The fourth episode of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, titled “Demimonde,” feels like an improvement over the past episodes of the show in every way. It’s extremely sexy, scary and compelling television, complete with some extremely intriguing plot developments and character progressions that make me excited to see how Penny Dreadful‘s second half (for Showtime only ordered eight episodes for the show’s first season) continues the story.
True to its name, “Demimonde” expands our knowledge of the supernatural underworld growing in Victorian London. Most excitingly, this episode holds our first look at the horrific Master served by vampire Fenton, the one whom it was hinted had found Sir Malcolm’s mansion at the end of the last episode (but more on that later).
First, we get to see one of the eerie, drug-fueled orgies overseen by resident bachelor Dorian Gray. He lounges on one of his many fine chaises, surrounded by partygoers in various states of undress, watching as others engage in a variety of sexual acts throughout his living room. It’s a scene that proves Penny Dreadful to be a worthy addition to Showtime’s risque library. The look of disinterest on Dorian’s face suggests that, though he’s the king of parties such as these, he longs for a human connection outside of a purely physical one. Above all, he’s a desperately lonely man, pained beyond belief by his austere, refined surroundings (Reeve Carney’s expressive features do a terrific job of communicating this without a single word). After the partygoers leave, he walks over to a painting on his wall (a portrait of a blonde woman) and pushes on it to reveal a secret passageway. Descending down the dark hallway behind the portrait, Dorian walks around what appears to be another antique portrait, which we only see from behind. Clearly mesmerized by what he sees, Dorian takes a seat and looks on. Cue opening credits. I’m sure we’ll see what Dorian’s portrait looks like soon enough, but that tease still got me riled up. After all, Dorian is still one of the most mysterious parts of Penny Dreadful.
We next see Vanessa, sitting on a bench outside a Catholic church. A precocious little girl sidles up beside her and asks why she won’t go in. Vanessa clearly has an answer to that question, but she smiles slyly and asks the girl why she thinks that Vanessa even wants to. Their conversation quickly turns to the death of the girl’s mother, a fact she’s somewhat proud her father felt her old enough to confide to her. “We put mother into the ground, but I don’t think she’ll stay there,” the girl says, unnerving Vanessa. Of course, the girl means heaven – or “the other place,” but Vanessa is disturbed all the same.
She spots Dorian and follows him to a garden, where he is carefully caressing flowers, enamored with their life. She took an interest in Dorian back in “Séance” and it’s clear that he still holds a great attraction for her. And why shouldn’t he? Vanessa has shown repeatedly that she has a strong interest in broken creatures, from Sir Malcolm to Ethan Chandler, and the death-obsessed playboy fits neatly into that category. Together, they examine a beautiful plant, one which Vanessa finds quite alluring. “Touch me, with your finger, softly, my scent on your neck. Open your lips, taste,” is how she describes to Dorian what the plant says to her. He smiles. “Deadly nightshade,” he notes. She feigns shock, but the identification doesn’t seem to phase her too greatly. After all, it’s highly appropriate for two people who seem bent on testing the fabric between life and death. They look at a rare orchid from Borneo, one which spends decades in development to bloom only for a moment. “Is it poisonous?” Vanessa asks. “Like all beautiful things, I hope so,” Dorian replies with a grin. He soon departs, leaving a deeply aroused Vanessa behind. It’s as if Dorian has a drug-like effect on her.
Meanwhile, Victor is analyzing the blood taken from Fenton with the help of a new addition, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (David Warner). The blood exhibits several rare qualities, according to Van Helsing. Most intriguingly, it contains a unique property (Hannah’s wink, after Van Helsing’s late wife, considering he discovered the procedure which makes it visible), which prevents coagulation. That would assist with hematophagy, he says – “the eating of blood.” Victor isn’t entirely surprised by this development, given Fenton’s bloodlust, but he’s curious about how much Van Helsing knows.
When asked, the professor tells Victor, “Sir Malcolm is looking for a cure for something he doesn’t understand.” “Do you?” Victor asks. “Intimately,” Van Helsing replies. And anyone who read Bram Stoker’s Dracula will appreciate just how truthful an answer that is. There’s nothing of the Ancient Egyptian forces behind the vampires discussed in this episode, but it’s exciting to see Dracula’s most formidable foe introduced at this stage. A showdown between Sir Malcolm’s band of misfits and the vampiric forces in London is inevitable, and I’ll be shocked if Van Helsing isn’t involved.
While studying with Van Helsing, Victor spies Caliban out on the street, watching him. When he confronts his creation, the message is one we’ve heard before. Caliban wants a beautiful mate, as soon as possible. Like Dorian, he’s growing weary of his existence, but he feels that Victor has the know-how to make him happy. “Do not temporize, demon!” Caliban says. “Be at it! My bride must, must be beautiful,” he says. “To match her mate?” Victor sneers. Not a smart move, but he can’t resist the urge to poke fun at his hideous creation. After Caliban’s usual threats to snap Victor’s neck and leave him in the gutter, he makes his exit, leaving Victor to shake his head at the unfortunate situation in which he’s found himself.