Showtime's foray into the macabre is amok with vampires, bloody body parts, and melodramatics not seen since The X Files left our systems. Penny Dreadful, AKA Victorian Gothic Story, intrigues the viewer so completely by giving us so little. By the end of "Night Work," we know who our main characters are and a bit of what they are after, but we're not left with much else. Unless you count the overwhelming need to see more of this strange and engaging series.
The premiere of Showtime's Penny Dreadful opens with a dark and shadowy feel that says it mean business, horror business. A woman and child are sleeping on a shabby twin bed, cold surrounding them. Within five minutes, the woman has left the bed to use the bathroom, hears a noise, and shockingly gets yanked through the wall by a force not of this world. In another two minutes, the little girl is searching for her mom, opens the door to the bathroom, and screams. Note to self...don't turn around if you hear a creepy noise in the wall while sitting on the toilet.
The first introduction is to Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) who kneels before a crucifix doing this weird whisper praying. A spider comes from the wall and inches onto the crucifix. She starts freaking out with the spider now on her, crawling down the length of her arm. She gets those creepy eyes like one of those runaway brides on the news and has the slowest almost faint scene in the history of TV. Nice to meet you, Vanessa.
Next up is hunky Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a sharpshooter performing in a Wild West show -- I'm thinking is used as a ruse to pick up girls. Shoot one bottle, wink at a cutie in the audience. Yes, sharpshooter indeed. Miss Ives is watching with her creepy eyes from the audience. No winks for her.
Later, she offers Ethan some "night work" saying it involves "firearms and dangerous endeavors." He looks interested... in the job as well. Vanessa turns Sherlock Holmes meets The Mentalist and begins tearing our lovely gunslinger apart, one character trait after another. "Expensive watch, threadbare jacket... Your left hand trembles... You're accustomed to wealth and more complicated than you like to appear." Oh, he's definitely interested. He says he'll take the offer with one smile from her. She sort of smiles and says the job is tonight.
One More Reason Not to Visit an Opium Den
Ethan shows up for his night work in a dark and dank alley, of course. Vanessa is leading him through an opium den and straight into the waiting arms of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). He is our next key player but nothing about his demeanor says "play." Sir Malcolm is all business asking, "Did you bring your weapons." Ethan looks dazed and confused in a McConaughey sort of way and asks, "What are we doing here?"
The first hint of what this is all about comes in Malcolm's response, "We're looking for someone." He quickly adds, "Don't be amazed and don't hesitate." Amazement and hesitation to follow. They meander their way into a brighter room where Sir Malcolm has a face off with a vampire speaking some strange language that sounds like Elvish from Lord of the Rings.
Bloody violence follows with the vampires attacking our trio, well, really only the two men. Vanessa wanders off following the nearby cries she hears, seemingly encompassed with an anti-vampire cloak. She walks away from the brouhaha and into a room where bloody people parts are strewn all over, even a dead little baby. She frantically asks a young vampire, "Where is she? Where is she? Where is your master?" Not here, Miss Ives.
Walk Like an Egyptian
Rising up from a pile of parts is a mutant vampire, the looks of which we've never seen before. The Creature (Rory Kinnear) appears to be a cross breeding of Gollum and Alan Cummings (Eli Gold on the The Good Wife), only more vicious. They gather up their one strange find, The Creature, and take him to someone who may be able to make fangs or tails of it, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). It's dissection time! Apparently, no one clued in Dr. Frankenstein who is not biting, or cutting. He says he's not a surgeon, he's a researcher and to kindly get out.
Vanessa pulls back the sheet on our monster vampire and she's got the old Doc just where she wants him. Freaky fascination overtakes, and Frankenstein begins spewing off information about the creature. He cuts into it and the real excitement begins. He discovers that the skin is more of an exoskeleton and what lies beneath is even more peculiar. The thing has Egyptian hieroglyphics tattooed all over its chest.
Enriching Our Vocabulary One Demimonde at a Time
The next day Vanessa offers Ethan a full time job in the longest scene of foreplay leading to nothing. She says, "We have continued use of a man like you... violence and hidden depths." Hmmm, I bet you do. While playing with tarot cards, she asks him if he believes in a demimonde -- a place between what we know and what we feel. She tells him that's where they were last night, where unfortunate souls are cursed to live. He demands to know more. She reveals that Sir Malcolm's daughter was taken by a creature just like the one they killed.
