Penny Dreadful 3×01 Review: You Can’t Go Home Again

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After last season’s finale, our characters were scattered to the wind, most believing their work against the Devil to be done. This week, we see each one on course to reconnect with their past, willingly or otherwise. But Tennyson is dead, and London is in mourning for its “poetic link to ages gone.” From whence we have come, there is no return.

*This review contains spoilers*

While John Clare attempted to cut ties with his life in London by sailing for the Arctic (in a nod to his Mary Shelley source material), his ship has since become trapped in ice, leading Clare to begin experiencing, for presumably the first time, flashes of memory of his former life. As both Lily and Proteus retained memories of their former selves prior to their death and resurrection, it should come as no surprise that an old life has been lying dormant inside Clare as well. But it catches him off guard all the same, and he sets out in pursuit of a past that is almost certainly lost to him forever.

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Meanwhile, despondent and haunted by the grave mistakes he made with Lily, Victor calls upon his old friend and confidant from their school days, Dr. Henry Jekyll, for help correcting his monstrous misstep. Jekyll, however, has endured suffering of his own during the years the friends have been apart, and has developed his own shade of monstrousness as a result. He offers exactly the wrong kind of help for Victor, and exactly the right kind of help for the ongoing conflict between Lily and her creator.

Since her “birth,” Victor has projected a sort of innocence onto Lily. He has always tried to mould her into the woman that he most desires: Someone kind and obedient, who will love him regardless of his dark and selfish deeds. Lily, for her part, has proven definitively to be her own woman, utterly resistant to any form of subservience or restraint. Her indomitable strength only reminds Victor of his own many weaknesses. However, he still desires more than anything to control her, domesticate her, keep her as his own. He is destined to fail spectacularly. The addition of Jekyll’s unstable chemistry to Lily’s volatile personality injects some rich and horrific potential into their relationship moving forward.

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Having returned to body of Sembene to its home, Sir Malcolm is tarrying in Africa in the hopes of recapturing his glory days as an explorer. However, Malcolm no longer lives fully in the mortal world. He is a denizen of the demimonde. He has encountered beings and devils from the darkest corners of Hell and seen wonders that most would believe impossible. What mysteries could a simple landmass hold for a man like him? He is driven to explore, yet the only paths of exploration open to him lead directly into Hell. His mysterious new companion understands what Malcolm himself does not: that he will never be whole as long as he turns from those paths.

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This stranger, a man of the American First Nations, has come to implore Sir Malcolm to travel to America in aid of Ethan Chandler, who is currently being transported back through the New Mexico Territories, a country “built on skeletons,” to face judgment for his crimes. Ethan is being escorted by Inspector Rusk and shadowed by Hecate Poole, and although it is the law that has brought him back, the spectre of his past waiting for him at the end of the line is not justice, but rather his father. In fact, a band of mercenaries working on behalf of his father quickly liberate Ethan from the train and take up custody of him, ensuring the impending reunion with the man he crossed the ocean to escape. But Ethan, though he has been brought back to face his past, is not the same man he was when first he fled. There is a sense of readiness to him now, a willingness to show his father that he is not to be underestimated. An acceptance of the power that once controlled him, and the strength that has come from embracing it.

The expansion of the story to America represents a positive step towards redressing this show’s greatest weakness: its racial and ethnic diversity. After hearing Ethan’s secondhand stories about the American First Nations for the past two seasons, it seems we will now be able to “meet” these people for ourselves, and hear their stories and experiences from their own lips, springing from a period of intense significance for these cultures. The addition as well of Shazad Latif as Dr. Jekyll is extremely welcome. This is a character that is not simply portrayed by an actor of colour, but is specifically written to explore the experiences of racial minorities amongst the racist and colonialist attitudes of London during this period. And as always, the beauty of this show is in its seamlessness. Is this expansion of diversity simply the natural progression of the story, planned all along, or does it represent an intentional course-correction after the unfortunate death of Sembene, the show’s only significant (and woefully underdeveloped) Black character last season? The shift is so smooth, it is impossible to tell.

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Vanessa, after sacrificing her immortal soul to commit a murderous act of vengeance, is facing the consequences of her actions alone. She has forsaken her humanity and is living in the wasteland of her home like an animal, believing herself unworthy of her former faith and connection to God. But Ferdinand Lyle has the nearly-supernatural ability to bolster any spirit, and a visit from him begins to pull Vanessa away from the bleak future she sees for herself and re-acquaint her with the threads of strength running through her past. The reappearance of Patti LuPone as Vanessa’s no-nonsense, razor-sharp psychiatrist, connects Vanessa to the old friend whose guidance she most needs, proving that although Joan Clayton is dead, her influence on Vanessa is very much alive. At the behest of Dr. Seward, Vanessa explores the Museum of Natural History for the first time, rekindling her childhood passion for taxidermy, and makes the acquaintance of an unusual zoologist with an eye for overlooked treasures. The experience serves as a first step towards Vanessa’s affirmation that even without her immortal soul, she still has a life to live, and still has and deserves a place in the world.

Less deserving of human connection, however, are the puppets of this season’s newest threat, skittering along the cobblestones like the vermin to which Vanessa believed herself akin, and emphasizing her broken but indubitable humanity in contrast. This episode closes on the chilling revelation that the devil’s “Brother on Earth”, Dracula himself, has finally arrived to claim Vanessa.

And with that, the third season is off and running on what is sure to be an enthralling, twisted, and blood-drenched journey. But from Penny Dreadful, who could expect anything less?

(All images property of Showtime.)
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