The upside-down crucifix gushes spiders in every direction. A second ago it was a regular crucifix that Eva Green was tearfully Ave Maria'ing at, but fuck you if you thought it would stay that way. After all, this is Penny Dreadful, where every pile of corpses has a Nosferatu in the middle, every skull is covered in flesh-eating beetles, everything creaks except for when things selectively don't, and everyone tailors their signature look so as to be identifiable in mist-shrouded silhouette. If there's a crucifix, assume it will be upside down and blasting spiders ASAP.
Right from the cold open, a tone is set, and that tone is brown. From the brown hallway down which some woman creaks, to the (implied) brown dookie she stoops to deposit before being supernaturally snatched up backwards out the side of her house, to the same brown hallway her daughter creeps to discover her dismembered corpse, everything in this scene really boils down to one word: unimportant. Then we're bombarded with Marilyn Manson B-roll over the opening credits (you pour the blood into the teacup, then you smash the teacup on the floor, the kids will go wild), and we're off on our cobblestone carriage ride to nighttime pervert town.
Penny Dreadful is doggedly linear, which makes my job easier. Sure, there's a dislocated sprinkling of Eva Green trembling around CG spiders (way to blow your spider budget in the pilot, PD), but that's mostly garnish. It's September 22, 1891, and Josh Hartnett's Wild West Show is the toast of a field(?) in London, featuring a gunslinging Hartnett hollering about Custer's last stand while shooting everything and everyone and exuding the raw charisma of a headshot of Josh Holloway. Ethan Chandler (Hartnett) lives a simple life nailing gunplay groupies behind stagecoaches and gazing at a watch inscription (from his Father oooOOOoo), but he's about to be repeatedly told there's more to him than that.
While everyone else in the audience was looking at his bullets, Eva Green was fixated on Ethan's taut buns, perfect for a little bit of night work. She shows up during gazing hours to give him a thorough Sherlocking in hopes of recruiting him for her league of extraordinary public domain characters. In exchange, he gets an address, a semen-freezing smile, and what may well be the only bit of characterization he'll ever get:
"I see a man who's been accustomed to wealth, but who's given himself to excess, and the unbridled pleasures of youth," she tells him, "A man much more...complicated than he likes to appear." I have to give big props to Showtime for their bravery in representing complicated characters on television. This is truly a golden age.
Their misty rendezvous (way to blow your mist budget in the pilot, PD) leads to an opium den, which leads to Timothy Dalton, which leads to a bunch of questions everybody's real cagey about answering for no reason. I'll summarize because they're incapable: Timothy Dalton is Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray (or possibly Harker, depending on how Dracula this gets), and Mina's been took. Until he's reunited with his daughter, he's sworn not to reunite his goatee with his beard. He's like eight feet tall, carries a sword cane, speaks High Valyrian, and says things like, "Is this the individual?"
Murray's brought Ethan as muscle to back him up in a meeting with a trio of sallow-eyed dickheads. Right off the bat, I was like, "These guys are a bunch of creepy-crawly Nosferatus. They're perverts. They live in a basement and I can't stand them." I'm never wrong when it comes to Nosferatus. One of them has a mop on his head. Another is Czech novelist Franz Kafka. They try to pull a Clever Girl on our heroes but they saw them like a second ago so it doesn't work.
All this pales in comparison to what's just over in the next room: a big pile of corpses and a dead baby (dead baby budget blown), and also another Nosferatu, but a different, scarier one. Sir Malcolm quickly identifies its weakness (sword canes) and dispatches it, but not before Eva Green stares it down because she's maybe psychic? They try to interrogate a Nosferatu about it but she opts to exercise her right to hiss. Despite Sir Malcolm's admonition not to be amazed at anything he sees, Josh Hartnett simply can't restrain his sense of childlike wonder, in part because NOBODY WILL EXPLAIN ANYTHING TO HIM.
What follows is a series of scenes featuring a succession of perverts investigating the corpse of the uber-Nosferatu (my rule of thumb for perverts: if you can readily imagine them drinking a vodka and milk out of a champagne flute, they're a pervert). One of the perverts likes to cut up corpses and is fascinated by life and death WHO COULD HE BE. He discovers hieroglyphics etched on the thing's underskin, which leads to this delightful exchange:
And the music swells, like that's a twist. Another pervert is Mr. Lyle, an Egyptologist who's apparently only actor on this show allowed to move his eyebrows and says "little Persian boys" with real and abiding grossness. He identifies the hieroglyphics as maybe meaning "blood curse"–"Those Egyptians were a bit madcap when it came to specifics" haha yeah true true–and sources them to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which, okay, yeah, obviously, when have Egyptian hieroglyphics not been from the Book of the Dead.
Meanwhile, Eva Green tries to keep Josh Hartnett in the league with vague explanations (they're gonna be chilling in the place where science and superstition walk hand in hand), and reads his tarot. You'd think the card he'd pull would be Death, because characters only ever pick Death, but he pulls The Lovers, because that's the other one characters pick. They share a moment.
Meanwhile meanwhile, Sir Malcolm brings our unnamed corpse-pervert to the Explorers' Club, where UCP declares his fascination with life and death and Sir Malcolm employs him to find a cure for vampirism, declaring finally that he would murder the world to rescue his daughter. Keep a weather eye for the inevitable spin-off, Malcolm Murray Murders The World. Later, he sees a vision of Mina after finding the window of his room open and thinking nothing of it, which, if you're dealing with vampires, don't do that. Nobody is good at their job except for the guy whose job it is to shoot people, and it turns out he's a bit of a crier.
Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, UPSIDE-DOWN SPIDER-CROSS.
Bring it home, pilot, what's our twist? Is it that UCP has a stitched-up corpse hitched up to some kind of electrical apparatus? Is it that the budget for corpse penises, once thought blown, is, in fact, fully intact? Is it that a lightning strike reanimates the corpse?! Is it that UCP's name is actually Victor Frankenstein?!?! Wait, really, it's that last one? That's a twist? That's not a twist, Penny Dreadful. You should have saved your twist budget for some more mist.
So far, we've got a few half-identified mysteries (what's up with the hieroglyphics? is dracula involved? is jack the ripper at it again?), a handful of glower-happy characters like you've never seen them before, a couple'a corpse dicks, and an upside-down spider-cross. Penny Dreadful seems to like to heap on the corpses, then pretty it up with verbiage that dances on the border of pulpy and pointless.
I'll look forward to it making more use of its setting; apart from a singular scene of crowd chatter outside the investigation of the cold open slaughter, the show's dogged about keeping focus on our heroes, and it can feel a hair claustrophobic, especially in a period context. These hitches aside, Penny Dreadful feels well-positioned to undo its corset and let the fun flop out, guts and all.
[Image via Showtime]
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