Last year's Blood Ball was a paper cut compared to this
Credit: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME

Penny Dreadful opened this season with multiple Tennyson quotes. The debt it owes classic literature grows by the week. It’s dealing deftly with mental health issues and crises of faith, and it’s shining a light on abuse against women as a horror more real than Frankenstein’s monster. But no matter how serious this show can be, there is one thing it needs you to know: It will never be too serious for a blood threesome.

To groom her young acolyte for the war ahead, Lily takes Justine out for some tea. (I can’t wait until we bookend this scene with Lily and Justine nonchalantly sipping tea while the world burns around them.) As they debate how different Dorian really is from other men, a crowd of suffragettes marches into the square. The police throw the women to the ground, giving Lily a chance to outline the way her strategy diverges from theirs: The suffragettes are too noisy. “How do you accomplish anything in this life?” Lily asks. “By craft, by stealth, by poison, by the throat quietly slit in the dead of the night. By the careful and silent accumulation of power.” As soon as they have that power, they’re going to war.

Lily doesn’t want the same rights as men; she wants to rule over them — and the difference between equality and mastery is the difference between picketing for votes and stabbing men to death. Now that Justine knows what they’re about, Lily and Dorian need her to make a choice. In a kind of induction ceremony, they present her with two gifts: a dagger and the man who bought her as his “pet whore” when she was 12. After listing his crimes against her, Justine slits his throat, then releases her anger by stabbing his body until she’s covered in his blood. Dorian kisses her. And then he, Justine, and Lily all paint themselves in blood and have a threesome.

This is one artistic threesome. I mean, this is some kaleidoscopic, Bryan Fuller-taunting-standards-and-practices-on-Hannibal sex happening here. They’re all kissing each other at once. What a show. The next morning, in no hurry to wash their sheets or themselves, Lily, Dorian, and Justine plan for their future. “To build an empire,” Lily says, “you start with a single soldier.” Justine is their first, but she’ll help them recruit more to their cause, with a focus on “all those invisible women who move unseen through this great city.” They’re out for a violent end, but their reasons are human. See for example: Lily’s tears as Justine tells her story. Real pain fuels this mission.

This is why Lily’s extreme methods make for such a satisfying narrative, while the Creature — for whom the ends also justify the means — is so much less fun. Lily draws on the suffering of a persecuted segment of the population; the Creature draws on his suffering alone. That’s also why his journey this season is a step in the right direction: It isn’t about what he believes he’s owed. The Creature’s memories lead him straight to his family, now scratching out a living in a rundown, working-class housing unit by the factories, but he doesn’t make contact. He just watches through a hole in the ceiling as his presumed wife cares for his sick son, then steals a pocket watch and leaves it for the woman to sell. So he’s still the kind of man who shoves people against walls to get what he wants. He’s still a voyeur. But was I moved by his smile when his wife found the watch? YES, FINE, I was.

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Across the Atlantic, Ethan is stuck with someone else who’s willing to use violence to reach her goals. He wakes from his latest wolf attack with Hecate by his side, and she’s not going anywhere. Ethan accepts her help on the grounds that his Apache father taught him to believe in things beyond his understanding, and he definitely doesn’t understand Hecate. But aren’t her motives pretty clear? “I want you to liberate your truest self,” Hecate says. “The beast that prowls around your heart. And when you are truly yourself and we are painted with blood, I want to rule the darkness at your side.” Lily and Dorian talk about being “painted with blood” as a rite of passage: Willful violence unlocks the darkness that, as Victor and Henry won’t let us forget, we all possess. It’s just that Ethan would rather not unlock it.

NEXT: In every generation…

Ethan is defined by that struggle; as a man who claims to be a father to him, shouldn’t Kaeteney know that? He and Sir Malcolm are pursuing Ethan across the desert; when they come upon the frontier couple Hecate murdered for their horses, Kaeteney laments that they’re losing their son: “He is halfway damned already.” Way harsh, Kaeteney; Ethan isn’t that kind of killer. I like having Kaeteney around, but until we know why Ethan doesn’t trust him, I can’t trust him, either. All he’ll share is one foreboding vision: “Beasts will feed, a darkness will overcome the earth, and all our days will come to an end. Only Ethan can save us. He has been chosen.”

