While “This World Is Our Hell” is easily my least favorite episode of Penny Dreadful to date, I’ll say that with the slight caveat that it had the misfortune of coming right after one of the traditionally exceptional Vanessa episodes. Seriously, nothing that’s happened this season can beat “A Blade of Grass.”
There were a few other reasons this installment felt weak, however. And while it definitely was weaker, in my opinion, it still ended up giving forward momentum to at least one storyline, and examining the limits of our other characters’ resolve.
To take care of the worst first, we need look no farther than Victor Frankenstein. My initial reaction has been that Victor’s storyline has felt icky all season; he’s basically a dour stalker who wants to domesticate his woman and keeps her belongings as trophies to fondle and obsess over. It even felt icky last season because he took a dead body to make a Creature Bride, then fell in love with her, lied to her (which was bad in itself, but worse when she seemed to fall in love with the lies), and then tried to kill her when she left him for the immortal Dorian (who, coincidentally, is portrayed much more aesthetically and sexually appealing than Victor, for whatever that’s worth). Victor is played as the industrial era GamerGater/MRA type who says, “But, like, I was so nice to her! I even brought her back from the dead and she still won’t do the weird stuff (read: be with me, because wanting to be with me when I’m like this is really really weird).” To top it all off, it seems increasingly as if Jekyll is only around at the moment to facilitate this one extremely backward element in a series that is otherwise a sterling example of progressive sexuality and gender equality, feminism, and gender equality. Indeed, Victor’s perfecting Jekyll’s serum eliminates a a conflict that Jekyll faced in his source novel. What will the character’s conflict be then? I can only hope John Logan and company have something wonderfully devious planned to bring about the emergence of Mr. Hyde.
When I step back objectively, however, and remove my slight boredom and less-slight distaste for Victor’s behavior, I can see that his actions are consistent with the character we’ve been treated to since the beginning. First, Victor has always been a romantic. He has always carried pie-in-the-sky ideals of the relationships he would have with creations, aiming to be first father, an now lover. He’s also had fantasies about the relationship he would have with the world because of them. He believed (at one point, if not still) that he would change the world by conquering death, and the world would love him for it. Second, he’s an addict, and this is completely informing his actions where Lily is concerned. He tells Jekyll that his moments with Lily were “the happiest of my life,” and his storyline is depicting him chasing after that ultimate high. In other words, the love spurs the addictive behavior; consequently, the addictive behavior won’t be able to keep from changing that love in to suffering for Victor, and I fear it is suffering he will experience by Lily’s hand.
I also think Victor’s actions could be a tool to further prove to Lily that her crusade against men is right. Lily’s whole story this season is motivated by the subjugation to men that she experienced in her first life as Brona. Then she died, and owes her resurrection/reinvention to a man who’s hellbent on having her love him—by force, if not by choice. Perhaps with Victor’s gross behavior on full display (we even see in this episode what he’s willing to inflict on other men to achieve his ends) we’ll eventually flip to support Lily’s actions, and more actively root for her as she stakes out her own identity, however murderously, and says, “You cannot have me.”
We’ll just have to wait and see if all this speculation bears out. For the moment, the story merely serves to show that Victor is fully committed to his course.
But alas, an ocean away, Ethan Chandler is not, and while his story is the most compelling this week, involving several key players in the mix, it’s ultimately weakened by the inclusion of Victor’s exploits.
First, Victor’s story damages Ethan’s by taking time from it. Ethan has years of guilt that he bears, and he’s forced to cast it away in a fraction of the time. Hecate surely is a snake charmer if there ever was one, but her ability to change Ethan’s mind so quickly feels far fetched.
However, no matter how abruptly I felt his transition to the Dark Side was portrayed, we did learn one fascinating thing. The myth of Lupus Dei is a myth, like the Cinderella story, shared in the cultural subconscious. We first saw it last season spread across Lyle’s relics, and now it turns up in the Apache’s creation myth. Ethan may be breaking bad, but whether he stays that way or not, his role in the struggle to come is written the world over in prophecy.
An aside, though: Hecate is quickly becoming one of my favorites. In one episode, her character has become so complex—believably complex—through her interactions with Ethan, and I almost want to see what would happen if she teamed up with Lily. We discover that her mother forced her to become a servant of Lucifer, and the forced servitude has made her hate humans. Now, one has the sense she hates her demonic master, but sees in him a means to avenge the innocent version of herself that she lost.
There’s also the snake charming. Hecate’s work, and the moment it crosses Kaetenay’s path, is showstopping.
Finally, thank goodness Victor’s story isn’t any longer this week, or we may not have been able to enjoy the big reveal—Ethan’s father. Brian Cox is simply wonderful, creating a character that is rendered despicable by his racism and the blame he casts on Ethan, yet pitiable for the losses he’s suffered and how immaculately he clings to the past. He ends the episode trying to force Ethan to repent for his sense at gunpoint, but he may be too late: For now, Ethan seems bound for a darker god.