12th May2015

‘Penny Dreadful 2×02: Verbis Diablo’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

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Penny Dreadful‘s redeeming qualities are its sense of shlocky fun and its partially incredible cast.  Its weaknesses are its lousy pacing, its uncertain characterization of several core cast members, and its pursuit of tasteless thrills disguised as, to quote creator John Logan, “pushing the boundaries.”  When the show finds the balance between spectacle and humanity it can overcome its flaws and attain actual power, but more often, as it did this week, it flubs the landing.

‘Verbis Diablo’ is so thematically broad that there’s really no reason for the characters to talk.  Sir Malcolm assuages his conscience by tending to the sufferers of a cholera epidemic.  Dorian is pining after Vanessa.  Caliban/John Clare longs for love, life, and companionship.  Also he’s…hanging out in one of London’s good-old-fashioned cholera cellars where he has a long, rambling talk with Vanessa about finding beauty amidst ugliness?  I guess the bloom is off the rose at the waxworks.

Ferdinand Lyle is the only thing preventing this episode from being a clipshow of boring, shopworn garbage.  I will sing his praises and then move on to the post-mortem.  From the second he comes on screen, all impish smiles and ridiculous golden curls, practically howling “Ms. Ives, our tragic separation has trebled my delight upon seeing you again!,” Lyle does something nobody else on Penny Dreadful can: he lightens the mood.  Ethan’s chuckling acceptance of Lyle’s shameless flirting plays well, honestly, and lines like “Come this way. We shall be outrageously circumspect” are too good to come out of anyone else’s mouth.

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A camp gay character who feels like a real person driven by fears, pleasures, and insecurities is a nice thing.  In most of his appearances on Penny Dreadful he’s a likable and refreshing voice of humor; in this one he’s like a lone normal human being in a city full of naked men who will not for any reason stop screaming.  His face on the screen is a chance to feel an emotion other than stunned boredom and revulsion.

Sir Malcolm without a driving conflict is almost unbelievably uninteresting.  His self-analysis and shame over his projected identity as the Great White Explorer in season 1 made for riveting television, but his sniffing perfume and opining “very nice” or glaring mildly at a target on a shooting range aren’t exactly stirring moments.  Vanessa worries a lot, peeking around corners like a nervous cat before having her aforementioned pointless, out-of-nowhere chat with Frankenstein’s monster.

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That plot involves the weakest trio of actors at the show’s disposal.  Victor, Bronach/Lily, and Caliban/John make an unlovely triangle as their misaimed romances unfold with dreary, gloomy predictability.  The show seems to have no idea how to cast John’s quest to belong, alternately showing him as a boring but deadly bully and as a tender, fumbling schoolboy.  Neither is engaging, and while ambiguity is fine, this is just two wildly divergent portrayals with no connecting thread.  It’s also deeply unpleasant to watch the show strip Bronach’s erstwhile identity away and leave her in the hands of two men who shape her new life by lying to her, confabulating a story that she’s Frankenstein’s cousin so she’ll sleep with one(or both) of them.  It’s icky, it’s badly written, and it’s weakly acted and paced.

It feels like thin world-building that the witches, literal servants of the original rebel, are so drably conformist to society’s prejudices.  I know Satan isn’t supposed to be nice, but Penny Dreadful lazily casts its witches as violators of all the strictest tenets of femininity and despisers of “feminine” weakness.  They disparage Vanessa as a “cunt,” compare Ferdinand mockingly to a woman while browbeating him(he’s a double agent, of course), and then they kill and dissect a baby to enable some kind of magical assault or surveillance of Vanessa.  It’s a scene so numbingly without taste that I could feel my brain start to shut down involuntarily.

There’s one last point I’m going to discuss.  I’m devoting space to this both because it’s exceptionally tasteless and deserves to be critiqued and because, as those of you who read my review of Boy Meets Girl last week will know, I am transgender and I’m tired of media treating me like a plot twist.  Everything about Dorian Grey’s rendezvous with Angelique is disgraceful.  “I hope you know what you’re buying,” she says shyly as she disrobes, giving the writers a chance to make Dorian look progressive by desiring her.

A word to my fellow reviewers: Almost all of you are writing about this moment in a profoundly disrespectful and clueless way.  The AV Club’s Scott van Doviak called it a Crying Game-like dong reveal.” IGN’s Matt Fowler reffered to Angelique an “intriguing, forward transgender”(transgender is an adjective, not a noun). TV Fanatic’s Henry A. Otero wrote, I knew right away Angelique wasn’t entirely female. The voice was a dead giveaway, wasn’t it?” while Geek Binge’s Wednesday Lee Friday offered up, “That’s when Angelique confirms that she is, in fact, a biological male.”(maleness and femaleness are not solely or even primarily functions of biology and it is reductive to discuss them as such).  The titular Grog of Grog’s Movie Blogs offered up this gem: “I knew Angelique was a transvestite as soon as I saw her/him (sorry, I don’t know the political correctness for this sort of thing).”  Well Grog, at least you’re direct about your ignorance.

Please, educate yourselves.  Transgender people have always existed.  We’ve always been your family, your colleagues, your friends.  If anyone wants to discuss issues of portrayal, representation, or writing about trans characters, you are welcome to contact me through the comments section of this article.  Critics like Christine Duong at Pop Insomniacs found a way to write respectfully about Angelique’s presence in the show and I know the rest of the field can as well.

Here are some suggestions as to how the issue might have been handled better: An actual transwoman could have been cast in the role.  Angelique didn’t have to be a sex worker (there’s a long tradition of disproportionately portraying transwomen as sex workers and demonizing them for it).  Angelique’s body could have been her own to struggle with/feel comfortable in/work toward acceptance of, instead of it being Dorian’s to sexualize and accept or decline.  Agency and an identity outside of gender are routinely ignored when it comes to constructing a trans character; we need to change that paradigm and start producing meaningful representation.  Any creator, no matter their own identity, can be a part of that positive change, but they have to be willing to respect and learn about transgender people.

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