Random Movie Review: Jason Bourne

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*Disclaimer: this isn’t really a ‘review’. It’s more of a rant.

Adulthood is hard. Between losing the whimsical ability to disregard one’s metabolism, realising with perfect clarity the missed opportunities littered across the roads you’ve travelled, and learning the hard way that everyone ends up working for ‘the man’, there is the crystalline sting of disillusionment.

The disillusionment I’ve been encountering more and more lately is ruining all my fun. It’s the realities of being female that I was always intellectually aware of, but never really felt until I was well and truly all growed up. It sometimes seems as though I can’t leave my house without smacking head first into these things.

It’s the slap of realising you can no longer enjoy things the way you used to because you’ve started to see all the ways it’s harming you. I’ve had some friends, and some family, tell me I need to lighten up. That I used to be fun. That now, I just see prejudice everywhere. I don’t see it everywhere because I decided to. I see it because it is everywhere. I’m not a perfect person. I’m not aware of all prejudice, I don’t see everyone’s hardships or even all my own biases, I don’t always use the right words (once I know them I try to remember to use them), and I can’t say my daily life makes much difference to anything in the world. I chase my children around all day. When I’m done with that, I watch horror shows and write about them. When I have time, I write fiction. So I decided to take a break from the various horrors of my day, and go to the movies.

Tonight I went with a dear friend of mine to see the new Bourne movie. I like Matt Damon. I like Paul Greengrass, a director who can always be counted on for a good-looking film. I like so many of the elements that went into making this film. I adore Julia Stiles, who is criminally underused in literally everything she works on. And Alicia Vikander, who was also given very little to work with here, but did more with it than most actresses would have.

Speaking of Stiles and Vikander, they are the only two named women in this entire film. They are both beautiful, well under the age of 40 (35 and 27 respectively). Stiles dies early on, as a consequence of going against her programming (her CIA programming as an employee, and her social programming – women are taught in a hundred ways not to be rebellious). Jason Bourne decides not to credit her with the ability of knowing what she was doing, insisting that she was exploited even when the Unnamed Opponent in Berlin says she knew what she signed on for. Stiles’ character was sacrificed in order to provide personal motivation and narrative propulsion for Matt Damon’s character.

Vikander’s character is young, ambitious, and has a poker face to rival any man at the table. She’s equal to the men around her, sees alternate paths to their goals and has surely faced uphill battles to get where she is. Despite all this, in order to get anywhere, she has to use tactics of insubordination, deceit and double-crossing. All that might seem perfectly normal in an environment like the CIA, but here is the moment when I remind you all of what Tommy Lee Jones called this young lady when ordering her death for his own petty reasons: The Girl. He calls her this more than once. I’m not sure I heard her referred to by name unless he was introducing her to someone and thus forced to acknowledge her as a human. You could argue at this point that this is the new generation of Bourne movies. The agency is changing. Out with the old men in dark suits, in with the brilliant young women in snazzy pantsuits. But let’s not forget what she is being introduced as – a villain. A deceitful enemy to our beloved All-American, ‘true patriot’ hero, perfectly positioned to spar with him over the course of several movies.

So. Going forward with this franchise, we have one female. A cold, calculating, conventionally attractive, almost certainly heterosexual CIA femmevillain.

She has been forced into this box by the same societal structures that allow Tommy Lee Jones to star in a film looking like a wax statue on the verge of death, and without even looking it up I can just about guarantee he made more money for this film than Vikander did, and she isn’t permitted to have so much as a hair out of place.

You know what I want to see? Shannon Purser. This fabulous specimen:

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I want to see her. I want to see her on screen, a super spy who has been betrayed by her agency, spurred onto vengeance and greatness by the heartless murder of her stay-at-home husband (I’m picturing Bradley Cooper), who was mercilessly killed by her own bosses at the CIA (I’m seeing Naomi Campbell and Kristen Bell). Shannon goes rogue, assembles her dream team of loyal underlings to assist (Lena Dunham, Rebel Wilson, Laverne Cox, Cynthia Nixon and Jamie Brewer) and powers across the planet, knocking nameless old white men in cheap suits off their feet like bowling pins – to retrieve her beloved corgis, who have been kidnapped in order to force her into the open. I want to see a woman who has a name, a storyline, an unfortunate choice of spectacles and zero fucks left to give the patriarchy.

This isn’t the worst movie in the world. It’s not even the worst one I’ve seen this month. But it bothered me extra, because I’ve always enjoyed action movies, especially the Bourne franchise because, again, I like Matt Damon. Little by little, that enjoyment is slipping away. And it’s not because of me. It’s because they are dangerously flawed. They’re plagued by these outdated, unhelpful stereotypes and weird preconceived notions of what a hero looks like, what a villain looks like, and how all that fits together. It’s not me that needs to change. It’s old, white, male cinema.

A hero does not look like a handsome white man to me. Those faces seem to be more often hiding villains.

I want to see me, and all of my assorted non-standard-issue friends and family represented fairly on the big screen. In mainstream cinema. In blockbusters. Regularly. And after three decades of watching men – regardless of their age, looks, parental statuses and all the other things that doom women’s careers but do nothing to damage men’s – be not only represented fairly, but unfairly glorified in hundreds of movies for thousands of hours and being repeatedly told that there is no other way, I just don’t think it’s too fucking much to ask.

Penny Dreadful: Season 3, Episodes 8&9 – FINALE

Episode 309

“Perpetual Night” / “The Blessed Dark”

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Technically, this review covers two episodes. But, as they aired together, and together constitute one feature-length finale episode, I will be reviewing as if they were one.

Penny Dreadful has officially ended. After three thoroughly enjoyable seasons, some of the best monologues on tv today and performances that felt like a genuine treat, this beloved vehicle is no more. Sadly, the finale has not done the preceding material justice. Season three felt all along as though it were building up to something. It felt as though the writers were confident of having more time, and at some point late into filming were told they weren’t getting any. And so we end up with what feels like a rushed, rabbit out of a hat ending. It’s a problem that has beleaguered many fine shows, and in this instance it left the narrative feeling cheated. Storylines that seemed destined for big things suddenly vanished. ‘Anti-climactic’ doesn’t really begin to cover it.

Let’s begin at the start, with Dr Seward.

“Not for your ears, unless I may keep them.”

Dr Seward really steps out of her shell this episode. Last week she was proclaiming Vanessa to be a true split personality, but now she has seen that Renfield is twitchy and creepy, and suddenly she understands that supernatural things are real, and is totally on board for everything. We never learn the connection between Dr Seward and the Cut Wife, and can only assume that she knew the truth of the supernatural all along, but kept it hidden for practical reasons. In these scenes, ironically, it is Samuel Barnett as Renfield who really shines. Renfield has been decaying by degrees over the last 9 weeks, and here we see him really in his doom. He is serpentine and otherworldly, projecting a strange physical strength that he hadn’t in earlier episodes. After their scuffle, and Dr Seward demanding to know where Dracula is, frogs and toads are pouring from the sinks and drains. It’s very ‘classic horror’, but goes a step further, delightfully, when Renfield starts eating them.

“The city’s like a graveyard now.”

A terrible fog has consumed London, floating sideways as only onscreen fog ever does, and killing people by the thousands. The air itself has become pestilence, and the sun is nowhere to be seen. In this pestilential nightmare, Ethan, Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm disembark their ship, and step into the deserted city, walking amongst the fleeing rats. (Pro tip: if you see rats fleeing, follow them.) Sticking with the orange and blue lighting theme, orange lanterns drift through the blue mist. The wind is audible, almost keening, like Lily and her keening women. They proceed to Sir Malcolm’s house, and the director finds an excuse for a skirmish with some vampires. A symbolic wolf (watch out, Ethan!) has been strung up in the bedroom, blood pooling onto the floor below it. A vampire that Malcolm mistakes for Vanessa (sitting where Vanessa used to sit, representing the complete transition she has undergone), takes Malcolm by surprise; and a bald vampire (we’ll call him Uncle Fester) attacks Ethan. This scene is really an excuse for Catriona to have a strong entrance to this group of people, and it does work.

“Who the hell are you?” “I believe I’m the woman who just saved your life.”

She saves Ethan, cauterises Malcolm’s wound when he’s melodramatically stating preference for killing himself rather than becoming a vampire, and takes no macho bullshit from any of them. They still ignore her warnings, despite her obviously being the best-prepared person present. Ethan and Kaetenay leave (because the vampires are definitely gone forever and splitting up a party has never ever ended badly), to try and find Vanessa, and to hunt down a doctor.

“Our grand endeavour is almost complete. Then, we have a whole hospital to cure.”

Speaking of doctors, everyone’s favourite narcissistic mysoginysts are hanging out in their secret lab, preparing to erase a human being’s agency and identity against her will. Lily is still defiant, foolishly attacking Victor when he’s beyond the reach of her chains, rather than gaining his trust. It doesn’t take long for her to figure out a better way, a way to make him see her as a person, rather than a project, and we learn about the baby daughter whose grave she visited last week. The chains on her ankle are omnipresent, rattling audibly constantly, so that we never forget the inhumanity she is facing – the constant undercurrent of inhumanity that has dogged her life.

