Simon Russell Beale, Sarah Greene/Showtime

“It’s a ball. What’s the worst that could happen?” - Victor Frankenstein

An episode like “Glorious Horrors” benefits from the omniscience of the viewer, but it can also suffer from the same thing. From the moment Dorian Gray announces his plans to host a ball that will serve as Angelique’s coming-out party, Penny Dreadful sets us up to anticipate all the delicious ways hell is about to break loose. As with the artifact puzzle that continues to bedevil Lyle and the others, the characters themselves are only privy to bits and pieces of the big picture. Frankenstein, for instance, has no idea that accepting Gray’s invitation means he’s leading Lily into a scenario where she’s likely to be recognized by several people, just as the drugged Sir Malcolm doesn’t know (or at this point, even care) that he’s bringing Vanessa’s arch-nemesis into her direct proximity. We know it all, though, and for its first 40 minutes or so, “Glorious Horrors” leads us to expect exactly what the title promises. This is going to be one of those hours, like “Séance,” where the shit hits the fan in entertainingly bugfuck fashion.

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Except that never quite happens. Primed to expect the worst, we mostly get anticlimax topped with an arresting visual that plays like a cross between Carrie’s prom and the elevator full of blood from The Shining. Even if the destination is a bit of a letdown, the journey offers a number of worthwhile attractions along the way. The episode literally begins on the morning after, with most of the characters awakening from a night potentially worth regretting. If Victor has any second thoughts about bedding his “cousin,” the smell of bacon frying as Lily prepares breakfast soon pushes them far from mind. As usual, Dorian Gray has no regrets at all, even choosing to push the issue with the most public display yet of his relationship with Angelique: her coming-out ball. Is this occasion a pure expression of his love or a more self-serving exercise in presenting himself to the world as a man heedless of discretion? His delight at the “thrill of the forbidden” suggests the latter is more in play here.

Most troubling of all is Sir Malcolm, who shows no remorse for breaking his marriage vows even before he knows they’re no longer in effect. Before he wakes, Evelyn has taken another lock of hair for her fetish collection, and by the time he shows up at the ball he’s even less hirsute, having removed his signature beard. In between, Sir Malcolm gets the bad news from Vanessa and company: his wife has taken her own life in grisly fashion. To say his reaction is somewhat less than total devastation is an understatement; he’s more concerned about getting the blood stains out of his carpet than anything else. This could read as an utter state of shock, but we (and Sembene) know better: Poole’s hold on him is even more all-consuming than it at first appeared.

If Dorian’s party accomplishes nothing else, it at least serves to bring the character back into the orbit of the rest of the ensemble. His involvement is still tangential, however, and his memory is no better than Vanessa’s when it comes to recognizing Frankenstein’s date. He notes the coldness of her hands (as Lavinia Putney did earlier with John Clare), but although she looks familiar, he can’t place her. True, Gray has slept with half of London and most of this show’s cast, but I’m still left wondering if there’s more to Lily’s unrecognizability than meets the eye. Chandler would surely know her, but in the first signal that the ball isn’t going to live up to its potential, he declines Vanessa’s invitation. He has good reason; apparently the full moon has come around again, and he is forced to enlist Sembene’s help in restraining him when the change comes over him. Chandler has found at least one person to share his secret, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time, as he now has not only Scotland Yard hot on his heels but the Pinkertons in the form of leather-masked massacre survivor Roper.

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Aside from the bloody vision that causes Vanessa to pass out, the ball is a rather tame affair; Gray’s introduction of Angelique into polite society fails to draw outrage, and despite the presence of the Nightcomers, the temperature never rises higher than a few heated barbs between Lyle and Hecate (although those are always welcome). It‘s not the night of revelations we might have hoped for, but the pieces have been moved one space closer.

Stray observations:

  • Poole is becoming a regular Madame Tussaud with her fetish-making skills. The Sir Malcolm voodoo doll is the most eerily accurate effigy to date.
  • John Clare is more talked about than seen this week, with Lavinia voicing concerns about him to her family and Vanessa giving Frankenstein what should be a disquieting clue that London is not as big as it seems. Her description of Clare as a “kindred spirit” is certainly not his experience, and the fact that worlds are colliding should (but doesn’t) give him pause about parading Lily around in public.
  • Credit where credit is due: The ball did boast a great, almost Kubrickian shot of the Nightcomers advancing through symmetrical rows of dancers.

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