The title of this episode, Demimonde, is a term that frequently crops up in Penny Dreadful, and it’s one that’s important if you wish to grasp the premise of the series. For one, the word defines what it is to be hedonistic and implies promiscuity. Demimonde is also a French term translated as ‘half-world’, which is of course what the show is essentially about – a divide between the natural and the supernatural, dark and light, good and evil. You get the picture.
Speaking of pictures, Demimonde opens to the home, or rather the art gallery, of Dorian Gray. At his home is a group of people casually having an orgy, and Dorian observes as if this pastime is a regular occurrence. And that is literally all he does, observe. His vanity and hedonism is more curious than simply a sexual drive. He watches those who partake in a purely platonic way, like a doctor examining a patient – more fascinated with the intricacy or beauty of the anatomy than its erotic pleasures.
This is explored further in the following scene when Vanessa engages with Dorian while he expresses his infatuation with plants and flowers. The message of beauty and vanity is as strong here as the scent of deadly nightshade, if Vanessa’s vivid description of the purple flower is accurate. And this is the essence of that message; something so pretty can in fact be poisonous.
The episode continues with its unconventional methods of teaching biology when Van Helsing is introduced as the haematologist Malcolm consulted to help Victor research the vampire blood samples. The two scientists bring a real sense of authenticity to such a supernatural story. Words such as ‘hematophagy’ make you forget you’re even watching fantasy for a moment. Yeah, science! They try and cure the vampire held captive since last week’s episode by a blood transfusion, needless to say it doesn’t work. The vampire throws aside an apple given to him by Vanessa as a test to see if he is cured, in favour of something a bit more meaty (a poor black alley cat…pet-lovers be warned!). Also noteworthy is the specific use of an apple over any other food, a fruit that has many good and evil connotations as the forbidden fruit from Genesis.
The episode’s theatrical final third finishes rather fittingly inside a theatre, where Ethan takes Brona on a date and, of course, Frankenstein’s monster works. Showing that night is a stage play about a werewolf – a hint at what ghoulish things are yet to come for this gothic series. The surprise of the episode came from Ethan’s shared hedonism with Dorian. After a misunderstood Brona storms off and leaves Ethan with a slapped face at the theatre, Dorian picks up the pieces and after a few drinks, well, let’s just say things get a little intense.
Demimonde is probably the show’s best episode so far. By developing the characters and their narratives, it answers some of the series’ most important questions so far, as well as opening up the show to many more ideas. The intricacy and attention to detail never falters and every action or word impacts the story in some significant way, or at least helps the series move forward in style.