This review contains spoilers.
Whatever weaknesses the first season of Penny Dreadful suffered from, the second has completely overcome them like a vampire who has discovered how to exist in daylight. The character development paces better and covers the whole cast, while the story expands and the plot thickens in all the right ways. Penny Dreadful season two is superior in every way.
Once again the intrigue revolves around Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), sought by the Devil for her incredible abilities as a spiritual medium and, as we discover, witchcraft. However her friends and protectors within the home of Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) are distracted by powerful dilemmas and charmed by new, terrible foes; a coven of witches known as the Nightcomers. Servants of the Devil who are capable of acting in both and day and night and in public or shadows, they’ll stop at nothing to have Ives as the bride of Lucifer.
In the flashback episode “The Nightcomers” we learn of Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone), the Cut-Wife, who reluctantly comes to protect and mentor Vanessa in both sides of the magical arts. Although only present for a single episode, LuPone’s performance beautifully portrayed her character as she balanced the line between her pragmatism and loneliness, a woman with a rough exterior that belies her genuine good heart.
By transferring the focus from Vanessa to Joan, showrunner John Logan wisely prevents audience-fatigue with Ms Ives while still strengthening her background. Furthermore, the connection between the two women improves our understanding of Vanessa’s knowledge and sets the stage for a test against her soul. Joan is connected to the aforementioned coven of witches, as her sister is none over than head-witch Madame Kali, who has long coveted Vanessa. Helen McCrory returns as said villain, revealing herself as the true foe after a brief guest star role during the first season. Her coven’s unusual methods of subversion result in Clayton’s tragic immolation by a mob, and set the stage for Vanessa to seek vengeance. More on Kali in a moment.
Meanwhile Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) struggles to keep a cap over the events of the first season, which are unraveling in ways brilliant and unexpected. The fury of the Creature (Rory Kinnear) has been temporarily assuaged with the death and revival of the “Bride of Frankenstein” Lily (Billie Piper), whom veterans of the earlier season will recognize as Brona, Ethan Chandler’s former lover, and the prostitute once in service to Dorian Gray.
Victor persuades the Creature to grant the young doctor time to teach Lily, as to prevent the confusion and horrors that befell his first creation. The situation sets up an inevitable conflict between Dr. Frankenstein and his friend Ethan (Josh Hartnett) who believes Brona dead and gone, but this has yet to pass. Worse yet, Lily’s innocence and interest in the world lead Victor to fall for his third creation, blinding him to the fact she has recollected her memories.
Meanwhile, Ethan Chandler has his own problems. The law has not forgotten the hotel massacre committed by Ethan’s werewolf persona. Nor has the lone surviving bounty hunter, who attempted to capture Ethan for delivery back to his as-of-yet unrevealed father.
The legal pressure on Ethan grows thanks to macabre Inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) who reveals Ethan’s real surname as Talbot, hinting at the identity of his father. The increased police presence is felt by the residents of Sir Murray’s Manor, and Ethan turns to Murray’s Senegalese servant Sembene, played by Danny Sapali, to help manage his lunar proclivities. These revelations further build their friendship.
Finally, Sir Malcolm Murray himself grapples with the demons of his past. The death of his vampire daughter Mina has destroyed what little remained of his marriage to Gladys (Noni Stapleton) and has left him persona non-grata in his wife’s presence. Yet honor prevents an official divorce. This unfortunate situation is “resolved” by an affair he has with Madame Kali, unaware of her motivations. The curses spun by her coven soon leave Gladys buried alongside both her dead children… a death seemingly by her own hand.
On the other side of the fence, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) has slowly emerged as a villain in his own right. Starting a relationship with transgender prostitute Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp), the show reminded us of the times and how their relationship would be generally frowned upon. Dorian himself seems admirable, a true gentleman despite the struggles Angelique has with her identity.
Unfortunately for Angelique, she stumbles upon Gray’s secret and we learn that even her acceptance of it isn’t enough to keep him from insuring her silence. Angelique’s murder feels complicated by myriad reasons. Keeping her from talking is but one, rather Dorian may have found some thrill in betraying and killing someone he loved. It could also have been because Dorian needed to clear the way for his new relationship with Brona, who seems intent on taking revenge upon the world itself for her previous, abused life.
The ending is powerful, shattering the group’s cohesion entirely. Victory was very costly, as the psychic assault the coven leveled against Sir Murray and Dr. Frankenstein drove them to the brink, while Ethan was tricked into committing a terrible act against his friend. Vanessa Ives emerged from her struggle the least damaged and even stronger for it, but seems the only one to do so. And although Madame Kali was defeated and slain (though death is questionable when the devil is involved), her treacherous daughter Hecate Poole (Sarah Greene) escaped to cause havoc another day.
The hardest hitting moment of the season was undoubtedly Sembene’s death, at the hands of a transformed Ethan. The Senegal hunter had become an intriguing and likable character despite his aura of mystery, and watching his friendship with Ethan grow was remarkably enjoyable. It seemed likely that Danny Sapali was let go from the show for good, as he joined the cast of The Bastard Executioner. However, with that show’s cancellation, and how often Penny Dreadful reverses death, a window is open for Sapali’s return.
For the rest of the cast, they become divided and ultimately alone. Victor Frankenstein, upon discovery of Brona’s rage, takes to the needle. Likewise the heartbroken Creature joins an expedition going north, after Brona rejects him and the family for whom he worked attempted to turn him into a freakshow attraction at a wax museum. A regretful Ethan Chandler turns himself in, only to discover that Rusk has orders to send him back to America. Murray returns to Africa with Sembene’s body. Only Vanessa stays put, alone in the manor.
As it stands, the third season is setting itself up for the difficult task of covering multiple plot lines. With the crew so scattered, the expansion of the story will be quite demanding. Season three is set to premiere in Q2, 2016.