Penny Dreadful "Seance" Review: A Protean Nightmare Society

By Price Peterson

May 19, 2014

Penny Dreadful S01E02: "Séance"

Art 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 The Returned? 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.

There's 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.

But "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 could.

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.

Despite 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 pit.


... 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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  • Elena2095 Jun 10, 2014

    Please keep reviewing this show!

  • ben45tpy Jun 04, 2014

    I'm umming and ahhing about this show. It doesn't exactly grip me but it has elements that are sometimes intriguing, shocking, vivid and certainly unpredictable. I preferred the first episode to this one, mainly because the seance scene in this one was SO LONG, it went on and on beyond all reason. I might keep watching but I'm not exactly enthusiastic about it.

  • antmorris3511 Jun 04, 2014

    Frankenstein's first born is apparently Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The one the firstborn killed was a new and improved, passive, less emotionally and physically damaged Frankenstein. Frankenstein V.2.0

  • doctorwho747 Jun 03, 2014

    Hey Price, why have you stopped reviewing this show? There is no review on episodes 3 and 4, this worries me cuz if there's suddenly no reviews does that mean the show has such low ratings that means it might be , God forbid, canceled?

  • Mj_ps3 Jun 06, 2014

    Its been renewed for season 2.

  • doctorwho747 Jun 10, 2014

    Awesome! Thank you for telling me

  • antmorris3511 Jun 04, 2014

    it won't be cancelled any time soon. Its not that bad. its ok really. I think they may be going a little too mashup crazy though. Dracula was just boring. PE is more interesting, but it could use more action. Dracula's action in the first two episodes made me watch it for a while, but its fizzled out. PE should drop Dorian Grey and focus more on its three original characters. Its starting to come off like a boring version of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

  • ashleighwilso May 30, 2014

    My gosh! What a beautiful episode! I mean wow!!! The time and delicate care that goes into this show, especially this episode, is astounding! All the scenes with Dorian were just so artistic and articulate that I found myself watching them over and over again. And mind you, I usually DONT watch episodes over. I believe my absolute favorite scene (even as short as it was) was the encounter between Vanessa and Dorian. The scene leading up to the perfectly dramatic (and not overly dramatic) first encounter between them in the ballroom was just...I, I really don't have the words to describe it! The camera work, music, and overall production of that scene was I said, no words. The halt in the ambient sounds as she sensed Dorian. The way Dorian's slow patient walk toward her echoed in the silence of just their locked on presence to one another, as if no one else in the room existed. The smooth way he unraveled her skepticism and accurately defined her feelings, showing her vulnerability for the first time in the show. I LOVED the way he slowly went for her hand. Vanessa hesitating, slightly and unsurely by pulling her hand back, after Dorian initially touched it then seductively grabbing it anyways, not giving her the chance to pull away. Sweet mother that was hot!! Eva Green demonstrated her amazing acting ability during her possessed moment was priceless of course. Four ex-bonds together in one show (Eva, Timothy, Sam Mendes, and John Logan) = beauty and practically perfect in casting, production, and every way imaginable. Watching each episode over again solidify's that. My gosh!!!

  • dref22 May 25, 2014

    I was watching this episode and chatting with a friend telling her about the humanistic Frankenstein storyline and she decided to watch it because of this and then the ending happened...Should I tell her what happens to Proteus? LOL.

  • mori1bund Jun 30, 2014

    LOL! Would you tell what happens to the awesome new character Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones? - Of course not! ;-)

  • dref22 Jun 30, 2014

    In the end, she watched it and I am happy to say she wasn't too crushed about it. XD She really loves the show!

  • valeriel May 25, 2014

    "When was the last time you saw memorably sweeping, strange, or gorgeous cinematography on TV?" Hannibal, FTW
    I'm so intrigued by this series! Not just creepy, but straight up HORROR. The anticipation (the cold open) is worse than the actual killing!
    I kinda eyerolled through the Proteus scenes initially. But I really liked their take on the Frankenstein monster. Just as I was getting to like Proteus, he's killed. Horrifically! Damn you, show! *sniffs*
    I love, love, love the performances! Sir Malcolm, Vanessa, Dorian, and the wonderful Mr. Lyles are admirably played by their actors. I like Brona fine, I just wish she would get all the marbles out of her mouth!

  • flintslady May 25, 2014

    I have to say, that is actually killing me, that we don't know who is playing Dracula. I've googled and googled to no avail. And there are promotional photos of Jonathan and who I'm assuming is Quincey, but no names of the actors.

    Damn this spoiler heavy world that has gotten me used to knowing every little thing about a project before it airs. :(

  • ludoTV May 25, 2014

    On IMDB 'the vampire' is a newbie actor called Robert Nairne and he is credited for 7 eps so I am guessing that is 'dracula'? Not sure though since they killed the first 'creature' in the premiere and are now looking for a second one...

  • antmorris3511 Jun 04, 2014

    wasnt there a bunch of vamps in the first ep?

  • ludoTV Jun 04, 2014

    I think there is ONE (or two since they killed one, the one with the Egyptian hieroglyphics) proper main vampire that they call 'beast' or 'master' and the other bunch of infected blood drinkers (like the Fenton guy and I believe Mina too) serve the master.... I think the slaves drink blood but cannot infect others? not sure... A very different take on vampirism... Not like The Vampire Diaries at all...

  • all-hail-lord-starscream May 24, 2014

    What is with this show ruining everything I love and keeping me in its clutches? I don't think I can escape it now, espeically after that last scene.

  • danharr May 23, 2014

    Seance saved the show for me. Based on the pilot I likely was not going to be coming back. I believe she was possessed by both entities. The Ahnet and Sir Malcolm's son. The deity should be powerful enough to command the son to take over to mess with her unknowing opponent and Im not aware of any one spirit only rules. First Frank I'm willing to bet money is the ripper copy cat. Love where this show is going since nobody could get The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen right this is an apt substitute.

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