“Holding her was like feeling the sun from both sides.”

Billie Piper has become so very, very good at monologues. Lily has ranted in anger, shouted for revenge, revealed grand plans, inspired and led other women. It is the standout scene of the entire episode, and in this moment, Lily lives in a cocoon of grief. She is unable to comprehend the idea of losing this pain, of sacrificing these memories, because it would erase her daughter. Lily doesn’t desire an easier, happier life. She only desires one in which she is not always at another’s mercy. Where she is not unconscious on the ground as her baby freezes. One where she is not chained in a dungeon with men who want to reach into her mind and take her very identity. Billie Piper owns the entire scene, her face contorted with grief, yet her whole body tense as though if she were to relax she would crumble into dust on the floor, unable to recover. Her hands twist by her side. And she does indeed fall to the ground, once she has expelled the worst of the pain. She cannot remain standing when once again faced with the world-sized guilt and grief – a feeling she would rather suffer forever, than risk having her daughter’s existence forgotten as though it had never happened. However great the pain, the happiness of that baby’s warmth outweighed it. The orange light wins over the blue, again and again and again.

“It is too easy being monsters. Let us try to be human.”

And it works. Victor does let her go. He seems finally to understand that he didn’t create a new person, he resurrected one who already lived. She is not his blank canvas, but a complex and valuable human being who cannot be broken apart and rearranged as he would prefer her. Lily argues for her scars, for her pain, as part of who she is. Finally Victor, the doctor, the brilliant scientist who defeated death, begins to comprehend what life is.

She grabs his throat, strokes his face, and leaves. It’s the perfect farewell for Victor and Lily. Brutish, and tender, and finished.

“I would rather die here on my feet, than live a lifetime on my knees.”

From Lily, let’s talk about her protege, Justine, who this week learns that Dorian is immortal. Her life has been nothing but horrors, until Lily pulled her from the monster’s grip and gave her a few weeks of freedom. But once again a man believed he could own his womenfolk, and so she stands, dead, in a mock-loving embrace with another horror. Justine deserved better. She deserved more. Her death was unnecessary, Lily was on her way back to her. Her hand balks at the feel of Justine’s icy skin, another frozen girl leaving Lily in abject grief. Sending Justine to the grave and Lily back into the world friendless and alone was not a worthy ending for this story. All the other women in the glorious Frock Army simply dissipated into the night, nameless and defeated. By one spoiled man. This is why rushing out endings to storylines that have been deliberately set up to be long-term is a terrible idea.

“So my great enterprise comes to no more than this? One more dead child.”

To be fair, the final scene between Lily and Dorian was very well done. Lily refuses to sign up for a life of not caring about anything, and Dorian refuses to surrender to the human urge to give a crap about other people. Really, he could have chosen to care about Lily, since she’s not going to age and die, but instead, as always, he expected that she would morph into a creature that suited him, and meekly walk alongside him into eternity. His existence is an empty mockery of life, a flat portrait of the human condition. Everything Dorian touched has turned to ruin, and it is no more than he deserved. She starts the music on her way out, leaving him fading into the glaring backlit fog, in front of the pictures of the fortunate dead.

“We shall go everywhere, thee and me.”

The death of John’s son, and the loss of his wife when she turns him away are bittersweet. Poor little Jack is no longer suffering, John doesn’t give into the temptation to have Frankenstein resurrect him, and there is a sense of closure. On the other hand, this is a level of suffering that John’s poor wife has done nothing to deserve. And was John right to give his son a burial at sea instead of a trip to Uncle Victor? His qualms about the resurrection process largely don’t apply to Jack. John was brought back, abandoned, unloved and hated by all who lay eyes on him. Jack would wake to his loving parents, never be left to suffer alone, never again be ill or die – and he’d always have a protector because his father just so happens to be immortal, too. Hell, bop Mrs Clare over the head and resurrect her, too, then they can all be together forever. The bottom line is, being a creature of Frankenstein (undead citizen?), isn’t all bad. Lily seems to be making a go of it. Was denying that life, imperfect as it may be, to his son the right thing to do? Either way, as he always does, John has missed out on happiness by a hair’s breadth, and is left to venture forth alone. Let’s imagine he bumps into Lily, and they find a way to bring comfort to each other throughout the eons. After all, he’s going to need a friend. John is reaching the conclusion that the world is a cruel and terrible place. He could bear it when he was the one suffering, but not when it was his son.

“I’m all for pride but there are limits.” “I’ve never known them.” “Then you’ll learn.”

Back to our fighting brigade, Malcolm is unsure what to make of Catriona. He can see that she is smart and strong and not likely to bend easily, so he tries to flex some macho muscle, refuses to sit until she says ‘please’, generally glares distrustfully at her. After all, who can trust a woman in pants?! Dr Seward arrives on the doorstep. She knows who Malcolm is and summarily dismisses Cat, demanding that they go with her if they want to live want to find Vanessa. Completely neglecting to put on some anti-death-fog masks, they all stride off to find Renfield.

Meanwhile, Ethan has a moment with Dracula. The creepy vampire child has led him into a trap (what a shock. Since when can’t you trust a child vampire?), and the orange lanterns swinging in the black and white landscape are lovely. The fog gives the impression that nothing exists outside of this little landscape, and a fight unfolds. It turns out that Kaetenay is also a werewolf, and in fact turned Ethan into one, and the moon very considerately transforms them both into creatures capable of defeating a small army of vampires. The splashes of colour – lanterns and blood – are atmospherically wonderful, like brushstrokes.

Dracula makes a good point. Vanessa’s choice to become Queen of the Damned is questionable, certainly, but is her choice. She went freely. She made the decision to stop this exhausting battle and just embrace the darkness. Ethan and Co might not agree with that choice, and yes it’s causing a bit of an apocalypse, but their determination to ‘save’ her rather than ‘defeat’ her is somewhat grating. Your friend has become a super villain. It might be best to raid the weapons chest and draw up battle plans, rather than demanding secondary villains hand her over for some intense hug therapy.

‘Each day brings more and more suffering, and each night is silence and fear.’

At the open of part two, “The Blessed Dark”, absolutely everyone is drenched by blue filters. The doom has consumed them as they shuffle towards what is likely to be their final hours. The episode is opened by a young mother singing a hypnotic lullaby to her baby – as Lily visits Sarah’s grave, as Victor cuddles up with his opiates, as John farewells his son, Dorian stands frozen with Justine’s corpse, Malcolm admires the rubble that his life has become, and Vanessa and Ethan pray. Once more into the breach.

The child vampire runs to his master and tells him all about the werewolves. Werewolves are frightening creatures, to be sure, but does Dracula really lack the numbers to defeat them in the field? He never seems to be lacking in scuttling acolytes, surely backing the wolves into a corner and sending wave after wave of bloodthirsty vampires at them would do the trick.

Vanessa is languishing in Dracula’s lair, in a grand black gown. She smells his fear of the werewolves, and instructs Drac that we are but the sum of our choices. We make our own heaven, we make our own hell. In the end, Penny Dreadful has always been about choice and accountability, and Vanessa has always been the point. She was marked as a target her entire life, but she made the choice to let herself be taken, feeling that there was no other option. But we always have a choice, a fact she seems to still be conscious of, even as she stands her brokedown palace of night creatures.

Kaetenay is not a big advocate of choice, it seems. He hounds Ethan (heheh) about how he is the only man who can save everyone, how only one man – one Apache – must be the one to save the world. It’s deeply unclear why. Ethan is an adopted Apache, he was made werewolf by another werewolf, not ordained by God. And in the end, he saves the world with the only weapon he’s ever really understood – a gun. Literally anyone can pull a trigger. It was probably less likely to be successful with Ethan on the business end, because he hesitated to shoot the woman he loved right until the last moment. Seriously, Catriona could have done it, and more efficiently. Anyone.

“You made me this monster?” “I claimed you for God.”

Though, perhaps the point of this pointlessness is to demonstrate that he was never the ‘Wolf of God’. He was just a werewolf, just a man. Never tempted by evil by his own great darkness, but because any mortal man will be temped by his worst instincts at times. Kaetenay had visions but he als smoked a lot of drugs, so again God plays not part. All this grand drama, all this struggle and magic and destiny, was always and forever in the hands of these humans. Not mortals, necessarily, but humans. Supernatural forces existed, but they were just the mechanics by which these stories were told. Look behind the smoke and mirrors, and all there ever was, was flesh and blood people. No God, just metaphors. Metaphors, and suffering, everywhere you look.

None of this makes a difference to the characters, of course. Ethan and Vanessa firmly believe in their God, and pray together at the burning end. As they say in crime fighting, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, and these two characters choose to hold fast to their faith. It does not weaken them, it brings courage in an impossible moment. Vanessa needed to believe she was loved and destined for something other than darkness. Ethan needed to believe she was not going to suffer any further. We can’t know what Ethan brought from this experience into the rest of his life – his bromance life with Sir Malcolm in the big house in London (anyone else picturing an American Werewolf in London version of Friends?), but for that moment, for those two people, the existence of God was not in question. Whether the matter is a psychological construct, with or without basis in reality, is irrelevant here. It is their choice.

“Where is Vanessa?”

