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The women of Penny Dreadful rise up, but hit the glass ceiling

Billie Piper/Showtime
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Nearly every episode of Penny Dreadful presents another opportunity to gush over Eva Green’s work as Vanessa Ives, and “Ebb Tide” is no exception. In doing so, however, we run the risk of overlooking some of the other fine performances by the regular cast. There’s no better time than now to show a little love for Billie Piper, who has grown into a commanding presence in her own right after a somewhat shaky start. Back in season one, when she was still playing consumptive prostitute Brona Croft, Piper had few chances to shine; as I noted in my review of the first season finale, she mostly coughed and took her clothes off. She also struggled a bit with the Irish accent that thankfully disappeared when she was reborn as the intended bride of Frankenstein, Lily.


Lily has only grown stronger as a character since the early days following her reanimation, when she had no memory of her past and was easily manipulated by Victor. Through both of her lives, she’d been defined by men: the johns she relied on to make her living; the scientist who brought her back from the land of the dead; the immortal who shared his home and his vision of a world under their domination. Now she’s beyond all that, beyond the world of men. She has a different vision for the world, one she puts into motion when she commands her army of sex workers to go out into the night, each instructed not to return without the severed right hand of a bad man. (The later shot of the banquet table piled high with severed hands is such a perfect Penny Dreadful visual, equal parts elegance and visceral horror.)

Piper is electrifying in this scene as she stands atop the table and exhorts her forces to “Rise up!” She delivers the story of the keening women of Ireland, of whom the men did not approve, with righteous fervor. Along with Vanessa, her new friend Cat, and Dr. Seward (and, in her own way, the departed Hecate), Lily represents a sort of shadow feminism doomed to be smacked down by the Victorian patriarchy upon discovery. During their time in the spotlight, however, they burn bright, casting their shadow over the male characters. Sir Malcolm has been a bystander for most of the season, only roused to action briefly at the end of the last episode to save Ethan, who has himself been a passive presence, following Hecate’s lead until her demise. Frankenstein and Dorian have both seen all their actions defined by their relationship to Lily; her growing power is a threat to their vision of her. They don’t see her in exactly the same terms, but both want to keep her in a box that conforms to their view of the world, not to hers. Jekyll’s formula is the key to making it happen, or so they believe.

Like Lily and her army, Vanessa is ready to rise up. Her reunion with Ethan and the others takes place only on the spiritual plane, as they are still physically separated by thousands of miles. She does have Catriona (Cat to her friends), who drops by to let us know everything we believed about vampires is wrong. Since Dracula is a fallen angel, he can see his reflection and go out in the daylight, and he can’t be killed with a wooden stake. But there’s a catch! In his human form, he can be killed like anyone else, and that’s what Vanessa intends to do once she has the horrifying realization that the man who dwells in the house of the night creatures is none other than Dr. Sweet.

In a tragic miscalculation, however, she lets him talk. As Hecate did with Ethan, the great seducer appeals to her dark side and urges her to let it come forth. Unless she’s playing some sort of long con (which seems unlikely since she could have just shot him), she succumbs. For the extraordinary women of Penny Dreadful, the reality is all too ordinary: when they attempt to rise above their circumstances, men will do anything to stop them.


Stray observations

  • When John Logan hits on a turn of phrase he likes, he tends to repeat it over and over (I’m thinking of “painted with blood” earlier this season, or “night creatures” in the most recent couple of episodes). I’m not sure this is just a writer’s tic, however; the way these words echo throughout the disparate storylines may be Logan’s way of making them all feel like part of the same whole. Note, for instance, how Cat and Vanessa refer to Dracula as “the Dragon,” while Ethan uses the same term to denote his dead father.
  • In a surprising turn of events, things are going well for John Clare. After a pep talk from Vanessa (who, it turns out, does remember him from her time in the asylum), he returns to his wife and child, finding acceptance rather than terror. Rory Kinnear is once again outstanding in delivering the emotion of the moment, but I can’t quite bring myself to feel happy for Clare. I still remember what he did to poor Proteus.
  • Did Kaetenay call Vanessa a “great fertile bitch of evil”? Harsh.
  • The final two episodes of the season are scheduled to air back-to-back next Sunday night. At this point, I don’t know whether Showtime will provide screeners of one or both of them ahead of time (they generally hold back the season finale until showtime, so to speak), so I don’t know when the review will post. It may be a late night indeed.

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