Penny Dreadful Season 3, Episode 1
“The Day Tennyson Died”
Posted by Sage
It’s been months since the events of Penny Dreadful‘s season two finale, and Vanessa Ives has fortified herself inside her own loneliness. To recap: anyone and everyone left Vanessa after Narcissa Malfoy’s coven was vanquished. Sir Malcolm sailed to Africa to lay Sembene to rest. Ethan surrendered to Inspector Rusk, hoping for his death but instead being returned to the American West. The Creature removes himself from polite society for Its Own Good. And God? God has deserted Miss Ives too, or at least that’s what her hopelessness tells her. “Recently, you lost something you think very important,” the severe Dr. Seward says to her. “Your lover, your family, your faith. Or all three.”
That’s how Lyle finds Vanessa. Sir Malcolm’s house is a rambling, Gothic number full of dark hallways and heavy, unwelcoming furniture. But it was full of life before, and Vanessa – we know – finds some comfort in darkness anyway. It was not a scary place for her until she was left there on her own. Vanessa sends away the help, closes the shutters, lets the filth build up, and retreats into her bedroom like some kind of enchanted princess. Someone shoves a basket of milk and bread through the kitchen door and she devours it right there on the floor, tearing into the loaf with her teeth like an animal. Not your average princess, then. She never has been.
It’s depression, and Penny Dreadful is going to tackle it with its arsenal of demons, monsters, and sexed-up literary figures. So far so good. Lyle breaches Vanessa’s walls by not taking no for an answer. She ignored his letters and he knows from experience what it means to sign off from life like this. The bell is tolling for Tennyson, Lyle tells her. The poet could not escape death, but he put so much of his own soul into the world that the entire country is mourning him. Shared pain is the best kind of art we have. It is better to have loved and lost. Lyle has his own story of “mental anguish” – a time when he’d felt “loathed and loathsome” – and encourages Vanessa to seek out the same doctor who helped him become “so resplendently who I am.” Grateful, relieved, and hopeful again at long last, Vanessa lays in Lyle’s lap and cries.
Dr. Seward brushes the conversation off, however. She’s all business and that’s why she’s the best. The doctor lays out her strict rules: IF she is to accept Vanessa’s case, Vanessa must come for an hour every other day and do exactly as Dr. Seward says. Their sessions are to remain “mutually confidential.” There will be no coddling, because that doesn’t fit into the treatment. “I’m not your friend or your priest or your husband,” she says, and Vanessa flinches because she doesn’t have any of those anyway. “I am your doctor.” (If you’ve ever seen Patti LuPone shut an audience member down for taking photos of a live Broadway performance, then you know how firm she can be. DO NOT CROSS PATTI LUPONE.) Then Penny Dreadful proves that it’s approaching mental health issues from a responsible place, even though it’s a patently ridiculous show. “You understand that you are ill?” Dr. Seward asks her new patient. “Not bad. Not unworthy. Just ill.” And no, Vanessa doesn’t know that. But the doctor sums up her downward spiral so accurately that Vanessa begins to see that her illness fits a pattern and thus isn’t proof of her own specific heavenly punishment.
If you thought for a second that the only darkness stalking Vanessa this season would be clinical depression, then you might be new to this show. She leaves Dr. Seward’s office with an assignment: break the cycle of her despair by doing one new thing. On her way to that new experience, she’s accosted by a pale little boy selling “death ribbons” in Tennyson’s memory. “I’ve got the anemia,” he says, when Vanessa reacts to his pallor. And that’s Victorian for “there are some vampires up in this bitch.”
Shaken but undeterred, Vanessa is drawn into the Museum of Natural History. While wandering through the animal exhibits, she meets Dr. Alexander Sweet, the head of the institution’s zoology department. They have a meet cute over a few tubes of poisonous scorpions (because Penny Dreadful) but her memories of Ethan Chandler are still fresh. Only in this show could the heroine gaze mournfully at a taxidermied wolf while missing her lover. #WereProblems
Though monied and beautiful, Vanessa has always identified with people who live out on the fringe. Dr. Sweet is strange, but not threateningly so. He knows his passions make him a character, but he does not apologize for them. He sees a kindred spirit in Vanessa, who proudly tells him that she’s touched a scorpion before. (“Why do you think I’m interested in the dangerous ones?” FORESHADOWING.) How long has it been since Vanessa has conversed with a stranger who isn’t treating her? They talk about the creatures in Sweet’s jurisdiction, heavy on the symbolism. He reminds her that the world is still worth marveling at, and she comes alive a bit.
But do we trust him? Vanessa has found herself the target of so many otherworldly plots that I’m inclined to question anyone who happens to meet her “by chance.” Dr. Sweet is so NICE. Too nice. And there’s something about how his life’s calling requires him to spend his days around bloodless things. Also, he’s the Ice Truck Killer.
