Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Penny Dreadful, Season 1, Episode 8: Grand Guignol

Vanessa and Malcolm discuss Vanessa thinking he she has found Mina at the theatre – and Malcolm has made the hard choice; if he can’t cure Mina, he will “end her suffering.” Vanessa predicts and receives a visit from Dorian who is increasingly desperate to convince her to talk to him or go to dinner, while she firmly says no.

Ethan sobs and prays at Brona’s bedside – she’s not doing so well – before heading out. He’s watched by 2 Americans, one called Kidd, who are apparently hunting him.

Malcolm goes to a gunsmith to pick up a new super pistol and happen to bump into the medium, whose real name is Evelyn. She has apparently spied Malcolm’s Eligible Bachelorhood and brings out the flirting while he’s mission focused, Malcolm seems at least a little interested.

Over to Vanessa and Malcolmn and their love/hate fest that simmers so perfectly – she confronts him about the secrets he’s keeping from her. He counters that she knows what those secrets are she just wants him to vocalise them – so he does. Yes, he’ll sacrifice Vanessa for Mina. Yes Mina is more important to him and he needs to keep Vanessa alive – to be with Mina. He adds that he put away a picture of his son and daughter because it broke his heart – and his is a special manly heart unlike Vanessa’s fragile little girly heart. Also Vanessa runs from the guilt, unlike him. Pfft, Vanessa’s throws the hypocrisy back – if he wasn’t running from his guilt, he would display the picture.

Vanessa goes to meet Dorian in the gardens and he’s all accommodating and happy, not pushing for any explanation – which she mocks. His safe, pleasant neutrality risks nothing, invests nothing. He tries to be less neutral but she pushes him away and ends their hand-holding; it’s too dangerous for her to be with him (since it wakes up evil demons) and while he may not be afraid, she is. She pities Dorian because he’s never felt like this before; he’s confused as to what the feeling even is – she kisses him, and explains that it’s rejection. She leaves, and Dorian marvels at his own damp eyes.

At the theatre, some of Caliban’s little pullies aren’t working and the actor, Simon, (who doesn’t like him anyway) gets all shirty about it, insulting Caliban and calling Maud to his side as if she were a dog. Lots of Caliban angst. Later Maud arrives with an orange peace offering and it’s all awkward and sad with book quotes and more sadness. Moved by his torment, Maud tells him he doesn’t have to hide his face – and she kisses him on the forehead

Caliban takes this entirely the wrong way, puts make up on his face and goes to see Maud in her dressing room. She tells him to leave, he keeps pushing and they end up struggling with her screaming and him grabbing her. After manhandling and terrifying her, he runs from the room. Vincent sacks him from the theatre – but as he does he expresses regret and even says he’d rather sack Maud. We do see that Dracula is, indeed, hiding in the theatre.

Caliban goes to the only place left to him – Victor’s. Victor is hardly welcoming what with the murder of Van Helsing and Caliban’s demand that Victor kill a woman and raise her for him. Victory pulls a gun while Caliban thinks of what a monster he is – not just in body. His self-hatred and rather beautiful speech of self-recrimination (and Caliban does make some incredibly beautiful speeches) move Victor, even as Caliban tells him to kill him. Victor can’t bring himself to pull the trigger

They’re interrupted by Ethan knocking at the door, he takes her to see Brona, but there’s nothing Victor can do but give her a sedative and offer comfort. Brona is afraid, her hatred of god’s cruelty becoming fear. Victor has some surprisingly strong words of comfort for her – then puts a pillow over her head. He smothers her –and confirms her as dead to Ethan when he returns to the room. Ethan cries before her bed – and Victor assures Ethan he’ll take care of the body

Uh-huh, is anyone surprised that Victor’s kindness had an ulterior motive?

Ethan grieves and heads to a pub, where the two hunters join him, Kidd (a “Americanised” Native American, apparently taken as a child and put in an American school) and Roper. They’re from the Pinkerton agency and have been hired by Ethan’s daddy to bring him back to American where, apparently, he left a “whole mess of blood” behind. They also have a big length of heavy chain if he doesn’t co-operate. Ethan promptly hits them both and leaves. Roper orders Kidd, as an Apache, to track Ethan.

