Previously on Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection”
The fourth episode, “Demimonde,” is a plateau for the Dreadfuls, a break between the extremes of man vs. monster. Vanessa and Dorian take the day off and run into Ethan and Brona on a date, where Caliban is working and Sembene is lurking. Malcolm and Victor study, plan, and invite Van Helsing over for a consult. Such moments cannot last: by the end of the day, dark deeds begin anew and the lines between man and monster continue to blur. With spare forward motion, what little progress they’ve made stalls, casting a pall on their quest to save Mina.
In the midst of the peace, series writer John Logan carefully builds character dynamics for the second act, primarily through Dorian Gray, with whom we’ve had little time short of being assigned The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school. Reeve Carney shoulders Dorian’s languid boredom with aplomb. Orgies? Yawn. Blood sport? Meh. Absinthe? Tea time. Kissing a man who is most likely jointly crushing on Vanessa and strangles him as foreplay? Getting there. As for the secret portrait hidden away, Carney conveys the perfect blend of nearly unreadable horror-fascination as he settles into his seat.
So many monsters…
The adder beneath the rose…
Something about encountering Dorian brings duplicity to the surface. Vanessa’s themes crystallize: vampirism, secretly dark identities, and extrareligious reincarnation, first hinted at in the orphan girl’s near-ghost story about her mother, followed by Dorian’s fascination with poisonous flowers and a long-lived orchid that is not just rare, but the rarest in the world. Later she takes a bite of an apple and offers it to Fenton, invoking Eve or Lilith, depending on your preferred Creation narrative.
Far from a kindly father figure, Malcolm observes Ethan and Victor’s desire for paternal approval then plays them against each other to strengthen their investment in the group, particularly on Victor’s part. Otherwise, his invitation to Ethan and near-adoption of Victor makes no narrative sense, considering their short association. This is, after all, only a group of hired literal-and-metaphysical guns. He completes the strange familial circle by calling Vanessa the daughter he deserves, making her both “Mother” and daughter. Creepy.
Speaking of fluid roles, Ethan easily moves from his honest romance with Brona to flirty banter with the Vanessa and Dorian, much like he apparently moves through the worlds of man and monster. Brona hits the glass ceiling when a cheerful date at the Grand Guignol turns sour, while Ethan gets a similar dose in the rat-baiting brawl with a crew of dandies. The blood on Brona’s face and the blood on the betting gentleman’s face are the height of contrasting privilege. But the as-yet-unexplained parallels between Ethan and Dorian trumps all as the two men light Tumblr on fire with an absinthe-fueled kiss to help Ethan, and us, forget new clues in his hallucinatory flashback: both the apple-eating prostitute and the murdered mother’s body feature prominently. Add this to Flash Jack the rat-killing terrier for hire, his refusal to donate blood, and the full-moon monster of the Grand Guignol… The picture begins to come into focus.
One thing this episode does particularly well is setting the atmosphere and textures. The clothing so accurately communicates their place in the world, from Brona’s evening dress that still makes her look like an urchin to Ethan’s expensive tweed suit, from Dorian’s casual silk shirt to Vanessa’s delicate, fine lace mourning dress. Perfect lighting and composition frame shots that read like art photography. The deafening Wagner, snarling dog pit, and literal theatrical sound effects transport you into the scene… It is a feast for the senses, and for that, Penny Dreadful’s many artists should be commended.
Dorian & Vanessa
Dorian Gray’s parlor is a sexual tableau, yet his attention drifts to his portraits and operatic music. Once alone, he enters a hidden chamber to gaze upon a cloaked portrait.
As Vanessa watches a church from afar, a little girl wonders why she won’t go in when she clearly wants to. The orphan comments,
“We put mother under the ground but I don’t think she’ll stay there. They never stay there do they?”
Heaven, she means, but Vanessa is thrown by her creepy Victorian child honesty. Still reeling, she observes Dorian stroll out and follows him to a conservatory, spying him caressing a red, dewy lily.
Recognizing her presence, he offers to show her around, citing flowers’ “duplicity… or their hidden depths at any rate,” and points to a purple flower. She leans into its scent:
“Touch me, with your finger. Softly. My scent on your neck. Open your lips. Taste.”
Cuddling in bed with Ethan, Brona admits she was once engaged to a “brutal man with brutal hands” who would push her face away during sex. After one particularly brutal night, her mother told her to marry him anyway for the money. Instead, she turned to the streets. Ethan sympathizes with one of my favorite series lines:
“There are such sins at my back it would kill me to turn around.”
A brief scene, but it goes a long way to establish understanding for her character and in conveying their comfort level and intimacy with each other, so bravo to them.
Professor Van Helsing consults with Victor on Fenton’s blood sample, showing him “Hannah’s Wink,” a lack of coagulation, to assist with hematophagy, i.e. eating blood. As Van Helsing begins to explain how he knows this, Victor spots Caliban outside and rushes out to get an earful over his lack of action, which Victor blames on lack of money and supplies. Despite everything, they cannot help but antagonize each other. Caliban claims the future for the master race of immortals.
Back in the basement, Fenton begs for Mother. Victor proposes they start attempting a cure with a simple transfusion, but Ethan declines to be a donor. Something in his expression catches Sembene’s attention.
While they wait for results, Ethan trashes Victor’s newspaper, burning the murder headline in the fireplace before they can read it. They fuss openly in front of Malcolm, who waxes poetic about tracing the Nile to its origins, “the Mother of Waters,” abruptly inviting Ethan on his next expedition. Victor jealously points to Ethan as his “more robust brother” when Vanessa arrives, but she blithely dismisses Malcolm’s passion, shining an apple on her black dress.
