conquer?” Rudyard Kipling hands him a small violin. Sir Malcolm gets the shake-up he needs when, on his way out of a bar, a woman holds him at gunpoint; a man named Kaeteney (Wes Studi) jumps into the fray to help him take everyone down. Kaeteney is Chiricahua Apache, and he knows Ethan well enough to say that he’s “almost [his] son.” Ethan needs their help. Sir Malcolm claims to be done with that life, but destiny has a way of coming for you whether you want it or not.

And Ethan does need their help. He’s on a train in New Mexico Territory under the watchful eye of Inspector Rusk, who’s suddenly my new favorite source of comic relief. Rusk doesn’t let skeletons distract him from tea, and he details Ethan’s offenses with a perfectly straight face: “He butchered a lot of people and ate a fair number of them.” But neither Rusk nor Hecate, who’s also on board, flying under the radar, can save Ethan when his father’s men kill most of the people on the train and kidnap him. They’ll regret that by the next full moon.

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Like a snake eating its own tail, the story of this episode ends at the show’s beginning. Renfield goes to a busy marketplace at night and pulls up a woman’s skirts, only to be whisked into an abandoned building by a gust of wind. He wakes up surrounded by a crowd of twitchy, obviously inhuman creatures, two of whom have been following Vanessa. They’re tempted by Renfield’s blood, but they scatter at the sound of their master, literally crawling back to the shadows. A booming voice asks Renfield about Vanessa, commanding, “You will open her secrets to me.” Another command: “Give me your throat.” Renfield reluctantly tilts his head back as the voice introduces itself: “My name is Dracula.”

In the cards:

  • The Creature is off in the Arctic snapping a kid’s neck (mercifully?) and having epiphanies. He remembers a snippet of his life before he died: singing a lullaby to a child. Is the child, or the child’s mother, still alive?
  • “All the broken and shunned creatures. Someone’s got to care for them. Who shall it be if not us?”
  • “Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives. It belongs to no other.”
  • “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

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