“She’s not yours, she’s mine! But she wishes you to live, so leave, now, while I allow it.”

So. Dr Seward hypnotises Renfield (would that work on a vampire?), and he seems to regret a few life choices on his way leading them all to Dracula’s lair. He tests Dr Seward’s patience by dwelling on his existential crisis about having lost all chances at love, until finally he reveals the location, and all our avengers assemble (ha!) there, muttering farewells at each other. Everyone is very ready to die, which seems odd for people like Dr Seward and Catriona who literally just met everyone about five minutes ago. The slaughterhouse is full of bodies strung up – was there an epidemic of missing people in London around this time? – and the merry band of adventurers tiptoe anxiously through oceans of blue lighting, until it’s time for the menfolk to argue over who rightly owns Vanessa. There’s a bit more back and forth, Malcolm confirming that Dracula took Mina, Dracula talking some smack about Mina being delicious. Though the battle is well-choreographed,  the entire scene feels rushed, and yet like they were trying to cram an enormous amount of nothing into a small amount of time. We don’t feel the bond between these characters because they aren’t bonded. They are essentially a group of strangers, who have joined together for a cause… to recover someone who left willingly. It also damages the narrative that we barely know half of these people. Dr Seward is a side character, Cat is brand new, we generally dislike Victor. It’s made worse by the throwaway one-liners like “Makes a change for a Tuesday, though” and “Fuck him”. At some point, we crossed from ill-fitting into cheesy.

“We’ll fight him.” “It’s not him. It’s me.”

Thankfully, that feeling really only lasts for the one scene. Ethan finds Vanessa in the Baz Luhrmann-esque candle-filled antechamber, and attempts to talk her down. They speak of destiny, of God, of hope and of hopelessness. Vanessa doesn’t take long to get to the point. Her red eye make up and pale skin are beautifully done, and her dress is every inch the wedding dress. The room is filled with orange light as Vanessa is finally free from pain and suffering. Not happiness, but peace. Like everything for Vanessa, it’s ‘something like’ – something like happiness, something like freedom, something like love. Her own version of the human condition. Her version of a candlelit wedding with a handsome man and a perfect kiss, the lord’s prayer and a white dress. Vanessa has met her destiny, by choice, and without fear. Hers was the only ending that felt right.

“Miss Ives was the last link to who I was. I must find out who I am yet to be. But I will miss her. To my bones.”

Suddenly, the apocalypse is over. Dracula has the tactical advantage, but inexplicably simply chooses to stop killing people and melts away, his character joining the list of unfulfilled potential in this story. The episode opened with the lullaby, positing the question of whether or not there is a heaven. And we end now with Malcolm, Ethan and Victor sitting around the fireplace, wondering the same thing. Victor and Ethan enjoy a super awkward manhug, and Ethan goes to Vanessa’s room to have a bit of a sit down. He sits, bathed in blue lighting sorrow, until he and Malcolm decide they’re just going to stick together forever.

We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind; / In the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be; / In the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Our final scene is Vanessa’s funeral. There are only a handful of people in attendance, her grave fittingly draped in lilies, with John sneaking in at the end to farewell his friend. The poem John’s voiceover leaves us with is an excerpt from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth. The full poem is exceptionally long (over 1,400 words), and speaks about heaven living in innocence and infancy, the shades of prison closing over us as we grow and become cynical. It reinforces the message that no matter how we have suffered, how keenly we have hurt, where there is life there is hope. Vanessa died, the core of their purpose gone, but those who remain behind must carry on, and look for hope where they can find it.

The finale was really all about parents, and how they love their children. How they lose them, have pieces of their soul chipped away, and yet remain standing to fight another day. Malcolm lost all his children, both biological and otherwise. Ethan’s father was killed by Malcolm, who then became a surrogate for the position. Kaetenay was a father figure, lost as well to the rigours of betrayal and stubbornness. The Cut Wife was a mother to Vanessa, and Dr Seward filled her shoes this season. Lily was given life by Victor, after having lost her daughter; just as John was brought back only to lose his son. Do we want our parents to love us, or protect us? To teach us, or allow us to learn? Do we need them to intervene, or to catch us when we fall? How does a parent recover from the moment a child slips away into death?

The answers are simple: human beings are complex creatures, each one needing and contributing something different. Some children need protection, others merely guidance. Some parents try to control their children, some accept their choices. The only universal theme is pain, felt by all, inflicted by all, carried and nursed like a living child itself. Through three seasons of Penny Dreadful we’ve seen people choose their families, choose their destinies, choose their own endings while railing against the heaving tide of oppression or destiny. In the end, the message from Penny Dreadful to us is clear: do not be cowed by horror. Do not surrender your strength. Stand always between the big bad and the end of the world, push back against the ebb tide – and whatever you do, don’t trust the bad guys will look like monsters.

Gripes:

  • The character of Jekyll at this juncture becomes entirely pointless. It seems very likely that the writers, believing they would have more seasons, introduced him with clear purpose. Now, however, he just another loose string left dangling. Perhaps they are hoping for a spinoff, now that he is Dr Jekyll and Lord Hyde, having inherited his father’s title. Regardless, the time spent on Jekyll has become wasted minutes.
  • We never learn how Victor got hold of John Clare’s body to reanimate him.
  • We never find out any more about Catriona, or why she is apparently a ninja.
  • We never see Lily’s wonderful revenge plot to smash the patriarchy play out.
  • Vanessa dies, and that on its own is of course a major plot point. But Vanessa was always doomed, so the loss is not enormous, especially when we’re aware that the show has been cancelled. However, no one else dies in that enormous melee with all the vampires of London. No one. Not even Dr Seward, who really had no business surviving more than a few minutes in that kind of situation. It feels like someone hit a cheat code.
  • Vanessa has apparently been reincarnated many times. How is dying again actually going to solve this problem she has of being a magnet for evil?

Notes:

  • “You’re not going to die” “Worse. I’m going to be unmade.” Lily is right, it is worse.
  • “I’m a New Yorker, Sir Malcolm. We know our way around random gunplay.”
  • Vampires scuttling and commando rolling = awesome.

Props to…

  • The writers. Honestly, if this is the magic ending they pulled out of their hats in a hurry, bloody well done to them. Shows with far more time to prepare have ended on far lower notes than this. Imperfect, frustrating and at times disappointing, the two finale episodes were still beautifully constructed, richly shot, seamlessly edited, and as close to satisfying as they could have been under the circumstances.

 

Penny Dreadful: Season 3, Episode 7

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“Ebb Tide”

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars

“We will not be hungry forever. We will rise.”

Only the finale remains for our beloved Penny Dreadful, and it’s not unreasonable to fear that we won’t see another show like it for some time. No other production has been willing to throw as much feminist rage at the wall and have a decent amount of it stick. Sadly, television has a tendency to dress female anger up in prettiness, ‘you’re cute when you’re angry’, and make it all about having career choices and closing the wage gap. These are of course important issues, but much in the same way that feminists used to love Quentin Tarantino (Hateful Eight has forever damaged that love), Penny Dreadful put women into the fight for real. Vanessa, Hecate, Justine and Lily were galvanised by blood and fire, unafraid of a pile of severed hands, and never entertained the idea that they couldn’t win their wars. The unlikelihood of another network taking a chance on a similar narrative is, tragically, slim.

Lily suffered a few setbacks this week, due pretty much exclusively to her ‘uppity’ nature and failure to massage her man’s ego while she was waging war on misogyny. We first see our hero this week at a funeral. She has come to visit the grave of what we can only assume is her dearly departed daughter, Sarah Croft, who lived only one year. While there she sees another woman burying her daughter, and delivers the kind of tense, inspirational monologue that Billie Piper has become so very good at delivering. When she returns home, there appears to be some overflow of emotion, and she sends her girls out on a mission to gather the right hand of a bad man. She strides along the long dining table, she crawls on her belly, she quivers and rages. This move we’ve seen so often, of actors down low on their stomachs, is such an unusual but effective way of demonstrating when a character is embracing their darker instincts. Lily’s speech of immortality and singing from the gallows tells us a lot about her plans for their fight. About how she doesn’t really intend for them to survive it – only for them to win it. Lily recognises that the world they live in won’t allow survival, but like the great revolutionary women of history, she can has a vision of the better world, without her in it.

Dorian is looking positively wary and outnumbered in this house of feathered women. Justine, Lily’s spiritual stand-in for the lost daughter in the cemetery, remains by her side always.

“My doomed, keening women. Shall we be immortal? Shall we sing from the gallows too? We must have the faith of those women, we must have their commitment, we must be bloody or nothing else.”

We move to a beautiful shot of Vanessa asleep on a daybed, surrounded by hay, on the red and black tile in the museum. Renfield is crawling and scuttling about, and somehow she doesn’t wake up when he licks her. It feels unlikely that Vanessa would sleep through that. But Drac gets to him first. The straining violins are very nice, a little acknowledgement of the power being contained within Drac’s human form. He and Vanessa have a cute morning after scene, and it’s painful to see her so happy on the cusp of betrayal. But then she runs into John Clare and all feels right with the world for five minutes.

“I’m in need of a friend.”

