Let’s say you’re an ancient, bloodsucking fiend. Say you’ve got a reputation. If you’re smart, you use it — you play against type. History reports that you strike when your victims are isolated, so you become someone your prey can trust. When she hears that you’ll seek her out when she’s alone, she protects herself from you by running right to you.
Dracula is a genius. After centuries in the vampire business, he’s turned the one chink in his armor — word of mouth — into an advantage, building up the myth of “Dracula” to disguise the more dangerous reality. His name is his weapon as much as it’s Vanessa’s. Penny Dreadful is concerned with what it means to live out in the open, where the power of owning your story puts a target on your back, but Dracula has his blood bag and eats it, too: He lets his story spread, and he hides in its shadow.
But if he cheats, so will Vanessa — or at least, in the words of new ally Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), she’ll employ some “creative improvisation.” Armed with her stalker’s identity, Vanessa heads to Lyle to learn more, but he’s packing for a jaunt to Cairo, which might just be extended indefinitely. This had better not be the last we see of Vanessa’s mustachioed friend, who leaves her with a farewell so lovely, I think I’ll have to steal it: “Condemn me to the sand and dust, write often, and think of me only when you dance.” But while he’s away, Catriona should do quite nicely.
Vanessa finds Lyle’s associate at a fencing match, which she wins with the help of some of that creative improv. Catriona’s duel is an obvious analog for Vanessa’s upcoming showdown with the OG vampire, and it points toward a clear-cut future for a battle that has so far been defined by illusions and funhouse mirrors. “Every decision reduced to back and forth, thrust or parry,” Catriona says. “A clarity forms during it that the rest of the world is sadly lacking in. Life and death without the death — most of the time.” Even there, the analogy is accurate: As Vanessa explains to Catriona, Dracula doesn’t want her death. He wants her submission. At least for now.
Vanessa and Catriona are a pair, instantly impressed and intrigued by one other. Vanessa doesn’t run away from Catriona’s unconventional career as a thanatologist (“I study death. Its every ritual, every guise. The great hereafter, if there is such a thing”), and Catriona doesn’t blink at the fact that Vanessa is being hunted by Dracula. Over drinks and a smoke in a pair of leather armchairs, the women agree to team up against the man who once started a whole war between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire just because he liked the taste of blood. While Catriona sees what she can do, she asks Vanessa to surround herself with people who care about her — just as Dracula knows she will. “There is only one defense against isolation,” Catriona says. “Be with those you love.” She’d better mean that innocently, because I like her and her Dana Scully hair.
Even with Catriona’s urging, Vanessa is still too committed to keeping Sweet safe from harm to run right to him. She makes the much better choice and has fireside drinks with Dr. Seward, who tells her all about murdering her abusive husband with a cleaver. (“Cell Block Tango,” but with the women of Penny Dreadful: I need it.) “Trust me, honey,” Seward says. “When you kill your husband with a cleaver and then stand trial for it in New York City, you know what it is to be alone.” In a world that would institutionalize Vanessa for having sex with her friend’s fiancé, how did Seward avoid jail time after killing a man?
Seward might have favored self-sufficiency since then, and she might tell her patients that she isn’t their friend, but it’s time for her to face facts: She’s friends with Vanessa. Like any good wingwoman, Seward pushes Vanessa to have drinks with “that handsome doctor from the museum,” shooting down the excuse that he’d never believe Vanessa’s story with, “I’ll give you a note.” No one will ever be able to surprise Vanessa if she doesn’t give them the chance; like Lyle in his move to a country more accepting of his “particular way of life,” she has to take leaps if she wants to find love. This would all be great advice if not for the fact that Sweet IS DRACULA. And it doesn’t seem like Lyle is moving of his own accord, anyway.
NEXT: Night at the museum
Vanessa goes where she was always going to go — back to the Museum of Natural History — and tells the story she was always going to tell, and Sweet believes her because there’s a bat that eats blood, so of course vampires are real. Good save. I miss the old, charming music that played under Vanessa and Sweet’s first meetings, back before we all knew the truth; it made everything he said sound like exactly the right thing to say, and I have to imagine that she can hear it right now. After nearly slipping up and trying to convince Vanessa to sympathize with the monster, Sweet repeats what he said in the cell: “I love you for who you are, not who the world wants you to be.” It could have been a red flag, if not for the music playing in Vanessa’s head.