Because Native Americans have mystical tracking skills? Or even relevant tracking skills that would apply to London?

That night Ethan and Vanessa meet, sharing a not-tobacco cigarette. After thanking him for being there while she was possessed, the whole gang gathers to move on the theatre.

They tensely search the abandoned building – and see Dracula. Just as a trap door opens under Ethan’s feet. Lots of Dracula’s random disposable blondes he seems to have an infinite number of. Lots of fighting and Malcolm fights Dracula while he’s distracted by Vanessa – putting a sword through the vampire. Forcing him to the floor, Malcolm keeps stabbing him even as Victor, Sembene and Ethan are overwhelmed by the Endless Blonde Minions (they do not have the advantage of Vanessa’s laser stare to protect them). He twists the blade in the vampire’s heart and it appears to die – the EBM all fall back, leaving the bloodstained men chance to catch their breath and reach Malcolm.

Mina appears, seeing and greeting Vanessa first. They hug and Mina greets her father – right before her eyes turn black/red and her voice gets all demonic. I think she’s a step above the EBM. She takes Vanessa hostage (nah, Mina – Victor’s the weak link. Vanessa may gnaw your arm off). Vanessa was, as has been hinted all along, the target all along. Malcolm tries to appeal to Mina’s humanity even as she talks about handing Vanessa over to be the Master’s bride and sire generations (of what exactly, we don’t know). She moves to bite Vanessa…

And Malcolm shoots her. Mina appeals that she’s Malcolm’s daughter, but Malcolm says “I already have a daughter”. He shoots Mina again. Even Vanessa looks confused by that one.

Malcolm and Vanessa have a COMPLICATED relationship.

Back to Malcolm’s house – with Malcolm and Vanessa meeting. Malcolm agrees that he’s not going to Africa and to clear out all his adventure stuff – which means they should get a Christmas tree (oooh, see that? That’s a “we” which means “our home” and “Christmas Tree” means “we shall do family stuff together.”) Vanessa thinks they should have the “boys” over to decorate (Translation: “yes we are a family. And Ethan and Victor matter to us.”). Malcolm cracks and tears up, turning his face away – and Vanessa holds him (can I say how much I love that they had this whole emotional scene in Proper British which involves lots of Not Talking About It, but covering Immense Amounts in the Subtext). They both cry.

In his lab, Victor suits up and gets to work on Brona, first creepily removing the sheet over her while Caliban looks on. This whole scene reeks of him “examining the goods.”

Ethan drinks in a pub when the hunters return again. He doesn’t run, he doesn’t hide, he doesn’t answer, he lowers his head and seems to struggle. He grows fangs and claws – and moves in a blur of speed, slaughtering the, hunters. We pan back from the pub and hear lots of people screaming to look up at the full moon.

Ethan, to absolutely no-one’s shock, is a werewolf.

To the day and Vanessa going to church, the one she was once reluctant to enter (montage of the other characters doing their thing). She speaks to the priest and asks him what he believes him, if he believes in monsters and possession; she’s seeking an exorcism. He’s done an exorcism before and it went very very very very badly and he warns her how long and painful it will be. He also has an interesting take on possession – like being touched by the “back hand of god”, making her unique and special – and does she really want to be normal? Vanessa is silent –and the show ends before we get her answer.

So concludes the season finale of Penny Dreadful, ensuring the season ends with both plenty of hooks for the future AND continuing the same glorious aesthetic, Penny Dreadful theme and feeling, beautiful Victoriana (that scene between Vanessa and Malcolm? Just. Perfect) and bringing arcs to a close while still opening up new ones – so there’s eagerness and resolution. Which is a perfect way to end a series

And yes, we all knew about Ethan. It was still fun.

This whole season has hit that perfect line for drama, melodrama, Victoriana, camp, Vanessa being a smouldering bowl of utter intensity, some excellent talent, heavy emotion, beauty, great speeches, action, and dialogue – all just so perfectly balanced. It’s rarely missed, and it’s usually hit that sweet sweet balance that has made me love it (alone with Vanessa’s exquisite scenery chewing skills). This has been a show I’ve eagerly followed into week after week – and one of the few shows that, even with big obvious things like Ethan the werewolf, has still left me completely bemused as to what would happen next. I desperately await eagerly for season 2. Bring it!