John says that the ‘accident’ left him disfigured, and that his family cannot accept him back (it’s easy to forget that Vanessa knows nothing of him being undead). ‘People are better than you think’, she says, meeting his suspicious side-eye with the rosy-cheeked naivety of someone freshly in love. Then she tells him he took care of her in the Banning Clinic, though he has no memory of this. It’s sad to watch John reaching through his memory, trying to recall a time when he was a simple and good man, when he was valued and useful and not the one on the receiving end of pity. If only he could remember, he might then be able to see the value he still has.

“The man I knew deserves to be loved.”

“And the man you see?”

“No less.”

It’s a wonderful conversation, these two people who are both swept up in the enormous events of this supernatural narrative, pushed and prodded and destined for their roles, yet they sit here and softly encourage one another. They are huddled together in the eye of the storm, grasping at some hope of normality. His family, her romance. Vanessa looks at John with the kindness and pity people directed at her during her low times, and the roles of these two friends have swapped. No longer is he the protector, holding her to the mortal world while the madness swirled around her. Now she is the one reaching through the mists of sanity to keep him in his life.

“Then let us dare.”

“And may the lost souls be found.”

Kaetenay and Ethan are chatting away in the west. Ethan says he’s done with fighting, but we get the feeling that fighting isn’t quite done with him. The younger man is not a fan of the wild west, declaring that it has brought nothing but blood. He wants only to return to Vanessa. Those ‘bloody ghosts’ back the ranch, and his Apache family, none of them are his people anymore. His people are in London now. Like so many kids who didn’t fit in at home, he went into the world and found a new tribe. Kaetenay, however, has had his vision of the one Apache that can save the world, and believes it to be the adopted Apache, Ethan. On the ship to London, Kaetenay is enjoying another vision, this one of Vanessa.

“You are the woman of all our dreams, and all our night terrors.”

Vanessa has been engaged in a fight for her soul since day one. Dracula first entered her life when Mina was taken, back in season one. He’s been circling her, like a vulture, ever since. Kaetenay can see the danger, and much like his fear that Ethan would go over to the dark side, he sees that the choice to be good is not inevitable. Vanessa is already entangled with Dracula, whether she knows it or not, and his claws are resting on her shoulders. The fight will be won or lost by Vanessa’s own choosing, and it’s entirely possible that she will choose power and peace, over goodness and this endless, exhausting battle to stay in the light. Kaetenay sees that this battle can be lost, that the good guys do not always win. His belief that Vanessa is damned may be well-founded, as we’ve seen her luxuriate in her dark side potential before.

“You are made for the day, not the night.”

“There, sir, you are wrong.”

John Clare goes back to the shipyards, where he approaches his wife. She doesn’t seem to recognize him until he steps into the light. And then his courage is rewarded. He sought, and he found. She takes him back with hugs and happiness, and finally someone in this story gets something they deserve to have. He tells her about Frankenstein, and how at first he had no memory of his family, which probably explains to her why John took so long to come back. His wife is lovely, and doesn’t care that he looks different. The kindness she shows is so foreign to him, he almost looks as though he’s judging her for being utterly without standards. He is lit perfectly, orange on one side and blue on the other, to mirror the dichotomy of his character: the good man that died yet somehow survived, and the bad man that was born and tore apart Frankenstien’s other innocent creation, Proteus. ‘You were lost,’ his wife says, ‘and now you are home.’ Just as Vanessa hoped, a lost soul has been found. Perhaps her psychic powers are at work here.

“He created life, but had no care for its nurturing. A young man’s ambition to be known, not to be good.”

When they reunite, properly, John is lit in orange and the boy in blue. The hopeful and the fearful. John sits down to help his now silent son with the rigging on his model ship. When the boy touches his hand,  this simple love from people who already loved him is more than he’d dared to dream of for what is effectively his entire life. As Vanessa turns to darkness, the man who had lived in it so long, turns to light.

“It’s a fools errand, only for idiot children.”

The blue and orange lighting theme is strong this week, as we see with Catriona when she comes to visit Vanessa. She steps out of blue light into orange. She is Schrodinger’s ally at present, both in support of and opposition to Vanessa until such a time as we learn with clarity whether she is friend or foe. She has new information on their friend, the dragon (it’s worth noting at this point that ‘Dracula’ does indeed mean ‘dragon’, or ‘devil’. My pet theory of Vanessa being Eve seems like it might hold some water these days). Vanessa shows her her research and Cat says it is all wrong, warped by people’s assumptions. As they discuss, the apocalypse is the only constant across all the mythologies of humans. Of course it is, as we all fear death. Having death be all that’s left is the ultimate fear, and we all weave fear into mythos so we can conjur up ways of defeating it. We must have the dragon, and the dragon-slayer, in our fantastical stories.

Several characters are vying for that dragon-slayer position. It seems unlikely it will be Vanessa, as she’s too attracted to the dragon to kill it. Ethan is speeding his way back to London, John has the newfound courage of a man who has regained his life, Lily is going to be in a solid rage at a point not too distant in the future, Malcolm will do anything to save Vanessa and Kaetenay will do anything to save the world. For a cast of thousands of flawed not-quite-heroes, we can be assured of some pretty good heroics.

Cat gives Vanessa some excellent information, perhaps without meaning to. ‘He’ll seduce you,’ pricks up her ears, but it’s ‘house of the night creatures’ that gives Vanessa her lightbulb moment. Suddenly, she knows everything she needs to know. Eva Green’s face as she realises the betrayal is so contained, as if she is keeping a very short leash on a very angry dog.

“You’re studying the language, I wrote the bloody book. You want to play with me kitten? Then show me your claws.”

Dorian and Justine have an interesting scene this week. Justine is less of a character, and more of a device to allow Lily’s machinations to come to life. She doesn’t appear to know that Dorian is immortal, thinking of him more as her friend’s boyfriend than anything of importance. Dorian’s relevance is ever-diminishing and it’s clear that he’s feeling that. Justine sums him up as ‘all charm, and nothing but’ and she hits the nail squarely on the head. Dorian is always the centre of the storm, but never the genesis of it. He threatens Justine, which is unwise, because he should know that men bullying her makes Justine do crazy things. The biggest red flag for Dorian, however, comes when Vanessa dismisses him, as she does a few times this week. ‘You don’t mind.’ and ‘You’re not jealous.’ are serious missteps for Lily. Telling Dorian what he does or does not feel is a mistake, pushing him from the spotlight is a mistake. Lily’s biggest mistake of all, however, was trusting that Dorian shared her goals. Like the spoilt child he is, Dorian’s only goal has ever been to make himself more interesting, and keep the boredom of eternity at bay.

“We’re at the ebb tide, my darling. One of us needs to change our ways and, I think it should be you.”

Just as the hordes of abusive men through history have done, Dorian opts to snuff the life out of Lily the moment she becomes inconvenient to him. And so Lily’s arrival at Bedlam finally comes to pass. The master plan of these arrogant, shitful men unfolds with a tedious predictability. Dorian seems done with Lily now, he is muzzling the dog he accidentally set free. Victor is crushing her beneath the wheel of his own desires. Jekyll is destroying a human being because he rather fancies seeing what happens. They are disguised as friends, they wear the faces of decent men, but any one of these three is more dangerous, and more disgusting, than Dracula. Dracula is dishonest and reasonably creepy, but chances are he’ll never try and tell Vanessa to shut up and do as she’s told. Once more, Lily is at the mercy of a man who wants to erase her and replace her with an obedient robot, all under the guise of ‘wanting what’s best for her.’ Dorian smirks at her rage. She was his one true love, as long as she was entertaining him and keeping him relevant. But he was left behind, so he cut her down, decided to make her into ‘a proper woman’. It’s a distressingly on point story, when you consider the sheer volume of women murdered by their partners every day. The greatest horror stories onscreen are those that hold a mirror to the horrors of our lives.

The differences between Vanessa and Lily smack of inequity. Vanessa has power. She has Ethan and Malcolm rushing to her side, she has certain abilities that get her out of trouble. She has a house that doesn’t belong to a domineering male. She’s the chosen one. Lily is left, again, to learn a bitter lesson in never trusting anyone but herself. Cruelly, the one man who loved Lily truly is the same one who sprints to save Vanessa now. Though he loved Brona, it seems likely that he would love Lily just as well, if he had any idea she was alive. Lily misses out on good fortune by a hair’s breadth, as she so often does.

“We prize things most when we’ve lost them.”

Ethan does not seem to prize that which he has lost. His father, his mother, his siblings, his home, his past. He prizes most that which gives him opportunity to achieve grace. He prizes the respect of people who respect him in turn, and he prizes Vanessa above all else. Malcolm and Ethan speak of kindness, of the mercy that Malcolm showed Ethan by killing his father in his stead, and how this sin that would have damned Ethan is the very thing that saves Malcolm, by proving he has mercy and kindness still. Ethan has gone to the brink of evil this season, and been pulled back. Malcolm to the edge of hopelesless, and he has returned. Kaetenay travelled far from home and saved the boy who killed his family all those years ago. The three men don’t seem to have achieved much but remaining in a holding pattern, but if you look closer, it’s clear that returning to the right path is as perilous a journey as walking a different one. So now they run towards London, careening into the fog, completely blind to what awaits them there.

