Ethan prepares for a final reckoning with his father
Credit: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME

Penny Dreadful is trading the confines of Vanessa’s padded cell for the expanse of the American Southwest this week, but it doesn’t feel any less claustrophobic. The New Mexico desert cares about as much for Ethan as Dr. Banning did for Vanessa, and for all of the ground Ethan and Hecate cover in their travels, they never see anything new. The real difference between Ethan’s prison and Vanessa’s is found in the person they share it with: While Vanessa opened her companion’s eyes, Hecate corrupts hers.

If I’ve had trouble with anything this season, it’s that I haven’t been able to buy into the hand-wringing over Ethan’s potential descent into darkness. Lily, who’s so done with men that she’s killing them all, sets Ethan apart as “different” because he’s just that kind. It’s always been a safe bet that no matter how much he struggles with his darker impulses or how close he comes to the edge, he’ll find his way back. But I never expected him to get so close, and after this week’s hour, I’m ready to watch Ethan walk that line as long as he wants. He might not go over the edge, but he’s not coming back the same.

Ethan and Hecate have barely started into the desert before she’s begun tempting him to the dark side. When he suggests that his sense of shame is “the only decent thing” about him, Hecate appeals to Ethan’s self-interest, asking what God offers him in return for such torturous guilt. His reply: “Forgiveness.” But Ethan doesn’t feel especially forgiven, and Hecate pries into the part of him that’s dissatisfied with this endless cycle of repentance. Their sins, she argues, come from the same place. She and Ethan were both betrayed by their parents, enlisted at a young age to serve masters they didn’t choose. Hers was the devil; his was the American army. But in Ethan’s opinion, they’ve got something else in common: They could have deserted. (Could she? Once the devil literally has his claws in you, do you still have free will?)

As night falls, Ethan shares his story with Hecate, while Kaeteney, not far away, tells Sir Malcolm his side. Their stories line up, aside from the bloody twist ending that neither one of them is willing to speak out loud. Ethan and his regiment attacked and killed a band of Apaches. As he washed the blood off of his hands, his commanding officer dragged the body of a boy into the river, poisoning the water. He’d bashed in the boy’s face with a rock. (“He says he wasn’t worth the bullet.”) When the officer smiled, “They’ll give us medals for this, Ethan,” Ethan shot him in the head.

From there, he rode into the last Apache stronghold and begged Kaeteney to take his scalp. Instead, Kaeteney forced Ethan to fight against his own army — a task Ethan enjoyed a little too much. As the tribe dwindled in numbers, the men turned cruel. And here’s that twist: Ethan told the tribe where to find the stash of weapons on his father’s ranch. Kaeteney promised that not a shot would be fired, only to lead a brutal raid that left everyone in Ethan’s family, aside from his father, dead. It looks like Kaeteney himself cut out Ethan’s younger sister’s tongue and eyes, while her father watched, “so she would wander blind and mute in this place of death.” That would explain the rift.

But why did Kaeteney do it? And why would someone capable of such cruelty dedicate himself to saving Ethan now? Kaeteney says that he’s seen things — the world will descend into darkness unless Ethan stops it — but he seems more motivated by the desire to “save [his] son” than by any sort of apocalyptic practicality. He’s right about one thing: Ethan’s getting closer to the edge. Ethan joins forces with Hecate to help her cast a spell that brings rattlesnakes out of the earth, rising from the sand around the marshalls’ campfire just as Sir Malcolm and Kaeteney sneak up to steal horses and kill everyone, respectively. Kaeteney takes out a snake and slices a man’s throat with one incredibly cool twist of the knife, but he’s bitten by another snake in the process. The commotion leaves everyone in the search party dead aside from Rusk and Marshall Ostow. Sir Malcolm and Kaeteney escape on horseback.

Ethan probably won’t be losing any sleep over the fact that he’s responsible for Kaeteney’s rattlesnake bite, but that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. Rusk, faced with a campsite full of dead bodies, abandons his moral code and commits to killing Ethan no matter the cost. Ethan, meanwhile, is off committing another one of those willful murders Hecate warned him about, shooting his dying horse to end its suffering. The next night, he and Hecate camp out in a cave, the walls of which are painted with the story of the first Apache: a boy who faced the creatures of the night and defeated the darkness. “This,” says Ethan, “is the story of how the world was made.”

