Previously on Penny Dreadful, “Night Work”
Reminder: As a feature of the Penny Dreadful rewatch, the extras section at the end is divided in half. The first part is for first-time viewers. The second is for veteran viewers and contains full-series spoilers.
Hands down, “Séance” is one of my favorite hours of television. It introduces four characters—Dorian Gray, Brona Croft, Madame Kali, and Frankenstein’s original Creature, sets up the lore behind the entire series, and showcases mind-blowing acting from Eva Green and Timothy Dalton. The pair’s carefully crafted control is shredded by the actual séance, where a mix of special and practical effects combines with Green’s extraordinary physical and emotional range to produce hair-raising results that have stayed with me. The clash of obscene and tragic imagery sets observers on edge, thrusting us through a rush of concern, confusion, and judgement. Whatever Vanessa’s transgression and torments, Sir Malcom certainly has much to answer for, and yet, one is tempted to sympathy at his shuddering, broken breaths. So powerful.
Though a long-time fan of The Picture of Dorian Gray, my first glimpse of Reeve Carney left me thinking, “Too pretty to carry Dorian off,” but I was so wrong. He handily carries the burden of immortal boredom while conveying the stunned shock of a man thought to be beyond feelings. His instant magnetism with Vanessa is somehow believable as fellow unique creatures too old for the world around them. Their gravity is offset by Ethan and Brona, the nascent couple unwittingly juxtaposing Vanessa and Dorian in every possible way—though all are destined for the demimonde, one pair is willing, while the other is not; one pair is jaded and obscured in niceties, but the other is all realness and humor.
My previous experience with Helen McCrory was fairly limited, namely as Narcissa Malfoy and in Doctor Who’s “The Vampires of Venice” (along with Alex Price/Proteus), but her performance as Madame Kali keeps everyone on unsure footing—is she an extraordinary charlatan who stumbled onto something out of her depth, or did she intend to bring this forth? And what exactly is “this”?
As if that wasn’t enough, sweet Proteus, like a broken little bird full of innocence and pain, offers Victor friendship, which he accepts in vulnerable hope. Their scenes make us feel excitement for Victor and fear for Proteus as he re-enters the world, followed by suspicion of Victor and his dark potential. Then just like that, it’s ripped asunder by his original sin, the first Creature, played by Rory Kinnear. Thus begins my hatemance with the Creature.
Though a few heavy-handed moments, like the neon signs flashing about Victor’s immediate past, keep it from being entirely perfect, this is still one fantastic episode.
Things As They Are
Ethan wakes on the docks with marks in his palm and stumbles into The Mariner’s Inn for a bottle of whiskey, soon shared by Brona Croft (Billie Piper), a brash Irish hooker who invites herself to “breakfast” and cracks almost too cleverly, wink wink,
“I knew an actor once. Always sucking up the oxygen from the room he was. I was ever faint.”
Lamenting the loss of several jobs to machines, she’s resorted to selling flesh before her lungs give out to tuberculosis, a confession, or the sacrilegious manner of it, which bewitches Ethan. Josh Hartnett’s acting in this scene is one of his best moments; he seems intensely, genuinely taken despite her questionable appearance.
Ethan collects a cable from his father saying the federal marshal has been paid off, so return home. When she returns from taking risqué photos, he invites her to dinner, saying,
“I like things to be as they are.”
While I have not always enjoyed their individual work, there is something about these two acting together that really, really works.
Those risqué photos happen to be in the palatial portrait gallery at the posh apartment of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who watches, supremely bored, until she coughs up blood. Intrigued, he prowls toward her and licks it from her lips, the lurid blue photo flash lighting them have sex against the wall.
“I’ve never fucked a dying creature before Do you feel things more deeply, I wonder? Do you feel pain?”
Valid question on her part.
What Man has Made of Man
Malcolm interrupts Vanessa writing a long letter, which she locks away, pimp-ordering her to unbutton her dress collar for their guest. The “he” is Victor, who, for all his intellect, is flustered by the button. He examines the vampire body, hieroglyphic tattoos laid bare by Lyle’s carrion beetles, and mutters that he’d studied the Egyptian quest for eternal life. Vanessa spots Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in his bag, to which he replies man must seek the ephemeral as well. She quotes with him,
“Have I not reason to lament, what man has made of man.”
Or man actually making a man, whatever. Malcolm presses him into service with a wad of cash.
Hunting a Beast
Sir Malcolm and Sembene visit the local inspector regarding last episode’s murders, the third of its kind. The victims’ kidney, liver, and reproductive matters were taken/eaten. Malcolm growls at the hapless man,
“You’re hunting for a man. You need to start hunting for a beast.”
At Sir Lyle’s “wee fête” (a grand soiree), Vanessa saunters through the artifact-laden gallery, sensing Dorian’s presence. He approaches very close, noting she is skeptical and not wearing gloves, open to the forces in the room but not the people, and pulls her resistant hand toward him. Their magnetism is undeniable and they nearly kiss, but are interrupted by the introduction of Madame Kali, a spiritualist.
Dorian drags Vanessa to the mirrored table where the séance participants touch fingers, and Kali invites them to suspend disbelief. Vanessa, swaying slightly, reaches for Dorian’s hand, astonishing him, and Malcolm looks nervously at her as Kali begins speaking for the dead. Though one might suspect chicanery, these three, of all participants, are not gullible—something real is happening.
