This is a review of the second season of Penny Dreadful and as such will have major spoilers for season one. You can catch up on Showtime on Demand, Hulu, and you can probably check it out from your local library.
As it happens, the first season I watched of Penny Dreadful was season 2, which concluded two weeks ago, and I found it wildly entertaining and I appreciate it more after seeing how it has improved. Thankfully, none of the Victorian flair has left and the season is tighter with even more colorful characters.
The second season starts almost immediately where the first season left off. Ethan awakens in a roomful of blood. It seems clear that this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened and now it makes sense why he was living that peripatetic lifestyle in the first place. The late Miss Brona Croft is lying in one of Victor Frankenstein’s bathtubs while he and the Creature wait for an appropriately dark and stormy night to revive her. Sir Malcom is burying his daughter and Sembene is about to start acting like a person instead of set decoration. Dorian Gray is also around, you know, doing stuff. As it became clear toward the end of season one, the central narrative of Penny Dreadful thus far centers on Vanessa Ives’s struggle with the darkness inside her. This struggle intensifies when she is attacked by Nightcomers (evil witches).
Of all the ships that caught wind in season one, the on ehtat surprised me most was between Ethan Chandler and Dorian Gray and not just because of the hot guy-on-guy action. It is no surprise that Mr. Gray swings both ways given the source material. Mr. Chandler on the other hand, had heretofore been an American archetype of Wild West masculinity. Although perhaps it is not so surprising given his theatrical tendencies. I had faint hope, now that Ethan is a bachelor, he might visit Dorian and give the fans what they really want, but John Logan and company have decided to sail the Ethan/Vanessa ship. And that’s okay because Dorian was occupied with Ethan he wouldn’t pay any attention to the lovely Angelique, who has her own secrets.
I was worried, as sometimes happens when a character who has previously been identified by the audience as straight exhibits same sex attraction, that Ethan’s experience would be a one-time thing, never to be mentioned again (except during the exorcism episode when none of the other dudes in the room made a big deal about which was fucking awesome). Fortunately Mr. Ferdinand Lyle, Egyptologist and, by his own words, “a queen with lovely hair,” is around to flirt with. And flirt they do! Of course it’s harmless since Ethan is being steered romantically and spiritually toward Vanessa Ives, but that kind of spice is what distinguishes the Victorian flavor of Penny Dreadful from other period shows.
There are many layers to Penny Dreadful. Of course there is the horror and the Victorian flair, but the second season has taken a few more colors from the Queer rainbow. I think it is a mistake to label any of these characters, perhaps save Mr. Lyle, as any one of the LGBT alphabet since these are more recent terms for modern identities (Yes, I read Foucault). That said, this season confirms that Penny Dreadful is Queer-friendly. Well, as friendly as you can be in the horror genre.