Vanessa isn’t sorry for herself, and she doesn’t blame Ethan — or anyone — for leaving. (Note that she says, “He left,” not, “He left me.” She doesn’t make Ethan’s decisions about her.) But she is alone, and the best way to seduce her is to promise her acceptance and companionship when she feels neither. Sweet tells Vanessa that he understands how hard it is to believe this after a loss, but he isn’t going anywhere — so they kiss (I’m conflicted to report that it is very hot) and have sex right on the floor of the museum. Don’t try this at acting camp unless you’re Eva Green: After pinning Sweet to the ground and having her way with him, Vanessa cries happy tears.
Not everyone’s attempts at seduction are going so well. Across town, Dorian is starting to suspect that a group of misandrists might not want him in a position of power. (I wonder why.) During a demonstration for the new women in their ranks, Justine rebels, digging her knife into his neck and accusing him of perpetrating the same crimes against women that men committed against her. He has — we’ve seen him do it — and it’s about time someone called him on the fact that claiming to support women’s rights for the sake of self-advancement is still using women. Lily is proud of Justine’s progress. “She has the soul of me,” she tells Dorian. “The very heart of who I was before I was this. She has the anger and the hate and the loss.” Dorian asks if they might not be able to just pretend that all of her societal debasement never happened. They may not.
That’s exactly the kind of forgetfulness Victor wants to force with his serum. As Dorian loses his footing with Lily, could he turn to Victor’s side? Justine and the other women catch Victor sneaking into Dorian’s place in what Lily calls “the worst kidnapping in the annals of crime,” but Dorian sides with Lily’s would-be abductor over Lily, arguing that it’s senseless to murder Victor for “loving” her. Both of the men in the room think kidnapping a woman and forcibly rewriting her personality against her will is an act of love. I’m surprised that they make it out of the scene alive.
Victor almost doesn’t — Justine has her razor at his throat — but Lily spares him, citing her own sentimentality. But I’m not sure that she doesn’t have a bigger plan: She does point out that his unique skill set could come in handy down the line. Before she banishes Victor, Lily makes it clear that she has no interest in forgetting her sadness. “I’ve suffered long and hard to be who I am,” she argues. “I want my scars to show.” Is there a connection on Penny Dreadful between self-acceptance and violence? Lily and Hecate both embrace their scars and their killer instincts (although Lily is far more discriminate about it), and Hecate wants Ethan to do the same. He’s almost there.
NEXT: Going to the chapel
When Rusk and Ostow show up to arrest everyone, Talbot responds by hosting the most awkward dinner possible: Ethan, Hecate, Sir Malcolm, Rusk, and Ostow, with Talbot at the head of the table. He passive-aggressively demands that Ethan say grace (“that’s the grace-saying chair”), then shuts down Sir Malcolm’s attempt to stand up for Ethan by informing him that Ethan killed his family. You have to love families and their half-truth guilt trips.
Ethan says a nihilistic grace. Talbot shoots Ostow. Ethan pointedly keeps cutting his food. (Josh Hartnett finds great, unexpected comedy in all of this.) When Rusk takes the opportunity to ask Ethan and Hecate about the snakes, the duo leaps into action, and by the time the ensuing fight reaches its peak, Malcolm is considering his options from behind a couch as Rusk, Ethan, and Hecate face off. “What are you?” Rusk demands. Hecate, in her nightcrawler form, hisses back that they’re the “death knell,” which is about to take on a new meaning. Rusk shoots her, so Ethan shoots Rusk as a mysterious shooter takes out the man who’s cornered Malcolm. It’s Kaeteney. Snakes have nothing on him.
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
Dying in Ethan’s arms, Hecate promises that hell awaits them both, but all of that talk about owning the night is a little bit less powerful from a deathbed. Ethan teams up with Sir Malcolm — and, reluctantly, Kaeteney — for a final showdown with his father, who ran from the fight and camped out in the chapel. He lies to his son, claiming to only have one of his men with him as they all flank the doors, but Kaeteney fires straight through the wall of the chapel and gets the advantage. The gunfight leaves only Ethan, Malcolm, Kaeteney, and Talbot standing. Ethan blazes down the aisle of the chapel to meet his father at the altar, shoots the gun out of Talbot’s hands, and cocks his weapon at his father’s forehead, but despite his father’s taunts, he can’t pull the trigger. Ethan is back. He walks away, but Talbot promises to find his son again — so Sir Malcolm fires. Jarod Talbot, we hardly knew you.
In the cards: