Penny Dreadful is gorgeously gothic, bloody, strange, literary, and occasionally messy. Each week, we break it down. Let’s dive into Season 3, episode 5: “This World Is Our Hell.”
“Such guilt you carry. The shame, it hangs around your neck.”
This episode does for Ethan what “Nightcomers” and “A Blade of Grass” did for Vanessa: it puts him front and center and takes a deep-dive into his backstory.
At last, we find out what’s behind his complicated relationship with both father figures — Kaetenay (Wes Studi), his Apache father, and Jared Talbot (Brian Cox), his biological father. In order to make him a man, Jared sent him off to the army. Serving under the command of a senator’s sadistic son, he brutally murdered a tribe of innocent Apaches. Wracked with guilt afterward, he killed his commanding officer and surrendered to the Apaches, ready to die. Instead, as we learn from Kaetenay, they enlisted him to fight the same army he had once served. Eventually, Ethan was embraced as one of them — though this backfired when he inadvertently gave them information that led to the slaughter of his brother, sister, and mother.
It’s a lot to take in, and it would be better served over several episodes like Vanessa’s, instead of dumped into this one. Nevertheless, it’s a reveal that’s been a long time coming, and it would be a lie to say it isn’t satisfying. I had some concerns about Kaetenay’s place in the story before, but he’s finally gelling here.
Ethan’s two best scenes are his distraught fireside confession to Hecate — some of Hartnett’s best work, as he says in a hoarse whisper, “The first one I killed, she was just standing there. I kept waiting for her to run” — and his scene with his father.
Jared Talbot is obviously not a good man. He’s racist, classist, and ready to kill his own son. But as we also come to learn, the issue isn’t a black and white one: He watched the Apache brutally murder his family. He’s got a few screws loose because of it (“I left everything as it was,” he says, bringing Ethan to the scene of the crime), but in many ways, he’s no more monstrous than his son. Both have soaked in the blood of their experiences and absorbed them.
Ethan’s scenes with Hecate are slightly more dubious. It’s still unclear what she’s doing in his story other than acting as a sounding board so Ethan has a scene partner, and his attachment to her is too abrupt to feel earned.
In a show that specializes in transgressive sex, their scene was the most ridiculous of all. Not because of how it was executed — it was far more tame and conventional than Penny Dreadful’s usual fare like Vanessa and Dorian’s Season 1 blood play or Dorian and Lily’s recent murder orgy, or even Victor and Lily’s scene in Season 2, which was colored by Oedipal and necrophiliac undertones. It was iffy because, for the first time, it felt like Penny Dreadful was throwing in a sex scene just because a male character and a female character were in a room together and not because it had anything to say. Nevertheless, now that Ethan and Sir Malcolm are finally together and Ethan is off his self-imposed leash, the Wild West is looking intriguingly wilder.
“After all, it is our memories that make us monsters, is it not?”
In many regards, Ethan and Victor Frankenstein are both Sir Malcolm’s adopted pseudo-sons. As the brawny gunslinger with charm to spare, Ethan has always been the favorite — a fact that pale, intense, socially awkward Victor is keenly aware of. It’s appropriate, then, for Victor to be the only other character appearing in an Ethan-centric episode. Like Ethan, he’s becoming unhinged, having emotional moments with Lily’s clothes and rashly rushing into personality-altering experiments.
The reveal that his procedure tames madmen into docile upstanding members of society with blank-slate memories and personalities is an ominous one, indeed. Frankenstein and Jekyll’s story can’t be going anywhere good, but it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
“We are not the same”
Sir Malcolm and Ethan’s father are, in many ways, mirror images. I wish the show trusted the viewer enough to not literally spell that out (Jared: “It is like looking in a mirror. Sir Malcolm: “We are not the same”), but their confrontation is still a powerful scene. Jared is the man Sir Malcolm could have been. He boasts of mountains being named after him and Sir Malcolm asks, “but at what cost” but what was Sir Malcolm’s goal as an explorer? It takes a certain amount of entitlement and hubris for both men to have set off on their original paths.
It’s the nature of their misfortunes that’s sent each man on a different path: Sir Malcolm lost his daughter to supernatural monsters and is thus forced to look beneath the surface in life, while Jared lost his to very human monsters and remains fixated on revenge with blinders on.
- 5 episodes in. Still an egregious lack of Ferdinand Lyle.
- Hecate’s mortality is bewildering— we’ve plainly seen that she can transform herself into a vampire-looking creature, and her witchy powers enable her to call on Lucifer and control animals…but she’s susceptible to dehydration?
- Ethan: “What the fuck are you doing here?” Sir Malcolm: “I never know where I’ll turn up.”
- Jared Talbot: “I think I’ll lead the conversation if that’s alright.”
- No Lily for two episodes in a row means Penny Dreadful better deliver a Lily-centric hour soon.