A fun blend of period piece and gothic horrorshow, the first season of Penny Dreadful wasn’t quite the slam-dunk Showtime might have hoped it would be – but it still managed to be solid debut for a show refreshingly different to much of the prestige and genre drama on offer these days.
Season 2 is definitely an evolution and improvement on last year’s offerings – but it’s not really going to win over anyone who wasn’t already on board after the first season. Like last season, the biggest thing going for Penny Dreadful is its bold conviction and commitment to being exactly what it wants to be.
Penny Dreadful is all about this idea that classic literary figures like Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) existing against the same Victorian backdrop as original characters like Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). While it’s easy to criticize the show’s original creations for being melodramatic and verging-on-cliche – their plotlines feels perfectly coherent alongside those of the more famous characters like Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).
On top of that, they’re a perfect match for the show’s lavish set design and costuming efforts. In fact, I think if you judged the show’s aesthetic stylings in isolation you’d likely find it one of the most visually impressive shows around.
Where Season 1 covered the series’ ensemble cast into an an alliance and crusade against evil, Season 2 sees the group struggle against new threats both within and without – chief among them being a coven of witches led by Madame Kali (Helen McRory). McRory’s introduction last season allows her transition to major villain feel really natural and she’s a fantastic match for Eva Green’s character.
It helps that Season 2 has a few more episodes to breath than its predecessor, taking the time to flesh out Vanessa’s past history with the Kali’s coven and promoting Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) to a regular on the cast. Billie Piper also gets a lot more material to work with this season as she transitions from Ethan’s love interest to the Bride of Frankenstein. The show actually takes her character some really surprising directions towards the end and it’ll be interesting to see how her character progresses into Season 3.
The other big plot wheel in motion here comes courtesy of the revelation that Ethan Chandler is the series’ resident werewolf. There are some really cool visual moments here but it holds up better as a homage to classic tales of lycanthropy than it does on its own merits. That said, the show’s writers do a good job of tying Ethan’s predicament into the central plot through his relationship with the detective left to pick up the pieces of his recent rampage – Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge).
One of the weaknesses of Penny Dreadful’s first season was that it failed to really tie the plotlines of Frankenstein’s Monster (Rory Kinnear) and Dorian Grey into the main narrative. Season 2 addresses this – to a degree. Frankenstein’s world in particular begins to collide with the rest of the cast in some really fascinating ways however Dorian’s story remains somewhat-isolated. Given the way the season ends, it’ll be interesting to see if the show’s diverse plot threads grow closer or further apart next time around.
If you saw the self-serious exposition of the first season as a weakness – Season 2 is not going to win you over. At the end of the day, it’s a lot more of that divulged over a longer season. Penny Dreadful has going for it, but it’s not without its caveats. However, as a fan, Season 2 takes the show all the places you want to see it go and I’m ever-eager for more of the ‘Eva Green Gothic Power Hour’.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)