[Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Penny Dreadful, including the most recent, “Grand Guignol”.]
What I might love most about Penny Dreadful is how much it seems to delight in subverting our expectations. From the title “Grand Guignol,” I had been prepared for the first season finale to be a veritable bloodbath, when in actuality, it seems that the title springs almost solely from the location of the ultimate showdown with Mina, namely the theatre at which Caliban works–or did–that staged the penny dreadful plays (speaking of which, the fact that the story culminates on that very stage, framed by the theatrical proscenium, is a lovely meta wink). There is certainly some death and tragedy in the hour, but it is all surprisingly restrained, the characters’ emotions the real stars of the show. No scene in this episode matches the raw intensity of the penultimate one, “Possession,” nor does it have to. This episode is more about throwing the audience off guard by being impressively understated than in simply upping the ante for shock’s sake.
For one, I was taken aback by what the episode does with Caliban and his creator, Victor Frankenstein. What has made Caliban such a fascinating character throughout is what a split personality he seems to have, and “Grand Guignol” draws that into sharper relief than ever before and twists it. Throughout the season, we had seen him appear as a vicious, menacing figure every time he approached his “father,” whereas in the theatre, he was always weak and obsequious. With Victor, he would stand up, tall and imposing; in the theatre, he was always hunched over. It’s sometimes difficult to reconcile our compassion for the Caliban in the theatre with the monster who haunts Frankenstein and tears his friends to pieces, and yet it makes complete sense. When he appears to his creator, he is putting on a facade, one that he learned by watching the grandiose performances of the actors at the theatre and from the John Milton poetry he reads, in order to keep Victor from realizing what a wounded, lonely soul he is. He tries to intimidate him into making him a companion, since he is denied that in his day-to-day life–a life of much misery and pain at the hands of the sneering actors, yet ironically also the only place he has found any measure of anything approaching happiness up to this point.
At the same time, he is also a miserable figure who doesn’t really understand human relationships. He knows that he loves the actress at the theatre who shows kindness to him but doesn’t realize that, while she does pity him, she doesn’t love him. And so, as an audience, we are put in the deliberately uncomfortable position of feeling desperately sorry for this liminal figure who can’t fit in anywhere while also disturbed by his attempt to force himself on the woman (not to mention the fact that we’ve seen him heartlessly kill defenseless people in the past). Luckily, it doesn’t go any further than a kiss, but unlike a typical rape attempt in a story such as this, it’s difficult to not feel compassion for him, because he is repeatedly spurned by seemingly everyone and has no clue how to process these emotions. In many ways, he is a child who has never been taught right from wrong and who everyone treats with disgust. Everyone, that is, except for the man who runs the theatre, who proves himself in the end to be just as goodhearted as he originally seemed but of whom I was immediately suspicious, since this is such a dark show. When he sends Caliban away because the actors force him to, he clearly isn’t just feigning regret. The hug he gives Caliban speaks a thousand words and is all the more heartbreaking because of it.
Which leads us to the most surprising reveal of all, when Caliban returns to his original father, no longer threatening or strong-arming him, but instead behaving just as weakly and fearfully as he did with the theatrefolk. Having been kicked out of his home, he has lost his confidence in his ability to scare Frankenstein and, with nowhere else to turn, he instead beseeches him for mercy. And in another of the series’ mesmerizing moments of silence, Victor approaches him with a pistol, planning to finally end this abomination, and Caliban welcomes this as a relief from his torment, until Frankenstein finally begins to understand his “son”‘s pain, realizing and, for the first time, feeling true remorse for his role in his anguish. And so, while it may not be shocking that, by the end of the episode, he has brought Brona’s corpse to his laboratory to become the Bride of Frankenstein(‘s Monster), what is surprising is how it happens–not because he is frightened of his creature but because he is sorry.
And while this father/son reunion is uplifting to a degree, if it follows the original Bride of Frankenstein film, as well as the original Frankenstein film and book, it will not end well for any of the characters involved. The question is whether the Bride will instantly reject/be horrified by Caliban a la the original film or whether she might be receptive to him until she begins to regain her memories of her former life, as Proteus was beginning to do shortly before his second death. If she starts to remember who she was in life, as well as her love for Ethan, things could get very complicated for all of these characters. Caliban will likely blame Victor and come to hate him again if this doesn’t work out, and should Ethan discover the truth, it will destroy the friendship/brotherhood that he and Victor had been tentatively building since last week (significantly through his teaching him how to use the very gun he almost used to end Caliban).
