The benefits of last week’s Vanessa-centric episode become clearer in “What Death Can Join Together” when she and Malcolm come off more believable and understandable. Having that backstory gives the two Penny Dreadful leads a kind of weight that makes their individual experiences dealing with Mina’s absence work much better than when it was just implied that the whole ordeal was important. It also makes a scene like Malcolm complimenting Vanessa on her outfit before she goes out with Dorian effective by showing what exactly Timothy Dalton is doing in that moment–acting while acting, but making it feel genuine–and giving Vanessa a moment in which she doesn’t have to be consumed by the weight of her world. Not surprisingly, “What Death Can Join Together,” despite its title referring to an exchange featuring Victor Frankenstein, uses Eva Green’s Vanessa to further effect, finally making her scenes with Dorian more substantial than just a potential romance between two people who don’t really have as much chemistry as the show seems to think they do.
Their intimate scene together, though, is fantastic. It is, at first, a moment in which Vanessa can let go completely. As has been the case with just about every character in this first season so far, she gives way to an animalistic nature that is so perfectly hidden during her conscious hours. Dorian is a good on-screen partner for this not because he shares the same qualities but because he is someone who would never be repelled by people showing their true selves. How Vanessa poses for her photograph, for example, is alluring for him because of the honest quality in that look she gives directly to the camera. That’s not a Vanessa that’s putting on a false air. The problem with showing all your true colors, however, is that it can overpower self-restraint. So, even though Vanessa doesn’t conjure up her demon, she puts herself into a state of mind that allows her to be vulnerable to his influence. It’s terrifying to witness from the moment the action slows down to the final image of a possessed Vanessa levitating in front of Malcolm. That, of course, is part of the sequence’s success, but I’m not sure what exactly the scene with Dorian in front of his portrait adds to the episode in that context. He’s not exactly disturbed by what’s gone on with Vanessa, as if every event that unfolds in front of him is something he sees as a sort of entertainment meant to be amused by.
More confusing is Frankenstein’s story, which has turned Caliban from a somewhat compelling figure into a bit of a nuisance for both the show and his creator. I don’t think there is much else that Van Helsing would have been able to contribute to this version of Penny Dreadful, but having Caliban murder him plays out really just for shock value, which is absolutely the wrong way of handling these kinds of things and doesn’t line up with the intelligent show that John Logan has proven he can write. In retrospect, it makes Caliban’s scenes with his actress acquaintance even less useful within the episode, since he’s really just there to be an antagonist now. In that sense, I’m very interested to see how the conclusion to his story plays out, but that–unfortunately–comes more from a place of wanting to relieve frustration.
Such is not the case with Ethan Chandler, who gets the episode’s most touching moment when he lies down next to Brona, completely indifferent to any ill effects he might contract. Josh Hartnett has been consistently great in this role, especially as the semi-protector of this person whom he clearly loves. The framing of his cradling of her is wonderful, as is the close-up when he goes to kiss her later in the episode despite being told that he really ought to keep his distance. If this was more of a focus in this season, it might be a story that wouldn’t work as well, so less has definitely been more with these two characters.
And if Penny Dreadful needed to remind anyone that it can also do genre action on top of dramatic beats, the fight sequence on the ship accomplishes that in spades. Even with Sembene, I’m not really worried about any of these characters dying before the finale, but the choreography and stunt work here makes that lack of urgency completely unproblematic. As soon as the fire starts, the lighting of the whole thing becomes even more enjoyable to watch, capped off by separating our group from the vampire and Mina. Additional credit goes to the sound team and their design, because everything from the echoing screeches and gunfire helps make the third act a real third act, which is meant to be viscerally exciting if somewhat vapid. It might make the tone of Penny Dreadful a little more confusing, since it makes the episode a mishmash of ideas and themes. But this whole series is kind of a mishmash to begin with, and it does that rather well.
[Photo via Showtime]