02nd May2015

‘Penny Dreadful 2×01: Fresh Hell’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Sometimes you wanna go, where everybody knows your name.”

PD-201-1Penny Dreadful comes screeching back into the station with ‘Fresh Hell,’ a promising, if uneven, season premiere that sees freaks of all kind seeking solace with each other.  For Ethan and Vanessa it means a small step toward commiserating over the terror of containing the inhuman within themselves.  For the creature Caliban it means whining about how lonely he is, hiding himself among the other weirdos in a wax museum, and projecting creepily onto a corpse(Brona’s) he hopes Frankenstein can raise from the dead to live as his bride, and for sir Malcolm it means a sad attempt at reaching out to his estranged wife and the mother of his departed children, both of whom paid with their lives for their bad luck in fathers.  Everybody’s hurting in the wake of last season’s knock-down-drag-out revelations and events, and everybody could use a shoulder to cry on.

Helen McCrory’s Madame Kali/Evelyn Poole, fresh from a soak in some maidenly blood, wisely chooses to do her begging and pleading on an altar graced with skulls and dedicated to Satan.  Her scenes are the episode’s most memorable, especially the long introductory sequence in which the camera wends its way through her shadowy manor before coming upon the corpse of an, ahem, “unorthodox” bath bomb and rising to frame this indelible image:

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McCrory’s commitment to playing a devoted Satanist witch and the matriarch of a coven of same is total, and from the first moment she steps on screen to torment Vanessa from afar in a pristine, snowy park she gets enough scenery in her teeth that director James Haws must have been calling in dentists between takes.  Her dry delivery of the episode’s Big Villainous Monologue, which begins with “Girls, I must confess a modicum of disappointment with regards to the events of last night” and ends with a slit throat and a history lesson about the origins of the phrase “memento mori” is pure glorious pulp, part of the show’s successful efforts to ratchet up the Gothic gloom and gore.  It’s a great counterpoint to Eva Green’s continued invaluability as the haunted and jittery but fiercely self-possessed (and actually possessed) Vanessa Ives.

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Penny Dreadful’s weird ability to (mostly) sell its disparate cast as a kind of surrogate family is, along with atmosphere, the show’s biggest strength right now, but that’s not to say it all goes smoothly.  Baby-faced Rory Kinnear  feels miscast as Caliban, incapable of putting gravitas behind his supposedly towering rage at his lonely and unasked for existence, and his angst is often gratingly unsympathetic in the shadow of Vanessa’s and Malcolm’s more believably portrayed struggles to live as themselves while feeling irredeemable.  Ethan is, as last season, serviceable but largely a blank while Danny Sapani’s charismatic Sembene continues to be underused.

Action, too, isn’t really the series’ strong suit.  The scene in which witches attack Ethan and Vanessa is sloppily paced and doesn’t do much to foster tension, occupied mostly by bald ghouls pawing at our heroes and shrieking in a diabolic language.  It seems to begin and end more or less arbitrarily, a scripted feeling that just doesn’t sell the urgency the witches killing the cabbie and his horse tries to spark.  If Penny Dreadful‘s second season is going to find its footing, family and the comfort of finding people just as fucked up and weird as ourselves are the levers it needs to pull.

Or just more prayers to Satan and scorpions drawn in thumb blood.  Whatever.

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