Despite being entirely free of spiders, the second episode of Penny Dreadful dials up the weird and the symbolic. The possible relationship permutations develop significantly.
We open with a shivering prostitute sitting on a bench in the dark. She unwraps an apple to eat, examining the newspaper it was wrapped in which reports on the possible return of the Ripper. She becomes frightened as she hears the approach of a man, but it seems he is only a lamplighter, although he chooses not to light the lamp over where she sits – it seems she is already in darkness. Soon, she is attacked and her arm with the apple still in its hand is torn off. This is our fair warning that this episode is all about temptation and leaving the Garden.
Post-credits, Ethan wakes on a beach after a long night and stumbles into a bar to get a drink. Considering the events of the first episode and tonight’s opening scene, it’s hard not to support his choices.
Meanwhile, Victor seeks to bond with and educate his creation. He demonstrates eating, shoving a small piece of bread into his mouth and elaborately demonstrating chewing and swallowing. Then he presses a similar morsel into the Creature’s. It’s somewhere between a bird feeding its young and an act of communion.
To make the Creature real, Victor decides to name him, but rejects Adam due to the “theological connotations.” Victor instead has the Creature point to a random line of Shakespeare and so the Creature names himself Proteus. The Creature becomes real as he speaks his own name, which is also his first word. As Victor heads off to attend to some errands Proteus suffers separation anxiety, and their bond continues to waver between that which is parental and that which is sexual.
Ethan, by the way, is still getting drunk, but now he has company in the form of Brona, a sometimes factory girl and possible prostitute who introduces herself to him basically by stealing a glass of his whiskey. It’s no odder than any of the other flirtation techniques in the episode.
Meanwhile, Vanessa is told by Sir Malcolm to unbutton the collar of her dress as they prepare for the arrival of Victor. It’s vampire autopsy time again! As Victor draws blood from the corpse, Vanessa examines the books in his bag and finds Romantic poetry, which they then recite together. Sir Malcolm seems perturbed, despite his previous instructions towards Vanessa to be seductive.
It turns out the blood is human but shows anomalies. Sir Malcolm orders Victor to investigate further, but Victor is reluctant, eager as he is to get home to Proteus. When Sir Malcolm insists, and gives Victor his pay, the doctor acquiesces and Vanessa notes that he clearly has some sort of secret.
Brona is seen entertaining a wealthy house in London. The situation seems ominous, and she is greeted by a pale, beautiful man staring at a wall of portraits. It’s easy to assume vampire, until he introduces himself as Dorian Grey. Sex seems immanent, but first it turns out that Dorian has a photography habit. He sits in a robe, watching Brona strip for his hired photographer, until she begins to cough bloodily. It’s consumption she confirms. She asks him if he wishes her to leave. To the contrary, he is fascinated by her mortality and notes that he’s never been intimate with “a dying creature” before.
They have sex, and she seems grateful to be touched. It’s also quite bloody. Dorian wonders if Brona can feel pain. She asks in return whether he can, and he invites her to hurt him to find out. She scratches his back bloody and then coughs blood all over his face. He loves it. The scene is also the show’s first instance of female nudity, but despite one bared breast, it’s still all about Dorian’s beauty, not hers.
In the meantime, Sir Malcolm has gone to visit the police regarding the killings that are assumed to be the return of the Ripper. Sir Malcolm is just worried about whether the corpses have been drained of blood. He seems a little disappointed when it turns out they haven’t. He instructs the police to “stop looking for a man” and to “start hunting a beast.”
Ethan takes a brief break from drinking to receive a cable from his father, alluding to some resolvable legal problems and how Ethan can’t run away forever. In light of this, we assume Ethan will start drinking again immediately.
Victor and Proteus enjoy a domestic scene. Proteus sings a sea shanty under his breath, and Victor shows him a drawing of a whaler. It seems likely this was Proteus’s profession but he is grief stricken at the possibility he once killed a whale. Victor informs him that when we grow up “we all do things which cause us shame.” As if to distract us from this epic moment of foreshadowing, we get a long lingering shot of Proteus staring up into the sun through the laboratory’s windows in wonder.
That evening, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm attend a party hosted by Lyle, the creepy archaeologist (remember him?). Dorian is there, and he and Vanessa are drawn to each other immediately. He informs her, while moving from flirtatious into full-on seductive, that his presence has been the result of a random invitation and he’s just a boy who can’t say no.
He analyzes Vanessa much the way she analyzed Ethan in episode one. As he does so, he closes the space between them. They almost kiss, but are interrupted by an invitation to participate in a séance at the party.
As the séance begins, Sir Malcolm and Vanessa exchange looks. The medium is quickly interrupted by one of Vanessa’s seizures. Soon she is channeling Sir Malcolm’s dead son, reenacting his death by dysentery. It’s incredibly creepy and emotionally devastating.
Vanessa, however, is not done. Something else has her. She slams a hand down on the table and the surface cracks like glass or ice. Doors slam shut. Her presence is incredibly sexual now. And it is unclear if she speaks as Mina or about Mina. Sexual accusations spew forth. She begins to crawl across the table, condemning Sir Malcolm. “You man. You animal! You man! You animal!” she cries, as the episode raises the question of what it is to be human.
Still possessed, Vanessa runs out into the rain, and grabs a random man with whom she has sex. Dorian, because he’s creepy and voyeuristic, follows and watches. When Sir Malcolm returns home alone, Vanessa is already asleep in bed.
Back in the C-plot which is Ethan’s life, he asks Brona out on a date, and despite some initial hesitance she happily agrees. They make a cute couple, but the lack of tension in their relationship doesn’t draw us in as much as it could.
The next morning, Sir Malcolm visits with Lyle to apologize for Vanessa’s behavior. After some awkwardness they discuss the Egyptian Book of the Dead markings on the vampire corpse. Lyle says they are looking at a spell for the telling of the annihilation of man and the coming of the Beast.
Is Sir Malcolm the Beast? Considering the “You man! You animal!” moment, you have to wonder, although the episode is not yet done presenting us with candidates.
Lyle also suggests that Sir Malcolm not tell Vanessa, because “who wants to know they are hunted by the Devil?”
As we cut to a lingering and loving shot of Vanessa smoking, it seems pretty clear that she knows she’s being hunted by the Devil. All that stuff with the praying and the spiders in the first episode was probably a giveaway.
Victor takes Proteus outside for the first time. Although scared at first, Proteus is enamored with the world, and we get a long, joyous sequence in which that look of love Proteus directed at Victor in the first episode is suddenly directed at everything he encounters.
When they arrive at the river, Proteus abruptly and fluently names boat types and parts. Then he says, Wife. Wife on the dock.” He names her. There is a sense of acute loss – of the wife and of Proteus’ innocence. He asks Victor what he is.
Victor is only saved from answering as they run into Ethan and Brona. New definitions of socially awkward are created as the most bizarre double date in the history of human- and supernatural-kind ensues. Proteus offers Brona a chestnut and flirts with her. It’s rather charming, but feels ominous. After all, things have never ended well for the Creature.
When they return home, Proteus is proud. He discusses his future and all the friends he will have. But suddenly a hand bursts out of his chest. Then another, and Proteus is torn in two. Victor is anguished. We are anguished!
As Victor cradles the shards of Proteus’s body on the ground, the new creature that has emerged from his body says, “Your first born has returned, father.”
It seems like Victor has many secrets, but whatever they are, we’re going to have to wait until at least the next episode to find out.