The first series of Penny Dreadful may not have been perfect but I really rather liked it and was glad to hear a second season had been commissioned. And when I discovered the triple whammy of Helen McCrory and Simon Russell Beale being promoted to series regulars, Billie Piper’s distracting Oirish brogue being excised and Patti LuPone appearing as a guest star, I was in heaven. Saving up the 10 episodes to binge-watch on holiday also worked well for me, ain’t technology grand!
Having established its world of gothic Victoriana, John Logan’s writing picks up some of the strands of the first series’ finale – the consequences of sometime-werewolf Ethan’s bloodbath being chased up by a tenacious policeman and Victor Frankenstein’s newest creation inspiring an unlikely love triangle. But it succeeds most by re-introducing McCrory’s Evelyn Poole as a series-long villain as the head of a witches coven and maker of some of the creepiest puppet dolls you have ever seen – it’s no secret I love her but this really is a career highlight for this most superb of actresses.
Whether stalking Eva Green’s fiercely determined Vanessa Ives, eviscerating Russell Beale’s perfectly pompous Ferdinand, or wielding her sensuality over a helpless Timothy Dalton (and boy, is she sexy here), she elevates the whole show and importantly, gives it a focus that was lacking last year. The rise of Billie Piper’s undead Lily is also powerfully done, her conversations with Harry Treadaway’s Victor offering a neat commentary on Victorian society’s attitude to women as well as contrasting with Rory Kinnear’s soulful debates with Vanessa about God and man and life and death.
And in flashback episode ‘The Nightcomers’, there’s an utterly magnificent hour of television anchored by Patti LuPone’s Joan Clayton, the Cutwife from whom Vanessa learns to harness her powers but who also shares a terrible history with Mrs Poole. I’m no stranger to Ms LuPone’s musical works but there’s something remarkable about seeing her absolutely nail a straight acting part. Her haunted eyes, her gruff but clear-sighted manner, her rabbit-skinning skills…this is the stuff of Emmys, and a salutary indication that she is supremely talented.
With such a powerful lead story driving the narrative, there are of course casualties along the way in such a big ensemble and it is Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray who suffers the most, his rather sweet romance with gender-bending Angelique including a cute date at the new-fangled table tennis hall too disconnected from everything else to really have the requisite impact. Rory Kinnear’s John fares better, his macabre subplot bolstered due to the connective tissue woven through his unexpected and achingly moving contact with Vanessa.
Credit has to go to the four directors James Hawes, Brian Kirk, Damon Thomas and Kari Skogland who have collectively made the show look absolutely stunning. From the tiniest detail of a bunch of roses dropping into a vase to the high drama of the blood-soaked waltzing, there’s a painterly quality to much of the film which is just gorgeous to behold. And someone is clearly in love with Douglas Hodge as almost every shot of his taciturn detective Rusk has a portrait-like composition that should reside in a gallery somewhere.
One of the best things on television this year so far and, dare I say it, possessed of a greater emotional intelligence than Game of Thrones as Logan refuses to sacrifice quieter character moments for the shocks and spills that have characterised later series in Westeros. This is no more apparent than in the final episode which bravely wraps up all of its action with at least a third of the running time still to go, as it then tracks the awful consequences of what has gone before on all of its protagonists with a gloomy stillness but a joyous recognition that a third series will be coming next year.