This post contains some plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful, though I do my best not to spoil too much. Read on at your own discretion
Even with a third of this season’s nine-episode run already completed, it’s difficult to judge where we should be at this point in Penny Dreadful’s story arc. Season one forced us to slowly stew in dread and suspense until the last few episodes, building up the struggles and motivations of its central characters. Season two jumped straight into supernatural action, then stepped back to let backstories unravel, and plot lines settle into place.
This season seems set on doing a little bit of both, and this episode gives us two main storylines to follow. One is in the American West, as werewolf Ethan Talbot continues to be pursued by various parties. One is in London, where all the progress Vanessa Ives made in her therapy with Dr Seward last episode starts to slip away as she realises she is still being stalked by a powerful evil she can’t yet name. At the end of the episode we learn that Dracula plans to break Vanessa mentally and physically, and bring her, begging, to him. With Van Helsing dead in season one, I would love to see Vanessa become the key agent of Dracula’s demise in Penny Dreadful – if, indeed, he does meet his end in the show. She has a long way to go as a character if this is indeed her role this season, however.
Vanessa’s storyline bears most of the slow horror in this episode. Are these monsters in her head, or are they a physical threat? And on which front will she need to be strongest in order to resist them? Once again a key scene between Vanessa and her psychoanalyst, Dr Seward, explores the relationship between pain and sickness, fantasy and delusion. Seward believes that Vanessa sees monsters, but does not believe in them herself. ‘It is a dark root without a name, from which grows illness’, Seward theorises. Monsters come from pain, and represent the speakable part of the unspeakable. To cope with the unspeakability of its experiences, ‘the mind creates order around it’.
Vanessa, growing tired of Seward’s cool rationalism, disagrees. ‘Such things have a name’, Vanessa retorts. ‘They are witches, they are vampires, they are Lucifer. They are all those things which walk in your nightmares’. Monsters are real to Vanessa, and real to others – real in certain places and certain times. While monsters (real and fantastical) may be unspeakable to a certain degree, then, the show seems to suggest that is still important to attempt the speaking of them. Vanessa is forced to confront one of these monsters (Dracula’s head minion) in the fun house hall of mirrors she visits with Dr Sweet, and another when she uses hypnotism to revisit her memories of the asylum. She has lost her faith; her ‘soul’. Will she lose her mind as well?
Ethan’s story is shaped by a markedly different kind of confrontation, that is not at all fraught by the doubt and tension that colours Vanessa’s experiences. Ethan’s story teases us with apocalypse, and with a legend of salvation. As we learned last season from Lucifer’s memoirs (no joke), Ethan is likely the ‘Lupus Dei’ or ‘Wolf of God’, who will play some vital role in a great battle to come. Of course, the trope of the Chosen One is common enough that, unless handled very carefully, the ‘Wolf of God’ storyline will be a largely predictable one.
The members of Penny Dreadful’s core family (including the now-deceased Sembene) believed that Ethan could save Vanessa from the witches. Now Hecate, one of those same witches, is attempting to turn Ethan into a weapon for the forces of evil.
How does Hecate plan to corrupt the noble Ethan? By ensuring he is ‘painted with blood’, a phrase that returns several times throughout the episode. Dorian describes to a vulnerable Justine how ‘In the Dark Ages, in certain parts of Europe, novitiate nuns were asked to pledge themselves to God… in blood. […] Much as soldiers in ancient Rome would have to prove themselves by killing an enemy. You were not a Legionnaire unless painted with blood.’ No coincidence, I would wager, that Dorian cites two major colonising forces as his examples here. In the case of Hecate, this symbolic gesture of belonging amounts to embracing the monster. It means acknowledging your own brutality, rather than denying it as Ethan does, slaughtering hundreds in his unconscious, werewolf form.
The additional, minor storylines in this episode follow up on the themes discussed in the major ones. Apocalypse of a different kind is brewing in London, as Lily Frankenstein sets out to form an underground army of ‘whores and fallen women. The disgraced and the powerless. […] All those invisible women who move unseen through this great city’. As I speculated in a previous review, we are indeed treated to a glimpse of a suffragette march, but when Justine remarks that they and Lily have a lot in common, Lily disagrees. She wants mastery, not equality. And she plans to achieve it through stealth, not overt protest. She will paint the world red. In one of the more visceral moments of this surprisingly gory episode, Dorian, Lily, and Justine literally paint each other in the blood of the man who abused Justine, smearing it onto each other’s bodies in a disturbing sexual threesome.
