It”s hard to imagine the characters that inhabit the world of “Penny Dreadful” being in worse emotional predicaments than they were at the end of season one, but creator and writer John Logan leaves his creations at their lowest points following the season two finale, “And They Were Enemies.” Thankfully, he has the combined talents of Eva Green, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear and director Bruce Kirk to make the preceding hour a more satisfying finale than viewers might have expected.
The previous episode, “And Hell Itself My Only Foe,” found our heroes invading the home of Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) in order to rescue Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) from her coven of witches. It ended with Vanessa Ives (Green) facing her greatest fear, a doll of herself, and a trapped Sembene (Danny Sapani) refusing to kill Mr. Chandler (Josh Hartnett) before the full moon transformed him into his uncontrollable werewolf state. Sadly, Sembene”s sacrifice was fatal, but key to saving his cadre of cursed friends. The Kali vs. Ives conflict this season had centered itself around resolved quickly, but not before Ms. Green could have a signature moment fans of the show will rave about for years.
Logan has remarked publicly that the idea for “Penny” partially came from his desire to create a series that could truly showcase Green”s talents. The 34-year-old actress has certainly had some incredible moments on the series in episodes such as “Possession” and “The Nightcomers,” but “Enemies” made it clear why Green is hands down one of the top five English speaking actresses today (in any medium mind you). And, no, that's not an exaggeration.
The doll that speaks in Vanessa”s voice is actually just a conduit for the Devil, the fallen angel who wants Ms. Ives to willing become his bride (a destiny she”s been trying to alter all season). After tempting her with her secret dream, a beautiful world where she has a family with Chandler, the Devil beckons her to kiss him. It”s an act that will make their bond complete and, effectively, bring Vanessa completely to the dark side. But, she hesitates. She looks at the Devil and asks, “”I know what I am. Do you?” and then begins to recite a spell that we can only describe as fierce. Obviously, Ives wins, but Green turns the moment into a master class of acting. Green is effectively performing against a puppet and while Kirk deserves credit for bringing the elements together, she's the one that makes it work.
Many great actresses would have found themselves bordering on camp in this scene, but Green has an inherent ability to make the most over-the-top moments feel real. Again, Green is acting opposite a doll and somehow there is not one false moment from her. Like a great soul singer there is simply something in Green's DNA that no matter what the role she exudes a timeless sorrow that her peers can only dream of conveying. At one point Ives declares “Beloved. Know your master.” And, at that point, you absolutely believe that Green could take down the devil in one fell swoop.
That being said, Logan has many plans for “Dreadful” that doesn”t involve Ms. Ives. Two of the more marginalized characters from the first season had their coming out parties this time around and their arcs culminated in a dramatic, bloody ballroom dance (it's becoming the show's “thing” it appears) where Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) discovers a romantic alliance between his creation Lily (Piper) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Gray has been the weakest link in “Dreadful” since its inception (Carney's flat performance hasn't helped), but Logan has been building to this intriguing partnership beween an immortal man of questionable ethics and Piper's rebellious, immortal black widow. The confrontation leaves Frankenstein drowning his sorrows in a drug induced spiral and next season's primary villains ready for their next move.
Anyone not watching this season isn't just missing out on Green's great performance, but an absolutely captivating turn by Piper. Beginning with a jaw-dropping monologue in episode eight (“Memento Mori”) that turned the audience's perception of Lily upside down, Piper has brought a fire to the character that is 180 degrees from the naive prostitute that died in Chandler's arms in the season one finale. Her dressing down of Frankenstein isn't just cruel, but grossly evil. Piper's having a hell of a lot of fun here, but not letting the theatrics get away from her (something McCrory couldn't seem to grasp).
Reflecting on this episode wouldn't be complete without giving necessary praise to Kinnear's work as the iconic creature known in the “Dreadful” world s Jon Carney. Frankenstein's first creation has been one of Logan's more complicated characters. He began as a vengeful sort intent on forcing his creator to make a beautiful bride to quench his desire to love and be loved. This season Jon became distracted from that obsession by the affections of a blind sculptor at the wax museum he'd found employment at. When he learned how inherently evil his supposed bride, Lily, really was (the aforementioned “Memento Mori”) it sent him into an tailspin. His heartache was only confounded when his employer captured him in an attempt to make Jon the featured attraction in his new carnival of freaks. That didn't last long (Frankenstein's creature is super strong!), but the emotional damage was done.
This leads to one of the most unexpected and heartbreaking scenes in the series so far. After Vanessa turns down Jon's invitation to leave this world where neither is understood (she has no idea of Jon's connection to Dr. Frankenstein) she holds his face in her hands and tells him, “I think you are the most human man I've ever met.” She embraces him with a kiss and as she walks away Jon releases the flood of emotion that has been welling up inside him. Kinnear is simply superb here. Along with Logan, Kinnear has effectively transformed one of the series most unlikeable characters into the one you're now rooting for the most.
In a series of cliffhangers, it all ends with this 18th Century super team scattered to the wind. Chandler is on his way back to the U.S. (more on that in a minute), Jon is on a ship to the North Pole and Sir Malcolm is bringing Sembene's body back to Africa. We're left with Vanessa looking out her window and remarking, “So we walk alone.” How Logan and his compatriots find a way to bring these story lines back to London (or another central location) is a puzzle this finale made much more intriguing.
Some other thoughts…
*Chandler discovering that Scotland Yard was really only investigating him to extradite him back to America was a surprise and slightly hard to believe. Would the British government really hand him over to the States if he'd confessed to the murders his wolf persona committed in London? Why wouldn't they insist on trying him for his crimes there first? This needs a more detailed explanation in the season three opener.
*Hecate (Sarah Greene) betrayal of her witch “mother” Madame Kali wasn't surprising, but here's hoping the scene that found her recovering Kali's doll making box wasn't foreshadowing a return anytime soon. One of season two's biggest misfires was the witches themselves and why they bizarrely let so many of their adversaries live. You really had to stop wondering why they were doing what they were doing after awhile.
*The other not-so great sequence in the finale was a carryover from the previous episode which found Frankenstein and Sir Malcolm trapped in Kali's room of haunted spirits. This motif has been used so often in so many different TV shows, movies, novels, plays, etc. that you started to cringe the longer it went on. Not Logan's finest moment.
*Just where is Vanessa on the Good vs. Evil scale at this point? She took down the Devil, but still removed the cross from her wall and threw it in the fire. Did part of him become part of her when the scorpion magically morphed into her hand?
What did everybody else think?