Some things to hew on though – firstly, Brona. This comes under the heading of yet another predictable storyline, l we knew she was going to be on Victor’s slab the minute she appeared, dying. I’m leery because this whole plot line is about giving Caliban a sex object, a person reduced to a prize. I’m hopeful in that we will keep Brona around and that Brona has already been a good vehicle for advancing class issues (we’ve had some excellent class references), sex work, the misogyny of the era – and has shown herself to be determined enough that I doubt very much she will willingly be slotted into that pigeon hole easily. So, wary – but hopeful that her character can make something better out of this

I haven’t liked Caliban’s storyline in general because of the whole “find me a woman” demand and his actions with Maud – because neither of them have been sufficiently challenged. Even this episode, his big dramatic speech (and, yes, he does make incredibly beautiful speeches) of self-hatred was more about his angst than his regret for how he treated Maud (and Vincent further adds doubt). Maud showed kindness, friendship, sympathy – which was instantly taken to be a romantic invitation (and tragic when it was discovered it wasn’t). Because her friendship isn’t worthwhile? Isn’t worth being happy about? Her kindness has no meaning or worth if it doesn’t come with romance? No amount of sad-panda pity for Caliban makes him entitled to a woman and this show has sorely failed to do that

On other elements of fail – while Vanessa is an incredibly strong, intense and terrifying woman and Brona has her complexities and we’ve even got relative (or closer than usual) parity of nudity for the sex scenes (I also note that Vanessa has not been overwhelmed or put into second place by Malcolm, Victor, or Ethan – if there was any one protagonist on this show, it was her), this show has a huge problem with demonised female sexuality. Especially Vanessa, where sex, the sight of sex, having sex is all wrapped up in being demonic. She sees Malcolm and her mother? Demon gets in. She has sex with Mina’s fiancée? Demon! Who then possesses her when she has sex with demon Malcolm. She has a possession moment at a séance? Sex with a random stranger! She has sex with Dorian? Demon possession! This demon is fuelled by female orgasms and while that’s all very Victorian, it’s not just the attitudes of the show, it’s the reality of the show. Vanessa’s every sexual expression is demonic.

Race on this show is appalling. Sembene needs something to actually do other than cut things and open the door for White people. Why is he so completely lacking in character and history? There’s absolutely no excuse for it and it becomes more sickening when the only other POC on the show is Kidd, a one episode appearance by a Native American who was expected to go all “Apache tracker” on London’s cobble streets before dying. It’s beyond inexcusable. And the little references to the evils of racism of the time – the calling out of the arrogance and death of exploration and the treatment of Native American tribes – fall flat because, while they’re very true and often ignored, they’re also just used by the White characters for a rhetorical weapon in their own arguments and attacks on each other. They’re not explored, they’re not relevant as events in their own right, they’re trump cards in an argument.

The one element of inclusion beyond class issues I felt sure I would be mentioning with praise on this show is the LGBT issues – with apparently bisexual Ethan and Dorian. I was so very excited. I’m still kind of excited. I didn’t remotely see that scene coming and they didn’t straightwash Dorian. I want to just love it. Why can’t I love it?

I can’t because there’s some buts.

The first but is the fade to black. If Ethan and Dorian had sex (and I assume they did since Ethan was out all night), why didn’t we see more than a kiss? This show is NOT scared of sex, not even slightly – so why the fade to black?

The second but is that, after that one episode, Ethan and Dorian did not only fiercely latch on to female love interests to far far far greater intensity than ever before (which smelt a little like what Da Vinci’s Demons did – if your bisexual man is going to kiss another man, you better get him in a scene with a woman PRONTO!) but after that one kiss it’s like it never happened. We had one attempt by a demon to insult Ethan over it and that was it – not a mention, not a gesture, nothing resembling a follow up.

Did we get inclusion? Or did we get fobbed off. It leaves me with mixed feelings – especially after the awful interview with Reeve Carney.

There are definitely problems with this show. Some of which I feel may be addressed – but many I’m sure won’t be. It’s one of those times when we have to remember, no matter how much we enjoy a show, we must call out the problematic elements to avoid absorbing them uncritically