Penny Dreadful: Grand Guignol (Episode 8 Review)

The following contains major spoilers for episode four.

Self-awareness in a program – if used sparingly – is a great asset for a writer to utilise. There is a fantastic moment in the middle of episode four, that creates a great connection between the shows characters and audience. The characters are attending a play to appeal to the more dark and morbid inclinations. A Penny Dreadful, if you will. The shows characters gather round with a willing crowd, and the atmosphere is alive with anticipation.

The show is performed with gusto. The crowd are captivated, and hanging on to the actor’s every word. Vanessa Ives and Dorian Grey are amused, while Brona is on the edge of her seat, only looking away to find Ethan’s shoulder for comfort. Even the creature, Caliban, is enjoying himself in a rare moment of levity. From the way he runs to and from his stage cues in the background, to the way he uses the blood pump with enthusiastic delight, you can see his childlike glee in being the master of this giant toy box. It’s an all too rare moment of humanity from a creature the show would rather us label a monster.

It’s a statement from the show to the audience. The characters are as enticed by the promise of sex, blood and death as we’re supposed to be. You can make a really good show by unashamedly pandering to an audience’s desires, but – with the same philosophy – you can make also make a terrible one. Good shows do more than pander, and while Penny Dreadful does do enough not to be terrible, it doesn’t do enough to become all that good.

If only the characters could open up like that more often. Take Sir. Malcome, for example. His character’s function is to squint into the camera, put on his gruffest voice, proclaim the danger of the following episodes, ramble about mysteries, and to keep the omnipotent cloud of danger hanging over the show. He did have one moment of tenderness, but, because of his two dimensional nature, it just came off as uncharacteristic. Also, his growing relationship with young Victor, who he apparently sees as a son, has come from nowhere.

Vanessa’s progression has gone more smoothly. Her interaction with a grieving child was a nice conversation, one that allowed her to open up and appear more human. Her interaction with Dorian Grey was also welcome, although it lacked subtlety. Dorian tells Vanessa that he loves flowers for their duplicity. If he had left it there it would have been great, but the fact that he explains himself makes me feel patronised. It also makes him seem like an intellectual oaf.

I’m not convinced much by this incarnation of Grey. His youth is a problem, but his wooden delivery more so. Grey should look like a child, but seem a lot older. His presence among more seasoned veterans betrays his inexperience. Caliban seems more interesting than I first gave him credit for, but that might be me projecting onto the program. I find his talk of immortality unconvincing. He wants to bee seen as the first of a new species, one that doesn’t have the weaknesses of ordinary mortals. But his voice quivers when he speaks of it, and there is a fear behind his eyes. It would be wonderful if that was intended, but I’m not sure I have the confidence in the program to be convinced.

Olly Alexnader’s character Fenton, has, as I predicted last week, died. It’s a shame that anyone deserving of our sympathy is seen by the series as underserving of life. And Sembene who is the only non-white character, and who could give the cast some much needed diversity, is terribly side-lined, given only the condescending role of dark, mysterious foreigner.

Josh Hartnett is (and I did say spoilers remember?) either a werewolf, or is secretly hunting one. It would give him adequate reason to stay in London, but the signposting of this is so in-your-face you feel beaten about the head with it.

Oh and one last thing. Nudity. Nudity is fine in a series like this because the audience want it to be gratuitous and unnecessary. Makes them feel like they are being rebellious and indulging in something taboo. Many people these days do not see the harm in cheapening your product with exploitative nudity, but here is the danger. The show has introduced a bisexual aspect to its main hero Ethan, which is a brave choice that really displays some of that diversity we mentioned earlier. However, knowing how pandering the nudity of the program is, I can only see this as a cynical attempt at getting some Tumblr publicity. At times this show seems like one big Tumblr reblog. The death, the sex, the pale guys in Victorian dress; its all bait for free publicity on questionable social media networks.

But, hey, whatever works for it.