Let’s dwell for a moment on Dr Seward. She doesn’t believe Vanessa’s unbelievable tales, and instead thinks she has found a true split personality, manifesting three identities at times. It stings a little to know that even Dr Seward isn’t truly invested in Vanessa, but the good Dr is on her side. She will do what she can, she does want to help her. And even if that means whiskey by the fire instead of tarot and psychic visions, Vanessa needs a friend who’s not embroiled in madness. Dr Seward’s value and loyalty are not diminished by her inability to accept wild stories as fact with no proof. Also, Renfield is twitchy and weird, and the Dr has now noticed, which may the key to everything for her.

“The house of the night creatures.”

“Where you are loved. Where you belong.”

Our final scene this week is Vanessa hunting down her boyfriend, the dragon. She finds her gun, the look of pained resolve on her face shows the strength that Ethan talked about. Her heart is broken, but she will not be cowed. She will not cry. She instead goes to the museum, the house of the night creatures, with her cleavage leading the way in a fabulous midnight blue and black gown, in such contrast to that jouyous red and black number she was wearing in the opener. She has left the orange hues of hope for the blues of darkness. As all subtle liars do, Drac claims not to have lied. He’s like any teenager caught lying to their parents, ‘I didn’t lie, I just left a few things out!’ He also flings out the tried and true line of ‘Sure, I had bad intentions at first, but I totes fell in love with you!’ Vanessa, rightly, demands to know how he dares speak of love when he ate her best friend (remember Mina? It was a while ago now.) ‘Dare with me,’ he implores, repeating the very words she spoke to John Clare earlier. He doesn’t want her to serve him, he wants to serve her. He yells about his sad life of fake identities, and demands that she validate his existence or end it. He places all the responsibility for his life onto her. He lists how they are similar; the night creautres, the broken things, the unloved.

“There’s one monster who loves you for who you really are, and here he stands.”

It is in this sentiment that his distinction from the other terrible men in this show becomes clear. He doesn’t claim to be good. He doesn’t dress up his motives. He is honest in a way that Victor, Jekyll and Dorian never could be, despite being the classic villain of a hundred frightening tales. As ever, Penny Dreadful takes the old myths, throws them in with a few home truths, and spits out something fresh. Just as Hecate did for Ethan, he assigns value to Vanessa with no caveats attached. He doesn’t want her to change, he doesn’t want her fight against her nature and destroy herself through compromise. It’s like Bridget Jones’s Diary dipped in blood. He loves her, just as she is. It’s too tempting to resist, the offer to just be, to stop fighting, to stop tearing herself to pieces trying to remove the rotten parts. When she lets him bite her, it’s not quite unexpected.

“Do you accept me?”

“I accept myself.”

Next week will be our final journey into foggy London town, circa 1892. Our final dance with the devil, the last chance at happiness for a few of our heroes. It’s sad to see a show like this end, but the best ones die at three seasons (or less), and sometimes it’s better to let go before it gets run into the ground by going for ten seasons, a movie, and a dozen lines of merchandise. So let us farewell it with all the grace of Vanessa in her ballgown. Expect some more blood, some chaos, and some neatly resolved storylines.

Which side of this battle wins depends, as it always does in war, on who is the more efficient at killing. Ethan calls killing ‘night work’. Night work, the night creatures, choosing night or day in the Banning clinic, ‘you are meant for day’, dwelling in the blue light or the orange. Pick a side, pick a weapon, pick a destiny. But Penny Dreadful taught us weeks ago that good and evil braided be, and we are all damned to live both.

Notes:

  • The scene of Ethan gathering up Kaetenay’s bits and bones is nice. They do seem to have a familial relationship that they’ve been able to evolve to despite how they met.
  • Why can’t Kaetenay get a few visions of Lily needing help? Vanessa gets all this support and all poor Lily gets is another lesson in not trusting anyone.
  • The make up on rory Kinnear must take ages per episode.
  • Vanessa bringing up Shelley’s poetry is very humorous, considering Frankenstein is a Shelly creation.
  • When Cat mentions tea and Vanessa says whiskey instead, it’s funny because tea is often used to stand in for whiskey onscreen.
  • She resisted the Devil Doll, she can’t resist this douchecanoe?

Props to…

  • Timothy Dalton. He’s somehow playing Malcolm as though he’s unchanged by the previous seasons events, but he has an air of finality about him. Perhaps Malcolm is going to die, and that’s bleeding into Dalton’s performance. Either way, Malcolm is being kept relevant, despite not really doing anything, and that is harder than you’d think.

 

 

PennyDreadful: Season 3, Episode 6

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“No Beast So Fierce”

We have entered that time right before the end of a season, of any decent drama, where we start to see lulls in storylines, and a few deaths to thin the herd. Going into the most intense episodes, the final two or three, the last thing you want is to be trying to write good climaxes for a cast of thousands. And so it is with Penny Dreadful this week, as we follow our merry band of heroes/villains/anti-heroes through the final straight path leading to all their twists and bends. There has been a significant commitment to build-up this season, with beautiful set pieces and the level of character development rarely seen on tv at the moment. The almost-flawless writing has kept all this stewing thoroughly enjoyable to watch, leaving the season feel as though it has been building at a fast pace than it actually has. This week saw jumps forward for a few of our folk, and abrupt turns for others.

The episode opens right where we left off last week, with Ethan’s father holding a gun on him in the murder chapel. They are rudely interrupted from their tense stand off by the arrival of the Law. Scotland Yard swaggers in, and in the name of both the Queen and the President, declares everyone to be under arrest. It’s like a frustrated policeman’s dream – just arrest the damn lot of them. They then sit down to the most awkward dinner that has ever been committed to film. Ethan’s father enjoys some flaming hypocrisy, waxing poetical about loving others as you love yourself. He compliments by the lawmen by not bribing them – thrifty and strategic. He aims some sleaze at Hecate, and generally throws his weight around while not noticing anything that’s happening around him. Bartholomew Rusk and Ethan share an almost-smile over the line “I’m as ravenous as a -“, he deliberately doesn’t say ‘beast’, but it’s an oddly light moment among the hostility.

 

Malcolm has some good lessons for Jeremy Talbot, about not trying to twist your children with guilt into what you want them to be. Talbot Senior goes on and on with blame and guilt, Hecate whispering to Ethan for a signal to strike him down and the whole effect is very claustrophobc. Ethan eventually throws a little snit, then says a spiteful version of grace, with Hecate chiming in with ‘for a few hours longer’ instead of ‘forever and ever’, and everyone at the table finally grasps how dangerous this situation is. Ethan and Hecate are thinking and moving in a kind of tandem now, which speaks to how close she has drawn Ethan in. In a way it’s almost a spoiler for the rest of the episode, as we can tell immediately that Ethan is already on the dark side. Either he dies, he commits to evil, or Hecate dies. Given that he’s somewhat of a main character, it comes as a surprise to no one which of those options eventuates.

When Talbot senior kills the sheriff from the train for threatening him, we learn a great deal about the Talbot men – and about why Ethan is so prone to shooting from the hip. There’s no malice behind the violence, there is a matter of fact attitude to it thats more dangerous than someone who snaps at a boiling point.

Rusk brings up the snake summoning, alerting Ethan’s father to the presence of witchcraft. Then Hecate goes full witch, and starts dropping bodies all over the place. Rusk does not even seem surprised, calmly pointing his gun and asking questions. The understated losses of this episode are Rusk and Hecate, both shot and killed in this flurry of chaos. Hecate was fascinating, a complex and potentially compelling female character, which is a scarcity on tv. Rusk was an old-school law enforcer, willing to do what’s necessary, and completely without cowardice. He was the kind of police machine that provides a strong adversary for an anti-hero.

“You want to be the devil? Then do the devil’s work.”

But this bloody dinner is not enough wild west fun for one night, and Ethan’s dad heads for the chapel. It’s a proper old west shootout set up with a gauntlet of armed men between Ethan and his father. There’s an old fashioned stand off, and then the shots ring out. Kaetenay ( who is totes not dead, shocking) comes in through the wall, sneaky bastard. Malcolm gets to show his mettle, not even attempting to duck from the bullets. And so we end the episode with turned tables, now with Ethan pointing the gun at his unarmed father. Predictably, he doesn’t kill him. Talbot Senior starts in on his son, with a typical ‘yeah run away, I’ll find you’ rant –  and Malcolm kills him, Talbot’s body falling on the altar in a deliberate crucifix pose. It’s a fleeting shot, his body visible only for a few moments, but it’s so layered with meaning that it’s hard to dissect it all. There’s sacrifice – Jesus on the cross – , betrayal – Ethan’s new father figure kills the old one, – portent – one must die for the sins of the others. You’d have to know the bible reasonably well to dig up all the inferences, but these are the ones most people will get at a glance. If Vanessa is Eve (as my theory of this narrative demands), then Ethan is Lucifer, flinging himself from the kingdom. For a show that never commits to the existence of a deity, the immersion in biblical mythos is immersive and intriguing.

“You will not pass me by, will you master? When you distribute all the fat, juicy things? All the sweeties?”

