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