So We Walk Alone
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland Lord Alfred Tennyson died on the 6th of October in the year 1892. The great poet and playwright of the nineteenth century remains one of the most widely read and popular poets of all time and the power of his words remains such that some of his verbiage has become, yes, clichéd. The words “Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all” are all too familiar to the modern ear, even if their source, as Lyle puts it, “He who dined with Coleridge and walked with Wordsworth, our great poetic link to ages gone” may not be. That famed phrase of verbiage arose out of an 1849 poem entitled “In Memoriam A. H. H.”, the three letters in remembrance of Lord Tennyson’s close Cambridge compatriot Arthur Henry Hallam. Hallam passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1833 in Vienna. The loss of someone so close to him gave the poem its impetus for birth, for the exploration of what it meant to navigate through the wallowing corridors of grief. But the suddenness of Hallam’s passing added even greater depth to Tennyson’s confession of his grief. A seismic shift had opened up without any warning underneath his feet, as these things tend to do and that suddenness gave a shock to his grief that penetrated every verse. The poem itself arrived approximately seventeen years after the passing of his close friend and in those seventeen years, Tennyson’s grief made its way from his being into the annals of Victorian society, encroaching upon the madness of the times, the materialism of the world, the ascendancy of science, and the tenuous relationship with faith. It’s a poem that suits the world of Penny Dreadful quite a bit, a perfect embodiment of the struggles this Gothic masterpiece puts its characters through. The “previously on” segment concludes with the words “So we walk alone” from Vanessa and it’s hard not to see that loneliness, that isolation that seeps through Tennyson’s words echoed throughout the brilliant season opener.
The Day Tennyson Died is the strongest season opener yet for Penny Dreadful, made all the more remarkable by how utterly scattered its characters have become. The writing is sharply strung together from one sequence to the next, where the episode never feels bogged down in exposition or potential clunkiness from a disparate narrative. It’s perhaps the strength of the themes of isolation, despair, and finding some hope from grief that carry so effortlessly from one sequence to the next. It helps significantly that the world of Penny Dreadful is so intricately, wonderful crafted, immersive from the set design to the period costumes to Abel Korzeniowski’s stirring, haunting music. The Day Tennyson Died may very well be one of the most beautifully constructed and shot episodes in television history, a note that may be lost because of the episode’s status as a season opener. The production design is astoundingly gorgeous, the art and style coming together scrumptiously as the story moves beyond the walls of nineteenth-century London to the docks of Zanzibar and the seemingly empty plains of the New Mexico territory. The cinematography is astoundingly gorgeous, rivaling the work of fellow prestige period pieces Game of Thrones and Outlander. The shots of Vanessa and Dr. Sweet in the museum from above, Caliban’s ship stuck in the Arctic ice, and the opening shot of Zanzibar’s coastline come to mind as especially eerie, exquisite displays of top-notch craftsmanship. There’s a consistency in the mood within Penny Dreadful and that mood evokes an aura of awe and subtle terror in equal measure; that achievement surely achieved with the production and cinematography as two of its most vital instruments. Those acute shot compositions also key into the thematic constructs of the hour in the subtlest of ways, that aforementioned balance in awe and terror deepened by the senses of absolute isolation, of trying to find some semblance of hope going forward.
The opening shot of the episode is of a dusty staircase leading to what seems like nowhere. The ornate beauty surrounding it had faded away into a pathway for dusty cobwebs, opening up into a garden for gargantuan amounts of dust. Abel’’s stirring, forlorn music stirs up the gargantuan feelings of despair and loneliness permeating through every frame as we find a forlorn Vanessa Ives alone in that mammoth of a manor. All signs of life have seemingly been extinguished and even Vanessa has a visage that shows all the signs of having lost any true semblance of hope for the future. A pile of letters simply slips through her door, piling onto the ground like a plethora of correspondence that would simply waste into the wind. Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door but Vanessa isn’t interested. It’s just someone else who wants something from her at a time when she simply doesn’t have the capacity to give anyone anything at all. It turns out to be Lyle at the door, the kind Egyptologist who doesn’t ask anything from Vanessa but only offers support. Vanessa gives a slight smile and Eva Green’s performance transcends the screen, her smile revealing the depth of time in which she hadn’t seen that emotional expression cross her visage. He suggests a psychiatrist for Vanessa, a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Seward (a neat reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Dr. Seward is a sharp woman, played to icy perfection by Patti LuPone. The ancestral connection to the Cut-Wife was a nice touch to address the casting and Dr. Seward’s facial resemblance to Vanessa’s mentor even manages to relax her for the therapy session. The session itself is fantastic, sharply written to address how acutely the writers understand Vanessa as a character. When she turns the tables on Dr. Seward, there’s a quiet undercurrent of triumph that is astounding in its execution. Before she leaves, however, Dr. Seward gives her a challenge: that she break her pattern of isolation and repression; that she do something she had never done before. Vanessa breaks that pattern by visiting a naturalist museum, surrounding herself with the acquisition of knowledge she holds in such high esteem. She gravitates towards the scorpions, of course, where she happens to meet the acquaintance of zoologist Dr. Alexander Sweet. There’s an immediate spark and his profession of his acute love for what he does is so undeniably passionate it permeates through eery single aspect of his being. Vanessa’s smile broadens as if after forever and her seeing Dr. Sweet’s convivial energy jolts a bit of inspiration back into her own life. She begins to clean, to decorate, and even writes back to Sir Malcolm with the truth. The episode’s end portends terrible news for her, but for now it’s great to see Vanessa with even the slightest of springs in her step after so long.
