Jonathan Hession / Showtime

Penny Dreadful Takes You To Church

A single, simple scene takes Penny Dreadful forward by leaps and bounds (and stabs!).

After the claustrophobia of Vanessa's padded room last week, the widescreen panorama of American desert in "This World Is Our Hell" is pure relief. Also a relief: the cleaning-up of Victor Frankenstein. Because here's the thing about drug addicts: their stories are always fascinating in hindsight, or in glimpses; but as ongoing characters, they are passive and repetitive and therefore dull as mud. Luckily, Victor plays the smallest of parts in "The World Is Our Hell," and luckily he seems to have cleaned himself up, for now. But the real focus of this episode is the passel of events surrounding Ethan Talbot/Chandler, and in particular the climactic scene in the Talbot family chapel.

It's hard to tell if this very blue-lit scene is so exciting because it's well-written, or because we've been waiting for it (without knowing its exact shape or location) for two seasons now, or because Brian Cox is such an amazing actor. Even if it's that middle option, and even if it's a kind of relief we feel for finally knowing the details of what created the moody, guilt-ridden bastard we know as Ethan Chandler, it's still a great scene.

However, it's the last scene in this week's episode, so let me back up and give context. Rusk and Ostow, new posse in tow, are in pursuit of Ethan and Hecate, across the dry New Mexican desert. Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay are just behind the Rusk/Ostow Concern, trying to find a good time to pass the gang and get to Ethan and Hecate first. Kaetenay knows Ethan will want to kill him as soon as he sees him, but he's determined to save Ethan from the grip of Evil.

However, Kaetenay's probably too late, because he's partly responsible for Ethan's fragile state. And here we get the whole damn story, finally. Ethan joined the cavalry, to please his father, and was part of the government-sanctioned campaign to slaughter Native tribes and push the survivors as far west as possible. Ethan, after a brutal first killing, murdered his sadistic commanding officer, the senator's son we heard about earlier this season. Ethan then went to the Apache tribe of the family he'd just killed and offered up his own scalp as penance. As it turns out, this was Kaetenay's tribe, and he took Ethan on as a weapon against the U.S. military. Time went on, and Ethan became a true part of the tribe. Then, one night, Ethan led Kaetenay's dwindling group to the Talbot ranch, thinking they were just going to steal horses and guns.

We get this story in pieces, from Ethan and Kaetenay, as they each tell it to their respective traveling companions. The final piece of the mystery is revealed in the chapel, where Papa Talbot has led Ethan to atone for what he's done. And what he's done, it turns out, is pretty bad: instead of merely stealing those horses and guns, Kaetenay's raiding party killed ten of Talbot's men -- and then Kaetenay himself turned his knife on Ethan's mother and siblings.

Part of what's great about the scene is that we don't see any of the carnage. The power of the images comes from John Lodge's script, and from Brian Cox's delivery. It's a merciful touch for a show not usually given to visual restraint. This also makes it a good dramatic choice: instead of being distracted and repulsed by onscreen action, we're allowed to imagine it for ourselves -- and to see the effect it's had on Mr. Talbot. As monstrous as he's been made out over these many episodes, we can suddenly see some of what's made him that way. Likewise, the lack of visuals softens Kaetenay's involvement; while there's no way he doesn't sound monstrous in the telling, Penny Dreadful still needs us to empathize with him.

"This World Is Our Hell" isn't just a structural departure from the bottle episode; it's also a giant leap forward for Ethan's character, while last week's was more of the usual for Vanessa. Here's hoping Season 3 continues moving onward and upward.

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