When “Penny Dreadful” premiered last year, it felt like a show building to something grand. Fun, scary and unafraid to introduce unexpected relationships, John Logan’s first foray into television was art-house horror with a camp attitude. Eva Green rose above it all as an extraordinary presence — and prime target of a demon who’d kidnapped her best friend as bait — but the rest of the cast carried the weight of the horror series quite well in support. Season 2 looks to be mix of something similar, but now that we’ve already gotten to know these characters, the focus on the villain has increased dramatically.
We’ve known for some time now who the antihero would be: Madam Kali, more commonly known as Evelyn Poole (played by Helen McCrory), was confirmed as the “big bad” at last summer’s Comic Con via a deleted scene from the series finale that hinted at her dark nature. In Season 1, she was a comparatively light presence, appearing most significantly as the host of Episode 2’s seance. At the time, she seemed like a vastly inferior power to Green’s Vanessa Ives, and that very well may still be the case. Now, though, she’s recruited a following of witches hell bent on carrying out her nefarious wishes, and Vanessa is the prime target.
Last year’s call to action was the kidnapping of Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) daughter. Part of the mystery laid in the not knowing of who or what was doing the kidnapping, as Logan’s series strived to bridge the gap between realistic fright fest (where monsters hide in the shadows) and indulger of literary fantasy (where the monsters come out to play). That mystery became less intriguing and more enigmatic as the season progressed, resulting in a showdown both wrought with melodrama (Malcolm was forced to kill his own daughter) and slightly unsatisfying. The thrill of good conquering evil was muted as the evil itself wasn’t properly embodied — a slew of vampires could not make up for the fact we didn’t know who to root against or how it was to be defeated — even if we got to know the good guys (and gals) all too well.
Taking advantage of the positives and correcting the negatives seems to be the mission early in “Penny Dreadful,” as the first two episodes rely on our preconceived attachment to our heroes while devoting plenty of time to Evelyn and her not-so-merry gang of witches. I’m sad to report nothing as gripping as “Seance” occurs in the first few hours, but there are plenty of pleasures. First and foremost is the still sterling production design, makeup and virtually every technical aspect of the flawlessly presented “Penny Dreadful.” After taking home the most Craft Awards at the British Television Academy honors recently, the team isn’t resting on their laurels. Lighting, set design and costumes all stand out in the early episodes, holding you captive even in the slower narrative moments.
Much like Season 1, your opinion on the non-action scenes may define your interest in the show. Logan’s dialogue is rich, artful and arresting if you’ve got the ear to hear it, but many horror fans may be turned off by the lack of frights. Jolts do come your way — a carriage and subway ride go awry and menace hides in every dark corner — but most of “Penny Dreadful” is more mentally unnerving than truly terrifying. There’s a scene to end Episode 2 that, if described, would sound particularly gruesome. It is, but it’s also so tastefully done it feels right at home with the period fare around it — rather than as the “holy shit” moment modern horror would turn it into.
At its heart, “Penny Dreadful” strives to be the most beautifully captured camp on television. Mixing landmark literary characters together as tortured and repressed (sexually and otherwise) souls could make for gonzo television. Instead, it’s grounded in a very unique fashion. There’s so much to admire about Logan’s creation — thematically, formally and creatively — it’s hard to label is as mere camp. It’s high camp, at the very least.
Some of those accolades include an increased sexual appetite and an uncanny ability to know what audiences want. Those two concepts may seem one in the same — and are, at times — but really aren’t so similar at all. Taking the latter example first, Logan knew to devise a scene for his best two characters. Vanessa and Frankenstein’s monster Caliban (played by Season 1 breakout Rory Kinnear) share a discussion on religion that’s the best of the season so far. But despite Caliban’s desperate yearning for a romantic partner and Vanessa’s own unpredictable sexual preferences, the scene skirts the issue with grace. These two powerhouse performers can carry a scene without a sexual undercurrent, even if it’s swirling around them in every other scene.
And sex is very nearly everywhere else you look in Season 2. From the new creatures plaguing Ethan (Josh Hartnett) and Vanessa — scarred, naked, bald witches who can take traditional human form at any time — to Victor Frankenstein’s sexual attraction to his newest “monster” (Ethan’s ex-flame Brona, who was killed for this very purpose at the end of last season), eroticism is a big part of Season 2. Thankfully, Logan doesn’t make it overly exploitative. He establishes story lines reliant on sexual attraction and even features equal opportunity nudity, as a man is shown fully nude before Episode 2 ends (expect more as the season progresses).
Season 2 may not be off to the ripping good start of its premiere year, but perhaps the emphasis on building up its villain will lead to a more satisfying finale. Poole is an intriguing evil, at the very least because she makes Logan’s series into the rare female-led series not reliant on romance. It’s Evelyn vs. Vanessa, and Ethan — who has his own mysterious undertaking — has to take a backseat. Whether or not this builds to something greater, as hinted at in Season 1, “Penny Dreadful” has provided more than enough reasons to join its camp.