Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Night Work" and "Séance"

This is kind of breaking my Countdown to Halloween format, but Penny Dreadful certainly counts as horror viewing, so I'm rolling with it. There were only eight episodes in its first season, so for the rest of the week, I'll talk about a couple of episodes each day. Unfortunately, I won't be able to do this spoiler-free, so even though these won't be full recaps of each episode, be aware that I'm not going to tiptoe around major plot and character developments as they come up.

Basically, Penny Dreadful is League of Extraordinary Gentlemen done right. After a couple of shocking scenes to set the tone, it opens in Victorian London with Vanessa Ives' (Eva Green) hiring a travelling gunslinger/showman named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) for a little "night work." Chandler pretends to be a devil-may-care womanizer, but Ives sees through that and uses her insight to manipulate him into being her hired gun for the evening.

The job turns out to be assisting Ives and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) as they hunt a creature that's abducted Murray's daughter. Bram Stoker fans will quickly realize who Murray and his daughter are and there's a little Allan Quartermain in Murray too as it turns out he used to be world-traveling adventurer. Ives and Chandler are more enigmatic and if they're based on literary characters, I haven't figure it out yet. Both are obviously wrestling with inner demons (and that may not even be a figure of speech for one of them), so part of the show's hook is wanting to uncover those secrets.

The hunt turns out partially successful. They find and kill a vampire-like monster, but it's not the one Murray wants and his daughter Mina is nowhere to be found. Hoping that the monster's corpse will reveal a clue, they take it to a medical school where students learn anatomy on human corpses obtained through questionable means. One very serious student is off working by himself and he's the one whom Murray and Company approach. He refuses them at first - saying that he's only interested in the research he's doing - but changes his mind when he sees what they brought. The monster's body is covered with a thick, leathery carapace, but the young doctor peels some of it back to reveal a second skin beneath, covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

From there, the story begins to split. Ives offers Chandler continued work that he refuses, but he does decide to stay in London instead of going with the rest of his Wild West show to the continent. In the second episode, "Séance," he befriends an artists' model/prostitute named Brona Croft (Billie Piper), but where that relationship is going and how it ties into the main story remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Murray tries to convince the young doctor to join his cause, but the doctor refuses, saying that his work is much more important and rewarding to him than anything Murray may be involved with. The end of "Night Work" reveals what that is when the doctor goes into a secret lab behind his apartment and begins tinkering with a stitched together corpse. It was about that point that I remembered his earlier interest in Chandler, because the Americans had made such great strides in the study of electricity. By the time the stitched together corpse moves and the doctor reveals his name to it, there's already no question of who he is.

"Séance" continues Murray and Ives' investigation into the markings on the vampire's corpse as they consult a famous (and hilariously dandy) Egyptologist named Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale). He invites them to a party at his house where Ives meets an intriguing young man named Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and a séance takes place. During the séance though, Ives accidentally upstages the medium by going into a trance and channeling some kind of spirit. From its accusatory tone and the effect it has on Murray, it sounds like it could be the ghost of Murray's child, but not necessarily Mina. I may not have caught all of that, so I'm hopeful that it'll be made more clear later.

Back to Frankenstein, he begins teaching his creature who chooses for himself the name Proteus from a random page of Shakespeare. I was fascinated by this part of the story, because I'm a huge Frankenstein fan and Penny Dreadful seemed to be deliberately riffing on that story in some interesting ways. Besides having Victor Frankenstein live 100 years after the time of Mary Shelley's novel, the care and affection that he showed Proteus was completely different from the thoughtless loathing that the literary Frankenstein had towards his creation. I was curious to see how Proteus would develop with the loving nurture of his "father." Would something happen to turn him into Shelley's vengeful monster?

But then, just when I'd fully embraced this different direction for Frankenstein's story, Penny Dreadful revealed in a totally shocking way that "Proteus" was a misnomer. In the hardest way possible, the poor guy learns that he wasn't Frankenstein's first creation after all. And now we have a different, much more familiar creature to get to know.

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