WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the entirety of the second season.
In a scene awash with contemporary detective dramas, urban horror, or an oftentimes campy or uncomfortable blend of both, Showtime continues to impress with Penny Dreadful, its horror drama television series set in 19th Century London. The series already started off on a strong foot with intelligent reimaginings of some of the most powerful characters in Victorian Gothic fiction, an unapologetically classic narrative capable of binding the players on screen together, masterful cinematography and gorgeous aesthetics. The second season brings these characters closer together, and elevates the conflict on two counts: bringing in a villain from Vanessa’s past, and exploring the consequences of past actions committed by Chandler, Malcolm, and Frankenstein.
During its initial episodes, the first season of Penny Dreadful looked less like a solid show and more like a hodgepodge collection of classic horror fiction archetypes conveniently dumped within a single literary universe. However, we can safely say that it was a character-driven drama by necessity. The producers needed to set the stage for a larger conflict by ensuring that each of its elements were in place, and continuously teased us viewers with “chance” encounters between the characters and the good old jump scares of the classic horror kind.
Season two started out right at the highest point of tension of its predecessor. Evelyn Poole shows her true colors as the head of a coven of powerful Nightcomers. Chandler ironically seals his fate by choosing to be a good man and remain in London for Vanessa. Frankenstein’s hubris manifests in full when his deep loneliness and propensity to retreat into his science manifests in raw desire for Lily, the Creature’s Bride.
From that point onward, we’re left to watch circumstances draw the cast closer together all the way until everything falls apart. For example, Poole takes advantage of Malcolm’s vulnerability and nearly succeeds in adding another doll to her collection. Vanessa is introduced Frankenstein’s two surviving creations, and ends up befriending the Creature. In the meantime, we’re initially led to believe that Dorian Gray may be on the road to redemption in his blossoming romance with the cross-dressing prostitute Angelique – and then we see him fall into deeper depths when he ultimately chooses to protect his own “uniqueness” by killing Angelique the moment she discovers The Portrait. Furthermore, the Creature continues to be scorned by the people he meets, from his misplaced faith in the Putney Family right down to Lily choosing Dorian over the man she was originally resurrected for. Last but not the least, Chandler’s decision to trust Sembene with his darkest secret ends up getting Sembene killed. The second season thus ends with the surviving members of the cast going in different directions, each one of them ultimately alone in a sea of their own troubles.
Where season one’s use of gothic and classic horror tropes occasionally toed the uncomfortable line between artful and overblown, season two appears to have perfected the use of these devices, mainly by choosing to blend moments of stunning beauty with discomforting and horrific elements. The best example of this would be how season two pushed the envelope on its blending of the erotic and sensual with the disturbing and profane. Who didn’t, after all, find that bathtub scene between Frankenstein and the Creature’s beautiful corpse weirdly sexy? And let’s not forget the midpoint of the season, where – alongside Dorian taking Angelique in his gallery and a sensual encounter between Chandler and Vanessa at the stairwell, you have Malcolm and Evelyn fucking up a frenzy while Evelyn’s curse drives Gladys Murray to slit her own throat with her husband’s razor.
Another fine example would be how the “campier” elements of Penny Dreadful were more properly cemented within the series’ context and genre in comparison to this season than they were in the first. We are, for one, given a new spin on the age-old plot of a war between good witches and evil witches. Instead of it being some kind of harebrained epic battle with clearly defined boundaries, it falls closer to a meditation on the human desire to conquer death: a literary motif within Victorian romances and Gothic literature. An “evil” witch, therefore, is a witch that chose to embrace her power and baser instincts. A “good” witch seems to gain no real reward, and constantly runs the risk of being misunderstood because of the gifts they possess. In essence, we can actually extend this sort of theme to the rest of the characters. Is it really so wrong for one to have a bit of the dark in them? What does it truly mean to be “good” or “evil” or even “normal”, especially when there are aspects of one’s nature that one simply cannot change? And all the while, every action that one makes will continue to have an equal and opposite reaction from the people around them, or even from the world itself.
With all of that in mind, I can say that I wasn’t disappointed by Season 2. Members of the cast who were already impressive continued to shine, and actors whose performances weren’t nearly as memorable as their colleagues’ (take, for example, Billie Piper) really stepped up their game. I’ve also talked endlessly about the cinematography, effects and aesthetics here. On a critical level, I only have two points of contention. For one, the conflict between Evelyn and Hecate felt extraneous to the plot. In fact, there were occasions when I couldn’t help but think that they placed Hecate there just to give the actress a bit more time in the spotlight. I’m hoping, of course, Hecate actually does something interesting in the future, given that she survived her mother.
My next problem is the pacing. The escalation of the plot was perfect until the middle of the last episode, where things slowed to a crawl yet again in the form of the screenwriters taking us through that mandatory tour of where everyone’s going to end up. While I acknowledge that such an action was necessary, I do think that they could have afforded to find a less jarring way of portraying the end of Malcolm and Vanessa’s troupe.
The best fantastic stories build their narrative around a single question, or any one of the many ways in which one might view human nature. This latest installment Penny Dreadful upped the ante on the terrible beauty of its universe by deepening its exploration of the show’s central theme: the struggle that all people who find themselves facing the terrible expanse of darkness that is both literal and spiritual in nature face. Does one succumb to one’s “true nature” and embrace the shadows within, or does one attempt to rise above the weakness of the human condition? The true essence of the horrific, after all, is the intense and continuous magnification of familiar objects, thoughts, and emotions, up until the point that we find ourselves totally estranged from it. One doesn’t need to be the Beloved of the Fallen Angel or the Hound of God to empathize with the inability to feel uncomfortable in one’s own skin, especially in the wake of making particularly terrible decisions at the crossroads of one’s life. Penny Dreadful is impressive because while a significant part of its success can be attributed to it revitalizing the genre of Gothic horror by bringing the genre back to its roots, it doesn’t actually need any of its fantastic elements to be frightening, and beautiful because it’s frightening.
Showtime has renewed Penny Dreadful for a nine-episode third season on June 16, 2015. Given the way things ended for the characters, I am honestly wondering how things are going to go down, and if the remaining questions that us viewers have will finally be answered.