Generously draped in lashings of flesh, blood, guts and bonking, there’s no doubt Penny Dreadful offers a fantastical feast of gothic treats for its cult following to feed upon. Even so, we’re now midway through its second season on Sky Atlantic and John Logan’s sensational creation still hasn’t found a way to bind its intriguing collection of macabre figures into anything resembling a compelling narrative.
To recap the series so far, after failing in his attempt to rescue his demon-stolen daughter in season one, Timothy Dalton’s miserly explorer Sir Malcolm and his ramshackle league of extraordinary gentlemen – which includes lycanthropic gunslinger Ethan, a creepy whippet version of Dr Frankenstein, and boggle-eyed medium Vanessa Ives – are this time trying to save Vanessa from the clutches of Helen McCroy’s magnetically malevolent Evelyn Poole in what is basically the exact same plot as the first season.
Last night’s episode was more of the same as harmless dandy Ferdinand Lyle, revealed last week to be a puppet of Poole’s mechanisations, explained the disturbing story of the verbis diablo relics, which naturally involved the world’s most cursed woman, Vanessa; Inspector Rusk finally made progress with his investigation into the Mariner’s Inn massacre by speaking to the sole survivor; and Dr Frankenstein continued his disturbing infatuation with Billie Piper’s reanimated prostitute – minus the wonky Irish brogue, thankfully – by squeezing her into a tight corset and towering high-heels, clothes designed to keep the women in their place, apparently.
As with the first season, there’s no doubt about the quality of the show’s individual parts. The production design is as lavishly detailed as ever, evoking the spooky vision of Victorian London as described in the countless gothic novels on which the series is partly based, and the prestigious cast are roundly superb with McCrory making an excellent addition (though she did briefly appear in season one), playing the season’s antagonist with an enthralling relish and vigour.
Yet the series’s critical flaw of lacking a gripping, over-arching narrative still persists. Enticing subplots like Hartnett’s handsome werewolf/cowboy’s attempts to evade the law after a particularly murderous bout of lycanthropy and the continuing adventures of Dorian Gray boning his way through all the oddballs in Victorian London are teased and tantalised for an episode before being entirely forgotten, while the central storyline once again fails to gather pace. It leaves this viewer struggling to remain engaged in the lives of Penny Dreadful’s ostensibly enticing creations as I’m beginning to question whether the series will ever lead anywhere even remotely worthwhile.
The one thing that ensures I’ll keep returning for some time yet is the rare moments of raw, poignant humanity that emerge when these supposedly monstrous characters are given a chance to pause and reflect. Take, as a wonderful example, the scene in last night’s episode between Caliban/John Clare and his employer’s blind, kindly daughter in the house of horrors where they ruminate on whether creators bring their creatures to life to make them suffer, a nuanced, thoughtful and powerfully tender moment that briefly renders the show’s myriad flaws entirely mute.
And then Vanessa Ives has yet another haunting vision about spiders and shagging that has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and I start to ask myself what’s the bloody point of it all again.