Penny Dreadful "Seance" Review: A Protean Nightmare Society
is dead. No wait, art is death.
Dang, that still sounds wrong. Point is, when it comes to art on TV,
no genre brings it harder than horror. Think about it: When was the
last time you saw memorably sweeping, strange, or gorgeous
cinematography on TV? Was it perhaps on Breaking Bad
or American Horror Story
or The Walking Dead or
Audiences just seem more accepting of artistic or esoteric visuals
when they come coupled with the guarantee of violence or the threat
of death. Indescribable beauty is the next-door neighbor of subconscious
horror; words and reason apply to neither. So it's no surprise
that Penny Dreadful,
in addition to being one of the scariest new TV series in recent memory,
is also one of the most gorgeous. But, you know, in a disgusting way.
a good chance that the beauty is necessary to offset some of the
abject ugliness of the subject matter. Take the undeniably sexy AND
horrifying photography scene between Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and
his hired nude model, the consumptive prostitute Brona Croft (Billie
Piper). From the classical music to the set decoration to the
extremely attractive actors, the scenario ignited the parts of our
brains that appreciate beauty. And then Brona coughed up BLOOD and
Dorian remarked, "I've never f**ked a dying creature before."
Um, that is HORROR. Yet there's no jarring disconnect. The two
elements work in tandem; without horror, beauty would be boring, and
without beauty, the horror would be distasteful. That's called teamwork.
"Séance" was really about THE SCENE. The titular séance
scene—which, for 10 glorious minutes, treated us to a prolonged bout
of straight-up insanity—was what we old-timey vaudevillians might
call a show-stopper. A real humdinger, even. Man, that scene. Last
week we learned that Vanessa is not only a clairvoyant, but that she's plagued by some kind of demon, so she probably should have thought
twice before attending an elegant party which included a séance.
After the possibly fraudulent medium Madame Kali went all demonic,
she immediately outed Vanessa as being a medium as well; then SHE was suddenly possessed and yammering evil things. That was not a
surprise, we know how horror works. But the surprise was when she
became possessed by a spirit claiming to be Sir Malcolm's dead son.
Or something? It honestly was not clear; everything was so esoteric
and borderline incomprehensible (in a good and scary way!) that I'm
not 100 percent positive of what we learned. Just that Sir Malcom's guilt over
his son's death may have been rooted in some very lurid secrets, and the son's spirit was not about to let it go. And again with the
beauty-meets-horror trope: Eva Green hissing the "C" word
at well-appointed onlookers? Perfect.
"Séance" was only Penny Dreadful's second episode, but we're already getting a much clearer picture about what its game is. The cold open mirrored the pilot's, in that it showed another person getting murdered by the Jack the Ripper copycat (?). Just a simple, hauntingly filmed scene in which a prostitute was menaced by fog itself, only to be attacked by an unseen force. This storyline didn't progress much this week (other than Sir Malcolm offering detectives his services), so it seems as though Penny Dreadful will be drawing it out at a very leisurely pace.
In fact, that
pace applies to other plotlines as well. Surprisingly, the pilot's
entry-point and ostensible hero Ethan was sidelined to a supporting
character in "Séance"; he mostly showed up to demonstrate that, after
declining to work for Sir Malcolm, he'd become a dock-dwelling hobo.
But his meet-cute interactions with Brona in a salty pub helped us
get to know the both of them. Her introduction, in turn, led to our first encounter with Dorian Gray, who is exactly as beautiful and cynical
as you'd expect. His later interaction with Vanessa at the séance
posited him as her all-knowing counterpart, sussing out her thoughts,
intentions, and instincts only a clairvoyant or a bored immortal
And then we come to the Frankenstein storyline, which until its final seconds lacked the immediate suspense of the other threads but compensated with touching, almost heartwarming pathos. The "monster" (now named Proteus, after a highly fortunate page-flip through a Shakespeare book) has only been alive mere days, but by episode's end he'd already learned to talk and behave like a regular guy. The scenes in which Dr. Frankenstein taught his creation how to eat, and then also had to get him to stop following his maker around like a puppy dog, were undeniably compelling. We've all seen the Frankenstein lore done so many ways that Penny Dreadful faced quite a task in doing something interesting with this very tired series of events, so the decision to go full humanistic was really inspired. Eventually, Frankenstein even allowed Proteus to roam the streets of London, and it became clear that he had begun to remember things about his old life in a way that verged on heartbreaking.
But then came the final scene. Guys, what ON EARTH? We'd just gotten to know and love Proteus, so it stung especially hard when he was ripped apart before our eyes, his tattered remains sloughing onto the floor to reveal a bloodied ghoul standing in his place: "Your first born has returned, father." WOW. Absolutely insane. And wonderful. And shocking. And, guess what? Beautiful. I have no idea what this means (was there a previous Frankenstein's monster? But the ghoul looked like a vampire? Can Proteus be brought back to life?) or where this storyline is going, and that's my absolute favorite part about it. This was a major rug-pulling, and Penny Dreadful handled it expertly.
the shocks and thrills of that last moment, not to mention those of the slashing in the cold open or even the bizarre tour de force of the séance, Penny
Dreadful still boasts a very
slow and measured pace. But rather than the meandering wheel-spinning
exhibited by other freshman series that don't seem to know where they're headed, Penny Dreadful REEKS of
confidence. It knows exactly where it's going and it trusts that
we'll appreciate the slow doling out of information. This series does not
over-explain things, and that makes it scarier. But it also drives up
suspense to truly delightful levels. I can only speculate that these
characters will eventually form a team of supernatural cops (Vanessa and Dorian Gray in particular need to put their
beautiful heads together), and it's all the more audacious that Penny
Dreadful could conceivably delay that inevitable team-up all season. For now these are damaged, real individuals and their
journey to a status quo won't be quick, and shouldn't be. But with the level of
craftsmanship and writing on display here (to say nothing of the
actual visual beauty), it's a journey I'm really looking forward to.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go throw my ouija board into a tar
... What exactly IS Frankenstein's "first born"?
... Have you ever been possessed by a spirit during a séance, and did you also follow that up by sleeping with a random stranger in the street?
... Will Brona be "cured" via supernatural means?
... Would Doctor Who approve of Brona's accent?
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