Rory Kinnear, Harry Treadaway/Showtime

It doesn’t take long for “Fresh Hell” to draw us back into the seductive world of Penny Dreadful. The opening shot of Eva Green making her way through a snow-covered Victorian park is all that’s required to remind us that the show’s pleasures lie largely in the atmosphere it conjures, to which plot considerations often take a back seat. Yes, there are cliffhangers of a sort to be resolved from last season as well as new business to be introduced, but Penny Dreadful isn’t in any particular hurry to get to any of it. With an additional two episodes this season, there’s time for us to reacquaint ourselves with the characters before things start to get crazy.

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First and foremost among those characters is Vanessa Ives, who finds herself the target of a new threat…or a very old threat, depending how you look at it. Vanessa is being targeted by Nightcomers, witches who can look like either young, curly-haired women or demons that resemble last season’s vampires (but are not the same, we are assured several times). These creatures are in Satan’s service, but not directly; the intermediary is someone we’ve met before, although her previous appearances hardly revealed all there is to know about her. Since Helen McCrory has been promoted to series regular, it’s safe to say her Madame Kali (or Evelyn Poole, as she is also known) will play a much larger role in this season’s events.

The early returns suggest that this is a good thing. It’s not that McCrory didn’t make an impression last season, particularly in the spellbinding seance sequence, but there was nothing about her character that suggested a fearsome villain in waiting. “Fresh Hell” is a different matter entirely, from the long, creepy tracking shot leading to Kali singing while soaking in a blood-filled tub to her quick dismissal of Nightcomer Beth by slitting her throat to the freaky chanting to Lucifer intercut with Vanessa’s own prayers. McCrory seizes the role of Big Bad as if it was hers all along.

It takes a strong threat to reunite the team, the members of which are dealing with their own private demons in solitude for much of the episode. In the aftermath of what comes to be known as the Mariner’s Inn Massacre, Ethan Chandler plans to leave London for parts unknown. (Although the sliced and diced bodies in the inn call to mind the work of Jack the Ripper, there’s a survivor who can put an end to that rumor.) Chandler’s ex-lover Brona Croft is a corpse in a tub, awaiting reanimation courtesy of Victor Frankenstein, whose attention to the nude body creeps uncomfortably toward necrophilia. The reanimated bride is intended for Frankenstein’s Creature, now calling himself John Clare (taking the name from the author of the poem “An Invite, To Eternity”), who once again displays a knack for securing appropriate employment, this time at a wax museum dedicated to ”grotesqueries and gore.” Lavinia, the owner’s blind daughter, naturally recalls the sightless old man from Mary Shelley’s novel, but may end up drawing the Creature’s affection away from his intended, leaving open disquieting possibilities between the bride and her creator.

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The characters spend most of the episode apart, and when they do see each other, the words “you can’t help me” are uttered more than once. Once Sir Malcolm returns to London, however, it becomes clear they are bound together; a threat to Vanessa is a threat to them all. That’s not to say they’re ready to share all their secrets with each other, but given each member’s connection to the otherworldly, sticking together makes much more sense than going their separate ways.

“Fresh Hell” isn’t necessarily the ideal entry point for new viewers. It’s subdued and somber in a way that may test the patience of those not already indoctrinated into this world. (Besides, the first season is only eight episodes, so go binge it already!) By the time the lightning strikes and Brona’s dead hand rises from the tub, however, Penny Dreadful is back to the business of raising goosebumps. And business is good.

Stray observations:

  • The one member of the ensemble who doesn’t make an appearance this episode is Dorian Gray, who also happens to be the one who never quite fit in the first season. I’ll be interested to see if season two finds a way to make him more integral to the team.
  • I’m not sure what Vanessa was drawing with her own blood but it looked like a lobster to me.
  • An expanded role for Sembene this season would be quite welcome.
  • Possibly relevant, probably not: The Nightcomers is the title of a 1971 horror movie starring Marlon Brando. I’ve never seen it, but it’s described as a prequel to Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw. I plan to take a look at it soon with an eye toward whether it relates in any way to the Nightcomers here.

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