By the end of “Demimonde” we’ve reached the halfway point of this first season of Penny Dreadful, and the hour has all the hallmarks of a middle episode. It’s more concerned with underlining themes than advancing the plot, and while there are some benefits to that approach, it can be frustrating for those of us hoping to get some answers to the show’s lingering questions. In a 13-episode season, a lull like “Demimonde” might not be as concerning, but with only eight hours in its initial run, Penny Dreadful is beginning to feel shapeless just when it should be sharpening its focus.
Thematically the episode is about its characters confronting the darkness within themselves, and John Logan isn’t shy about making that very clear. It’s apparent from the opening scene, in which Dorian Gray tears himself away from a Kubrickian orgy in his portrait gallery in order to quite literally enter the hidden chamber of his darkest secret and come face to face with the beast within (in his case, the portrait we still haven’t seen). Later, while escorting Vanessa through a greenhouse, Gray speaks of the duplicity of flowers, such as deadly belladonna: a beautiful bloom, “but within, there’s a dark thing waiting.” This is not subtle stuff.
It’s one thing for these characters to keep their secrets from each other, but the longer Logan hides them from us, the more likely disappointment will result. That’s especially true in the case of Chandler, as the coy treatment of his deep, dark secret has already become an annoyance. There are only so many closeups of Hartnett looking troubled by any discussion of the Ripper-style murders I can put up with before losing patience. Hints continue to abound. He refuses to donate blood for Fenton’s transfusion. He attends a performance of the Grand Guignol and isn’t particularly bothered by the werewolf play “The Transformed Beast”; in fact, he enjoys it quite a bit. In the end, a secret is revealed: He likes men. Or at least after imbibing on absinthe, he likes a man, Dorian Gray, whom we’ve already seen to have seductive powers beyond those of mere mortals. Surely, however, that can’t be the big reveal about Chandler, especially since his absinthe-fueled flashbacks include a glimpse of the murdered prostitute immediately prior to her death.
Brona is willing to reveal at least part of her past, confessing to Chandler that it was an engagement to a violent man that drove her to a life of prostitution. Hers is the episode’s saddest arc as, despite her joyful night on the town, she comes to realize (or at least convinces herself) she doesn’t belong with the cream of Victorian society. (The presence of Dorian Gray and the memory of their last encounter surely doesn’t help matters any.) She belongs to the demimonde of the episode’s title, and the shot of Brona curled up and coughing on the side of the street, ignored by all who pass, is the episode’s most affecting moment.
The centerpiece of “Demimonde” is the Grand Guignol performance, which brings together almost all of the main characters in a way that portends (to me at least) more significant happenings than actually occur. The cuts to the creature running around backstage, setting up props and pulling levers, add a queasy sense of suspense to the proceedings. Something is going to go wrong, and bad things are about to happen, except… they don’t. (Not yet, anyway. The last episode of the season is titled “Grand Guignol,” so tonight’s performance may be a mere appetizer for the feast to come.) Instead, Logan and director Dearblha Walsh tease us with a few “significant” cuts to mystery man Sembene during “The Transformed Beast,” setting up another possible werewolf candidate.
Vanessa and Sir Malcolm continue to hold their cards close to the vest. Malcolm doesn’t exactly sound like a man obsessed with finding his daughter when he’s planning an African expedition to find the source of the Nile. He and Vanessa determine that Fenton played the old “I wanted to be captured” trick in order to lure his master to Vanessa. Both Vanessa and Sir Malcolm feel they’ve betrayed Mina in some way, but this is another matter left vague for another time. There’s no reason Penny Dreadful should reveal all its secrets at once, but if you’re going to play the withholding game, you better be sure the answers are worth the wait.
- Another familiar literary character surfaces this week: the hematologist who studies Fenton’s blood is Van Helsing. David Warner is a clever choice for the role, and not just because he’s an excellent actor: Warner played Jack the Ripper in one of the great literary mash-ups of cinema, Time After Time.
- Dracula makes his first appearance this week, assuming he’s Fenton’s master. Then again, this show could always pull another switcheroo, so I’m reluctant to assume anything. For instance, Vanessa meets a creepy little girl named Lucy while sitting outside a church. Is this Lucy Westenra from Dracula? In the book, Lucy was Mina’s best friend, so this girl would appear to be too young.
- The Grand Guignol theater was actually in Paris, of course. Given the way Logan has mixed and matched literary sources, however, we might as well let him get away with switching up geography as well.