As John Logan’s “Penny Dreadful” returns for Season 3, Vanessa Ives — the all-powerful medium played to utter perfection by the captivating Eva Green — has become a recluse. Green plays ravenous just as enticingly as she portends possession, and it’s in these enthralling details that “Penny Dreadful” works better, perhaps, than it should.
After all, the Showtime horror series, which could read like bibliophile fan fiction if it weren’t so damn gorgeous (and cleverly plotted), ended last season with Green chanting in tongues to a ventriloquist doll designed to look just like her — and be her equal in power. Throw in Hartnett’s wild werewolf storming in as scorpions crawl out of the dummy’s shattered face (I guess it wasn’t so powerful after all), slicing open the throat of another medium who’s threatening Vanessa, and you were caught in a firestorm of over-the-top action.
Yet Logan must have wisened quickly to his madcap impulses, capping them within the finale’s first 20 minutes and devoting the rest of the episode to grounded character expansion, as each said goodbye to someone, something or both before the sophomore effort wrapped up in tender fashion. But for as well as that worked for Season 2’s final hour, Season 3’s disconnected starting point felt troublesome, as it becomes clear it could be some time before anyone — let alone everyone — gets back together.
The latter half of the Season 2 finale focused on the core group of “good guys” going their separate ways: Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) sailed away to bury Sembene (Danny Sapani). Ethan (Josh Hartnett) was extradited to America to stand trial/be hung for his many crimes on both continents. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) reserved himself to a life of lovelorn loneliness, as the partner he created for his first monster, John Clare (Rory Kinnear), spurned both the creature and its creator in favor of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) — turns out Lily (Billie Piper) aspired to more devious dreams than Frankenstein or his monster.
That left Green’s character, who, by the end of Season 2, had rebuked Ethan’s advances and then tried to give into them. Alas, it was too late, and his mysterious departure combined with the past losses she’s suffered drove her to become sequestered.
Purposefully distancing characters from each other to such literal and figurative extremes can sometimes feel like desperation. While disconnected from the dark, period genre of “Penny Dreadful,” “The O.C.” is the example that sticks out as a series so frantic for new plot lines, it ruined itself seasons too early by breaking up the core four. Similar complaints have been lodged against “The X-Files” for breaking up Mulder and Scully, “Parks and Recreation” in its final season and “Arrested Development” Season 4 (the Netflix year, as it’s known).
While “Penny Dreadful” has always functioned as an ensemble built of strong individual pieces, we saw the true potential of the cast when they were forced into group during Season 2. The new season properly notes this loss, as the house they all met and/or resided within is promptly given a lengthy and haunting montage depicting its empty and decrepit nature. No longer are the unique creations of Logan’s mind — all inspired by literature without being directly connected to trademarked characters — as firmly united as they once were.
And yet this proves no detriment to the series, in part because of the incredible talents of each performer involved, but also thanks to Logan’s rejiggered efforts to set up a truly frightening tease in the first two episodes. Starting with Green and running straight down the line of series regulars, “Penny Dreadful” remains a treasure trove of acting talent. Showtime has pulled out all the stops in past years to get Green, at least, some well-deserved awards recognition, but be it the early May release — which kept Season 1 from qualifying until the following year’s Emmys, when Season 2 actually aired enough episodes to make a run on its own — or the general genre bias against horror shows (except “American Horror Story,” apparently), “Penny Dreadful” has come up empty-handed.
It’s not for lack of merit. While I could spend 1,000 words singing the praises of the cast without dropping one superfluous adjective — and I may do just that during this long, ongoing Emmys season — those who watch know the talent within, and this season these thespians are relied upon to carry plot lines crafted singularly for each of them. Logan’s trust is justified, but “Penny Dreadful” has never merely been an actors’ showcase. Season 3’s American-set storyline breaks things up nicely with some classic western elements mixed in with the show’s established creature horrors, and the aesthetics of the production have never looked better. Always willing to experiment with enticing character crossovers, Logan also cleverly incorporates a partnership between Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl. But his true masterstroke comes in the slow roll out of a yet-to-be-announced “big bad,” which makes the endings of both new episodes truly terrifying.
Will the good guys have to unite to stop him? Perhaps, but until they do, we’ll be just fine enjoying this lavish and beloved blend of stories.