Reeve Carney as the immortal hedonist, Dorian Gray
Demimonde, the fourth episode of Penny Dreadful is an improvement over the somewhat monotonous third instalment. More information is revealed about the show’s main characters and the overall story arc, and there are some fantastically eerie moments that should spook and amuse any horror fan. The episode still suffers from some of the problems that have cropped up in every episode so far (such as overly flowery, pretentious dialogue) but Demimonde indicates that the show is far from running out of steam.
At the end of the last episode, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) investigated London Zoo in search of Sir Malcolm’s vampire daughter, Mina. Instead, they found Fenton (Olly Alexander) an insane teenager with a vampire-like craving for blood. Unlike the other vampires on the show, who are either super-agile thugs or monstrous skeletal creatures, Fenton is a somewhat pathetic wretch. Sir Malcolm and his allies lock him in a basement with the intention to let Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) experiment on him (in order to find a cure for Mina). Fenton’s character and appearance will be very familiar to any viewer who knows their Dracula; Fenton is extremely similar to the character of Renfield from Bram Stoker’s original novel. Like Renfield, Fenton screams feeble threats and demands animals to feed upon. So pitiful is Fenton that Chandler feels extremely conflicted about Frankenstein’s experiments; this is the first of several clues dotted throughout the episode that Chandler may be more than the gun-wielding everyman he appears to be. By the end of the episode, so many hints have been dropped that Chandler is a werewolf that it now seems fairly unlikely to be true. The writing of Penny Dreadful is too strong for Chandler’s secret to be anything so bland as a simple case of lycanthropy (werewolf-ism).
Chandler takes his dying lover, Brona (Billie Piper), to a horror show theatre, unaware that most of the show’s core characters are also attending the performance. Vanessa Ives is attending, as is the mysterious Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Ives and Gray’s relationship becomes increasingly complex in this episode, a merging of flirtatious banter and acerbic insults. This episode is the first in which the eponymous Picture of Dorian Gray is glimpsed, implying that Gray has already become the amoral immortal of Oscar Wilde’s novel. When Brona becomes intimidated by Vanessa’s obvious upper middle class status and Gray’s sudden appearance (Brona providing sexual services to the hedonistic Gray in a previous episode), she leaves the theatre and abandons Chandler. This leads to Chandler travelling the city with Gray, leading to a shocking plot twist that is sure to transform the relationships of the shows’ characters.
Also present at the theatre is Caliban (Rory Kinnear), better known as Frankenstein’s Monster. Caliban remains an intriguing villain, if not a little unclear in his motivations. At one point in the episode, Caliban foolishly boasts to Frankenstein that he plans to overthrow mankind with a new race of artificial beings like himself and that humans are weak and feeble. Yet Caliban seems to enjoy his work as a theatre stagehand, smiling and laughing as the theatre actors shock and amuse the patrons. It remains to be seen if this is complex characterisation or sloppy writing. The only other member of the cast who attends the show is Sembene (Danny Sapani), Sir Malcolm’s African manservant. So far the character has remained something of a cipher, mostly-mute figure whose motivations and history remain to be revealed.
This episode masterfully sets up avenues for future storylines. A huge treat for fans of horror and science fiction television is the cameo by David Warner as Dracula’s Professor Van Helsing. Van Helsing shares a brief scene with Frankenstein in which the professor reveals that he is aware of the existence of vampires. Later in the episode, a vampire monster invades Sir Malcolm’s home in search of Vanessa. Considering that Fenton refers to this creature as “Master” (the name Renfield called Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel), and the fact that Professor Van Helsing is established in this same episode, it is possible that the vampire is none other than fiction’s most famous bloodsucker himself. If so, fans of Gothic Horror fiction have a lot to be excited about for the future of Penny Dreadful. The problems with the show continue to mostly manifest as poor choices in the dialogue. Whilst the show is meant to be melodramatic and over-the-top, some of the dialogue in this episode crosses the tenuous line into outright silliness. In one of the first scenes, Vanessa is asked by Gray to describe a flower. Her resulting speech is supposed to be provocative and erotic, but it just comes across as farcical: she is, after all, “talking dirty” to a plant. Whilst most of the cast are assembled at the theatre, Frankenstein and Sir Malcolm discuss the latter’s planned expedition to find the source of the Nile (a nice touch for fans of 19th Century history). Frankenstein expresses displeasure at not being selected by Sir Malcolm as a travelling companion and Sir Malcolm retorts by saying that he could not bear Frankenstein’s death on his conscience. This exchange is utterly bizarre, since it suggests a strong kinship between these two men that has never been implied before. Why the cold and erasable Sir Malcolm would care so much for the slippery, cowardly Frankenstein is not properly explain beyond a vague reference to Sir Malcolm’s dead son being somewhat like the doctor. Perhaps this exchange will gather greater meaning in later episodes.
Whilst doubtlessly flawed, Demimonde achieves at being atmospheric, creepy and very intriguing. It seems as if all of the key pieces of the season’s narrative are now in place. Now the story can really begin.
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