We’ve heard that before — about Vanessa. Why else would Dracula court her so intently? Sweet’s seduction continues this week with a confession meant to stir Vanessa’s sympathies: His wife passed away a year ago. (If any part of this is true, the odds are good that he’s to blame.) The tragedy in this relationship is that Vanessa sees in Sweet someone who wants to rejoin the world with her, but he’s actually out to steal her from it. Their date ends at a fair, where he pulls her into a hall of mirrors. “I’m not overly fond of mirrors,” Vanessa protests, calling back to Seward’s observation that she’s avoided them since she stopped caring all that much about her appearance. “That’s absurd,” Sweet flirts. “You’re so beautiful.” Cute? Sure. But he’s ignoring her wishes.

And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for his meddling followers. Vanessa and Sweet actually have a good time for a while; as it turns out, she doesn’t mind the mirrors that distort. It’s the ones claiming to be accurate reflections of reality that she doesn’t like. In their session, Vanessa accuses Seward of not believing her story; she only believes that Vanessa believes it. “There’s no difference to me,” Seward insists. But there’s a difference to Vanessa, and she grabs Seward’s wrist and reads her past to prove it. The reflection of a thing is not the thing. Appearances can be deceiving. Sweet is proof enough of that.

Vanessa spots her vampire stalker in the hall of mirrors and lets go of Sweet’s hand, losing him long enough for the lanky vamp to corner her. That’s one nursery rhyme-spouting creep I would not want to be alone with. He tells her that she’ll meet his master again soon enough, and Vanessa latches on to the key word in that warning: “again.” She’s met Dracula before. “Long ago in the white room where there was no time,” confirms the vampire. “No day and no night. Surely you remember, my lady, my lady.” Their encounter is enough to prompt Vanessa to end things with Sweet out of concern for his safety. “Take it as a sign of something like love,” she says. As soon as she’s gone, he snaps a teacup in his hand. Blasphemy.

Sweet plays the long con; he didn’t plan for his follower to corner Vanessa, because it isn’t time yet. She isn’t “abject and helpless.” What is his plan that it requires her to “beg” for him? Vanessa’s aiming to find out. She asks Seward to hypnotize her, and the doctor reluctantly agrees, taking her back to her memories of her room at the Banning Clinic. Vanessa doesn’t see Dracula, but she does see her orderly: He’s the Creature, before his death. If not for the blood threesome, that would definitely be the No. 1 takeaway of the hour.

In the cards:

  • Confirmed: This Dracula can see himself in mirrors.
  • Lily smiles when she thinks of Ethan and sets him apart from other men. I need this reunion.
  • “You were hurt by a man. He would have killed you had you not killed him first. Such things have a name. They are witches. They are vampires. They are Lucifer. They are all those things which walk in your nightmares. Shall we walk together?”
  • I like that the Creature smiles when he sees Vanessa with Sweet; a year ago, he might have resented her happiness.
  • “In the end, we must be that thing the world demands of us. We must take the lust and the avarice and the ambition and bury them: all the alien, ugly things. All the things we really are. The other one, the other man, we cannot allow him.” Henry, you okay?
  • Sir Malcolm stands up for Kaeteney when a couple of cowboy racists ask him to move to a different car. I’d have preferred to see Kaeteney speak for himself, but the fact that Kaeteney pointedly doesn’t thank Sir Malcolm for intervening is also pretty great, as is this threat from our curmudgeonly Brit: “Do you favor growing old to one day teach your ugly, inbred children your grotesque manners?”
  • “I hate every square inch of it, and I hate you only slightly less.”
  • Where were you when you watched Penny Dreadful’s blood threesome? Were you in polite company? You weren’t in an open-plan office, were you? Good. Just me, then.
  • “Liberty is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.”

Episode Recaps

Penny Dreadful
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