Ethan says, "I've been a hired gun before, doesn't suit me." Vanessa calls him a wise man but asks him to pick a card before he leaves. He picks one and she smiles, this time for real. It's The Lovers card.
Anybody Read Glyphs?
Sir Malcolm and Vanessa enlist the help of flamboyant Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), an expert in the reading of chicken scratch or in this case, Egyptian hieroglyphics. He's excited and impressed with the famous explorer and beautiful lady. As he delves deeper into the tattooed glyphs, his demeanor goes from glee to trepidation. He translates some of the writings as "blood transformation or blood curse." He suddenly stops reading them, looks scared and says he wants to get to know the pair better; he likes to know who he's dealing with. As they leave, Mr. Lyle informs them that the markings are all from the Egyptian "Book of the Dead."
In a nearby apartment, detectives drag out the bodies of the mom and little girl we met at the very beginning of "Night Work." Onlookers are convinced it's the work of Jack the Ripper. What a mixed up, mashed up world you create Penny Dreadful. We've got vampires AND Jack the Ripper occupying the same space?
Pull Back the Skin
Dr. Frankenstein receives an invite from Sir Malcolm to "come to my club for dinner" complete with a suit in a box (yes, I said suit). He goes to the Explorers Club in his new, fancy duds and proceeds to wax philosophic on the seeking of truth, exploring the world, and the meaning of life. Malcolm and the doctor banter back and forth with Frankenstein criticizing Sir Malcolm for his desire to "plant a flag." He says, "I seek the truth... There is only one goal. Piercing the tissue that separates life from death. Life and death... there I will plant my flag."
Sir Malcolm counters with, "Science and superstition walk hand in hand." He wants them to work together. The explorer admits that it's not a game for him. He is trying to rescue his daughter. He also offers up the tasty morsel, "You will behold terrible wonders." Frankenstein asks, "Why me?" Sir Malcolm says, "You were unafraid to pull back the skin and look beneath."
I See Dead People
Ethan is stalking Vanessa's house, seeing her in a window on the second story. He watches as Sir Malcolm comes home, and he looks like he's about to cry. He runs off down a dark alley. Okay. I guess he's still pining away about that Lovers card.
Cut to Malcolm in the house (not in the middle). He's getting ready for bed when the lights flicker from the storm brewing outside. He gets up to adjust them, but when he turns around a girl appears. "Mina!" he says. She screams menacingly in his face and just as quickly disappears. This ghost game of peek-a-boo with Malcolm's daughter is eerily scary and heartbreaking...the look on her father's face.
In the morning, he tells Vanessa about the close encounter and says it was, "Something monstrous." Vanessa admits if it weren't for her transgression none of this would have happened. Malcolm says, "We shall live with our guilt." He recounts a hunting expedition when the lion he was after glimpsed its prey. "There's a moment," he says, "when the lion turns and looks at you. The moment you realize you are no longer the hunter. You are the prey."
Hey, I Just Made You, and This Is Crazy
Vanessa is back to whisper praying again. This time a mass of spiders come out of the now upside down crucifix. Wonder if someone made a deal with the devil. Scary stuff.
In the final scene, we see Dr. Frankenstein at his place, heading into his secret laboratory. This thing is huge, and all of it off of his modest little flat. He's been working on the creature, sewing his head, putting him on ice, installing probes on his head, trying to avoid the full frontal staring him in the face. This is no Eric from True Blood nudity. It's more like grey, mossy wiener time.
Lightning strikes, and there's a black out. Don't turn around, don't turn around. He lights a lamp and turns around. The monster vampire wants to play peek-a-boo as well. The thing is creeping in the corner and suddenly appears human. They look at each other, dramatic music in the background, and he touches Frankenstein's cheek lovingly. He wipes a tear from the doctor's eye and moves his hand to his face. "Can you hear?" asks Frankenstein. Creature smiles, both trembling. They're in love? I believe next week's episode may be called The Wedding. "My name is Victor Frankenstein."
We've pulled back the skin on Penny Dreadful and are creeped out by what's beneath. But we're also enthralled, engaged, and thoroughly hooked.
Penny Dreadful airs on Sundays at 10pm on Showtime beginning May 11.
(Image courtesy of Showtime)