First up, Renfield is creepy as fuck. People are not sweeties. Second, He had no knowledge of nor interest in vampiredom prior to Dracula snatching him off the street, so to imagine the sheer intensity of Dracula’s ability to seduce people into his world is frightening. With no effort at all, he turned a normal person into a salivating slave, with no room in his mind for thoughts other than serving Dracula. It’s a complete hijacking of a human mind, which is not unfamiliar territory for this show, but Dracula didn’t need to erase the old identity first. Renfield tells Dracula how Malcolm and Ethan have both abandoned Vanessa and the point hits home – Vanessa is unfairly isolated. Just how Dracula likes ’em.

“Think of me only when you dance.”

Vanessa goes to visit Lyle, and even he is leaving her. He is going to Cairo indefinitely. Vanessa asks him to recommend someone she can speak to in his place, for all the things only he has been able to bring to the table. In this question we can see her intent to prepare for the emergence of Dracula, to arm herself. The goodbye between Vanessa and Lyle is surprisingly affecting. He was her last remaining friend, and he has been around since the beginning. We constantly see Vanessa seeking out contact with other people, building a relationship with her psychiatrist, forming an attachment to Dr Sweet. So often we see her alone, in a way most people never are – against her will. She speaks to her psychiatrist of realising how much she needs, and misses, her friends. They speak by a fireplace, showing us how they have become closer. Dr Seward, as it turns out, killed her husband with a kitchen cleaver. How she is not currently in jail is not explained, but the justice system in these days was not kind to women, so there is undoubtedly a story there. She encourages Vanessa to go to the museum, and let Dr Sweet decide for himself if being with her is too dangerous.

“Then let catastrophe befall us both.”

Dracula appears in this episode more as his mortal altar ego, Dr Sweet. When Vanessa gets there he is hanging out with the stuffed birds, likely because they are Vanessa’s forte, another way to connect himself to her. She tells Dr Sweet all about himself – Dracula – and his response is to show her the nocturnal animals, and push her to feel sympathy for vampire bats because, after all, they have no choice but to drink blood.

It hurts more, somehow, watching Vanessa be happy than it does to watch her being tormented. At least when she is in her dark times, she knows what’s going on. Right now she is being bamboozled. We want her to be happy, to be safe, to not be under attack. We know what’s coming, a big reveal, a big fight. For once, she’s not anticipating the source of all this, and it has a way of making us want to take the happiness away from her. If only to spare her having it snatched away later.

Frankly, If he weren’t a psychotic vampire, he’d be damn near perfect. Dracusweet knows what to say, know exactly how to make Vanessa trust him. And trust him she does, as evidenced by their tiled-floor sex scene. The shot from above of her skirt encompassing them both is lovely. Red and black tile, red and black dress, enormous skirt everywhere. Just like the darkness hovering over Vanessa, the dress is swallowing everything in its path. It’s a wonderful, brief visual.

Vanessa does manage to make a friend this week, which is going to be very important. She seeks out the person recommended by Lyle and finds Catriona, a sassy redhead who fences for mental clarity. She studies death, which is incredibly on point, and isn’t afraid to make other people study it, too. She gives Vanessa some history on Dracula, and warns Vanessa to not let herself be without allies.

“Father? Are you there?”

 

Next we’re off to John Clare’s hovel above his old home, where his son seems to be somewhat dying. John goes in to look after him, which might be crossing some boundaries. He helps the boy get a drink of water, and what follows has to be some of the greatest pain John has ever felt. For one minute he is able to comfort his son, to dwell in perfect peace, to create a bridge to his old life. Then the boy opens his eyes, and recoils from the man before him. The retreating shot of John hiding in the alley is emotionally wracking. The temptation for John to take his son to Frankenstein and beg him for immortality must be almost unbearable.

“Then she’ll be yours, old boy, to do with as you will.”

 

Speaking of Frankenstein, he will never stop plotting to control his uppity ex-girlfriend. He and Jekyll are hanging out in their Secret Lab, mad-sciencing all over the place (you can tell they are mad scientists because of all the bubbling liquids in varying colours). Even Jekyll seems to understand that what they are doing his wrong. He speaks with an edge in his voice, a terse admittance of the immorality of their schemes. This does not in any way mean he doesn’t intend to go through with it all, but it does mean that he possesses a level of self-awareness that persistently eludes Frankenstein. Victor believes they are doing good, that the ends justify the means. It is far more dangerous than being fully aware that you are doing the wrong thing simply because you believe you can. A self-righteous fool will always go further, and fight harder, to continue his misguided actions.

“Is this where she lives, the pale lady?” “Her that makes men bleed.”

The real focus of this episode is Lily, and her lace-clad army of working girls. This is where the real conflict is going to happen. They flock to her, for lessons on how to rid themselves of the customers who would do them harm. Justine, as it turns out, is on the very edge of lunacy, and may be learning a little too well. She’s far too interested in killing Dorian, refuses to listen to anything he says, and follows Lily only. If this is an army, then Lily is her commander, and blind loyalty would be fine – except a soldier is expected to follow the orders a commander’s delegate issues, and here is where Justine is going to cause major problems for Lily. Dorian sees it, fears that Justine ‘does not know her place’. The language is unfortunate, as men have been putting women ‘in their place’ since the dawn of time, but it serves to highlight the essential difference here that could undo Lily and Dorian’s Great Alliance. As much as Dorian wants to be Lily’s King, he cannot ever be an equal in this fight. He wears the face of the enemy, he’s been the man who paid prostitutes for the right to hurt them, he has never suffered the indignities and injustices these women have. Those who do not hate him will resent him, and those who tolerate him will not follow him. Lily summarises her love for Justine by stating that she sees herself in the girl. To be fair, Brona was much more cheerful and less unnerving than Justine, but the point stands. Lily will never forget where she came from, and she will pull other women out of it as much as she can, regardless of consequence. What it means, however, is that Dorian is being wedged out, and spoilt children react well to that.

Justine and the other girls barge in on Lily and Dorian’s conversation, dragging Frankenstein at knifepoint. She stops Justine from killing Victor, but tells him to mend his broken heart elsewhere. He came to ‘heal’ her, and is told she is not ill. Lily has no wish to return to being Brona, to return to being living or normal or perfect. She has suffered, she says, to become who she is now. And there is no turning away from it.

Her line, “Hear me, boy” was loaded with reversals of power, with him against her bosom, like a vulnerable child.

Victor is like a child in many ways. He doesn’t understand the boundaries that other people put in place. He assumes that everything is available for him to take. And he absolutely refuses to listen. Unlike a child, he does not seem to learn.

“Women who are strong, and refuse to be degraded, and choose to protect themselves are called monsters. That is the world’s crime, not ours.”

Lily and Vanessa are the heart of the story of Penny Dreadful. There is a great deal happening around them, but all the threads will come back to them in the end. Lily’s storyline is so up in the air at the moment, we can’t even be sure as to the scale of this war she’s waging. We can’t know whether she and Vanessa will meet as enemies or as allies, or who each one will have on their side. One possibility is that Lily will help Vanessa destroy Dracula, as part of her feminist battles, and what a wonderful possibility that tale is. In the meantime, our characters in America have no reason left to stay there, and we can expect to see them heading home soon. John Clare is already there, and has reason to reach out to Frankenstein. Frankenstein is in Lily’s debt, Jekyll is bound to stir up some trouble, and there really needs to be more information on Dr Seward. The strands are falling into place, the circles are completing, and Penny Dreadful has pulled off something few shows have: the gang was scattered to the four winds and yet the audience didn’t move an inch.

Notes:

  • Malcolm Murray, still in the game.
  • “He’ll think I’m mad.” “I’ll give you a note.” Lol
  • Dorian declares that Victor is in his debt – Dorian didn’t do a damn thing, it was Lily who spared Victor.

Props to…

  • Perdita Weeks, playing Catriona Hartdegen. It can’t be easy to stand opposite Eva Green in a show she has consistently dominated. Cartoon comes off as smart, stubborn and ruthless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penny Dreadful: Season 3, Episode 5

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“This World is Our Hell”

Penny Dreadful is one of the only shows on tv at the moment with any kind of consistency of excellence. This week is no exception in narrative, writing, cinematography (some shots this week were almost breathtaking in their composition), and the performance of the extremely hardworking cast. However, there has been some loss of momentum felt this week, and some confusion around the character of Ethan, who spends a great deal of time acting as though great wrongs have been perpetrated against him by his father – when it seems like the greater sins have been committed by him, against that same father.

“Shall we unleash demons, thee and me?”

Ethan was the clear focus of this week’s episode, and we saw he and Hecate making their perilous journey through the desert. Ethan may have the claws and teeth, but Hecate has the power. Peeking into her backstory, the young witch may not have chosen Lucifer or the craft, but she certainly took to it well, summoning snakes from the sand at will, to kill their enemies. This may be a ‘when life gives you lemons’ situations, and Hecate makes one hell of a lemonade. How ever much she was trapped into this path by her mother, Hecate has accepted her lot in life. She encourages Ethan to embrace his sins, in order to free himself of guilt.

