‘Penny Dreadful’ Balances Camp and Horror More Elegantly Than Ever in Season 2

More than anything, bless Penny Dreadful for not only understanding but delightfully reveling in its camp. It’s a tough tightrope for a show to walk, to be serious enough to avoid being overtaken by its gothic silliness but to also, somehow, be campy enough to remain a fun — and bloody — good time. Throughout the first season, Penny Dreadful slowly learned how to strike this balance: there were lines and sequences that elicited an eye-roll, but also a wrenching story about Vanessa’s demonic possession, touching upon trauma and female sexuality. 

For me, Penny Dreadful was (and, to a certain extent, still is) an acquired taste, and a series that switched things up again once I got used to it. This wasn’t a bad thing; shifting the focus from kidnapped Mina to possessed Vanessa strengthened the show, even though it resulted in Mina being nothing more than a frustrating plot device. Even the basic premise that lured me in — a League of Extraordinary Gentleman-type show with famous characters from literature such as Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Grey — wasn’t entirely accurate. It became clear that this wasn’t just a “Look who this is!” program but something darker, deeper, a story that turned these characters into people who weren’t as familiar to us as we thought.

Penny Dreadful built on these classic characters, developing them in a way that sucked viewers in for eight episodes (though there were easily ten to 12 episodes’ worth of plot packed into them, making the first season sometimes feel a bit rushed and bloated, with too many threads to follow). Season 2 aims to tell a new, similarly addictive and unsettling, story with the same characters. Now that all the introductions are done with, the series can focus on even more character development, more insanity, and, yes, a new big bad: Madame Kali (Helen McCrory) — who popped up in Season 1, most notably in “Seance” (the second episode, and one that has stuck with me all year) — and a team of witches who are creepy, terrifying, and everything that I hoped to get from American Horror Story: Coven.

PennyDreadful_201_0328.RThere’s plenty happening with Ethan, Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, and even Frankenstein’s creature, Caliban (Rory Kinnear, who brings depth and emotion to such a physically grotesque character) too, but to reveal juicy tidbits would ruin the fun. But there’s a creepy tenderness within most of the plots, and the first two episodes set up intriguing narratives and relationships — particularly for Frankenstein.

At the center of it all is, once again, a still-haunted Vanessa, brilliantly played by Eva Green. Green gave a standout performance in the first season: “Seance” and “Possession” were particularly memorable, with Green altering her entire self — physically and mentally — whenever the devil entered her, switching back and forth between a woman and a demon, growling her lines and contorting her body in unnerving ways. She’s endearing and charismatic throughout, even when hunched and bleeding and losing her mind.

Perhaps the only aspect of Penny Dreadful that rivals Green’s performance is the setting. The dark Victorian streets are at once filthy and beautiful, appealing but running rampant with cholera. It’s pure gothic horror: macabre mansions, rainy streets, dark alleys you wouldn’t dare walk down. The series is dripping in dark imagery, even if it’s sometimes so over the top it resembles teens dabbling in the occult (tellingly, faux-goth teen central Hot Topic debuted a Penny Dreadful clothing line this week).

But the haunting setting is perfect for such a twisted show, and only adds to the show’s scares: It doesn’t want to jolt you with a quick shock — it wants to leave you feeling unsettled for weeks to come.