A couple of things set Sunday’s Penny Dreadful apart from what’s happened in the series before. First, Eva Green got the week off, which given last week’s emotionally wrought, episode-long flashback to Vanessa’s harrowing days in the asylum was probably for the best. The second unusual happening was that this episode was not written by series creator John Logan, a first for the Penny Dreadful. I had to do a double take when I saw the credit come up and Logan was not listed as the episode’s writer, and while I had hoped it might be a chance for the show to strut with a new voice guiding things, I think it was more a statement on the creator’s interest, or lack thereof, in telling one character’s back story.
Much of “This World is Our Hell” was set in the Old West, or at least the dream-like approximation of Penny Dreadful’s filmed-in-Spain Old West. Ethan and Hecate continue their ride to the sprawling ranch owned by Ethan’s father, while Inspector Rusk and a posse of marshals are in hot pursuit, and behind them are Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay. The underlying message of the episode is that if this world *is* our hell, then one must embrace their sins, and for the most part, that’s what everyone in the desert is doing, from the pure of heart to the not to so pure.
We learn from a number of people Ethan’s back story, everybody has a piece of it. Ethan explains to Hecate that he joined the army to earn his father’s pride, and took part in the massacre of a small band of Apache. But Ethan was so disgusted by his actions, and those of his superior officer, that Ethan shot him in the head and went to another Apache band to ask to be killed for his crimes. Kaetenay reveals to Sir Malcolm that he felt killing Ethan wasn’t enough, so Ethan was cursed instead, made the wolf man, and set against his former comrades. And later, Ethan’s father reveals to him that Ethan’s swath of revenge with the Apache lead to the death of his family – his older brother, his younger sister, and his mother.
It was interesting how writer Andrew Hinderaker used each character to reveal a part of the story rather than engaging in another elaborate flashback, and it was interesting that the simple telling of the story was able to conjure such horrible images, as if we, the audience, were sitting there by the fire with them hearing a ghost story. The reveals lend empathy to Ethan’s plight, he suffers for his sins because his life has been a pinball of being flung under the sway of terrible people who tell him the wrong he’s doing is right. If making the right decisions has brought nothing but more heartache, then why not embrace your dark side, as Ethan pledges to do after some not-so-subtle prompting from Hecate.
Admittedly, understanding that after the fact, it still seems that Ethan’s conversion was rather sudden, and I’m still a little stymied by Ethan’s interest in Hecate aside from the obvious. Maybe having someone follow him for once, even if it’s following him to somewhere she wants to take him, is a nice change of pace. The immediate visceral difficulty in accepting Ethan going evil is that it happens right after Hecate calls forth an army of snakes to attack the marshals as they sleep. What wrong were these men doing? They were lawmen discharging their duty by bringing a fugitive to justice. On top that, Hecate created a more powerful adversary for Ethan, as Rusk picks up a gun and drops his code. In other words: this time, it’s personal.
Kaetenay also didn’t escape the snakes unscathed as he was methodically killing the marshals when Hecate striked as Sir Malcolm stole a couple of horses. I was a bit vexed as to why Kaetenay never tried to treat his snake bite, or ask Sir Malcolm to suck out the venom or something (I mean that’s what you do in that circumstance, right? You suck out the venom. I don’t know a lot about snake bites.) There were a lot of weird basics that didn’t get answered, like how come Hecate can summon an army of snakes out of nowhere, but she can’t do the same for water? Putting that aside, don’t think that this is the last we’ve seen Kaetenay, even though the senior Talbot’s men leave him alone and snake bite addled in the desert.
Although the emotional tension in finally getting to Talbot Ranch was supposed to be between Ethan and his father Jared, the real confrontation, I think, was Jared and Sir Malcolm coming face-to-face. Brian Cox was excellent as usual playing Jared, and though he doesn’t get much screen time in this initial appearance, he immediately sets a tone of dominance; this is his house, and they are all players in it. Jarod has brought Sir Malcolm and Ethan there to teach them a lesson, and you’d be hard pressed to say for certain what that lesson is, especially in the case of Sir Malcolm. Jarod calls Malcolm his reflection: they’ve both lost children, they’ve both headed out into the frontier and committed sins there, but what will these comparisons add up to in the end game?
The episode ends with Ethan ready to pounce, ready to kill his father and accept his dark destiny, but I would be very surprised if the show opens next Sunday with Jared’s murder. To me, Ethan is not so far gone, especially as 45 minutes earlier he was still talking about making amends for his sins, and it would be sort of a crime to dismiss Jared with a bullet shortly after meeting him. But what does he have planned? Is it really Jared’s intent to install Ethan as the lord of the ranch? Is that even possible when every law man for 100 miles is looking for him? Something tells me there’s more to Jared’s scheming too.
The only other storyline touched upon this week was that of Frankenstein and Jekyll’s experiments into repairing the mentally ill, and it turned out the secret ingredient was using electricity to purify Jekyll’s serum. There was more back and forth about human nature and burying the beast, but nothing rather insightful, or at least more insightful than the ground already walked over. I get the impression that this storyline is being stalled for some reason, which is a pain because this is the least engaging story of the show this season, so whatever they’re waiting to do with it better be darn interesting.