It’s strange to say, but to kick off this third season of Penny Dreadful things almost seem normal. Although our characters are touched by the supernatural, they all just seemed to be going through the motions in “The Day Tennyson Died,” which itself was a day far from the ordinary in British lore. The day Alfred, Lord Tennyson died – October 6, 1892 – it was like a piece of Victorian England died with him, his standing and influence in Great Britain was as pronounced then as it is today. With a pall cast over the city of London, it’s appropriate then that we catch up with our heroine who’s cast a pall over herself. Alone in England as strange things start to happen again.
It seems weird that season three should open with Vanessa Ives in the depths of despair, when season two ended with a pretty firm declaration on her part that she’ll find her own way; neither the good Catholic girl she aspired to be nor the bride of hellspawn others wanted her to be. I guess everyone leaving town, or descending into narcotic-fuelled depression might have weird effects on you, like lying in bed all day surrounded by dirty dishes and dust covered furniture only to descend occasionally to feed like a feral animal on delivered groceries.
Poor Vanessa. It seems that the show takes every opportunity to build her up in order to tear her down. The exercise here seemed to be having Vanessa confused and questioning herself, while stripped of her usual defiance, not to mention her vanity. It makes sense after a fashion because Vanessa knows what it’s like to be abandoned, but the script inferred that it was a very specific abandonment that sent her to her bed, and it’s the one that you may or may not buy depending on your point of view. I mean, sure, Ethan Chandler’s a good looking man, did Vanessa vision of happy and healthy Chandler family seem all that convincing?
On the other hand, it did give Eva Green a chance to endear herself and show off her acting chops, which I think is often the point of these things. The look on her face when Mr. Lyle visits and offers to arrange an appointment with “mental doctor” Seward is like happy trying to break through a grimace. It’s a look that’s hard to explain, but seeing it really says it all in a way words cannot, and it’s noteworthy that Vanessa has not one live of dialogue in that entire initial scene. It was also fun watching Vanessa burst out of her funk for a minute when she recognizes Dr. Seward as a distant relative of Joan Clayton, the Cut-Wife (of course having Patti LuPone play both parts helps in that regard).
Whether because of that familiarity, or because of Dr. Sweard’s straight talk, Vanessa decides to follow the doc’s advise and try something different, which leads to a trip to the Natural History Museum. At the museum, Vanessa meets Dr. Alexander Sweet, and the two have a pleasant conversation about taxidermy and scorpions. Dr. Sweet seems like a lovely man, which is probably why he has either a hidden agenda, or is likely not long for the world of Penny Dreadful, but since most of Vanessa’s regular companions seem unlikely to return anytime soon, she could use some new company.
The conclusion of season two sent much of the cast off to far-flung places (or at least far-flung relative to London considering 1890s modes of transportation). The Creature’s journey north has ended with the ship being stuck in the ice and the remaining crew pondering cannibalism to survive. Of course the Creature, being undead, will be fine, but the desperation stirred something else, memories of his life prior. He had a wife, and a sick child, and the curiosity of those brief images spur him to get off the ship and start walking home across the ice. It’s one scene, but Rory Kinnear is always so compelling as the Creature he leaves you wanting more no matter how much screen time he gets.
Meanwhile in Africa, Sir Malcolm proves he’s still a bad ass. Holed up in Zanzibar after burying Sembene, Sir Malcolm has come to the conclusion that there’s no more romanticism left in Africa, the imperial powers of Europe have sucked it out of the continent. Fortunately, there’s still mystery. Some folks jump Sir Malcolm, and a Native American man named Kaetenay comes to his aide. Kaetenay needs Sir Malcolm’s help saving Ethan Chandler, though it’s never explained what Kaetenay’s interest is. Still, Wes Studi makes an instant impression, reserved but imposing, but did he really have to scalp that guy? Call it “white privilege” but I thought we were past that schtick.
Speaking of Mr. Chandler, he’s also a man that seems less like the master of his own destiny, left wilting on a train home across the New Mexico territory. A group of men working for Ethan’s father shoot up the train and kidnap Ethan, presumably because his father has his own expectations of justice for his wayward son. Again, those plans are not revealed, but the show makes it clear that the woman in white on the train is going to play a bigger role as the camera tended to not so subtly lingered on her. What’s really interesting though is how seamlessly Penny Dreadful has incorporated these expanded worlds. The desolation of the American south, and the icy north, flows in strange and beautiful ways with the urban congestion of London.
There are also two new powerful character introductions in the show. First is Dr. Henry Jekyll who is introduced as a former school colleague of Dr. Frankenstein’s. Victor wants Jekyll’s help to destroy Lily, but Jekyll proposes something different, what if he can make Lily closer to Vic’s ideal and not the woman she’s become. There’s some subtle references to Dr. Jekyll’s “inner man”, a rage he’s trying his best to overcome, or at least suppress. As played by Shazad Latif, who’s of mixed English, Scottish and Pakistani descent, there’s an implication that some of that rage comes from institutional racism, and that adds an appropriate, yet still modern motivation to the character. Latif makes a very good first impression, suggesting that there’s a lot stirring under Jekyll’s practiced control.
The other big reveal is the season’s big bad. Were they zombies? Certainly Lily implied that the undead were rising, so when a pair of sickly pale people – let’s call them Eraserhead and the Kid – were following Vanessa, that was the first thing that came to mind. Then Dr. Seward’s secretary is accosted by them, and we learn his name is Renfield. And before you get too excited, a voice in the darkness demands Renfield’s help keeping tabs on Vanessa. And his blood. We smash cut to black, and the voice says his name: Count Dracula.
Initially, it seems a bit of a letdown to go back to the vampire well, but Penny Dreadful has earned more than a little slack to not make such snap judgements. With perhaps the biggest villain in the history of storytelling now on deck, one has to wonder how long it will take to get all the members of the gang back together. Or could it be that Vanessa, as she struggles for happiness and normalcy, will be forced to take on Dracula solo. Either way, Penny Dreadful remains a wonderfully satisfying gothic treat, and despite any reservations, it will be interesting to see where the show takes us in season three.