The first episode of Penny Dreadful was good fun, but “Séance,” appropriately enough, takes the show one step beyond. Admittedly, on initial viewing my attention wandered a bit during the first half of the episode. Ostensible lead Ethan Chandler had already settled into a funk, and with the introduction of two new characters it felt like Penny Dreadful was still clearing its throat before getting on with the good stuff. But the good stuff arrived right on time with the bravura centerpiece that gives the episode its title and a stunning ending that had me needing to watch “Séance” again immediately. This time, almost everything clicked into place.
Let’s start with those new characters. Billie Piper, who spent four seasons playing a prostitute on Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, is Brona Croft, an Irish prostitute. Given what we’ve learned about the other main characters, we can hope there’s more to her than meets the eye. (Croft turned to flesh-peddling after her factory job washed out. Even 80 years before the Mad Men era, Sunday night TV characters lament being replaced by machines.) Croft befriends Chandler over their shared fondness for breakfast whiskey, and later serves as our introduction to Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) when she turns up at his estate for a photo shoot that turns into the 19th century equivalent of a homemade sex tape. The fact that Croft is consumptive and coughing up blood serves as a turn-on for Gray, who doesn’t look particularly worried about contracting a highly contagious, often fatal disease. (With good reason, assuming Gray conforms to his literary origins.)
Gray enters the orbit of previously introduced characters at a party thrown by Egyptologist and pretentious fop Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale). Sir Malcolm and Vanessa are also in attendance, only because that’s what they had to promise Lyle in order to secure his help translating the hieroglyphics. Gray’s chance encounter with Vanessa is all suggestive looks, innuendo, and surprisingly intimate close-talking, but before things can get too hot and heavy, Lyle interrupts with a surprise: Madame Kali will lead the group in a séance to summon the Egyptian goddess Amunet.
This is where shit gets crazy. Last week I noted the restraint in Eva Green’s performance, but that’s off the table as Vanessa is possessed by at least one paranormal entity (and possibly as many as three). This is Eva Green unleashed: She convulses; she assumes different personas; she speaks in tongues (or maybe Egyptian—mine is a little rusty); she bends over backwards and ululates and swears like a drunken sailor. It’s a mesmerizing turn, but it’s also a lot to unpack. Is Vanessa actually possessed by Sir Malcolm’s son Peter, or is that merely an Exorcist-style trick performed by another demon? (Timothy Dalton’s grief-stricken expressions certainly suggest that Sir Malcolm buys into it.) If it is Peter, is he suggesting an incestuous relationship between Sir Malcolm and Mina, or are his words addressed to someone else—an unseen vampire, perhaps? (There’s some intentional ambiguity here as well as some dialogue that was unintelligible to me even after a couple of viewings.) Has Vanessa already been carrying another “older” demon inside her, long before Amunet takes her over?
Much of this will presumably become clear eventually, but for now withholding remains Penny Dreadful’s primary narrative strategy. Sir Malcolm does finally get some answers out of Lyle regarding the hieroglyphics, which appear to portend an apocalypse brought about by the union of Amunet and Amun-Ra, another Egyptian god whose quest for perpetual life through feeding on souls suggests a strong kinship with Dorian Gray. While all this is going on, Victor Frankenstein is getting to know his new creation, who names himself Proteus by randomly choosing a page of Shakespeare. Proteus is a character from Two Gentlemen of Verona, but also the name of a sea god from Greek mythology. The name fits, as vague memories of his previous life suggest Proteus was a whaler. (The Greek Proteus was also a shape-shifter, and by the end of the episode, the creature’s shape has certainly shifted.)
The relationship between Victor and Proteus is tender, even homoerotic at times, but our familiarity with the Frankenstein story lends a queasy sense of impending doom to their night on the town. This creature is sensitive and sweet-natured, making it all the more unbearable to think their walk on the waterfront will culminate with some sight or event or memory triggering the beast within. When that doesn’t happen and they return safely to the lab, the relief is palpable but fleeting. What happens next is stunning and heartbreaking—literally, as a hand bursts through Proteus’ chest and tears him in half. Proteus, as it turns out, was actually Victor’s second attempt at reanimating life. Frankenstein’s monster has returned. I hope John Logan popped a bottle of champagne after coming up with that particular reveal.
Still, I’m sorry to see Proteus go. Alex Price did an outstanding job taking the character through what turned out to be an accelerated arc, generating great sympathy with few words but deeply expressive features. Victor’s hubris in tampering with the forces of nature had to be repaid, however, and I can’t wait to see how the presence of his original creation tips the narrative scales.
- Sir Malcolm consults with the police on the recent murders (whether they want him to or not). The inspector doesn’t believe the Ripper is involved and neither do I. The fact that the murders took place a month apart is a juicy clue. What fun are Frankenstein and Dracula without their pal the Wolf Man?
- Lyle’s “You must pay attention to me!” was hilarious and perfect.
- Elsewhere in literary references, Vanessa and Victor both know Wordsworth’s “Lines Written In Early Spring.” You can see why the recurring line “what man has made of man” would speak to Victor.