Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Penny Dreadful, Season 1, Episode 2: Seance

In a dark, terrifying and foggy night, a sex worker takes a lunch break, nervous and afraid with the news of a body ripped up from last episode – when the lamp lighter disappears and something attacks her. Blood spatters

Ethan wakes up, somewhat worse for wear, under a pier. There appear to be cuts and blood on his hand. He staggers to an inn to order a hair of the dog. Where’s joined by a fun Irish woman called Brona who happily drinks some of his whiskey. She came over to London to look for work – and saw more and more jobs taken over by the machines of the Industrial Revolution. She’s a sex worker, thanks him for the breakfast and is off to do work machines can’t do – yet.

Frankenstein teaches his new creation to eat, marvelling over him and randomly selecting a name for him from Shakespeare – Proteus. But he has to go out and make money – convincing Proteus to stay and wait; leaving him scared and alone.

He’s calling on Sir Malcolm and Vanessa – Vanessa carefully locks away her writing when Malcolm calls her. He also tells her to unbutton the top of her dress – instructions that don’t phase her. (And Frankenstein’s eyes do blink down to her exposed… neck. Well it is a very high necked Victorian dress).

They take him down to the basement where the vampire lurks, stripped of all flesh, hieroglyphic covered exoskeleton exposed. While Frankenstein studies the body, he talks about his (unsurprising) fascination with Egyptian religion and Vanessa is surprised to discover he has Romantic Poetry in his bag. For all his obsession with science, it is the “ephemeral” that makes life worth living. Vanessa seizes upon it, reciting a poem about man transforming nature. Because she’s cunning like that and later tells Malcolm the doctor has a secret.

Sir Malcolm and Sembene go to see the police about the gruesome murder, and after a token effort to keep the investigation private, he reveals everything. Body parts and organs are missing, but they were not drained of blood – he rules out the Ripper since the Ripper targeted sex workers and neither mother nor her 7 year old daughter were. Malcolm insists on being called into the next crime scene – and he’s sure there will be one.

Brona goes to a very very expensive address to meet with a Dorian Gray. For the purpose of taking risqué pictures – and he seems even more interested in proceedings when he discovers she has consumption and is coughing blood. She warns him against kissing her, for fear he may catch it, and he licks her lip. They have sex while the photographer takes pictures and Dorian gets a special thrill from having sex with a “dying creature”. Which is the least sexy pillow talk, ever.

Ethan gets a message from home – his dad instructs him to return to America since his legal problems have been “taken care of”. This apparently includes paying a federal marshal.

Proteus continues to learn with Frankenstein, singing sea shanties under his breath. Finding a book, Frankenstein finds out that Proteus recognises boats and whales – and theorises the man was a whaler. This leads to a talk of sin and guilt.

To the big posh party that professor Lyle of the Egyptology department insisted Malcolm and Vanessa attend. The two are separated and Vanessa comes to the ominous attention of Dorian Gray, also in attendance. He snarks with her over the appalling décor and then throws the same kind of forensic analysis at her as she threw at Ethan last episode; only his focused on personality and with lots of flirtation.

Professor Lyle interrupts proceedings to begin a most Victorian pass-time, a séance lead by a very dubious Madame Kali. Malcolm doesn’t seem impressed – and Vanessa takes Dorian’s hand, doesn’t just touch it. Malcolm does look to Vanessa who has her eyes focused downwards and looks… like she’s hiding fear behind an iron will.

Madame Kali reacts dramatically – and chants about “another being here” saying “Amaunet” (the Egyptian goddess?) over and over until she hisses something about her past, her lover, her master to Vanessa who throws back her own head and gasps for breath. She passes out and when she comes to her entire expression has changed, she says something incomprehensible, then talks to Malcolm in the voice of a child, begging Malcolm -  father -  to take her (him? Malcolm's son?) exploring. She rants on about dying porters, dysentery, becoming less coherent before she slams her hands down, extinguishing every fire in the room.

She says goodbye to Malcolm (calling him “father”) and that she’ll see him soon. She slowly talks through a painful death, while Malcolm watches, wracked with grief. Even Dorian seems a little worried when Vanessa stops breathing.

