Penny Dreadful 1.04 Review: “Demimonde”

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As Penny Dreadful continues its solid first run, it’s becoming more clear that the series is less interested in doing a good, scary horror piece than it is telling an interesting story about several characters. Even though I wish there were a television series designed to and capable of instilling the same kind of fear as classic monster films, Penny Dreadful is succeeding in a rather surprising area. Like HannibalPenny Dreadful is doing an admirable job of showing the effects of exposure to terrible images and events, in this case through the eyes of Ethan Chandler. A different series might have these gruesome moments and play them for entertainment–even successfully play them for entertainment. But Penny Dreadful understands that being around all this mayhem messes with the mind that’s not accustomed to seeing these things. Chandler can’t stand and watch a dog rip apart 97 rats, which is just one piece of the iceberg that reaches its tip by the time “Demimonde” has finished (demimonde meaning someone hedonistic, many of whom Chandler has to interact with here).

How that tipping point is reached is rather unexpected and beautiful. The little we’ve seen of Dorian Gray–who took off an episode last week–has been there to suggest that he is a potential love interest for Vanessa, since both characters occupy a strange position separate from the normal Londoner and appear to be almost supernatural. Dorian even toasts (with absinthe!) to Vanessa as the most mysterious thing in London. Yet, we conclude the episode with Ethan initiating things with Dorian and Dorian responding to him. This may just be an effort to relieve tension. Chandler is psychologically disturbed by the gravity of the things Malcolm and Vanessa have dragged him into just as he is hurt, to some extent, by Brona’s indictment of him. Dorian, despite dragging Chandler to the underground gambling den, is someone who he sees and hears the beauty in life around him. If he falls in line with the idea of demimonde, then it is only one part of him–one personality, like one of the colognes on his shelf. He can also offer other things, where Malcolm and Vanessa are locked-in on their battle. So, this could be just a one-time thing between Chandler and Gray, accentuated by drinking, or Gray makes a likely partner for Chandler as someone who understands wanting to be someone else entirely.

The other intriguing and wonderful sequence of “Demimonde” is seeing Caliban do his work behind the scenes of the stage performance. His interactions with Victor may be harsh and terrifying, but underneath the floorboards, Caliban, too, can become a different person. Just the force of his movements and how quickly he transitions from location to location, essentially being the MVP of the whole thing, is a spectacle of passion. For this entity to have purpose like this and to revel in the beauty of it almost makes one forget how threatening he’s being to Frankenstein and how, really, he is one of Penny Dreadful‘s antagonists. Unfortunately, there’s been no suggestion that Victor might attempt to put Proteus back together, which is something I was kind of hoping for, but Victor is getting important scenes with both Caliban and Malcolm, who acts as a father figure to him in this episode.

Actually, the horror stuff in “Demimonde” might be the weakest elements. There should be a somewhat significant amount of tension as Fenton crawls up the stairs behind Malcolm and Victor before they run into the vampire master, but the way the sequence is shot makes it come off more like an action piece than a horror one. Indeed, there aren’t really any true horror moments in “Demimonde,” which opts to do the occasional shock moment–like Fenton’s outburst after speaking quietly–instead of something more inherently disturbing. That doesn’t take away the power of some of these other scenes, like Dorian and Vanessa’s trek through the greenhouse, but it forces me to ask whether or not Penny Dreadful is accomplishing what it’s seeking out to accomplish. Instead, it may be telling a much different story from the one intended or, at the very least, it’s showing one with visual language that’s different. That other story is working perfectly fine, but it seems to clash tonally with how Penny Dreadful is advertised.

[Photo via Showtime]

Sean Colletti received his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He writes television criticism for @Sound on Site and at his personal blog, There is nothing on. His current favorite shows are Mad Men, Louie and Parks and Recreation.
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