The elegant and the garish, the gothic and the grimy, have always been in productive but uneasy tension on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. The series, which brings together famed heroes and villains from turn-of-the-century horror fiction, takes a trick familiar to popular cable series—dressing up pulpy entertainment in prestige dressing—and carries it to its logical conclusion. Wedding gruesome violence, bodice-ripping sex, and soapy relationships to the trappings of a high-end pay-cable drama makes it a sister series of sorts to HBO’s Game Of Thrones. But whereas that show uses the format of a swashbuckling fantasy epic to tell unconventional stories of political jostling and the weighty matters of deeply ingrained social structures, Penny Dreadful leans into the tropes and conventions of its gothic source material. It’s not trying to reinvent the narrative wheel; it’s trying to provide a smooth and thrilling ride.
Coming into its third season, the show should be feeling confident about its powers. The second year delivered a more cohesive and dramatically satisfying arc than the first, as our team of conflicted good guys worked together to take down a powerful coven of witches. Longstanding secrets came out in the open, like Ethan Chandler’s (Josh Hartnett) lupine tendencies, and characters the show could never quite get a handle on—such as Danny Sapani’s taciturn Sembene—were dispatched, clearing the way for a renewed focus on the overarching existential threat of the series, the ancient evil pursuing Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). But the show has never had much use for streamlined storytelling, preferring to wander down whatever narrative alleys struck its fancy, but always winding up at a smart destination just when you suspected it had lost the way.
It’s fitting, then, that season three doubles down on the fractured nature of the show’s plot, scattering its protagonists to the winds in an attempt to disrupt even further the bonds linking each character. Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) has traveled to Zanzibar, to bury his dear Sembene, and finds himself at a loss for where to turn next. “Are there no worlds yet to conquer?” he asks, apparently forgetting there’s an entire world of supernatural evil lurking just below the surface of his London home. Luckily, purpose finds him in the form of an old Apache, who recruits the explorer for a mission meant to reconnect him to his old compatriot: Finding and helping Ethan Chandler, né Talbot.
Ethan, as you may recall, departed England at the end of season two, on a ship bound back to the United States, in punishment for his bloody and claw-assisted crimes. The expanding geographic palette suits Penny Dreadful, a series that never met a vista it didn’t promptly fall in love with and render visually breathtaking. The American Southwest is no different, with the dust-coated sets and coal-spewing locomotives as lovingly rendered as a John Ford western. But Ethan’s trip doesn’t go smoothly. (And really, who expected it to?) Minutes after Inspector Rusk departs for the beverage car in the opening minutes of the premiere, a murderous jailbreak busts Hartnett’s reluctant werewolf from his self-imposed sentence, to ends not immediately stated, but readily apparent to anyone who’s been following the threads of his family drama.
Even further from home is John Clare (Rory Kinnear), whose Creature we last saw en route to a frozen wasteland. It’s a nice shout-out to Shelley’s book, but it mostly serves here to jar him from his exile, as Clare starts to experience visions of the man he was prior to his death and rebirth. As usual, his story feels the most detached from the larger universe of the series, and on a ship marooned in an icy tundra, without even the occasional kindnesses of someone like Vanessa to keep him tethered to our group, he comes across even more incidental.
But ironically, it’s the characters still living in London who are actually the most disconnected from humanity. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) has fallen into despair, heartsick over the loss of Lily and losing himself in his drug use. (Lily and Dorian Grey, meanwhile, are exploring her newfound bloodlust with the immortal’s usual unfearing abandon.) To Victor’s rescue comes Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif, all glower and self-importance), promising not only to help his old friend kick the hard stuff and recover his health, but to assist him in the difficult business of recovering his lost love. Jekyll plays his outsider status in ways both uncomfortably real (his South Asian heritage condemns him to racist catcalls and stymied career goals) and grandiloquent (by the second episode he’s rhapsodizing on the nature of the “duality” in all men). Jekyll blends the gritty facts of minority life in London and the over-the-top theatrics of his psyche and abilities; in short, he fits the show perfectly.
But let’s be honest: This series has been, is, and always will be the Eva Green experience. Eva Green Presents Showtime’s Penny Dreadful Starring Eva Green And Company may be a more appropriate title, and her tormented Vanessa Ives is again the most compelling part of the series. Bereft of her friends and support network, Vanessa begins the premiere languishing in the mansion, barely able to make it out of bed each day to eat. But thanks to the urging of Sir Lyle, she’s soon seeing a shrink, and noting the doctor’s uncanny resemblance to her old mentor, the Cut-Wife—probably because they’re both played by Patti LuPone. Forcing her out of her shell, the show delivers a shy, insecure, and smiling Vanessa, an exciting side of the character Green has rarely had the opportunity to play. In the first two episodes, she coyly begins a friendship with a zoological museum curator, and the chance to break from goggle-eyed theatrics lets Green explore the vulnerable and feminine aspects of Vanessa in a new way.
The show’s strengths remain, even as it tests the boundaries of our patience with the “everyone in their own world” strategy. It’s as visually striking as ever: Some of the framing and shot compositions in these early installments are as picture-perfect lovely as anything the series has ever delivered. And when it gets to the meat of the dark source material that gives the show its name, the action is kinetic and satisfying in a manner previous seasons occasionally struggled to provide. Vanessa has a new stalker, one that promises the kind of grand guignol operatics on which the series’ existence is premised. Throats will be slit. Bodices will indeed be ripped. The dead will rise again. And assuming the payoff for all these tantalizing but occasionally frustrating early separations arrives in time, Penny Dreadful should remain bloody good fun.