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Penny Dreadful Makes Chump Change

Amid a lot of male violence this week, there's nothing more explosive on Penny Dreadful than its feminism.

There's a LOT going on in this week's Penny Dreadful -- spoilers ahead: three and a half big supporting characters die -- but one of the more interesting things is the continuing emergence of female agency as a major theme in the show. "No Beast So Fierce" lays it on with a heavy hand sometimes -- Catriona Hartdegan, a death expert and master swordsperson, is so modern as to have eye makeup and hair that wouldn't look out of place on Grey's Anatomy -- but there's a lot at work underneath the whole thing. First, though, let's get to the plot stuff.

This week it's goodbye to: Hecate Poole, Jared Talbot, Inspector Rusk, and Marshall Ostow. Oh, and a whole house full of Talbot gunmen. Hello again to: Kaetenay, Ferdinand Lyle (yay!), and Dracula/Dr. Sweet. The various scenes in the Talbot house feel like an extended standoff, and indeed, anytime the establishing shot of the house comes up, you can bet someone's about to get gunned down or stabbed. Meanwhile, a shitload of bad advice leads Vanessa right back into the arms -- and onto the jock -- of Dr. Sweet, who is Dracula. And John Clare visits his dying son, who thinks his dad has returned as an angel, right up until he looks at Dad's scarred face and mid-'90s Canadian rock-hair and begins to scream.

I've expressed before that Victor seems to be an avatar for every frustrated Men's Rights Activist nerd pounding out Reddit posts about all the bitches who won't even look at a nice guy, and this week he seems to come to (I hope) a crossroads of sorts. He heads to Dorian's house with a super-dose of the stuff he and Jekyll have been using to turn madmen into kittens. His plan: break in and jab Lily with it, and then she'll see, THEN she'll see. What he doesn't count on is that at that very moment Lily and Justine are holding a workshop of sorts for the prostitutes of London. The topic? How to make a man bleed. Lily shows Victor mercy by not letting Justine decapitate him, but she also tells him to go the hell away and deal with his shit. She's done being a receptacle of any sort.

So the workshop and the scene with Catriona are the topline stuff, the Text of the show, right? Women not taking shit, women fighting back, etc. But what Penny Dreadful does so well, and how it rises above a lot of lazier genre TV, is support the text with lots of subtext. Think of Ethan and Hecate. His power is actually pretty lame. Once a month or so, at the whim of the fucking moon, he can turn into a beast that he's unable to control. Her power? She can disappear into walls and leap around and summon snakes and generally control any situation she wants. In this western adventure, he's been 100% reliant on Hecate to stay alive.

Similarly, the story of Vanessa Ives for three seasons now has been powerful male creatures who become obsessed with owning and controlling her, only to learn she's always more powerful than they are.

In the case of Lily, we have to question WHY Victor wants to inject Lily: he wants her back, yes, but he wants her on his terms, which means back to being a blank slate, a sweet sex-puppet. She, meanwhile, has a personality. A history. An inner life. Ideas. These things are inconvenient to Victor, as they are to the standard narrative of the romantic comedy or drama.

I've been watching Purple Rain a lot lately, as maybe many people have. And I love the film, for all its goofiness and self-seriousness. But keep your eye on the Apollonia character. When the film starts, you might even think it's her story: she's alone and new in town, she has dreams, and she has to hustle to (literally) get her foot in the door. But about two-thirds of the way through, her story is DONE; she's performed once, singing "Sex Shooter," and it's shamed her in the eyes of The Kid. The next time you see her, she's crying tears of happiness and catharsis for The Kid because by playing "Purple Rain," he's managed to overcome his inner demons and play something people could connect to. Then that's it for her. And you think: THIS is why she came to Minneapolis?!

Lily's supposed to keep editing herself for whomever she's with, whether it's the clingy, suffocating Victor or the supposed-free-spirit Dorian. But neither of them seems super-comfortable with her becoming who she wants to be. And indeed, it's not a stretch to imagine Dorian and Victor plotting, later in the season, to inject the submission-serum into Lily. I hope if they do, she rips their arms off.

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