[Review] - Penny Dreadful, Season 2 Finale Episode 10, "And They Were Enemies"

Courtesy of Neal Street Productions
Earlier this year, I said I would review the second season of True Detective. Keen eyed readers and distracted library hobos will have noticed that I have not done so. That is because the first episode bummed me out so damned much. The first season was nihilistic, but it was also charming. This season is just... depressing. And the same went for Game of Thrones. I'm seriously considering that show for entry into my list of shows that you can stop watching at a certain point and it's a better show. Because when this season wasn't being dull, it was being unnecessary or just mean. In fact, while TV might be hitting a high water mark, the last few months have been a largely joyless affair (the HBO comedies are exceptionally excluded).

The exceptions to that has been Hannibal and  Penny Dreadful, the latter of which never quite reaches the quality of the former, but sure as hell tries. In tone, it is like taking laudanum and watching fairy lights. But it succeeds over the other "top quality" fair in that it is interesting, entirely self possessed, and a hell of a lot of fun. These are sick, deranged, tortured, sad people fighting against horrible things, and while it might not be a riot, it at least is something that has entertainment value when you turn in week to week. Which is sad that another season (one perhaps too long by an hour or so) has ended, and ended in such a conclusively character focused way.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that have experienced much, but never know this sensation.

Before we turn to the triumphs of the finale, we need to take a moment and confront the failures, not really of this episode, but of the series in general: Sembene. What a waste of potential. I can't say he was a waste of anything else, because John Logan never saw fit to actually give the character anything to do. I suspect that this was a character that he originally developed because it fit a trope, and he had a mind to subvert that trope at some point (as has been his practice with most of the Victorian tropes this show has been lacquered in). Unfortunately, because the focus was so often and so obviously on Eva Green and Vanessa, he never had a justified opportunity to break away and explore the most stalwart of the series' characters. So the character languished in disuse, until the last handful of episodes, when Logan was presented with both a chance to develop the character, and use that development as an excuse to rid himself of a demon of prior intent.

What makes Sembene's death hard is two reasons, one procedural and one structural. Procedural because it carries little weight. One day I will write an opus on the importance of death as a plot device in fiction, and this will land hard on the line of meaningless. This character, who was so ill defined that he could have only managed an emotional connection with two out of nine main characters, and was killed by one of them, didn't have an impact to leave in his passing. Killing off a main cast member, someone who has been there from day one, should be a revolting and revolutionary event, but because Logan didn't invest any time in creating a character for Danny Sapani to inhabit, the audience didn't invest any emotion in caring for him. That he died was an empty consequence of the mission. It should have had a profound effect on Ethan, being the man who killed him, but considering his arc this season, it is reasonable to assume that he would have made the same guilt ridden choice he did whether Sembene was dead or not. The same with Sir Malcolm's retreat to Africa, something he has been threatening since Mina's death, has more to do with his mind rape and desire to escape back into a world he knows the it does returning his old friend's body to home soil.

It is also a slap in the face, because Logan clearly had time enough to focus on other, more minor and ultimately less effective characters than one featured in the opening sequence. This season saw the rise of the characters of Rusk and Putney, both characters intended to push the main cast down certain paths along their arc, and both of whom ultimately had those purposes partially aborted. Rusk was introduced as a tireless investigator with an open mind and an insatiable need to run down his prey. Except he didn't. He had a few awkward conversations and then Ethan turned himself in. Likewise Puteny was meant to lead Claire down a path of depression and desperation, but he largely spent episodes spouting off about capitalism, then locked the man in a cage, then got his head crushed in. Both of these characters represented huge investments of time over this season, time that did manage to advance the characters of Ethan and Claire, and were identifiable characters in their own right. But it was time that Logan could have used to develop Sembene in a significant way, and especially considering the neutered and truncated way the Putney and rusk stories ended, Sembene would have likely been a far more meaningful use of time. Had we had an entire season of subplot that actually gave that character some meaning and purpose, his death would have been heart breaking and thus meaningful.

Everything else in the finale was incredible. First of all, to conclude the action of the plot, and wrap up the season's arc, by the half way mark, is a brave choice that other shows would be unwilling to attempt. The reason is most other shows hang their hat on plotting, not character. A show can exist without plot, so long as it has characters that support one another. This show does. This past season, Game of Thrones did not, and had to rest everything on events. This episodes wasn't about events. It was about events transforming characters. So, the siege on House Poole was significantly less important than what happened to each character once they got there. Vanessa had her confrontation with the Devil and handed him his own face. Victor and Malcolm underwent a trial by fire, confronted by their sins and each came out defined by the choices they made in that confrontation. Claire, in a different kind of confrontation, decides what sort of actions he can comfortably make to live in the world.

Of all those confrontations, I feel the least obvious and most important was Victor's, if only because his choices will have the most immediate impact next season, as Lily and Dorian begin their reign of undead horror. When haunted by their sins, both Victor and Malcolm's spirits suggest suicide. Malcolm considers the option, but ultimately opts for a guilt ridden life. Victor takes the easy way out. He decides that yes, death is better than a guilty life, and attempts to do so through drug overdose, the most self-obsessed way to go. To lazily slip from life in the midst of an artificial euphoria, without having to take direct action or confrontation. A cowards way out. Later, he has the exact confrontation with Lily in real life, and summoning curious strength, attempts to kill her. But then, when confronted with their plan, he again takes the coward's way out. He has an instrument of immediate action in his hand: a functioning gun. He could have, in that moment, put a stop to their grand plans, by putting the barrel to his head and pulling the trigger. Instead, he flees and huddles in fear, wrapping himself in the haze and artificial comfort of drugs, hoping to avoid his obligation and guilt, and maybe even slipping into the darkness he wanted to embrace before.

The episode ended with each character going their own way, each according to their own disappointment in man kind. Claire, after securing his own release, decides that the between the options of living in a world that fears and mocks him, or acting as the right hand of a vengeful and passionless queen, he'd rather abscond to isolation. Malcolm retreats into equal isolation, returning to his beloved Darkest Africa, where his losses are a world away. Ethan is carted (literally) away to the New World, and I would be immensely grateful is some of next year took place in the Old West. And Vanessa holds vigil over her old life, utterly alone and undesired by the flesh or spirit. It was all a natural conclusion to how these characters operate, and where their paths have been headed for two seasons. Likely constructed as a series finale in case they didn't get a pick up, the series ends on a pessimistic note, but also a perversely hopeful one. Things fall apart when the centre does not hold. Objects in space do not hold themselves together without gravity. But gravity will bring them back together in time. And Lily looks to be a black hole looming on the horizon.

One last note: there was so much talk in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of this episode of turning back the clock that I thought Logan was about to introduce us to Morlocks. Which wouldn't have made much sense, but would have been a hell of a twist.
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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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