The same can’t really be said for anyone else, save perhaps Victor but the spring there is laden with so much darkened undercurrents it’s difficult to see it as a massive improvement in station for him. His repressive from his complete buckling is his dear old friend Dr. Jekyll, who receives an expected racist welcome before finding his compatriot drowning in misery. Dr. Jekyll seems remarkably well put-together, with a calm and studious demeanor. Being an outcast from the onset because of the color of his skin, he notes that he had learned to bottle his anger. It’s a restrained, subtle performance from Shazad Latif, but when he whispers about restraining, domesticating Lily, that bottled up fury simmers through, an enticing look at the Mr. Hyde that is sure to come. Sir Malcolm is whittling away slowly in Zanzibar, a shadow of his former self before he’s set upon. He survives thanks to the efforts of Kaetenay, a man who notes that he is a father figure to Ethan. Ethan needs the two father figures from his life and it looks like the two are going to be whisking away to the New Mexico territory. Speaking of the territory, Ethan gets released from his prison train in a brilliantly shot (pun intended) bloody shootout but his officers and Hecate are on the run after him, which bodes little well. Caliban sets out on a journey of self-discovery, making a heartbreaking decision right before he does so. He imagines him with a family of his own and a face that was normal but even if he may never have that, he can absolutely find something else. The creepy terror factor is something Penny Dreadful has always excelled at and the quiet introduction of this season’s big bad is absolutely terrifying. Dr. Seward’s secretary Renfield (another callback to Stoker’s Dracula) arrives in Chinatown, looking for cheap prostitutes he could buy from the money stolen from his employer. What everyone may end up finding, however, is a terrifying being whose whispers alone are enough to send shivers down the spine, who takes about one singular second to ask for Renfield’s neck, his blood, and his eyes and ears on one Vanessa Ives. Dracula’s home.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives. It belongs to no other.”
+That astounding overhead shot of the train making its way across New Mexico
+“I’ve never seen so much nothing.”
+“You would not harm a defenseless female?” Hecate has a great sense of humor.
+Sembene buried in the mountains from where he had come
+“For slavery in all but name.”
+“The land is tainted now, beyond repair.”
+“Hasten the end.”
+Caliban imagines himself as a normal looking man
+“It is not what it was. But then, what is, Sir Malcolm?”
+“He who is almost my son.”
+The shot of the steamboats
+“We don’t need any fucking n*****s in here. Back to Calcutta with all of you, I say!”
+Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein, the conquering heroes of death
+“Love, work, and narcotics.”
+“I’ve conquered death. And created monsters.”
+“The recitation of your nightly victims.”
+“The blood… the blood” Holy cow, that was creepy.
+“If only we would stop and look and wonder.”
+“The unloved ones. The unvisited ones. … All the broken and shunned creatures.”
+“I would pray for him. But that’s gone from me now. … I have left my faith. Or it has left me.”
+“London has gone into mourning. It’s a city of tears.”
+/- Kaetenay is played by the great Wes Studi and it is honestly wonderful to see diversity in spades in a period piece where they don’t have to do so. The scalping scene, however, was a bit on the wire and the show ought to take care not to trip over it.
Episode Title: The Day Tennyson Died
Written by: John Logan
Directed by: Damon Thomas
Image Courtesy: Fanpop