‘Penny Dreadful’ season 1 was a perfect little curiosity. A series of character studies of classic fictional characters hung together within a sumptuously Gothic story of Victorian horror. Was it perfect? No. While it did give us some great characters, it didn’t quite deliver a central narrative strong enough to define it as a whole. Was it good TV? No. It was an awesome bit of TV. My love of ‘Dracula’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and my own Victorian Gothic horror; ‘The Darkwood Mysteries‘, had me hooked on every episode from it’s bloody beginnings to it’s bloody end. But… season 2. I was trying to keep those hopes reined in.
Season 2 reveals that while the characters of the show were pitched against Dracula, agents of darkness were already in their midst pursuing their own agenda as witches circle and plot to weaken Vanessa Ives’ resistance against the master within her.
As with season 1, while this is the overarching plot, the main characters once again have their own stories; Clare is trying to find his place in the world, all his hopes pinned on Lilly loving him; Brona lives–as Lilly, and is far from the love interest she’s intended to be; Frankenstein continues to struggle with genius, addiction, and being a really bad father; Chandler is trying to escape his past and himself; Murray is putting his life back together after giving up on his daughter; Gray is sticking his penis in more people; and Ives struggles with suppressing what she is as a weakness and embracing it as a strength.
I’ll start off with what disappointed me–Sembene was a quiet and intriguing mystery in season 1, Fiercely loyal to Murray, and an understated strength within the group. Season 2 should really have built on that, and despite giving us some little gems of interplay with Chandler, Sembene remained a mystery and carried little of the story himself. I had been hopeful he would have been elevated to being a main character this time around.
We finally got to see Gray’s secret. And… Eh. Yeah, I wouldn’t choose him over little sexy Gray, but come on–Gray’s stuck it in a third of the cast by now, he must have syphilis and all manner of nob rot going on there. That picture should’ve looked way more grotesque than it did.
The stories didn’t all hang so well together. Clare and Gray felt very set off from the others, and if it wasn’t for the coincidence of Clare and Ives crossing paths that was so large you could drape it over any elephant in any room, Clare would have been completely isolated in what could be considered a dead end story (although who knows!). However, after the somewhat disjointed plot threads of season 1 it wasn’t out of place, and Clare and Ives meeting in scenes disconnected from their lives worked, and their interaction delivered heart which was a satisfying pay-off. This certainly isn’t a show with any padding and whatever as delivered on screen felt like plot.
Some people could be critical of Lyle in his representation of his sexuality. Which leads me into a general frustration–not with Penny Dreadful–but with what this show highlights when held up against Game of Thrones. Bear with me. This is a bit of a rant break from my thoughts on Penny Dreadful. Thrones undoubtedly has a greater audience than this show, but the lazy hate baiting bandwagon criticism of misogyny and female representation trundling through many Thrones articles could easily be aimed at Penny Dreadful.
In Season 1 the enemy is served by a horde of hags, of the two main female characters one is a whore and the other is a woman whose sexual is a danger to her soul and to all, and in season 2 the evil is brought by witches, led by a woman wanting to preserve her youth and vanity. The whore now has plans to throw down man, and once again the lead female’s strength is evil. Basically women are just evil. Now, granted, it’s more symbolic than the generous sampling of tit and the odd bit of lady garden on Thrones, but my point is; if you want to look for offence you can find it in many shows, if you want to be offended then you will be. Just be offended, but own it as your response from your take on it and not as a label to describe something. I’m gay and not offended by Lyle being as camp as a fairy rolled in glitter in the slightest. He doesn’t represent all gays of all time. Plus, a little like Thrones, Penny Dreadful is set in a man’s world in an age where women and female sexuality–and homosexuality–were and was largely repressed unless it was for the pleasure of men. Rant over.
That’s all the criticism I think I can find. It could be argued that Ives’ character was retconned this season to accommodate for the inclusion of witches this season, but when it adds so much to her character who can complain? It made her more than just a woman possessed in season 1, making her a woman with her own power that she can harness against the Master’s threat of wearing her as a meat suit, all be it at a risk to her soul. Plus the episode with the cut-wife got me right in the feels. Speaking of feels–Sembene and Chandler. After their momentary connection that scene was tough to watch. This show certainly isn’t formulaic and with empty threat.
Aside from Chandler’s story playing out and his secret being revealed, there was little character development for the majority of the others, but most of the characters had their own part to play in the main narrative, with the exception of Clare which I mentioned earlier. It was interesting seeing Murray adjust to life without a great cause, although it didn’t last long thanks to the schemes of Madame Kali. I loved Helen McRory in this. If you haven’t watched ‘Peaky Blinders’ then you have to, her character in that was the best thing about it for me.
The witches themselves as the big bad of season 2 were nicely realised, from the introduction through high energy and terror when the carriage was assaulted, to the physicality of the chants and spells and the darkness of their deeds. I loved the way they could be lurking anywhere through their chameleon like powers to suddenly tearing through a room with gymnastic agility and speed with claws flying. Scary stuff. They also looked pretty horrific with all their branded marks and slashed skin. These aren’t the Willow or Charmed witches here.
Which brings me onto the horror. It’s something that ‘Penny Dreadful’ hasn’t shied away from, and I’m glad that we still have the heady mix of period, supernatural and gallons of blood. This season with added baby heart. Grim. The witches castle was Gothic to the max, but it worked as a potentially magical lair for them to lurk within. While the dolls were a sinister adornment to Kali’s inner sanctum and their construction and purpose creepy and gross. This season, just like the amazing opening titles, we had some great imagery; from the ballroom and dancers doused with blood, to the dancing and bleeding Lilly and Gray, they were surreal, strangely beautiful and nightmarish all rolled into one.
Season 2 was a hit for me, up there with Thrones as a bit of quality telly. As for where it leaves our curious band of misfits? Scattered by the looks of it. The way it’s been left it could easily leave the door open to some major cast changes, which would be a shame. Season 1 spent a lot of time establishing and developing the characters, and it seemed to pay off this season, with Ives being softened a little to be the central heart and joy (what there was of it) in the interplay, and a third season could really consolidate these characters as being a family we could care more for in their dreadful encounters. But perhaps that would be a bit too cosy for this show.
What did you think?