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Ethan’s past is revealed in an exposition-heavy Penny Dreadful

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Although it doesn’t approach the austerity of last week’s episode, “This World Is Our Hell” is another installment that narrows its focus to a handful of the regular characters, giving the rest a week off. The bad news is that the trade-off for a Vanessa-intensive outing turns out to be an hour with no Eva Green at all. The good news is that this episode provides some much-needed context for the vague apocalyptic rumblings through the first half of the season, fills in the gaps in Ethan’s back story, and clarifies his relationship to Kaetenay as well as his real father, Jared Talbot (special guest star Brian Cox). The other bad news is that much of the hour plays like an exposition dump; delivering information crucial to the back half of the season (and perhaps beyond), but rendering a number of scenes dramatically inert.


Aside from the characters currently in the American Southwest, the only regulars to appear this week are Frankenstein and Jekyll. Their efforts to extend the effect of Jekyll’s experimental serum appear to be going well, but the fault lines in their partnership are more and more apparent. Frankenstein’s smug superiority shows no signs of diminishing as he designs a terrifying eyeball drill capable of delivering a pure, electrified dose of the serum directly into the brain. Jekyll resents Frankenstein’s insistence that he’s also an outcast from the scientific community and his lack of acknowledgment that the barriers for acceptance are far different in each of their cases. It turns out Jekyll was kicked out of Cambridge for assaulting a presumably racist faculty member after one comment too many. If the phrase “white privilege” has existed at this time, Jekyll would be more than justified in using it here.

Their disagreement over the fundamental nature of good and evil continues to play out, as Frankenstein scoffs at the idea of ever using the formula on himself. Knowing what we do about the literary character, it’s no surprise that Jekyll disagrees, although his motivation is the opposite of that established by Robert Louis Stevenson: he doesn’t want to indulge in his dark side, he wants to obliterate it. When their test subject, Balfour, finally awakens, he has no memory of his madness or his treatment, but his docile demeanor is enough to convince Frankenstein he’s achieved another flawless scientific triumph. This guy never learns.

The bulk of the action this week takes place in America, where Ethan and Hecate are being pursued across the desert by Rusk and Marshal Ostow, who in turn have Sir Malcolm and Kaeteny hot on their trail. During the lulls in this chase, all of Ethan’s daddy issues are revealed. His real father, Jared Talbot, had enlisted Ethan in the Army. One day his unit set upon a group of Apache who wouldn’t run or fight back, so Ethan and his fellow soldiers killed them where they stood. After watching his commander bash a young boy’s head in, Ethan killed his superior officer, found the last Apache standing, Kaeteny, and begged him to take his scalp. Rather than seek immediate vengeance, Kaeteny decides to make Ethan suffer by forcing him to fight alongside him. When the remaining Apache raid Jared Talbot’s ranch in search of guns, Kaeteny promises Ethan no one will be killed, but instead oversees the slaughter of Ethan’s entire family, save Jared.

To their credit, episode writer Andrew Hinderaker and director Paco Cabezas do their best to dole out the revelations as dramatically as possible throughout the episode. (A particularly sharp edit switches the narration from Ethan to Kaetany at the precise moment the Apache enters the story.) Despite their efforts, there’s no disguising the fact that this is a set-up episode, designed to impart a great deal of information we’ll need to understand the conflicts that power the rest of the season. It’s not quite “all talk, no action”—Hecate’s summoning of the snakes to wipe out most of their pursuers is good, creepy fun—but it’s too much exposition at the expense of organic character development.


That’s particularly true in the case of Ethan, whose inner conflict continues to be under-dramatized. While we do finally learn the full extent of his dark past deeds, he’s too much of a passive presence in the episode, and far too easily manipulated by Hecate. His decision to choose darkness and fight alongside Lucifer is too abrupt to have the impact it should. It’s one thing to decide you don’t deserve to live; it’s quite another to agree to help wipe out all human life on earth. Ethan hasn’t fully committed to that yet (and I don’t really expect he will), but his transition from conflicted protagonist to potential world-ending monster is less than convincing. “This World Is Our Hell” gets us where we need to go, but it’s an awfully bumpy ride.

Stray observations

  • Speculation corner: Is Dracula actually the good guy here? As established last week, Dracula is of the earth while Lucifer is of the spirit world, and the two brothers are at war. If Lucifer’s plan is to wipe out life on earth, where does that leave Dracula? He needs human life to continue, as a food source if nothing else. If his plan is to get Vanessa on his side to fight Lucifer’s forces…well, it’s hard to argue with that.
  • The most merciful edit of the season: cutting away just before the electrified syringe enters Balfour’s eyeball.
  • The mismatched partnership of Rusk and Ostow hasn’t been the most compelling element of this season, but they do have a nice moment by the campfire when rough-and-tumble Ostow realizes that tip-sipping Rusk is really a badass who tracked down and caught an assassin after losing an arm in battle.
  • Not a whole lot of laughs tonight, but Hecate waking up in a room full of creepy dolls gave me a morbid chuckle.

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