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Penny Dreadful: “Verbis Diablo”

Timothy Dalton, Helen McCrory/Showtime
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In the world of Penny Dreadful a thin line separates London from an unseen supernatural realm, but of nearly equal importance to the series is the panoply of sexual behavior concealed beneath the veneer of prudish Victorian society. The characters are marked as outsiders for their connection to the spirit realm, but many of them would equally likely be outcast for what would have been considered deviant perversions of the flesh at the time (and, in some cases, to this day). From a modern perspective, someone like Ferdinand Lyle is an amusing eccentric with funny hair, a foppish persona, and a lascivious streak (and even in 1891, Chandler seems more amused by him than anything else). He’s got a secret, however, and although we don’t find out the exact nature of the photos in Evelyn Poole‘s possession, we certainly have enough information to conclude that Lyle is a closeted homosexual. The consequences of that secret getting out are easily drastic enough that Poole has no trouble coercing Lyle into being her inside man within Vanessa’s group. (Whether Lyle has the courage or inclination to play double agent remains to be seen.)


Dorian Gray’s sexual exploits accounted for much of his screen time in season one, so it’s no surprise that he quickly makes a new friend in his first appearance this year. Twenty-first century viewers paying close attention to Gray’s first meeting with Angelique at the street cafe probably weren’t terribly surprised by the Crying Game-like dong reveal later in the episode (even apart from Angelique’s voice and facial features, note that she says “when I was a child,” not “when I was a girl”), but that still left the question of whether Gray himself would be surprised. (Answer: Not at all.) More than anyone, the ageless Gray is nearly oblivious to the morality of the Victorian age. His story still feels tangential to the rest of the show, but the inclusion of a transgender character nearly a century before the word even existed adds to the range of outsiders even if Angelique manifests no connection to the supernatural (which, of course, she still may).

Even in 2015, I’m not sure there’s a word for the psychosexual circus involving Victor Frankenstein, his creation now calling himself John Clare, and the former Brona Croft. It’s a love triangle like no other, reeking of incest and necrophilia, and it promises to be big trouble as the season progresses. Frankenstein christens the reanimated bride Lily and passes himself off as her cousin—a very close cousin from childhood. His actual relationship to her is more fatherly, but he doesn’t let that stop him from becoming quite handsy with his latest creation even though she’s “intended” for Clare. With no memory of her past, Lily isn’t delighted to hear this news. Frankenstein insists she has her own agency in this matter (“Must I love him?” “That’s for you to say.”), but that’s a self-serving statement coming from a man who must literally feel ownership over her. Things will undoubtedly become even more complicated when they inevitably cross paths with Chandler.


As for old-fashioned heterosexual romance, or at least a simulation thereof, we turn to Sir Malcolm and Evelyn Poole, who just so happen to cross paths again. Sir Malcolm assisting Poole with her perfume selection has all the earmarks of a conventional love scene, at least until she leans in and whispers to him in the verbis diablo. Did she put a spell on him? That’s my guess since Sir Malcolm doesn’t appear to have any particular reaction or memory of it happening, and later meets Poole for a target-shooting date despite the fact that he’s still married and can’t get out of it. Within the next episode or two, count on adding adultery to list of violations of Victorian morality.

Of course, all of these transgressions pale in comparison to the episode-closing act of Evelyn Poole and the Nightcomers. It’s horrifying enough when Poole’s daughter Hecate abducts a baby from the London Underground, slashing the throats of both parents in the process. The sequence in which Poole removes the baby’s heart and sews it into a Vanessa Ives voodoo dummy under the petrified gaze of the many voodoo dummies that preceded her (each presumably with its own baby heart inside) is one of the most original and unsettling set pieces Penny Dreadful has offered to date. The show may have more on its mind than simply creeping us out, but few are better at doing just that.


Stray observations:

  • Along with everything else, Lily has forgotten Brona’s former accent, which is good news for Billie Piper and for us.
  • Regarding the full-frontal penis, I was going to say something like “See, Game of Thrones? How hard was that?” But somehow that phrasing struck me as unfortunate.
  • Sir Malcolm helping Vanessa deal with her demons by taking her to do volunteer work in what I can only describe as a cholera dungeon not only humanizes his character, it serves as a vivid reminder that not all horrors are supernatural, particularly in this time period. I’m not sure why John Clare was hanging out there, but it was nice to see a more tender, thoughtful side of him in his conversation with Vanessa. That probably won’t last long.

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