NEXT: Caving in

Hecate has a different idea: What if the story is a prophecy of how the world ends? It does match up with Kaeteney’s vision. But even if she’s right, there’s a flaw in Hecate’s argument. She asks Ethan who he’d rather be — the wolf who loves the night or the savior who ends it. If the darkness is defeated regardless, why wouldn’t he want to come out on the winning end? The whole point of her “seize the night” philosophy is to make him short-sighted. Does Hecate want Ethan to live for the moment because she does the same, or does she want him to live for the moment so he won’t notice that she’s playing a long con? In any case, it works. Ethan and Hecate have sex as he swears, “I will send my father to hell and laugh while I do it. I’m done trying to be good.”

Over the next day or more, Ethan and Hecate lose their last horse to the heat, forcing them to continue on foot without water. When Hecate can’t go on, Ethan carries her for a while, but he eventually drops to the dirt. There’s nothing left to do but shield her from the sun and wait for the end — or for Sir Malcolm, who rides up with an injured Kaeteney. After so much build-up, their anticlimactic reunion is my favorite part of the episode. Sir Malcolm just hands over his canteen as Ethan stares, less surprised than amused: “What. The f—. Are you doing here?”

They come a little closer to expressing emotion when Ethan gives Hecate the last of the water, prompting Sir Malcolm to pull his gun on Hecate as Ethan aims at Malcolm — but even then, it’s a pretty calm standoff. Sir Malcolm backs down. Before he can press the issue, they’re interrupted by a crowd of Pinkerton agents, who drag Ethan, Hecate, and Sir Malcolm away. Asked what they should do with Kaeteney, Ethan echoes his commanding officer: “Let him die slow. He ain’t worth the bullet.”

While Ethan and Hecate recuperate at the Talbot ranch, Sir Malcolm faces the man who cast such a shadow over Ethan’s life. Jared Talbot (Brian Cox) is a whiskey-drinking, Apache-hating, Manifest Destiny-preaching pioneer who goes toe-to-toe with Malcolm in a battle for gravel-voiced authority. In a way, the two patriarchs aren’t that different. When Talbot asks Sir Malcolm why he was riding with “that Apache filth,” Malcolm argues, “I was riding alongside a man.” Talbot pokes a hole in his self-righteousness: “When you were in Africa, how many of these men did you slaughter?” Penny Dreadful knows the world these white men live in, and it isn’t about to let either one of them off the hook for current or past racism. Sir Malcolm just happens to be the one defending Ethan right now. He’s on the right side, but he isn’t innocent.

According to Talbot, no one is. As soon as he’s well enough to leave his bed, Ethan puts on his best suspenders and prepares to kill his dad, only to be met by the news that his father has no desire to make amends. He wants Ethan to atone for his role in his family’s deaths, and he’s going to suffer while he does it. Like a docent in a museum of horrors, Talbot walks his son through the family chapel: Here’s where Ethan’s brother’s blood stains the wall. Here’s where Mary’s tongue was cut out. And here’s where Talbot demands that his son either repent or die. Talbot pulls a gun on Ethan, who isn’t fazed. “I’m done repenting,” he says. “And I belong in hell.” Talbot cocks his weapon.

In the cards:

  • Back in London, Henry and Victor’s experiments on Balfour have moved on to phase two. Henry promises Balfour a permanent cure and no memory of his past sins, only to look surprised when the man wakes with no memory of him. Doesn’t erasing past sins require erasing a person’s identity? Henry doesn’t want behavior modification — he wants a fresh start. And who’s to say his test subjects won’t eventually sin again?
  • “After all, it is our memories which make us monsters, is it not?”
  • Victor still thinks that Lily was really “his” for a while. He’s never going to get it, is he?
  • “You say that word: innocent. I don’t know what it means. My son was on that train. There were people in the way. Were they innocent?”
  • There’s something very satisfying about Josh Hartnett in a cowboy hat declaring that he’s got “a couple of days’ hard travel yet” before he reaches the ranch.
  • The story Rusk tells Ostow about how he lost his arm, which involves cauterizing it on the spot and leaving it behind, is entirely different from the story he told last season about finding it in a pile of discarded limbs. Rusk is just making things up at this point.
  • “And at what cost? Your home’s empty. Your son hates you. Your vainglorious pursuits have led to nothing but bloodshed and heartache. But you’re right, the whiskey is very fine.”

Episode Recaps

Penny Dreadful
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