The Penny Dreadful regulars aren’t reunited quite yet, but they’re all present and accounted for in “No Beast So Fierce,” following two episodes that drilled down into the backstories of isolated characters. Considering how much time was devoted to laying out the particulars of Ethan’s dilemma last week, it’s a little surprising to see it more or less resolved by the end of this episode, although I’m sure the ramifications of his strong flirtation with the forces of darkness will continue to impact the rest of the season. Still, given that only three episodes remain this year, it’s understandable that John Logan and company would feel the need to start accelerating toward the finish line. (We’ve gone from eight episodes in season one to ten in season two and now down to nine. Ten felt about right, but maybe the bigger scope of this year’s production made that a budgetary impossibility.)
The hour begins exactly where we left off, with Jared Talbot holding a pistol to his son Ethan’s face, and by the end it’s come full circle as Ethan is faced with deciding whether to kill his father or let him live, knowing that Jared will never stop hunting him and his friends. Neither pulls the trigger, although Jared might well have done so if not interrupted by the timely arrival of Rusk and Ostow. (This will not be the last timely arrival of the episode.) The arrogant Talbot patriarch may have seen most of his family slaughtered, but that hasn’t tempered his wealthy, manifest destiny-tinged belief that he has everything under control. He gathers everyone for an awkward dinner consisting mostly of guests who want to kill each other and/or their host. (Sir Malcolm at least makes an effort to get everyone through dinner alive, although his attempt to say grace is denied, leaving Ethan to recite a blasphemous version of the Lord’s Prayer.)
Ethan’s inner conflict has been one of the less successfully developed aspects of this season, and as the devil on his shoulder, Hecate has been more plot device than fully fleshed-out character in her own right. When she goes full Nightcomer at the table and announces that she and Ethan are “the End of Days” as the dinner erupts into chaos, it’s a thrilling moment. When she immediately takes a bullet and dies, it feels too easy. How can the End of Days be cut down just like that? Her death lets Ethan off the hook before he gets around to swearing his allegiance to Lucifer, and Malcolm pulling the trigger on Jared (after himself being saved by the last-second arrival of Kaetenay) resolves Ethan’s “My Three Dads” dilemma pretty definitively. That’s not to say Ethan has actively chosen to be a good boy (to the extent possible, given his condition), but at least now there’s no one actively lobbying for the dark side.
Back in London, another confrontation that’s been building throughout the season comes to a head, as Frankenstein’s plan to roofie Lily back to the light goes pear-shaped. Victor’s ever-escalating arrogance proves completely unfounded as he badly underestimates the former Brona Croft, who has long since moved past any notion of being Frankenstein’s creation, let alone his bride. He’s not alone in having underestimated her, either, as the lightbulb finally goes on over dim Dorian Gray’s head. Until now he’s seen himself as Lily’s equal, a fellow immortal, but he’s too much the vacuous hedonist to realize what’s going on around him until Justine makes it explicit. Lily may still care for him, but her army has no such feelings. Dorian at least gets it together in time to talk Lily into sparing Frankenstein’s life, leaving him with an important ally he may need sooner than he’d like.
This re-imagined Victorian feminist empowerment also finds its way into Vanessa’s storyline, as she meets new friend Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks of The Tudors). Hartdegen, who has no apparent literary antecedent, is introduced when she unmasks following a fencing duel she has won, either by cheating or due to superior tactics, depending whether you ask her or her male opponent. Vanessa seeks her out on Ferdinand Lyle’s recommendation, hoping she can shed some light on Dracula. Hartdegen has the whole story: the founder of the warrior clan Dracul provoked a war between the Romans and Ottomans so the world would be “wet with blood.” He’s the first vampire, a seducer who changes his appearance with the centuries. Her advice to Vanessa is to surround herself with loved ones, but those are in short supply at the moment.
That leads Seward to give some of the worst psychiatric advice since Dr. Melfi suggested Tony Soprano pick up a copy of The Art Of War: Go back to that lovely Dr. Sweet and give him another chance. It’s heartbreaking to watch Vanessa make herself vulnerable by telling Sweet/Dracula that “every time I have given my heart, it has led to catastrophe.” Catastrophe surely awaits again, but at least Vanessa’s true loved ones should be making their return next week. As the season enters its final third, the time is right for these characters and storylines to converge at last.
- Lyle is off to Cairo, which he believes will be more accepting of his “way of life.” But he also plans to visit the tomb of Imhotep. Is the Mummy on tap for season four?
- It’s a bittersweet week for John Clare, as he gets to spend a few precious minutes being a father to his consumptive boy. Then the kid opens his eyes and it’s back to being a feared, hated outcast for Frankenstein’s monster.
- Wrongheaded Speculation Dept.: All right, so my “Dracula as hero” theory isn’t looking so sturdy. Let’s turn our attention to Seward: Does she steer Vanessa back to Dr. Sweet out of genuine concern, or is she secretly in cahoots with Dracula? I’m going with the former, if only because there would be no need for Dracula to turn Renfield and get him to do the dirty work if he already had a direct pipeline to Seward. (For what it’s worth, the Seward of Bram Stoker’s book is not in league with the vampire.)