To be fair to Ethan and all his guilt, his sins are considerable. Some of the worst crimes in human history have paraded behind the mask of “I was just following orders”, and it doesn’t often stand up as an excuse. Ethan participated, fully, in the slaughter of an Apache family, and then killed his commanding officer anyway. Perhaps, had he simply killed the CO to begin with and skipped the whole ‘mass murder of an oppressed people’ part, he wouldn’t need to lug around this ten tonne bag of guilt. Ethan, obviously, is destined to fill the role of anti-hero, but with his sins so far outweighing any wrongs done to him, it’s difficult to see how they will avoid him becoming a straight-up villain. In a show that invests heavily in grey areas and blurred morality, a simple villain could cost the narrative dearly. The success of Penny Dreadful hinges upon the audience being able to identify with the characters, and we’re seeing now some of the characters clearly shifting away from sympathetic, to alienated. It’s not their actions that draws the distinction (Lily and Dorian murder people, yet they aren’t unsympathetic), it’s their motivation. Ethan is selfishly motivated. He wants revenge, he wants to feel better, he wants the power. He is removing his humanity – deliberately – and at this point we owe the writers some trust that they know what they are doing; but it is a slippery slope all the same.

“Whatever code I have followed. I hereby disavow.”

Considering the aforementioned enemies – the lawmen – their position as formidable foes was not weakened this week, but strengthened. They began the episode with the greater numbers, and it’s true that that number was considerably smaller by the end. However, as Ethan and Hecate struggled and stumbled across the desert, near-death, and relied upon rescue to survive, and as Malcolm and Kaetenay shuffled along, snake-bit and alone – we see the lawmen remain upright, alive, on horseback, strong and determined, not waiting on anyone else to save them. It’s not an accident that they were the only ones actually prepared for this journey, the only ones thinking ahead. Don’t underestimate Scotland Yard. Bartholomew Rusk is played by Douglas Hodge, who is a classical stage actor, and it shows. He plays the character quietly, but with the presence of someone who is used to commanding attention without the benefit of close-ups. Rusk gives the impression of the typical staunch lawman, but is much more cowboy than he lets on, detailing the story of how he cauterised his own wound, brought a target in, and then took himself to an infirmary. A man who seems almost psychotic is no less dangerous when focussed on enforcing good, than on wreaking evil.

“When Lily was as I created her, I was for a few days of my life truly happy. It was perfect. She was perfect.”

So, let’s move on from werewolves and witches and psychotic Scotland Yard inspectors, to the most unrelentingly dangerous man on this show: Victor Frankenstein. He’s unassuming, kind of weedy, a bit of a brain, no real muscle. But if there is anyone in this cast of thousands to be really afraid of, it is him. Frankenstein is utterly unable to see other people as people. Mr Balfour, the Scottish lunatic in Bedlam for threatening to kill the Queen, is no more human to him than a lab rat. With no concept of consent or the right to self-determination, Frankenstein forcibly injects an electrified psychoactive serum into the eyeball of this Mr Balfour. He informs the patient that huge chunks of his memories will vanish, as though he had any right to erase the memories – even the bad memories – of another human being. Frankenstein admits readily that he would not give up his ‘horrific’ memories if given the chance, yet here he stands, to rip them away without permission, from another human being. He shifts other people around on a chess board, adjusts them like props, fixes them to his liking, styling himself as the benevolent creator, the merciful God. He is completely without the ability to see Lily as a person, she remains forever just a thing to make him feel better about himself. His friend, Jekyll, is just a sparring partner, a mechanism by which to push himself to further and further heights. He has no wish for relationships with other people, he wants only to possess them. The most dangerous aspect of Victor Frankenstein is not the deception he presents to the world – it is the self-deception he embraces to strongly. A man with no self-awareness can rationalise almost anything in pursuit of some version of happiness.

It’s worth mentioning that the serum does work. Mr Balfour wakes up, and seems to be quite cured. What is not clear, is if he is still even Mr Balfour. How much of our darker sides can we remove, without it wholly changing us? Without it erasing the core of our identity? If good and evil truly braided be, removing one removes the other by simple definition.

Kaetenay understands that a person can be lost to one side or the other, than the line between good and evil is forever a tightrope. He pursues Ethan on the understanding that if he falls to evil, he must die. Sadly, it seems he also intends to kill Hecate, who actually doesn’t seem to be a bad person. It would be a shame to lose her, at some point she’s going to meet Lily, and just imagine what those two could achieve together.

We hear the story of the first Apache, and Hecate wonders who Ethan represents from that story. The boy who saves the world, or the creatures of the night who condemn it. There is a third option, however – perhaps Ethan is coyote, the trickster who pits one against another and watches the chaos unfold.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“You never know where I’ll turn up.”

When Malcolm and Ethan cross paths, things are tense. Then the Pinkertons turn up and drag Ethan away, with poor Kaetenay left to die in the desert. Ethan, Malcolm and Hecate are all taken to Ethan’s dad’s house – a rich white guy, just as expected, after all. The whisky is apparently excellent, the company not so much. It is here that we learn that Ethan’s little raid on his father’s weapons cache led not only to lost weaponry, but to the deaths of his entire family. At this point, his father pointing a gun at him and demanding repentance doesn’t seem so harsh – it actually seems like a fairly reasonable reaction.

Vanessa’s absence is felt strongly, as is John Clare’s. Vanessa commands the core of this story in a way no other character can, and John is on a fascinating journey into the past. The shots of the wild west are stunning. Ethan is the quintessential cowboy, right down his boots. Malcolm has somehow become the moral voice in this madness, Hecate is seeming downright well-adjusted, and Bartholomew Rusk is brewing some bloody insanity in that noggin of his. But none of this makes up for the absence of the strongest storylines in the entire narrative: Vanessa, John Clare, and Lily. What we saw this week was a battle, when we’re so used to focussing on the war.

We end this week with Jared Talbot holding a gun in the face of his only surviving child, surrounded by the ageing bloodstains and upturned furniture of the gruesome mass death of the rest of his family. He seems unlikely to be swayed, and Ethan doesn’t actually appear to have a gun on him. But never fear, gentle viewers, Ethan is not going to die. After all, as he says himself, he’s done repenting, and he belongs in hell – and the title of the episode itself tells us that he’s already there.

Notes:

  • “Your vainglorious pursuits have led to nothing but bloodshed and heartache.” Pot, meet kettle. The scenes between Jared Talbot and Malcolm were great.
  • “This is a bloodthirsty lamb.” Like Frankenstein’s ‘lambs’?
  • “I still have one child to save.” Burn.
  • “You brought the devil to my door, son. And you gave him the keys.”

Props to…

 

Fear the Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 7

fear-the-walking-dead-season-2-midseason

“Shiva”

Verdict: 2 out of 5 stars

If there were any sharks nearby, we’ve just jumped clear over them, and waterskied away pulled by a boat fuelled by hopes and dreams. The title seems a bit confused, as we’ve been dealing with Aztec Gods, and Shiva is one of the three main deities of Hinduism. He is ‘the transformer’, considered to be limitless, formless, unchanging, and transcendent.

This was essentially the finale of The Walking Dead season 2, when the Greene farm falls (on fire, with our heroes escaping in a car, the group scattered over a few places, everyone enjoying the horrible consequences of religious folks hoarding zombies as pets). There are a few details that are different, due to there being different characters, but it’s just not possible that the writer (David Wiener) of this week’s instalment didn’t realise how much they were ‘borrowing’ from Fear the Walking Dead’s big brother show. This was forty-one minutes of sheer laziness, and recycling.

A quick recap: It would appear that Daniel, one of the only characters with a compelling backstory, is now extra crispy zombie food. Ofelia is crying, because that is literally all she ever does – cries and judges people. Nick is wandering about covered in blood because that is literally all he ever does. Alicia is sassy in the periphery. Madi is impulsive, and erratic, in her desire to protect her children. Strand is rescuing everyone with a vehicle, and Chris is the biggest emo kid since that ‘What About Me’ song plagued everyone in 1982.

Let’s elaborate on a few things. We begin this week with a flashback to Daniel in the river of corpses in El Salvador when he was a boy, the moment when he says he realised that you are either a victim or a perpetrator and he chose to hold the knife.  We hear the ‘Take the gun, Daniel’ voice again, and it turns out what he really chose was a gun, and he shot a survivor in the river. ‘Chose’ is a loose term here, however, because a child of his age really can’t make that choice, being too young to understand the consequences. Perhaps the only moment of this episode worthy of being immortalised on film, was Griselda’s ghost/manifestation/thing saying gently to Daniel: “No, my love. The first victim was you.” They have chosen a neat path to keeping a war criminal sympathetic in the eyes of the audience, by writing him into the mould of child soldier. He committed terrible crimes, but he was a victim himself. It’s a damn shame if they have killed the character off right after redeeming him – because they need a guy like Daniel around to balance out all the frustrating nonsense perpetrated by the other characters. It is reasonably damning for a tv show when the most relatable character is a mass murderer hallucinating in the basement.