But Vanessa hasn’t finished creeping everyone out – letting her hair down, she mocks Madame Kali, she’s far older than Amaunet; and she breaks the table. Well these Victorians are certainly getting their money’s worth. Vanessa now taunts Malcolm in crudely, sexual terms, over and over saying sexual obscenities as she climbs on the table. She bends over backwards and everyone screams as she chants for her father to find her.

And then Vanessa storms out of the party, into the rain. She walks through the streets and runs into a man; she grabs him, tears his clothes open and they have sex in the street. Dorian has followed and watches from behind the corner.

Malcolm eventually returns home, dejected. He finds Vanessa in her room in bed and he gently covers her.

The next day, Ethan is staying in the same inn as Brona and offers her another whisky breakfast. She’s happy to talk about her risqué photos but refuses an actual breakfast, going to bed instead. But she accepts dinner – once she’s established that he’s sure she’s not some sweet little thing – he’s clear, he likes people who are what they are and Brona’s certainly that.

Sir Malcolm goes to see Professor Lyle for his hieroglyph translation; he’s quite outraged (and a little amused and impressed) by Vanessa’s antics. He points out the hieroglyph for Amaunet among the photographs (yes, the Egyptian goddess), but also finds something completely unique that makes him tell Malcolm to drop it entirely. The hieroglyphs talk of Amaunet’s mate, Amun-Ra and eternal life through rebirth – by feeding on the souls of others. All stories keep Amaunet and Amun-Ra separate in their narratives because if they come together, Amaunet becomes the mother of evil and all light will end (metaphorical or literal, I wonder?). So it’s somewhat worrying they appear together in these hieroglyphs; this is a spell for bringing about the end of mankind and summoning the Beast. Lyle concludes that Vanessa is hunted by the devil.

Frankenstein takes Proteus out for a walk and helps him through his sensory overload. He absorbs everything, learning or remembering lots of new things from the busy street. He remembers the most at the dock, knowing all the different kinds of ships; the memory triggers another – his wife on the dock. He recovers a lot more language – full sentences - and asks Frankenstein what he is. He’s saved from answering that question by Ethan and Brona arriving and Ethan saying hello. Proteus passes as a person, albeit a rather eccentric one.

Frankenstein and Proteus return home – and something rips Proteus in half, literally. Frankenstein is horrified at the destruction and the man who killed Proteus announces “your first born has returned, father.”

Within 5 minutes, the show was already so heavy in atmosphere and theme you could cut it with a knife. I think that’s what makes a show – especially of this kind – it needs that atmosphere, that setting, that palpable creepy sense of the whole grandiose Victorian gothic of the whole thing. This show gets it perfectly.

Which I think it kind of lost with the séance. It started incredibly, it continued incredibly with a whole lot of emotion and power – and it just kept going and going and going. I was with it until the table broke and then it just seemed to drag on with Vanessa chanting meaningless obscenities to try and double down on the demon possession

We still have mystery within mystery and some truly superb acting that will keep pulling me into this show.

On inclusion… it’s only the second episode I’m still waiting to see more; but so far it’s not great. Sembene stands silently in the background and we have no LGBT inclusion unless you’re willing to make a really huge stretch over Frankenstein’s obsession and delight with his creation (which is a vast stretch – and damn problematic if it is) or assume another character is gay based entirely on stereotype despite no indication of any relationship beyond his wife. So far, I’m chalking up erasure.

We have 2 female characters and they both have strong elements of sex: in fact, they seem to be extreme opposites. Brona is very free and utterly shameless about her sexuality (which is really fun to see) while Vanessa is tortured and guilty by a possession that drives her to do unwelcome, unwanted sexual things. But these are the two female characters on the show and sex defines them in a way far beyond how any of the men but Dorian are portrayed

As for Dorian – I will wait to see more (especially if he is straightwashed) but I think it’s a clooooose but no cigar. The man is definitely creepy, but I don’t get the sense of compelling, infatuating uber-beauty he is supposed to have, even if Vanessa tries hard to sell it.