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Penny Dreadful Review: “Verbis Diablo”

In which Penny Dreadful crushes Game of Thrones in full-frontal penis shots.

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Dead babies, dead languages, and dead artifacts in the basement of the British Museum – what more could you want from an episode of Penny Dreadful?

After the breakneck speed at which we were re-introduced to all of our faves in the season two premiere, Penny Dreadful returns to its normal, leisurely creep this week, and is all the better for it. This show is at its best not when delivering jump scares, but instead when building a slow terror over the course of a full hour. I think you can really see that difference in the treatment of the witches this week; sure, last week’s carriage attack was freaky, but wasn’t Hecate stalking that baby a million times more freaky? Don’t even get me started on the way Poole is stalking Malcolm; she’s playing the long game, and I have to wonder what poisonous enchantment she dripped into his ear.

Malcolm’s relationship with Vanessa continues to evolve, and I’m really enjoying the way they’re starting to build up their own little father/daughter family unit in the midst of all this insanity. Their trip to the cholera-riddled soup kitchen was a delight and seemed to help Vanessa immensely – though it does indicate Penny Dreadful‘s willingness to play with the historical timeline a little. By the 189s0, in which the show is set, health care had advanced to the point where cholera was rarely a problem in England and Western Europe; London’s major outbreaks took place in the early Victorian era, between the 1830s and 1860s. But it’s not the first time Penny Dreadful has toyed with anachronistic plot lines, and even occasionally enjoys drawing attention to them.

We see that most often in the case of Victor Frankenstein, a Romantic character displaced in a Victorian show, and he seems to have unwittingly passed his discomfort with the era on to his progeny. Yes, Nice Guy Caliban shall henceforth be known as Nice Guy John, since our favorite figuratively-fedora-wearing zombie has taken on the name “John Clare” this season. Shaking off The Tempest, Nice Guy John is instead adopting the name of a famous Romantic poet, a contemporary of Mary Shelley, who praised the English countryside and felt as though he did not belong in an industrialized nation. Of course Clare would eventually go on to lose his wits and start telling people that he was also Shakespeare and Byron, so perhaps he has more in common with Nice Guy John than just his distaste of mechanization (one that he shares, likely not coincidentally, with Poole).

Nice Guy John is still living up to the first part of his dickbag name in “Verbis Diablo,” declaring the new Brona “perfect” before she even learns how to speak a word. Appropriate, since isn’t that how all Nice Guys prefer their women? Silent? It’s appalling to me that Nice Guy John feels so entitled to Brona and her body despite the fact that she is a fully-intelligent human being with the ability to make her own choices (you know, once Victor stops fondling her and gives her the words with which to give or deny consent). Anyways, her horrid accent is gone this season, so we can at least be grateful for that.

Though he was absent from the premiere, Dorian returns to us this week, along with a brand-new character in the form of Angelique, a purveyor of the Great Social Evil. I was torn about this narrative; at first, I was afraid that it played too much into the harmful “trans women are tricking men” stereotype that is so popular in traditional media; but as I watched Angelique’s “reveal” scene, I felt that she and Dorian actually subverted this. Dorian is neither surprised nor shocked (but definitely pleased) when Angelique drops her robes, indicating that he was fully aware of (or simply doesn’t care about) Angelique’s gender identity when he purchased her time.

In an interview with Jonny Beauchamp, he said that he “absolutely” believes that Angelique is transgender,

but in a pre-transgender world before there was a name for it. Today, we’re finally on the transgender frontier and everyone is starting to talk about it, but it wasn’t spoken of a hundred years ago. If you were transgender back then you were considered crazy or a sexual deviant. So the fact that Angelique holds herself with such pride and poise is amazing. She speaks well, is very well read, and is not a common prostitute. I find her so thrilling! You don’t know what she wants when she first approaches Dorian. Is she just looking for a client, or maybe someone who can be her boyfriend? She’s bold, but not bold in the sense of ever making a scene or being disrespectful. She knows the rules, but she also knows how to bend them.  

Beauchamp also agrees with my interpretation of the scene with Dorian, saying that “I think he does know – if not before, than certainly when he walks in and sees the other patrons.” We know that women like Angelique existed in the Victorian era, and that she is also much safer presenting as a female sex worker, regardless of her gender identity – because, while prostitution was not directly illegal, homosexuality certainly was. I have very much enjoyed how Penny Dreadful has treated concepts of Victorian sexuality, especially last season with Ethan and Dorian’s love scene, and even in this episode in the way that Ethan happily plays along with Lyle’s advances. I am, of course, by no means an expert on trans representation on television and absolutely cannot speak to whether or not the scene was offensive to trans viewers, so I would definitely welcome other opinions on this (and hope to see some in the comments!)

Speaking of Lyle, he’s working for the witches so to avoid a horrible scandal – but Poole didn’t quite go far enough in her imaginings of what would happen if her photographs of his predilections were to be released to the press. Yes, he would lose his job and his marriage – but also, likely, his life. So it makes sense that Lyle would be forced to do her bidding. Also, she’s a witch, so I’m not entirely sure why she needs blackmail, but hey. I’ll run with it.

Other tidbits I enjoyed this episode were the old underground station, Inspector Rusk continuing in his Sherlockian quest, and Poole’s doll collection to rival my grandmother’s (seriously, her house is freaky as hell). We will see what creeps next week brings!

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