Anyway, memo to Victor Frankenstein that there’s more than one way to bring someone back to life. He receives a visitor in this premiere, one who’s used to having chamber pots emptied in his direction by old crones telling him to “go back to Calcutta.” This is Dr. Henry Jekyll, Victor’s schoolboy best friend and his first conspirator on the topic of reanimation. (“All these dark, gorgeous secrets…”) Victor summoned Henry from the end of his rope and the worst of his heroin addiction. Lily’s existence is plaguing him. She must be snuffed out. Because of all the murder, you know? (“Is it love or work?” “Both.”)
Henry, bless him, sees right through Victor. First, he takes him to task for only calling for Henry when he needs him. Then, he diagnoses Victor accurately as a drama queen. (“Not suicide. You think too much of yourself.”) Victor is doing his best to convince Henry and himself that his bloodlust for Lily isn’t that at all. It’s simply a correction of the mistake that he inflicted on nature and a public service to the dirty old men of London (her favorite targets). Henry is the one consumed with murder anyway. Victor reminds him of the hours they’d spend writing and ordering Henry’s kill list – all the people who’ve ever wronged him. (“The recitation of your potential victims. Your nightly prayers. That anger inside you, all that rage. Have you lost it?”) That was before, Henry says. He’s been science-ing the brutality out of himself. No spoilers, but literary history AND Looney Tunes tells me that this will NOT go well.
Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm has finished up his errand in Zanzibar. Sembene’s remains are back home. Malcolm is not, however. The country is not as he remembers it. Adventure and curiosity are gone, replaced by a land that’s been ransacked for its resources and its people. (“Are there no fresh wonders left?”) Sir Malcolm’s letters are the only ones that Vanessa answers, even those she answers them with lies to protect him. He won’t be returning to her as soon as he expected. A gang of vandals try to rob Sir Malcolm in an alley; he beats them back with the help of a stranger. Over an appreciative drink, the man introduces himself as a Native American who has been seeking Sir Malcolm. He’s in Zanzibar to remind Malcolm of his calling, namely to “fight the great demons of earth and sky until you are dead.” (Fun!) The next step in that effort is to retrieve Ethan Chandler from American wilderness and from his father, who went to great and bloody lengths to remove him from Rusk’s custody. This man considers himself and Sir Malcolm to be more worthy fathers to Ethan than his biological one. “Our son needs us,” the man says. And how can Malcolm, who failed his own daughter, resist that call to action?
Thus, my prospects seemed only a long, dark corridor without an end. I have done things in my life for reasons that seemed right and even moral in their violent immorality. And now I stand without that God upon whom I have always depended. But please do not fear for me. I have no fear myself. The old monsters are gone. The old curses have echoed to silence. And if my immortal soul is lost to me, something yet remains. I remain.
And it’s a good thing she’s recovered herself, because a titanic figure in classic horror in coming her way. Congratulations to Penny Dreadful for taking Dracula – once played by Leslie Nielsen – and making him shit-your-pants scary again. The button on the episode follows Dr. Seward’s not-so-proper assistant to a not-so-nice neighborhood for a thrust into a middle-aged whore. They’re interrupted when the pale boy from the street and his older companion take care of the whore and borrow Renfield (I KNEW IT) for a little chat. The Penny Dreadful team defines its monsters a lot by movement, adding new elements of fear into folk villains we’ve seen hundreds of times before. These vampires crawl like the girl from The Ring, and I am NOT okay. Renfield’s life is “saved” by the leader of these creatures, who sends them scurrying away with the rats as soon he appears. We don’t SEE Dracula (possibly because he shares a face with Dr. Sweet?), but we sure as hell hear him. “Have no fear, child. Look at me. Look at me. Tell me about her.”
- “Bring you back to the mammalian community.” – Me to me after a binge-watch.
- Hecate is following Ethan for a reason that will eventually come to light. There’s not much to say about his storyline otherwise. He’s out of Rusk’s clutches again and back in his father’s. From what we know about him, that might be worse. (“Cheer up, Ethan. We’re taking you home.”)
- What’s the Creature been up to? Just surviving a ship wreck that’s left the remaining passengers freezing to death below deck. He does two interesting things before he picks up his rucksack and trudges out into the snow like only an undead patchwork man can do: 1) he snaps a child’s neck to spare him further pain and to leave the survivors something fresh to eat, and 2) he has a flash of memory of who he was before his death. The Creature is one of the show’s least interesting characters to me, because he’s always been an argument for ranking intent over action. Problematic shit. But I’m encouraged by this shift in his story, especially if he can locate his family.
- Minus a few minor screw-ups, Penny Dreadful is still one of the most feminist shows on television. Well done, John Logan.
- “This whole country is build on skeletons.”
- “Then I’ll unfold a tale better suited to black midnight….” Okay, Victor. Relax.
- “I don’t care about politeness. There are no manners here.”
- Hands up if you were furiously nodding to “you’re drawn to dark, complicated men.”
- “Far be it from me to get between a man and his tiger.”
And that’s our first Penny Dreadful recap, folks! I can’t wait to see what nightmares this season is going to hand us. Light up the comments and let us know who’s watching!