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Penny Dreadful Review: “Fresh Hell”

In which Helen McCrory comes for Eva Green['s Acting Queen title].


After a fittingly long and drawn-out hiatus over the course of a dark winter, Penny Dreadful has crept back onto our television screens, scorpions, Satan, and all. Oh, and some witches this time, too.

First, a reminder/primer on what exactly this show is and where we’re coming from. “Penny dreadfuls” were a particular type of serialized fiction published in the mid-nineteenth century, featuring sensational stories, printed on pulp, and sold for a penny on the streets, or in many of the traveling libraries that popped up around England alongside the advent of train travel (people needed cheap pulp fiction to read on the train, you feel me?) Dreadfuls were essentially the Ghost Hunters or Creepy comics of the Victorian era; low-cost, low-brow, and unavoidable.

The first season of Penny Dreadful was a slow burn, introducing us to variations on all of our favorite Gothic and Victorian characters and themes, following our Ghostly Gang as they attempted to find Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Mina, kidnapped by mysterious vampires. But where our group were the hunters last season, they have now become the hunted; and the previous eight episodes’ mostly-unseen and unknown villain has been replaced by one highly-campy and monstrously wonderful Helen McCrory.

We first met Madame Kali early in season one at her séance, but you don’t bring an actress like McCrory onto a show for one small part without realizing you need to utilize her to the best of her abilities. Truly embracing the penny dreadful’s sometimes-schlocky horror aesthetic, McCrory’s coven-leading Evelyn Poole is everything you want in a witch: blood-bathing, Satan-worshipping, throat-slicing-with-her-fingernails goodness. But though she pushes it, McCrory never takes things so over-the-top that you stop believing she would fit into the overall aesthetic of the Penny Dreadful universe; rather I think the show has settled nicely into a middle ground between taking itself too seriously and being on The CW.

Of course, no one can truly replace Queen Eva’s acting, and as Vanessa she remains a gem in this premiere episode. It’s also lovely to see her interactions with Josh Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler becoming a little more romantic – I never liked her with Dorian, and she and Ethan can bond over their secret, internal monstrousness together – since, you know, he is now mass-murdering people willy-nilly. Timothy Dalton makes an impressive entrance three-quarters of the way through the episode, but he uses his limited time to take command of the screen and remind us all that he’s going to (try to) remain in charge this season. I’m admittedly looking very forward to Danny Sapani stretching his wings in an expanded role as Sembene this year as well; I’m fascinated by his backstory, and look forward to seeing what mystical character he might bring to life (because you know there’s something extra going on there).

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Finally, we’ve got the weirdest family gathering of all time over at Frankenstein’s place; he’s busy Bride Of-ing poor Brona (who spends a heck of a lot of this episode naked in a tank, which could not have been comfortable), and getting uncomfortably close to a little necrophilia, which I definitely did not sign up for when I started this episode. Meanwhile, original-ish progeny Nice Guy Caliban (for some background on the nickname, check out here, here, here, and here) complains a whole lot about getting exactly what he wants, and then heads out to find someplace that will employ someone who, as far as I can tell, is mostly just really pale and balding. Honestly, there’s no way he looks much worse than most factory workers in London during the fin de siècle. Luckily, the wax museum (the parallels!) has an opening; unluckily for the blind daughter of the wax museum’s owner, Caliban is totally creeping on her despite literally being custom-made a girlfriend. Sigh.

Penny Dreadful is one of the few shows on television which benefits from having every single episode written by the same guy, John Logan (similar to True Detective and early seasons of The West Wing). This gives the show a sense of symmetry, similarity, and true continuity, in the very same way that every installment of a dreadful would be written by the same author. There are several genuinely scary moments in this episode, as well; the carriage scene particularly embraced the “nervous shock” aesthetic of the show’s Sensation Fiction roots and made me jump out of my seat more than once. It’s visually stunning, a little campier than last year, and I can’t wait for more.

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Sam Maggs is a writer and televisioner, currently hailing from the Kingdom of the North (Toronto). Her first book, THE FANGIRL'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY will be out soon from Quirk Books. Sam’s parents saw Star Wars: A New Hope 24 times when it first came out, so none of this is really her fault.