Now that's a horror story about a coven of witches. After a successful premiere season that defied what was expected out of the concept behind Penny Dreadful -- drawing together famous figures from disparate pieces of gothic literature into a singular setting -- it'd be understandable to grow concerned about how writer/creator John Logan might up the ante in the second year, perhaps with more recognizable figures and overclocked gore or other provocative grotesqueries. Rather shockingly so, Logan instead branches off from those previous triumphs and restricts the focus in the follow-up season to past demons, recognizable emerging antagonists, and the continued descent into the mazes of its fraught characters' minds. Staying true to the serial novels that inspired its title, the narrative of Penny Dreadful seamlessly bleeds over into these newer, darker escapades of Vanessa Ives and her cadre of idiosyncratic allies, while also betraying that lineage by again conjuring equal measures of sophistication and sensationalism within.
Early on, it was teased that the "familiar face" of an antagonist would render a stronger supernatural threat and delve further into the series' cosmology, something that's quickly confirmed in the season premiere, "Fresh Hell". Some time not too long after Ms. Ives (Eva Green) fended off the demons that had occupied her body last season, she endures a rush of volatile occult imagery manifested by Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), whom viewers will remember as Madame Kali, the mystic whose seance awoke the cursed elements deep within Vanessa. Unsurprisingly, the devil wasn't done with her after all, now commanding a coven of beautiful, transformative witches whom obey that evil bidding and strive to gain control of Ms. Ives. Despite their enduring dedication, her associates aren't as stable as they were previously: Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) grieves the death of his daughter and wrestles with his marriage; Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) comes to grips with the repercussions of his impromptu beastly attack at a tavern; and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) works to resurrect a female body, that of Brona (Billie Piper), as an undying companion for his previous scorned creation, the creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), who's found an eerily fitting form of new employment for himself.
Continuing the exceptional production values that crafted such an atmospheric, macabre take out of its amalgamation of Victorian London, Penny Dreadful casts its spells within a plot that carefully toes the line between rehashed narrative threads and consistent, cumulative storytelling. The dank confines of Victor's laboratory, the angular rusticity of Sir Malcolm's residence, and the haze of the city's ominous streets muster their familiar dark and unsettling sensations. Yet, the story's trajectories also take us into unfamiliar territory, into a hostile corner of the countryside and, notably, throughout the gargoyle-laden halls of the witches' striking house of horrors, where glyph-adorned tomes and eerie wooden fetish dolls tap into a richer occult ambiance. Vanessa's extended resistance against demonic forces might appear similar on paper, but the manner in which Penny Dreadful fleshes out the coven's clandestine methods and their jittery murderous impulses, within the walls of locations both old and new, rarely feels like something we've endured before.
One of the unexpected highpoints of last season emerged within a flashback episode, "Closer Than Sisters", that deepened the tumultuous nature of Vanessa Ives' character, so it's not as much of a surprise that this year's glimpse into the past, "The Nightcomers", manifests into something similar. This time, John Logan offers a glimpse into the origin story of Vanessa as a witch, evoking relevant information about how she developed her gifts and a good chunk of the reason behind why she's so desired by the underworld. It's the kind of story that could've been summed up in a three-minute burst of exposition over a conversation, but Penny Dreadful grasps the opportunity and ends up spinning one of the better witch yarns committed to film. Centered on her time at a ramshackle hut with a cantankerous old herbalist and midwife who's scorned by the locals, the episode reaches deep into the substance of Vanessa's craft, the religious lines blurred and the harsh pragmatism involved with the practice. Had thirty minutes of past and present events been stitched onto each side, the production polish, grim tone, and blistering performances could've stood alone as their own harsh, soul-searching motion picture.
