Penny Dreadful gets meta as everything comes back to theatricality and performance.
Let’s bitch it out…Originally I had selected an image of Ethan (Josh Harnett) and Brona (Billie Piper) for the header of this review. But that was before I watched the episode in which creator and writer John Logan made the subtext text and I knew that something to use an image of the theater performance to lead things off.
I’ve really been enjoying this series so far. Eva Green kills it every time her exquisite neck and up-do grace the screen. The production values frequently make me want to frame my TV screen. And while I still think Reeve Carney’s hair looks like he’s en route to a boy band audition and Harnett’s performance is surprising wooden, get them shirtless and kissing and some of those concerns disappear.
But hot damn do I ever wish that John Logan would ease off on the obviousness of his metaphors and framing devices.
‘Demimonde’ is the most overtly obvious episode yet. Everything revolves around people putting on performances – works of art or masks that disguise who and what they truly are. Take the opening scene at Dorian’s house: it is shot and staged like a Victorian-era music video filled with extras putting on a sexy show for him (it’s basically Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance). When the sexually voracious performance artists leave, Dorian wanders into a secret backroom to gaze upon his own portrait, which we – naturally – don’t see because mystery. Anyone familiar with The Picture of Dorian Gray knows what to expect so, like IGN, I’ll applaud the series for holding off on the reveal, but it doesn’t make up for Dorian’s groan-inducing response when Ethan asks who he’s playing later in the episode. “Human” – Dorian laments. Ugh.
Earlier Ethan takes Brona to the Grand Guignol theatre for a night out (‘The Transformed Man’ – more on the nose humour if we believe Ethan is a wolfman) and they play the perfect couple for a while. Brona’s enjoyment of the show is contagious (pun intended), but she can’t play pretend when she has to interact with Dorian (he’s a dirty boy, so he feels no need to pretend he doesn’t know her). In the street she and Ethan have a spat and she reduces their relationship (so lovely and confessional earlier in bed) to a financial transaction with no future but death. It’s a pretty hurtful (and vulgar) observation, but this is once again nothing more than a performance, and a rather obvious one, at that. Brona clearly feels insecure after Dorian’s appearance reminds her that she’s not a proper lady like Vanessa; she’s a whore, so she acts like one. Which would be fine, but it all happens right in front of a theatre – which, again, is far too obvious.
Ethan foolishly lets Brona’s performance affect him, so he joins the theatrical brigade by accepting Dorian’s offer to “become someone else”. Their descent into an underground club is nearly as obvious as the use of the Grand Guignol. Dorian is the Machiavellian tempter who just so happens to bring Ethan to the one arena guaranteed to reintroduce Ethan’s murky black-outs/rage-o-matic reactions (Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm describes him as a “finger on a trigger.”) The predisposition to impending violent turns out to be very apropos when Ethan gets into a fight with a bunch of English “gentlemen” and ends up at Dorian’s home. Using the art room as a bracketing device takes virtually of the surprise out of the ending since the sexy antics that open the episode clearly foreshadow the moment the two men undress each. The fact remains, however, that this is just another performance – a planned seduction by Dorian, courtesy of absinthe and Tristan & Isolde and a desperate attempt by Ethan to forget Brona and push aside his suspicions that he’s a killer. Dorian even compliments Ethan on “playing parts”, clearly referring to more than Ethan’s work in the Wild West show we saw in the first episode and the conflation of performance, art and “honesty”. I don’t believe for a minute that Ethan is actually queer, so this sexual encounter is just another role.
As I said, I enjoyed the episode, but there was far too much “on the nose” use of performance and theatricality for me. The series has made good use of this idea in its first few episodes and It’s fun to dig into these kinds of readings when they’re inferred, but not when it’s “hit over the head” obvious like this.
- Vanessa also gets in on the act when she and Dorian meet at the botanical gardens. Their interaction is steeped in sexuality. He goads her into describing a deadly nightshade and she unwittingly makes it sound like a sexual act. After Dorian leaves, she reacts as though she’s coming out of a fugue (the camera pressed in close on her mildly-confused/enthralled face so that the background is blurred). Dorian must exude sexual energy, or something.
- Even Fenton (Olly Alexander) – the deranged teenager in the basement – participates. It turns out that his capture and imprisonment are little more than a ruse to give his Master access to the house and Vanessa. Unfortunately for him, Vanessa is off at the theatre trying to make googly eyes at Dorian and Sir Malcolm is more capable of handling himself in a scuffle. Bye Fenton!
- There is a telling scene in the basement when Fenton scans his jailers – the camera assuming his point of view as we pan across their faces – and Fenton mutters “so many monsters.” Obviously the implication is that none of these people are “good”, but the subtext is that each of these men has his own monster to bear inside.
- I love that Ethan buys Brona an orange at the theatre. That’s an expensive gift in those days, people!
- The Creature (Rory Kinnear) looks like he’s working for his paycheck during that performance. Of course, I would enjoy these scenes more if it was less obvious that his future bride is going to be that blonde chick in the theatre company. Or will Brona croak first and provide a suitable body instead?
- Considering that this is cable, I find it especially disappointing that we’ve seen some pretty graphic heterosexual sex but the first clearly queer sexuality* fades to black the minute the shirts come off and the men exchange a few kisses. Pretty typical.
- There was a whiff of romance between Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Proteus, but it was never acted upon. Ethan does make a passing remark that Frankenstein can’t accompany Sir Arthur into the bush because he’s an arrogant dandy, though.
- I confess I probably could have made more of an effort to tie in how blood factors into all of this performance/theatrics business. Ah well, let’s just raise the relevant point: we’ve now met Dr. Van Helsing (David Warner), a hematologist who has discovered ‘Hannah’s Wink’, a property that prevents coagulation in blood (edited for clarity). There’s a suggestion that it may be a cure for hematophagy, the eating of blood.
- Finally, between the dog vs rat bets and Sembene (Danny Sapani) feeding Fenton a cat, this was not a good episode for animal lovers.
- Dorian (when Vanessa asks if the rare orchid is poisonous): “Like all beautiful things…I hope so.”
- Brona (dismissing Ethan outside the theatre): “From now on, you fuck me like anyone else. After you’ve paid.”
- Malcolm (telling Vanessa he wishes his daughter had been born with her cruel streak): “You’re the daughter I deserve.”
What are your thoughts on the Dorian/Ethan hook-up? Did you pick up on all of the nods to theatricality / performance? Why is Sembene shadowing Vanessa? And how many rats would you bet a dog could kill in a minute? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 10pm EST on Showtime. Next week looks to provide some backstory on Vanessa and Mina.