The episode metaphorically paints us in blood as well. What does it mean that we are complicit in, and may well take pleasure in, watching this violence unfold on screen? Are good and evil really intertwined, or is that what we tell ourselves to absolve us of our guilt? Can monsters be named, or can they only be deferred?
Henry Jekyll naturally disagrees with Victor Frankenstein on the subject of monstrosity and human nature. This difference is clearly marked, in part, by the adversity Jekyll has faced as a result of his class and racial background. He is angry, but must push his anger aside in order to function in society. We cannot afford, he argues, to be both angel and demon: ‘We must be the that thing the world demands of us’.
So far, this season has done a much better job of addressing themes of race and oppression than the previous two, in that it at least acknowledges their presence in discussions of monstrosity. I am, however, still waiting for it to pay more than simple lip service to these themes, and this episode’s depictions of Ethan as a White Saviour of Natives and monsters alike has done little to convince me this will happen.
In any case, I hope we get a slower, more focused episode sometime soon. All this jumping around from storyline to storyline, as entertaining as it may be, is also starting to feel a little crowded.
If previous seasons are anything to go by, in another week or two we’re due for a solid, single-character-driven hour of television. Next week’s episode, entitled ‘A Blade of Grass’, sounds like a prime candidate for some introspection. Season one and two were dedicated to flashbacks from Vanessa’s past. This season, my bet’s on Ethan Talbot – or, given the reveal at the end of this week’s episode, on John Clare.
– Vampires are officially visible in mirrors in this particular mythos.
– As far as I can tell, the title of the episode (‘Good and Evil Braided Be’) is a reference to Herman Melville’s 1855 serialised novella Benito Cereno. Predictably, however, the Google search results are now overwhelmed with references to this Penny Dreadful episode. Does anyone have a supplementary suggestion for where the phrase might originate?
– I haven’t said much about John Clare’s role in this season on purpose, because I’m not at all sure what to make of it yet. Rest assured, once the show drops a few more breadcrumbs I’ll come back to our favourite Creature, and analyse his role in season three in more depth.
– Eye-roll of the week: ‘I’ve never known a man who didn’t want to fuck me or beat me. Can you say different?’ ‘Well, I knew one. A time ago, this was. An American, in fact. He was different.’ Lily waxes romantic about Ethan, presumably adding to the noble ‘Wolf of God’ mythos the show is building, but I don’t really find the fact that Ethan lacks the taste for sexual or physical abuse glamorising in and of itself.
– Kaetaney’s appearances are frequently accompanied by the subtle sounds of a rattlesnake. Is he fated to be another Western stereotype of the skinwalker, as his relationship to Ethan suggests, or is the series drawing a less literal parallel between human and animal, as it did with Vanessa and the scorpion in season two? The appearance of the rattlesnake alongside the wolf and scorpion in Sweet’s taxidermy museum hints that the latter parallel, at least, is at play.
– Renfield eats a fly, and a thousand fans of the Dracula mythos cheer in unison.
Read the other reviews in this series of Penny Dreadful season three recaps by clicking the links below. (New links will become active as new episodes and reviews are released.)
Season Premiere: ‘The Day Tennyson Died’
Episode Two: ‘Predators Far and Near’
Episode Three: ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’
Episode Four: ‘A Blade of Grass’
Episode Five: ’This World Is Our Hell’
Episode Six: ‘No Beast So Fierce’
Episode Seven: ‘Ebb Tide’
Episodes Eight & Nine: ‘Perpetual Night’ and ‘The Blessed Dark’
Megen de Bruin-Molé (@MegenJM) is a second-year PhD candidate with the school of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. Her current research focuses on neo-historical fiction, using the theme of monsters and the monstrous to explore how and why the twenty-first century persistently appropriates historical fictions, figures, and traces. Follow her blog (angelsandapes.com) for updates and related articles.