Penny Dreadful, Episode 1, Season 3

9 Overall Score
Writing: 8/10
Production: 10/10
Performances: 9/10

Sumptuous Victorianism and rivers of blood make their triumphant return.

There is a limit to how many dead bodies are scary, and Kaetenay is a cliche.

Penny Dreadful
Episode 1, Season 3
Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green
Showtime
2016

Showtime’s standout Victorian horror series, Penny Dreadful, comes roaring out of the shadows again with the first episode of season three, “The Day Tennyson Died”. The episode launches the new season in many directions at once – some novel and exhilarating, some familiar and comforting, and at least one beneath the quality of this property.

“The Day Tennyson Died” ladles on the death like death is cheap and ladles are huge. The episode is piles of corpses; fresh, withered, stabbed, shot, spurting hot or frozen solid, it’s a real cornucopia of remains with two dead prostitutes for garnish, both of whom die seconds after trying to launch a business transaction. This mirrors “Night Work”, the first episode of season one, which was also heaps of the dead, although smaller and less varied. Dreadful wants to reassure the audience that this charnel house will not go empty; and also, that its hot-riveted message of Sex is Doom is permanently installed. Puritanical self-abnegation makes the hero, as always, and expressions of sexuality are bad, bad, bad.

One of the prostitutes was probably only posing as a prostitute. Still, though -thunk!, in the head. One wonders what the show will do to raise the stakes later in the season – stack the dead higher?

The show also sticks with a familiar theme in that Miss V. Ives still has bats under her stairs. The opening sequence is of Miss Ives alone in the Murray house, face thin and haunted, hair a mess, surrounded by stacks of dirty dishes. The episode launches a major plotline where Miss Ives starts seeing an alienist (which is what psychiatrists were called in the late 19th century).

Miss Ives is alone in the vast house because the other Scoobies have been flung to moonscapes. Ethan Chandler has been taken to the New Mexico Territory to answer for his lycanthropic crimes, although that quickly goes in an unexpected direction. John Clare, Dr. Frankenstein’s second creature, has taken a berth as a sailor on an Arctic expedition, and this episode has a sequence with him and his fellow sailors struggling in the endless ice. Sir Malcolm Murray has gone back to Africa, as he was obsessed with doing all through the first two seasons. His purpose is to bury his Senegalese friend and servant, Sembene, who went to his heroic end at the climax of season two.

This is all a vast geographic opening for Dreadful – previous seasons have stuck to London or, in a few episodes, remote Ballentrae Moor. But now there are four plotlines happening on three continents and the Arctic Sea. But strangely, this episode seems to roll up both the African and Arctic Sea plotlines after only one scene each. Sir Malcolm and John Clare are in those places just long enough to decide that they’d rather be someplace else. It’s curious to bring in the ice floes and Zanzibar just to leave them behind.

In the meantime, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is in his disused workshop by the London docks, corroding his veins with opiates and obsessing over Lily, his third creature, ex-lover, rejecter of the love of John Clare, new girlfriend of the un-aging Dorian Gray and manufactured result of the dead body of Brona Croft, who was a tubercular prostitute (another dead hooker!) and lover of Ethan Chandler.

One of the things I love about Dreadful is that two full seasons in, and none of the other Scoobies have any idea that Dr. Frankenstein is a re-animist. Nor do they have any suspicion of Mr. Gray’s true nature. Only now is the long fuse on these plotlines sizzling close to the detonation.

Dr. Frankenstein has summoned help, however. An old friend from school, a doctor – in a twist of the source material – from India. They greet one another at the door. “Dr. Frankenstein.” “Dr. Jeckyll.”

“All these gorgeous, dreadful secrets”, indeed.

But Dreadful’s writer, John Logan, also falls full length, flat on his face in this episode with the introduction of Kaetenay, an Apache from New Mexico who follows Sir Malcolm all the way to Africa to convince him with a speech about destiny to go back to New Mexico to rescue Ethan Chandler. As this would be several months of travel in the 19th century, it strains credibility that Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm have any chance of catching up to Chandler. But there it is.

That Dreadful rushes to assign the imperial Sir Malcolm a new, knife-fighting, non-white, colonized Tonto/Yoda immediately after the death of Sembene is by far the worst thing about “The Day Tennyson Died”. It is a trope so well-worn that it becomes especially, excruciatingly boring with repetition.

The title of this episode is another daring move. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was Poet Laureate of England, and remains one of the most famous writers in English literature. Although Dreadful has usually soft-focused its historical setting, this first episode of season three explicitly pins the show to an historical event. London is in public mourning for the dead poet. That forms the backdrop of Miss Ives storyline, and reinforces the theme of mortality more subtly than the exterminated hookers. But why be so specific? Will future plot twists have something to do with Tennyson’s death?

“The Day Tennyson Died” ends with a wallop, and the arrival of a new character who has been hinted at since the name “Mina Harker” was first spoken at the beginning of season one. In a deliberate mirror of that beginning, where “Night Work” ends with the line, “My name is Victor Frankenstein,” spoken during a close up of Frankenstein, this episode ends with a close up of another character as he says, “My name…my name is Renfield”.

Moments later, the screen goes black, and we hear a supernatural voice. “My name…is Dracula.”

May Penny Dreadful live forever in the Victorian night.

 

 

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Brian Downes
Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through Amazon.com. He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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