[Review] - Penny Dreadful, Season 1 Episode 4, "Demimonde"

Courtesy of Neal Street Productions
If this show hadn't impressed me enough, they went and tipped the scales in their favour by hiring David Warner as (a properly elder) Van Helsing. He only appeared briefly in this episode, but it's David freaking Warner! As much as his literary nemesis, the role of Van Helsing is one that has been filled in a variety of ways and levels of success over the years, and casting Warner is a vote of confidence as to how this rendition of the character will play out.

And, as with the rest of the characters being pulled from the literature, this version strays closer to the original than most adaptations are bothered to attempt. Here, the good doctor is a hematologist, a blood specialist (the original was a man of various letters and areas of expertise, with a mind towards rare diseases). Elsewhere, having covered Frankenstein's past last week, this was Dorian Gray's turn in the limelight, as the season reached it's halfway mark, we attended a penny dreadful production, and the monsters came calling.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that have so many sins on their back, it would kill them to turn around.

So, it looks like my powers of deduction only proved half right. All the signs point towards Chandler being a werewolf. If the foreshadowing of the penny dreadful play wasn't obvious enough, the slicing in of Chandler's explosive anger with shots of the mad dog killing rats certainly put a pin in the subtly balloon. Not that I'm complaining. Other shows wouldn't have bothered with the metaphor, it's one of the reasons I've enjoyed the series thus far. It isn't as interested in being as philosophically dense as a show like True Detective, but it does really love having fun with symbolism. Like the Lovers card that Chandler overturned in the first episode. To whom does it make reference, at this point?

Where I was way off the mark was the cause of the Ripper style murders. Since Caliban arrived demanding a mate be made for him, I assumed that Frankenstein's legacy was "gathering supplies." Turns out no, it was Chandler in a fit of moon rage. Which also establishes something of a timeline for us, a countdown clock to keep in the backs of out minds. The series opened with the murders, it was the first thing we saw. Without clear indication of how long time has passed since then, the arrival of the next full moon may well be bearing down on the band of misfits sooner rather than later.

I'm a big believer in purpose. Stories are not life; they almost certainly must have meaning. And every element within a story must have purpose. Some will argue this with me. Some will claim that a meaningless element can be just as meaningful as one created for specific purpose. I feel that any element, be it subplot, antidote or character must play a part in the unraveling of the story. If everything is working towards an end point, then it makes for tighter story telling and reduces bloat (regular readers will be familiar with my war on narrative bloat). So, going into this episode I was a asking myself, "what role does Dorian Gray play in all of this?" Vanessa is in it because of guilt, Malcolm out of love, Chandler and Frankenstein for the money, and the silent and pragmatic Sembene out of loyalty. Why introduce Gray? Of all the characters to pull from the literature, why him? Thus far, he isn't part of the hunt. His unique condition, still only alluded to, has yet to lend aid to the search for Mina. So why is he here?

I think he's here for the distraction. Croft is present for motivation, to keep Chandler involved. But Gray's whole point seems to be keeping our core band from staying on task. This episode, besides delving into Gray's psyche, was an elaborate, and ultimately distracting, seduction. This is the psycho-sexuality that the series was sold on. It isn't Victorian orgies or Irish prostitutes, it's long walks in the garden and stolen glances across the balcony. Gray, desperate for some new distraction, draws Ives attention away from the task at hand. The two asexual characters, or at least the characters that haven't yet been shown to be swayed by temptations of the flesh, remain focused and on duty, while the rest go gallivanting into the night in their best duds. Gray gets his hooks into Ives, and we are so focused on that, that we don't see the same job he's pulling on Chandler. All his longing to experience something revelatory and he manages to provide us with the same.

The show also managed to deliver what I feel I'm right in declaring the series' first joke. And wisely, Timothy Dalton was part of it. He has been nothing but wonderful in the stoic role of Sir Malcolm thus far, but it underutilized one of Dalton's best talents, that of the deadpan delivery. So my favourite scene of the night was his and Frankenstein's discussion of how best to procure blood for their "guest." I will, until my last, advocate for the presence of humour, especially the absurd, and especially in works that are overwhelmingly dark and mood-driven. If the series is truly about the measure of humanity, and how a monster of Dracula's caliber might be measured against the outrages of man, then it is all the more critical that as testimony on behalf of man, a laugh be included from time to time.

Since it was the half way point, the episode had a certain responsibility to set up what we can expect as momentum gives way to gravity, and everything starts to go wrong for everyone. And I think it set up things rather nicely. Dracula, if that is in fact who we are dealing with (and at this point, I wouldn't put it past John Logan to pull another surprise on us), made his first appearance, looking more like an albino creature having crawled from the nightmares of Guillermo Del Toro than from Victorian aristocracy. The limitations of the characters have all but been established - Sir Malcolm is suggested to be a man who plans heavily, but lacks the ability to follow through being the most important - and the hunters have become the hunted.

But the character I find myself concerned with the most is Ms. Croft. Her future is almost certainly a bleak one. But one a series where that bleakness can take so many forms, I wonder which will claim her. The foreshadowing of the play would certainly suggest that Chandler will see her die, as she predicted. But Frankenstein is also in desperate search of a bride for his creation, and a dying prostitute makes for cheap research material. And there remains the question of Mina and her vampiric companions. Right now, I feel as though Croft is most likely to end up in the hands of young Victor, but I've been wrong before.

Not about Malcolm's son though, I got that one bang on.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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