Ethan has come to trust Victor so much that he asks him to examine Brona, who is scared of what faces her after death because of her sins in life. Victor puts her mind at ease and then, as soon as Ethan leaves the room, smothers her to death with a pillow, a fascinating moment that could have a number of implications. Does he believe he is doing Ethan and her a kindness by not prolonging her suffering? Is he being selfish because, for whatever reason, he believes her corpse will be in better condition for his treatment if she doesn’t die from her disease, or does he simply want to end it sooner rather than later, in order to appease Caliban and bring him a bride sooner? Or all of the above? On the one hand, it is a betrayal of Ethan and Brona, who didn’t sign up for this. On the other, he seems to have good intentions, at least as far as his “son” is concerned and has probably convinced himself he’s giving Brona another chance at life, even though he knows she’ll probably be an entirely different person when he’s done
Another parent/child relationship that resolves in an extremely unexpected direction is that of Malcolm, Mina, and Vanessa. After an episode in which Malcolm performed his arguably most despicable action, putting Vanessa’s life in genuine danger, not to mention prolonging her suffering, all in the interest of getting his daughter back, the last thing I had ever expected was for him to ultimately end Mina’s life in order to save Vanessa, and yet it makes a great deal of sense. Timothy Dalton has been doing some amazingly subtle work as Malcolm, silently indicating between his lines his disdain for himself and how he has behaved the majority of his life. Although he had never admitted it to people like Sembene and Ethan, their words in previous episodes got to him. Before, he had tried to deny the possibility of his not being able to save Mina, and yet here he realizes that it’s already too late. His daughter, the kind, young Mina, is already dead. His daughter would never threaten Vanessa’s life. And he realizes in this moment that the one who has been with him all this time has been Mina’s most cherished friend, Vanessa, a girl who grew up side by side with her and who would do anything for her–that she is his daughter now.
Some people might be frustrated by the lack of mythology revelations here. We still don’t really know anything about how the whole Amon-Ra/Amonet thing worked, who/what was behind Vanessa’s possession, who is the head vampire who they kill here but apparently wasn’t Mina’s actual “Master,” or whether any of these answers will ever come in the future now that Mina’s gone. But if they don’t, I don’t think it really matters. This episode reveals all of those mythology issues to be a smokescreen, to some degree, because what really matters to this show are the characters, and this unconventional family that these strange people are forming.
It will also be interesting to see how Dorian Gray continues to fit into the story in the next season. As it turns out, it’s still not completely clear how he fits into the story on a plot level, as in what his ultimate purpose is. Thematically and symbolically, he has been used both as a parallel and counterpoint to the characters’ various drives and emotions. Why, he’s even a shadow figure to Caliban, in a way. Caliban is a damaged, seemingly immortal soul whose evil actions are caused as a result of the deformity of his visage. Dorian is a damaged, seemingly immortal soul whose darkness is hidden behind a perfect, porcelain face, and only reflected in the portrait of him locked away in a secret room. Interestingly, we know that Dorian is older than he looks and is hedonistically “sinful,” at least when it comes to sexually “transgressive” acts, but we don’t yet know whether he has committed any of the crimes that his literary counterpart did. Is it possible that next season it will be the loss of Vanessa that will inspire him to perform acts of murder?
Because that, above everything else, might have been the biggest surprise of the episode for me and the most brilliant twist they’ve done for any literary character in this season. They have absolutely nailed Dorian Gray’s sense of constant detachment and continued attempts to thrill himself, but what happens in this episode is almost brilliant in its cruelty: they reveal that he actually has fallen in love with Vanessa. He does have a heart after all…and she breaks it. In spite of her own wishes, and in order to protect both of them, but broken, nonetheless. That final scene is another great example of this series’ deeper aspirations. What this whole season has led up to is a final scene in which Vanessa finally steps into a church once more, and asks a priest to help her with an exorcism, a scene as understated as it is fascinatingly still. I mean, this is a Gothic horror series, you guys. This is not the norm. And yet it understands that true horror is rooted in human emotions and sometimes in the quiet between the screams. It’s also interesting because it implies that she realizes the demon may be suppressed but it’s not gone for good. I’ll be very curious to see how this thread is continued next year.
Only two other things to say:
a) I’m very intrigued to see where the Madame Kali thing goes with Malcolm next year.
b) We finally see Ethan wolf out, and chow down on the men who had tried to drag him back to his dad. It’s particularly interesting that one was Native American, given his history with his people. It will also be interesting to learn if Ethan had any specific motivation for luring them to a crowded pub instead of to a secluded area to tear them to pieces. Next season can’t come soon enough.
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15 July 2014
I find that I was looking as forward to your recaps and insights, as I did the episodes themselves!! Excellent writing.
I'm not sure how (or if) they will explore the sexual relations between Ethan and Dorian… or add Victor to one or both. Definitely intrigued by the sewing of the gay thread through this gothic fabric!!! Again, I really enjoy your style and prose.
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