Kali calls for Mut, the Egyptian Mother Goddess, she senses “another” presence, hissing, “Amunet, Hidden One.” Vanessa twitches and slumps, uttering an ancient language, then mimics Mina’s voice followed by Malcolm’s son, Peter… while he died in Africa of dysentery. Did Malcolm name a mountain after him like he’d promised? Spoiler: No. Vanessa screams, snuffing all the candles at once, then channels Peter’s last moments, “The Unquiet Grave” and his final breath. Malcolm sobs.
She moans, unpinning her hair, and hisses back.
“Amunet, girl? No, much older.”
She shatters the mirrored table with a touch, mocking Malcolm lasciviously with the memory of him fucking a woman in his garden maze and Vanessa discovering them. Crawling forth, she curses, “You man, you animal,”spewing obscenities. Then channeling Mina once more, she cries of a being whose eyes and mouth are red with blood, begging him to find her, save her. The frenzy peaks, ancient language pouring from her as she bends backwards unnaturally and screams, Kali ululating in fear.
Dilettantes scandalized, Vanessa plows into the stormy night, enthralling a man just walking by, and has him right in the alley while Dorian watches from afar. Malcolm sits deflated at the shattered table, the reflected light emphasizing his shame revealed and the cracks in his expensive veneer. Finally he returns home, breathing hard, and finds Vanessa curled in a fetal position. Perhaps regretful, he covers her.
The following morning, Malcolm, visibly abashed and steeled, presents more photos to Lyle, who titters that they can’t have Vanessa back, though he seems secretly amused and eager to help. He’s stunned to find Amunet and Amun-ra together in the inscription, an anathema to pharaonic religion. He breathlessly urges Malcolm to drop his interest, explaining that, although consorts, if Amunet joined with Amun-ra, he would transform her into the Mother of Evil, beginning the apocalypse.
“I would not tell Miss Ives this. After all, who wants to know they are hunted by the devil.”
The First Born
Victor demonstrates eating for his creature while commenting that he “should” name him Adam, but instead encourages him to choose his own name from Shakespeare: Proteus. In one of the saddest little scenes ever, Victor rushes out to work, leaving the frightened creature whimpering like a new puppy on the stairs. Once home, Victor observes Proteus mindlessly singing a sea shanty. He recognizes illustrations of whaling, but when Victor stumbles over the concept of killing, Proteus kindly pours him a glass of water. A bit obvious on the message here.
He then takes Proteus on his first walk outside, proudly presenting “everything.” We see the market place’s many offerings through his wide eyes—animals, horse dung, warm chestnuts, a sunbeam, and gas lights. The sea, however, inspires true memories of ship names and his wife, Doreen, waving goodbye. Oh. Serious, Proteus confronts Victor about his nature, but is interrupted by Ethan and Brona on their date. He awkwardly introduces himself, grinning simply at Brona, and offers a chestnut, telling her to “enjoy the fairy lights.” Ethan and she giggle.
Back in the dark lab, the sin twice forgotten, Victor tries to explain the difference between friends and acquaintances. Proteus declares he’ll have many friends… BUT THEN!!! hands burst through his chest and split him in half, blood splattering on Victor’s face. A crudely-crafted, pale creature declares,
“Your firstborn has returned, Father.”
If you never forget this scene and what happened to Proteus, you are not alone.
Spoiler-Free Flourishes, Symbols, & Quotes
- Brona = sorrow/sadness in Gaelic
- Proteus = Proteus is the deceptive, faulty protagonist of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as Triton’s other son, along with Poseidon, in Greek myth, appropriate to his history with the sea. Milton uses Proteus to invoke a spirit of alchemy in Paradise Lost, and many Romantic poets call back to Poseidon to contrast machinery as a creative force.
- Victor feeds bread to Proteus then laughs that they don’t have theology. Creator, creation, body, bread, communion. Theology.
- Chestnuts are a symbol of foresight.
- Dorian and Vanessa mirror in red and black, predatory colors.
- Heavy thematic work on the dual human/animal nature of man.
- Amun-Ra: snake prince, devours souls, rebirth = vampire nature
Spoilers & Tinfoil for Re-Watchers
- Vanessa and Dorian’s red/black is repeated with Vanessa and Sweet in S3.
- Tinfoil 1: Is this séance is the first time Malcolm realizes that Vanessa’s possession/mental problems were legitimate, and that perhaps her actions against Mina were not entirely of her own doing?
- Tinfoil 2: Could this Egyptian creature have been the pharaoh who sparked the myth of Amun-Ra and Amunet in his search for the spirit who now lives in Vanessa? Is this Dracula’s oldest child?
- Tinfoil 3: Vanessa’s nature, continued
- “Let your minds float in darkness… back to the time of ancient seas when the earth was new.”
- “But if one is to engage with the primordial forces of darkness, one must expect a bit of social awkwardness.”
- Vanessa is irresistible in her natural state during the storm.
- Kali calls for Mut, an Old Kingdom mother goddess who spawned all of creation from primordial waters, much like the early Sumerian version of Lilith who birthed herself and all of humanity. Kali then tries to label Vanessa “Amunet,” but it is likely that she did indeed summon Mut, or at least the original being represented by Mut. Appropriately, Mut eventually supplanted Amunet as Amun-Ra’s consort in the religion and can be considered his true counterpart.
- These items further support my theory regarding Vanessa as a vessel of Lilith, explained in detail at the end of my review for S3E5 “This World Is Our Hell”
Penny Dreadful S1E2 = 9/10