Penny Dreadful S30E01 “The Day Tennyson Died” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on Tuesdays, 10pm on Sky Atlantic
Writer: John Logan
Director: Damon Thomas
Essential Plot Points:
- Since we last saw her, Vanessa has become a recluse (and boy, is she bad at housekeeping). A visit from Ferdinand Lyle cheers her up a little, and he advises her to visit a therapist – making an appointment for her to go.
- Ethan is in New Mexico, being escorted to trial on a train. Unfortunately, a group of armed cowboys has other ideas, slaughtering several carriages full of innocent people and “rescuing” him. Hecate Poole is on the train too, and survives.
- Malcolm is in Zanzibar and has buried his faithful servant Sembene (who’s no doubt turning in his grave at the state Vanessa has left the house in). Malcolm is attacked in an alleyway and saved by a mysterious Native American man named Kaetenay, who then informs him that he needs to go West to save Ethan.
- The Monster, aka John, is on a ship stuck in ice in the Arctic. While the men discuss whether to cannibalise their fallen shipmates, John sings a lullaby to a dying cabin boy. He has a vision of himself as a normal man, singing his son to sleep. Returning to the present, he snaps the boy’s neck to spare him further suffering and abandons ship, heading home.
- Ethan discovers that the cowboys are taking him back to his father. He is not happy about this.
- In London, Dr Frankenstein receives a visitor: his old friend Dr Jekyll. He tells him the entire sorry story about the monsters he’s created. Dr Jekyll offers to help him get Lily back – because he can help “domesticate” her. Interesting…
- Vanessa goes to see Lyle’s therapist, Dr Seward, who turns out to be related to her former mentor Joan Clayton. Dr Seward susses Vanessa out in a heartbeat and Vanessa is impressed. Seward tells Vanessa to go and do something she’s never done before, and so Vanessa visits the Natural History Museum – where she meets Alexander Sweet, the head of the museum (and a bit of a bore about scorpions, it must be said). Feeling better after having human contact, Vanessa goes home and cleans up the house. (In Zanzibar, we suspect Sembene stops spinning.)
- Dr Seward’s assistant is captured by a group of anaemic weirdoes. They scatter when their master turns up. He asks the assistant – whose name turns out to be Renfield – to spy on Vanessa during her sessions with Seward. And the new baddie’s name? Dracula, of course.
At the end of last season everybody buggered off to do their own thing, which means that when we pick up for season three there’s a pleasing array of new locations to gawp at: from the hills and valleys of New Mexico to Arctic ice floes. It does feel odd, mind you, that our ragtag bunch of heroes aren’t interacting with each other – barring a lovely little scene between a silent, distraught Vanessa and the ever-cheerful Lyle – although the use of narrated letters between Malcolm and Vanessa does help to bridge the gap. And, of course, letters were heavily used in novels in the 19th century to tell stories, probably most famously in Bram Stoker’s Dracula… which brings us to this episode’s biggest revelation.
It seems that despite Penny Dreadful already covering vampires in its first season, we’re now being introduced to a whole new breed of fanged sucky-things, this time a far more familiar version. While we don’t see Dracula, he certainly has a flair for the dramatic as he makes his big debut at episode’s end, although his Transylvanian accent is so downplayed it almost doesn’t exist – maybe this Drac is from somewhere else. Renfield’s paroxysms of horror as the creature leans in to feed, mind you, are so overplayed they’re almost laughable, as is the final spoken revelation after the screen has turned black. Well, nobody ever accused Penny Dreadful of being subtle!
Elsewhere, it’ll be interesting to see how Ethan gets on in a cowboy camp once the moon rises; that should be fun (for him, not them). And why is Hecate following him? Will she try to free him? Chances are he’s not going to be pleased to see her, either way. The attack on the train car (surprisingly posh for a train hurtling through New Mexico in 1862, we thought) is handled like a Peckinpah Western, with blood splattering and exploding heads all over the place. It’s not the best fight of the episode, however: exploding heads appear again in Zanzibar as two old blokes – Malcolm and Kaetenay – let rip some backstreet vengeance like double Liam Neesons in Taken (they do have a very particular set of skills). It’s hard not to enjoy the carnage.
Dr Frankenstein, while always beautifully played by Harry Treadaway, is often this show’s weakest link – he broods, whines and complains like a hormonal teenager, and this week is no exception. At least he’s got a partner now, and given Dr Jekyll’s reputation as a troublemaker, bad things are bound to ensue. Shazad Latif (better known as Toast Of London’s Clem Fandango, no less) doesn’t really get to do much except stand around and look a bit worried: hopefully he’ll have some life injected into him at some point. Or maybe he’ll ingest the life in question from a vial. He is half Mr Hyde, after all.
And finally we come to Vanessa’s new therapist, the marvellous Patti Lupone donning a hatchet-faced, no-nonsense demeanour to break down Vanessa’s walls in three seconds flat, busting her balls in terrifying fashion. It’s strange to think that the most impactful debut this week was supposed to be Dracula, but Dr Seward is so spectacular we reckon we’d give the Prince of Darkness a miss and go to see Seward’s one-woman show in a jiffy. It was a joy last season watching Eva Green and Lupone trying to out-act each other in “The World Is Our Hell”, and now we’re going to see them doing this each week? Our cup truly runneth over! For this, and this alone, this season four opener is a scream. Bravo.
- So, Ferdinand Lyle: best hair and beard combo in TV history? Discuss.
- When the bartender on the train asks Rusk what Ethan did, claiming that he doesn’t look that dangerous, the reply is: “He butchered a lot of people, and ate a fair number of them.” Well, that shut him up.
- Frankenstein looks so dreadful in this scene it’s hard to take him seriously. It’s as though someone dared the make-up artist to make him look like a White Walker from Game Of Thrones.
- For those familiar with Monty Python, the scene with the sailors sitting around discussing whether cannibalism is a good idea is deeply reminiscent of their famous “Lifeboat Sketch”.
- While the exterior shot is of London’s beloved Natural History Museum, the interior is actually the one in Dublin. Also, their whale looks like it needs a dust.
- Best Quote: Lyle: “I love what you’ve done with the place.”
Review by Jayne Nelson