“Séance” is Penny Dreadful’s second episode and it may not have the action of the first, but does a great job of introducing new characters, developing old ones and when there’s time, advance the story. It has a couple really impressive scenes, including a particularly shocking and graphic twist at the end, which I think not only make up for the distinct lack of vampires or scares, but also makes it a more compelling episode than the first.
After another woman is (seemingly) inconsequently murdered in the opening, Chandler is introduced to a disease ridden prostitute Brona Croft who later meets and has sex with none other than Dorian Gray. Gray as it happens is also attending a party of Ferdinand Lyle’s where he along with Vanessa and Sir Malcolm take part in a séance. Meanwhile Frankenstein teaches his new creation named Proteus (I’m sure there’s a meaning behind that name but I haven’t read Two Gentlemen of Verona), studying him, and introducing him to the world. Oh and apparently Sir Malcolm is helping out with the Ripper case in Whitechapel too.
So there isn’t a whole lot of time in this episode devoted to advancing the story. The team that was assembled in the last episode never appear together here and the movements to recovering Mina Murray are minimal at best. We see the vampire body now bereft of skin and more of the hieroglyphs, and later get a good scene where Sir Malcolm consults Lyle about them. Oh and by the way, I’m loving Ferdinand Lyle! Simon Russell Beale plays him with a campy fun and enthusiastic charm that makes for a good comic relief, while also being able to be taken seriously. You really find yourself listening to his talk on Egyptian mythology. And his mixture of fear and delight following the séance is pretty fun too.
This episode was much more focussed on character, both in introducing new ones and expanding on some of the established cast. First the new: I was very glad to see Billie Piper show up, though less glad to hear her doing not the most convincing of Irish accents. I felt like the Doctor should have come in and scolded her like he did when she tried a Scottish accent in that one Doctor Who episode. I also wonder if her playing a prostitute is a little bit typecasting after Secret Diary of a Call Girl. But she was good with what she was given and I look forward to more of her in the future. That sex scene though with Dorian Gray, made immediately non-erotic with the reminder she’s syphilitic, had the desired somewhat cringe-worthy effect. And it set up his character fairly well too. Reeve Carney despite being a singer and an American plays the part very well. He gives the character an anomalous presence, you can’t quite pinpoint who he is or what drives him, and I really like that. Sure he’s a pretty boy, but that’s who Dorian Gray should be anyway. And then there’s Alex Price as Proteus very capably playing the infant-like interest and wonder of experiencing the world for the first time. He also has very good chemistry with Harry Treadaway making their scenes quite enjoyable.
But the best scene of the episode is the titular séance which is incredibly well-paced and gripping. Guest star Helen McCrory does a very good turn as Madame Kali, the leader of the séance, but the whole sequence hinges on Vanessa and Sir Malcolm as we get more implications of their backstory in the most eerie of ways (there’s not a whole lot of Chandler in this episode, though I’m not complaining). Vanessa being susceptible to evil spirits, is possessed first by the apparent spirit of Sir Malcolm’s late son Peter who had died of dysentery while travelling with his father in Africa. It’s unnerving for the guests but they take it in stride, Sir Malcolm even weeping for his lost son. But then the spirit seems to become something else entirely, accusing Sir Malcolm of “fucking her” and we’re left unclear whether this spirit is also Peter or if it’s Mina or someone else, and to whom they are referring. Are they talking about their mother or Mina -accusing Sir Malcolm of incest with his daughter (what is it with incest in these kind of shows? Game of Thrones was surely enough?). It’s all really insane and you can see the discomfort on Sir Malcolm’s face. This whole scene from the beginning of the possession is a marvel and both Eva Green’s and Timothy Dalton’s performances really make it work. Green gets to let loose with her writhing, screeching, speaking in Latin (or more likely Egyptian), but she never feels too over-the-top to diminish the creepiness. It really feels like a scene out of The Exorcist! And despite uttering almost no dialogue, Dalton’s reactions, his confusion, sadness, discomfort, and anger are all pitch perfect. The added effect of the table cracking and the near levitation add to the scene. And it really makes Vanessa feel dangerous. Though she’s supposed to be a protagonist of this show, we’re exposed to a dark side here which though beyond her control is still strikingly formidable. Eva Green has after all, played her share of villains, and with Lyle’s later conclusion that she’s “being hunted by the devil” (by which he means a resurrection spell of Egyptian deities Amunet and Amun-Ra) you can’t help but wonder if she’ll succumb to evil.
Now lastly, let’s talk about that final scene. Though I didn’t like it as much as the séance it was a damn good ending twist. Throughout the episode, the B-plot concerned Frankenstein studying and introducing his monster Proteus to the workings of the world. Near the end he decided to take Proteus outside and wander the streets with him. What follows is a nice sequence where Proteus sees the wonder in and enjoys everything, and Frankenstein vicariously experiences this through him. Hell, Frankenstein even becomes something of a likable character when he declares Proteus would be lucky to find a lot of friends and in his conceding to Proetus’ identifying street lamps with fairy lights. It’s actually a little sweet. We even get a red herring piece of foreshadowing when Proteus identifies a man’s wife and it seems to imply he’ll soon be asking Frankenstein for a mate. But it is indeed a red herring. Because as soon as they get home Proteus is gruesomely ripped in half by a pale-faced Rory Kinnear identifying himself as Frankenstein’s first creation! Leaving aside the fact it makes no sense (was he just crouched down waiting to make a dramatic and violent entrance), this was a terrifically unexpected twist. Especially given how much we’d gotten to know Proteus over the hour and how much it looked like he was being moulded to be a future main character. Alex Price’s performance was very good, but sadly it would be a short-lived one. We also get to see who Rory Kinnear is playing and he makes a great impression. We don’t know much about him yet except that he’s violent and angry. And I’m beyond interested to see where this goes.
So yeah, I really liked “Séance”. It introduced a couple fascinating new characters, gave us some really intense scenes and performances, and a final shock that really impressed. It may not have advanced the story a whole lot, but it keeps up the excitement, building character and tone. While that first instalment set up the world, this one shows more comfort in it and I think makes it better. After “Séance”, I cannot wait to see what’s behind the next corner.