Hard to deny that Penny Dreadful continues to thrive because of those enigmas and burgeoning powers buried within Vanessa Ives, where Eva Green's seductively raspy voice, mysterious eyes, and melancholy compassion cloak the supernatural psychosis ever plaguing her character. Yet, instead of bringing new entities from other works into the fold, writer/creator John Logan further elaborates on his established characters and their secretive, damaged attributes, elevating them closer to the surface alongside Ms. Ives. The shades of murder-mystery involved with Ethan Chandler's werewolf massacre draw out some exceptionally pensive traits from Josh Hartnett, whose strained efforts to cope with his curse -- coupled with his growing camaraderie with Malcolm's manservant and guardian, Sembene (a fantastically stoic Danny Sapani) -- form into a kindred spirit to Vanessa, complimenting her anguish while enduring her trials. An even bigger shift comes in Victor Frankenstein, who copes with crippling emotions after reanimating a (gorgeous) woman as compensation for his wrongdoings to Caliban, unsure of how to handle her reeducation and his protectiveness over her.
Penny Dreadful relishes that drama created by its gothic elements, never shying away from lengthy macabre dialogue that commands the tempo or from little flickers of comedic relief that force their way into situations, especially when these characters attempt to go about normal lives under false pretenses. This season, the show also tries to incorporate some contemporary hot topics into the writing for added thematic weight. Some of it works splendidly, such as tying abortions to the stigmas of witchcraft and introducing the unnecessary, taxing pains of corsets to an undead woman with no social awareness. Others falter, chiefly the diversion of Dorian Gray's relationship with transgender woman Angelique. A lack of connective tissue with the central narratives and overt conversations about embracing who people want to be feels anachronistic in its place among everything else, inadequately justified by Dorian's hedonistic acceptance of all that's different and underscored by a rather vivid sex scene. There's a nod to Oscar Wilde involved with it all and the committed chemistry between Reeve Carney and Jonny Beauchamp is to be commended, but its inclusion -- coupled with its abrupt and callous outcome -- struggles to integrate with the series' occultist temperament.
As the tension escalates every time the machinations of Evelyn Poole -- and her daughters -- click into place, the threat of the demonic coven casts an ominous shadow over everything in this second season of Penny Dreadful, mostly realizing the potential behind this more rampant and devious villain. John Logan's bracing finale again seems obligated to rush towards tying up loose ends, but it mounts into this entrancing and raucous climax that cleverly tests the constitutions of just about every central character involved, trumping some lapses in common sense with the weighty, lurid tricks waiting around every corner. This time, however, plenty of time is also allotted at the end to rear back on the tempo and concentrate on the overpoweringly downhearted resolutions to the character arcs, while also setting up yet another familiar face as the potential -- likely -- villain in the forthcoming season. In a way, it's somewhat hard to imagine the series progressing forward any more once the lights go out and the fire flickers down here, but there's far too much potential for further chronicles of these tormented souls to stop now.
Penny Dreadful: The Complete Second Season arrives from Showtime and Paramount Home Video in a standard three-disc tray case, sporting minimal, slate gothic-inspired artwork on the front and back and blue-topped discs. The inner artwork again serves as an episode guide. Disc One and Disc Two are dedicated solely to episodes, containing four a piece, while Disc Three contains two episodes and the meager slate of extra features. No digital copy slip or booklet comes with the set, only a promotional slip for Showtime.
Video and Audio:
Those who sank their teeth into Penny Dreadful's Blu-ray presentation last year will discover a very similar flavor in this arrangement of fine 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfers. The visuals are beautifully, yet unpretentiously complex, lurking in hefty shadows and hazy Victorian interiors that are as likely to obscure details with hearty, grainy lighting as they are to coax impressive detail in faint sunlight. Fine clarity emerges in many close-ups, elegantly presenting the notches in Sembene's cheeks and in the fabricated details of the witches' dolls. The sheen of metallic objects and the natural textures of wood, stone, bone, and aged iron are delicate yet pronounced. Daytime sequences yield the strongest traditional high-definition clarity, ever restraining the rightly pale skin tones but also projecting impressive depth and striking motion. Darker, brooding scenes in the witches' haven are no slouch either, though, especially when peering upon the clean contours of the archways and the curves of the gargoyles. It's a test for a panel's uniformity and contrast balance, that's for sure, and there are certainly some overly dim scenes and black levels that are tough on details, but Paramount handles the tricky visual tempo with integrity.
