Season 2 Episode One
Long before Jason versed Freddy, Alien fought Predator and Boa met Python, Universal studios were producing horror mishmashes of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. These camp classics saw a number of iconic characters share the screen for increasingly silly reasons, climaxing with a visit from Abbot and Costello. Were it not for the writing chops of John Logan then Penny Dreadful may have so easily gone that same way. Here, characters from Dracula, werewolves, monsters and Dorian Gray walk the perfectly realised streets of Victorian London fighting demons, brooding and looking for acceptance. For their journey it manages to be deeply existential without getting melodramatic, pay homage without feeling gimmicky and action-heavy without pandering.
Much of season 1 was spent setting up the ensemble’s often complicated dynamics and revealing elements of each character’s dark past. To recap the troubled Sir Malcolm Murray (Dalton) and the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Green) enlisted the help of gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) to rescue the former’s daughter Mina from the clutches of a demon, following her regrettable betrayal by the latter. This was an ultimately unsuccessful venture that left Sir Malcolm grieving, Miss Ives in the clutches of a demon and Mr Chandler unleashing his inner lycan on some unsuspecting bounty hunters in a riverside bar. As this went on a young Victor Frankenstein (Treadaway) pledged to create a companion for his creation Caliban (Kinnear). In this season 2 premier, entitled Fresh Hell, these strands are immediately picked up. Miss Ives is haunted by visions and trying to fight the satanic forces deep within her, Sir Malcolm weakly tries to repair a broken marriage as he buries his second child and Mr Chandler awakes having blacked out on the barroom floor, with more than just a sore head to worry about. Elsewhere Frankenstein finishes making a bride for Caliban, out of season 1 regular Brona (Piper), while the monster seeks out low paying work in one of the city’s less popular wax works.
As the old stories continue a new threat has emerged in the form of witchcraft via Madame Kali (McCrory, who fans may remember from the standout séance sequence in season 1) and her coven. Early in the episode they make a failed attack on Ethan and Vanessa before regrouping for some nasty pep talk, where the hellish hazard they present is made more apparent. The change in status for our heroes from hunters to hunted is a promising one, and seeing how Chandler and Ives deal with the trauma of an attempt on their lives gives the series opener a lot of dramatic tension. The acting is typically strong, with the cast being hammy enough to service the Hammer material, yet natural enough to give it a real emotional depth. Season 1 was often at its strongest when the pace slowed down to explore the seemingly cold characters though a combination of lyrical dialogue and stellar acting. The second half of the episode gives plenty of these moments.
Thankfully it also doesn’t conform to the biggest weakness of the first set of episodes – that of a weak pacing. Season 1 had all the right ingredients for a horror classic, but often they weren’t balanced out right and the result felt more a promising starter than a gourmet main. However, with this new series consisting of 10, rather than 8, episodes the ratios of individual arcs and the main plot may be less problematic, allowing it to meet its full potential. This premier effortlessly advances each individual plot without losing sight of the central arc, so for now my appetite is whet. Amidst a thriving horror scene on television Penny Dreadful is one of the strongest voices and, should it play to its strengths, then within its medium it may end up becoming as vintage as its subject matter.