To test their cure, Vanessa rolls the bitten apple to Fenton. He explodes that he needs blood, which Sembene humorously provides in the form of a yowling stray cat. While the rest are out, Victor wonders aloud if Malcolm isn’t really going to Africa like Vanessa implied. Soothing his jealousy, Malcolm names Ethan a finger on a trigger, unlike his dead son who is much like Victor. Smooth.
Hearing a noise upstairs, the two men find the Master in Vanessa’s room. Having bitten himself out of his chains, Fenton throws himself onto Malcolm to aid the Master’s escape but is accidentally impaled on the broken window, dying as he whispers, “Mother?”
After the theater, Vanessa senses something has gone very wrong in the house while she was out. Finally Malcolm admits the Master was after her, and their entire episode with Fenton was a trap from the moment Mina appeared to Vanessa. They blame each other for Mina’s complicity. Malcolm says,
“There are times that I wish Mina had been born with your cruel spirit. You’re the daughter I deserve. So we’ll carry on with this fight. We can lose every battle but the last.”
Monstrous Little Horrors
Ethan takes Brona to the Grand Guignol, and their joy is contagious. When she calls the actress lovely, he mouths “so are you” to himself. With Caliban managing the effects, the troupe performs The Transformed Beast, a werewolf story full of double entendre and humorous amounts of blood. Upstairs Dorian and Vanessa meet gazes. As the drama peaks and the transformed beast kills his lover, Ethan chuckles at Brona’s fear and Vanessa and Dorian shrug at each other coolly. Sembene watches Vanessa, unseen.
At intermission, Vanessa greets Brona and Ethan, sending Brona fidgeting at the contrast, which then worsens exponentially as Dorian joins them saying he knows her. She nervously excuses herself, stumbling into the street and screaming at Ethan to accept that she’s dying. She slaps him, demanding he pay her from now on to distance him. Dorian finds him staring after her and invites him to “be someone else,” leaving Vanessa alone for the second act.
Brona crawls into a hovel, coughing up blood from her upset, while Ethan follows Dorian into a gambling den, full of money and fine clothing. During a match of rat baiting, he grows panicked at the dog tearing into the rats and backs up to the bar, accidentally bumping into a group of dandies. Pegging him for an American, they cajole him into a fight. Naturally he punches the shit out of them, necessitating a trip back to Dorian’s for bandages.
Speaking of differing identities, Dorian offers him absinthe, reading Ethan as only playing the part of the rude, ignorant American, while he himself is playing at being human.
“I would ask if you know Wagner, but you’d only pretend that you don’t.”
Regarding the portraits, Ethan says his are from an extinct Anasazi village, paintings of the sun and moon and animals—primitive. Honest. Dorian puts on “The Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde. He describes the scene: Isolde’s lover is dead on the beach, the waves crashing in her heartbreak. As the absinthe takes hold, memories flood Ethan: Brona leaving him, the rat baiting blood lust, waking up at the docks, Vanessa spreading the tarot, the woman cursing him, beating Fenton, the prostitute with the apple, the actress dying on stage, the mother dismembered. He grabs Dorian by the throat, then kisses him hard and tears off his shirt. Dorian returns his gestures slowly and deliberately. They kiss, tears on Ethan’s face.
Spoiler-Free Flourishes, Symbols, & Questions
- Lots of sensory imagery in this episode: cologne, botany, Hannah’s wink, absinthe, dog growling, fruit, blood splattering, overly loud opera music
- Q: Is Sembene following Vanessa on his own or via Malcolm? I prefer to believe he took the initiative based on his personal beliefs about her, much like he took note of Ethan’s tone in the basement but didn’t share.
- Vanessa wears red and black at the play, continuing the spider imagery, although out of sync with Dorian, who is wearing purple.
- Related: the lily he touched intimately was red, while the belladonna was purple. Possible messages: V is asking him to touch her. D is warning her that he’s deadly.
- Unrelated: is Dorian wearing pleather pants at the orgy?
- The apple from Eve/Lilith does not tempt Fenton since he is no longer a man (Adam).
- “Immortal races” = points to more than one immortal and more than one type of immortal in the series
Spoilers, Questions, & Tinfoil for Re-Watchers
- Why does Ethan laugh at the play? To make us think he’s pathological? Red herring to throw us off the scent? Truth in humor?
- Brona’s downward spiral begins after she comes into contact with Vanessa and Dorian, the demographic of people that uses people like her; Ethan then has a nearly identical symbolic experience at the gambling den, watching upper class men sic a dog on a pit of rats, much like Malcolm sent him into the vampire nest unaware and then calls him nothing more than a finger on a trigger.
- Ethan killing the apple-eating prostitute: foreshadowing to final episode when he kills Vanessa/Mother/Lilith?
- Liebestod: love-death = the series finale
- Mirrored room: ironic that the mirrors reflect less honestly than the portrait.
- Hypothesis: Dorian’s portrait doesn’t change as a result of the orgy.
- Vanessa imagery: tiny spider, kills all plants (Garden of Eden shoutout?), duplicity/hidden depths, deadly beautiful things, rare flower perfecting itself for a single bloom, “the adder beneath the rose,” “within there’s a dark thing waiting,” Mother, Mother of Waters
- Suspicious: Fenton calls Malcolm “Sir M” like Catriona Hartdegen
Penny Dreadful S1E4 = 7.5/10