Paramount continues to gallop along with their preference for Dolby TrueHD, encapsulating the distinct and gloomy mood of the series within a sharp collection of 5.1 tracks. As harped upon in the review, ambiance plays a crucial role throughout the season, from the mystical essence swirling around within interiors to the earthy rattles and claps of a carriage and the wisps of wind across the countryside. The surround channels are handled with grace, whether it's this atmosphere or the music, sprawling out for clear, immersive heft without blatant exploitation of the channels ... unless the scene demands it, such as during a ball and when ghostly internalized voices occupy characters' minds. Gunshots, the sizzle of brands and the flicker of fire, the slams of iron doors and the hiss of transformed witches offer countless assertive sonic elements that project striking clarity. Dialogue maintains a satisfying and environment-aware cadence, though some scenes have more midrange heft than others, while a small fistful of more active scene cope with a bit of source-limitation huskiness . A Spanish 2.0 track is also available, while only English SDH subtitles can be selected.
Similarly to the previous season (without tacked-on promo episodes from another show), Penny Dreadful arrives with a rather slim collection of extras, lacking any audio commentaries and mostly relying on Video Production Blogs -- all available online -- for substance. All of these are brisk, general 2-3 minute installments, but underneath the quickness lies a whole lot of relevant behind-the-scenes shots and concise commentary from John Logan and his cast/crew. Welcome Back (2:57, 16x9 HD) largely covers the production work put into constructing a glorious new set for London, with sped-up before and after footage; Choreography (2:43, 16x9 HD) touches on the general dancing aspects of the season's ball, while The Blood Ball (2:27, 16x9 HD) reveals the production cleverness and green-screen work involved in its aftermath; Brona Becomes Lily (2:32, 16x9 HD) follows Billie Piper into the makeup room for her transformation; Waxworks Museum (2:40, 16x9 HD) elaborates on the sections of the gallery and the physical extras used; and Werewolf Prosthetics (1:52, 16x9 HD) is pretty self explanatory.
The longest feature involves a Q&A session called Dreadfuls Roundtable with Reeve Carney (7:47, 16x9 HD) that was recorded before this season aired, where a collection of eclectic fans of the show, Dreadfuls, have their minds probed in an intimate setting by the actor behind Dorian Gray, inquiring about how they describe the show, what characters they relate to, and what they expect next. Paramount have also included a History of the Occult featurette (2:06, 16x9), which rapidly touches on significant points between the period of Ancient Greece (100 BCE) to the modern-era in 2008 in a graphical animated slideshow, as well as a series of Character Profiles.
It's a tough call since they're both on about the same plane of narrative evolution, performance value, and sophisticated production, but Penny Dreadful: The Complete Second Season might just edge out the previous year, and it's because the show's creative base elevated what's there instead of revamping it. Despite a few nagging stumbles, this season's dazzling highpoints and unyielding gloomy atmosphere do their damndest to enrich the tortured characters instead of relying on the shock value of gore and ghoulishness, staying true to its core strengths as a gothic study of characters whose lives are complicated by horror elements. The pace is tense and moody throughout, the scheming of the powerful antagonist boasts a clever vein of mystery, and the lurid nature of its plot threads -- murderous witches with powerful control and illusion abilities, the culpability of werewolf murders, reanimating corpses for companionship -- make for splendidly intimate drama alongside the exaggerated shock value. Paramount's Blu-ray looks and sounds quite appropriate to the series' aesthetic demands, though sporting a thin but ultimately rewarding and enjoyable cluster of extras. Highly Recommended.