Meanwhile, Celia is deeply unimpressed that Strand killed Thomas, and yells about having lost her son. Strand throws some shade at her, reminding her that Thomas was not actually her son, a point she makes an unambiguous dig at when speaking at Thomas’s funeral later (“Make no mistake, Thomas was my son.”) Nick continues to appear sympathetic towards Cray Cray Celia, aiming the kind of loving and thoughtful facial expressions at her that he so categorically denies his own mother every day. Celia gives them all one day to leave. In fiction, important things always happen at sun up or sun down, and we see both times in this episode – with little of anything else. We begin at dawn, we end at dusk and everything in the middle is filler.

Alicia refuses to help look for Chris. Alicia doesn’t exactly have depth of character yet, so far we know she’s smart and owns several pairs of sassy pants, but that’s really about it. She doesn’t struggle to stand up for herself, so of course she refuses to look for her creepy almost-step brother who was standing over her in the dead of night holding a knife.Travis is despatched along to look for Chris, who, it turns out, is running across the planted rows of farmland. The rows look very much like a graveyard swimming in fog and don’t think that was an accident.

 

Daniel and Celia have a few moments this week, which seems like kind of a waste since they are both ostensibly pushing up daisies by now. Daniel sharpens himself a weapon while Celia watches from a window. He attacks some of her men, she ties him up in the basement, urges him to confess, then says she’ll look after him once he’s a shambling mess of deadness. Normal stuff. Daniel won’t talk to her because he’s really not super keen on her Aztec death Gods, and he thinks this place needs some good cleansing fire because the ground is unholy and no one can be buried in it. To be fair, he has a point. Again, the only one making sense is the guy conversing with his dead wife.

Griselda is the key to Daniel. She was his absolution in life, she knew everything about him and she loved him anyway. She’s gone, and he is unhinged because he’s floating free without an anchor now. This meltdown was coming for decades, the only thing that’s changed is now Griselda’s not there to hold it at bay.

 

Daniel finishes out the first half of season two by escaping, finding the barn basement full of pet zombies, and setting it on fire (in a scene bearing absolutely no similarity to the scene of Carl setting the barn full of zombies on fire on the farm…).

Ahem. Moving on. Let’s deal with Chris because somebody has to, eventually. When Travis is following him we know he’s on the right track because not only is he following a trail of dead zombies who look like they were killed by someone who is clumsy enough to bump into the furniture a lot, but he find a knife left behind in one of their skulls. Chris is the only one dumb enough to waste a knife like that, and Travis stumbles into a house which inexplicably has not only a man and his son living there – in a landscape otherwise so devoid of life that it may as well be the surface of the moon – but Chris is skulking around in the next room, holding a child hostage. Ok, so, Chris does tend to idolise Daniel a bit, so maybe he’s just channelling Daniel here with the whole violence against children thing, but the problem is that Chris is genuinely not believable as a bad guy. He’s just not. It might be the actor’s fault, but probably not if we’re being honest. Lorenzo Henry has just not been given anything good to work with. Travis disarms him, they have a scuffle, and Chris starts yelling things that made audience members everywhere facepalm and groan in annoyance:

Look at me, I’m no good!

At this point, the incredulity almost gains sentience. When thinking about Chris’s character, he comes off as one of those guys who confesses to a crime they didn’t do in order to gain notoriety without having to do anything. He’s moody and he’s running away from home, claiming he’s a bad seed of some kind, but all he’s ever actually done was *maybe* shot a guy too soon when he was already dying from being impaled. Ok, it wasn’t a great idea, but he is a child in the apocalypse so there are extenuating circumstances here. As much as he *might* have been tempted not to help Madi in the herd of walkers last week, it’s more plausible that he simply froze. And why was he standing over Alicia with a knife? Celia took all their weapons. If Chris was going to get a weapon at all, for any reason, it was the only one available, we have no evidence to think he was going to start stabbing folks. All up, none of this is damning. It’s a real stretch of the imagination to think that it’s crimes of the calibre that get people exiled from communities in the zombie apocalypse. They have a completely lockable basement, they are restraining Daniel – it’s so very unlikely that Chris would be cast out. Yet that is what he is doing to himself, because he’s a self-centred teenager who wants to be special. Ultimately, Travis decides he can’t make Chris go back, and that he can’t leave him either. They wander off together into the end of the world.

These people are not our friends. Get it through your heads.”

Madison understands that she and her children need to leave because this place is essentially Jonestown and eventually they are going to get force-fed some Kool-Aid. The kids are not so keen to leave. Maybe Alicia doesn’t want to give up tv again, and Nick really digs the food. Pozole, by the way, which seems to be the only thing on Celia’s menu, is traditional cannibal food, and used to be made with human flesh. These days it tends to be pork – hence the squealing pigs – but the symbolism of eating human flesh combined with religion is starting to get a little bit inescapable now.

Mumma Ceclia with her authentic Mexican cuisine.”

Nick seems to be very attached to Celia, who seems to be very attached to him. It’s a bit odd, since they’ve known each other all of 48 hours or so, but Strand points out that a vulnerable kid with addiction issues will always find something to cling to. Now that they are safe, he seems less addicted to adrenalin, and more addicted to motherly love from literally anyone but his own mother. He also seems to be somewhat delusion himself. Nick is perpetually covered in blood (how many nice plain white tees has he destroyed now?), and seems to think that he’s very special and the zombies aren’t going to eat him (“I move among them mum. Invisible”). He is camouflaged, that much is true, but any old person rub guts on themselves, it’s not actually a skill – so it feels a lot like Nick has started to come unhinged, rationalising the horrible new work by making himself an unconquerable hero in his own internal narrative. He goes out and collects Luis, to bring him back to Celia, and struggles to understand why his mother asks the very reasonable question of why he keeps doing these dangerous things.

She wanted her son back, you can understand that.”

Celia did indeed want Luis back, and her own delusions allow her to think she has achieved it. She sees her son, changed, but still her son. Which, technically, is true – but it glosses over rather a lot of ugly truth. Celia is kind of the Queen of misleading statements, and later utters the gem: “The world is reborn.” Which, again, might technically be true, but conveniently ignores 90% of reality. With her biological son chomping mindlessly at the air, and her surrogate son dead as a doornail, Celia is on the lookout for somewhere to invest her motherly love – and where better than Nick, a vulnerable and pliant boy who will soak it up gratefully?

This is not apocalypse. This is the beginning. The end of death itself.”

 

Strand does very little this week, other than school Madison in why Celia is so able to pull Nick’s attention, and be the one to provide the getaway vehicle (again). His plan is to return to the boat, which may or may not be where he left it. He seems disappointed that Madison gets sentimental, saying they had a mutually beneficial arrangement in which they each helped the other achieve their goals, but that doesn’t mean they are friends. Except they are friends. That’s what happens when you bond with someone in high stress situations. When Celia tries to kick him out early, Strand wields a shovel at two of her strongmen, and the woman who poisons people against their will with communion wafers states that she won’t stand for violence.

“You’re making a mistake.”

“Happens every day. You get older, you learn to forgive yourself.”

Madison tries to talk Celia into letting Strand stay, but sees soon enough that it is hopeless. When Celia says that eventually Nick will have to choose between Celia and his family, Madison declares that she wants to understand Celia’s way of thinking, and they go to the basement where the pet zombies are munching away on more dog carcasses.

“What wouldn’t you do for your children?”

“Nothing.”

Madison locks Celia in the basement, a move which is both consistent with her character, and one of the few satisfying moments of the entire episode. Unfortunately, we don’t see her when Daniel returns to set the basement on fire, and we don’t see her body, so we can’t actually count on her being dead.

And so begins the exodus more or less exactly like the finale of The Walking Dead season two. Andrea was presumed dead and left behind, just as Daniel has now been. Glenn drove a getaway car, just as Strand is now. Hershel was separated from his children, as Madi is from Nick by the end of the episode. Daryl and Carol were off on their own, just as Travis and Chris are now. Alicia was just kind of dragged along, much like Maggie in the passenger seat. Walkers burn and stumble about, silhouettes shambling along. Their safe harbour burns, loyalties are divided, and we’re still expected to believe this show isn’t going to be like watching reruns.

It’s unbelievable to the point of stupidity that Nick decided to walk off among the zombies, and that Madison let him. She put up almost no resistance when Strand said ‘He’s gone!’, and let herself be put in the truck. Then she drove right past Nick, in his customary blood suit. The woman who just burned an entire town to the ground her kids couldn’t even lean out the side of a pick up truck and pull Nick’s scrawny arse into the cab. He thinks that Celia was right, they they kill without thinking – but a moral disagreement isn’t really a convincing reason to try and convince the audience that Madison just gave up on her son.

All in all, we patiently made our way through the first half of season two, forgiving a few missteps and weak spots, hoping that the audience’s faith would be justified by the midseason finale. However, tonight’s episode fell flatter than any other has so far. It felt derivative, disjointed and lacked any narrative cohesion to keep it together. The characters all behaved in ways contrary to their character, and the ‘lost sanctuary’ trope unfolded exactly as expected.

Burn it down, gentlemen. Burn it down and salt the earth.

Notes:

  • The quiet title card is good.
  • The squealing pigs were good, although pointless.
  • This scenery is wonderful, it looks as though the heat would be oppressive.
  • Visually, the compound burning is a lot like the season premiere, where Madison stood among the flames on the beach.