Recently, Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s marvelously dark and twisted paean to all things Victorian and bloody, ended after three seasons. EDIT: There seems to be disagreement among fans about why the show was cancelled, but some accounts I’ve read indicate that the creator, John Logan, intended for the show to span three seasons, and wrote it thus. This may not be the case. However it came to an end, the strange discordant ending and loose plot threads left many fans unsatisfied. It felt like a beautiful dream that ended just before the best part, and all I have now is sweaty just-woken confusion and an irate UPS person banging on my door.
For all that the end was unsatisfying (I’ve already written 4 fan fictions in two weeks with my preferred resolutions, because I had opinions), I still adore it. Today’s entry is going to sing the praises of Penny Dreadful, with a minimum of discontented grumblings. After all, it got so many things right!
This post will include spoilers. You have been warned!
Please, enter the Demimonde!
For an earlier write-up I did on Penny Dreadful, please go here. In a weird twist, it was almost ONE YEAR AGO to the day that I wrote that entry. Quelle coincidence!
Of Thee, I Sing!
At its best, the show had sharp characterizations, beautiful production, fantastic writing, and didn’t shy from horrific or challenging subject matter, be it supernatural or human in origin. Vampires and witches rubbed shoulders with monstrous and corrupt human characters, such as the loathsome Sir Jeffrey, or Warren Roper (referred to in Tv.com write-ups as ‘Barf Maul’). For an example of the human-driven horror, look no further than the story of Brona Croft, the Irish prostitute played by Billie Piper who had been brutalized by almost every man she met, only to see her baby die of exposure; or the daily racism that the English/Indian Henry Jekyll encounters just walking down the street. Angelique also lived on a lower rung of society, working as a prostitute ill-used by her johns.
Another masterful turn was how the show could contain so many characters, each so compelling in their own way that it is impossible to pick a favorite.
Victor Frankenstein’s fear of mortality and its bodily horrors caused him to throw himself into his work and ignore much of life. After Lily rebelled and his work became his nightmare, he fell into an addiction to narcotics to dull the pain, until Henry reinvigorated him. Yet Frankenstein was a genuinely earnest character who wanted to heal others, and was not incapable of change, as we saw when he really began to care for Lily. He accepts Lyle’s Judaism without question, and his tense friendship with Henry Jekyll is based on their shared outsider status as well as their passion for scientific discovery. Frankenstein’s sharp wit was always a welcome addition to any of the tense, dramatic moments. The frenetic energy of the laboratory scene in season two was as masterful in its presentation of a classic Frankenstein reanimation scene as any cinematic one of the last ninety years.
Ethan Chandler is an American on the run, and a shrewd judge of character and situations. His reading of Hecate Poole in the second season was one of the best moments of the show, even if he mistook her for a Pinkerton. He is intelligent and capable, but is still challenged by his lack of understanding of the supernatural forces he’s facing, and of course his wolfman problem. His budding friendship with Vanessa, his religious beliefs, and his tense but respectful relationship with Sir Malcolm all make for a deeply fascinating anti-hero. His relationship with Brona was utterly beautiful and I WEPT when she died, and was enraged they never crossed paths again.
When Sir Malcolm Murray’s egomania wasn’t tearing his family apart or driving him to ‘explore’ Africa, he struggled with the guilt of his actions and their consequences on his family. For atonement, he volunteers and provides funding for a charity that treats cholera victims. His fascination for Evelyn Poole is partly her enchantment, but also the fact that he is mourning his dead children and must continue with his loveless marriage to Gladys, a wife who will understandably never forgive him his transgressions. It was actually difficult seeing Malcolm taken in by Poole, as his happiness seemed so real. By the end of the second season his whole family is dead but for his adopted daughter Vanessa, and he heads back to Africa to bury Sembene, the only person who seemed to understand him. The third season is largely about him trying to save the only people he has left, Vanessa and Ethan; saving the world seems to be in the back of his mind, honestly.
The Creature experienced nothing but cruelty and trauma after his rebirth and sought a heart to share his own with, but violently lashed out when things didn’t go his way. Of all the character arcs in the show, his was the most realized. In the first season he is childlike: angry and spiteful toward Victor, and his social awkwardness leads him to misunderstand a coworker’s friendliness as romantic, leading to disaster. In the first season finale, he realizes his monstrous looks are the least of his problems- it’s the monstrous heart he’s developed that is his real curse. In the second season he demands a bride from Victor and struggles to integrate into society by holding a job, but his employers turn out to have duplicitous motives. His intended bride, likewise, rejects him. By the end of the season, he is again despairing and heartbroken, and intends to leave humanity behind. Before he leaves, he entreats Vanessa to join him, as they are kindred spirits. His story arc in the final season was the most emotionally satisfying of all the characters. We see him reunited with his pre-death family, where he takes on a role as husband and caregiver to his wife and dying son. We also discover his pre-death connection to Vanessa Ives in an episode with loads of Emmy-worthy acting. The fact that we never find out how he died was unsatisfying, but ultimately not that important – Victorian London was a dangerous place, after all.
Perhaps most compelling of all is Vanessa Ives, who is equally at home in English mansions, asylums, and decrepit shacks while she struggles with her literal and figurative demons. A fierce woman in a time that didn’t tolerate such, she is willful from a young age, but has been touched by a dark power. She’s a Day Walker, a powerful witch who has the capacity to destroy the world. Vanessa serves as the center of the story, interacting with nearly all the characters at some point or another, and her arc shapes the series.
Most stirring of all was Vanessa’s rejection that she should just be normal. Although she suffers greatly, she refuses to pretend that she is all right. She embraces who and what she is, even when she doesn’t herself know. Her struggle for self is echoed in the lines of the poem “I Am”, by the mentally ill poet John Clare (from whom the Creature takes his name), and so it is perfect that they should bond over this work.
Although most of the story is shrouded in darkness and soaked in blood, the few moments of levity made it that much more endearing. Lyle and Ethan searching the British Museum’s basement, Mrs. Poole chastising her daughters, or Brona and Ethan out and about were all things I could have enjoyed for hours. Dr. Frankenstein asks Vanessa to accompany him clothes shopping for his ‘cousin,’ who is in reality his latest creation. The comedic chemistry between Victor and Vanessa while they visit the dress shop is some of the most delightful I’ve ever seen.
The villains in the show also made evil far too much fun. Alexander Sweet was just a wonderful character from the get go, with his tremulous energy and debonair absent-mindedness. His nervous wooing of Vanessa was so darling that I was actually annoyed when he turned out to be the villain. I had no problem loving Evelyn Poole, because of her charisma and how she dominated her quartet of devil-daughters, even as I hated her for engineering the Cut-wife’s murder. The same strain of willfulness and frustration with women’s societal pressures was in her as in Vanessa or Lily, although they obviously dealt with it in different ways.
Most of all, I liked that the show didn’t spoon-feed me information. It was only after I had seen all three seasons, and really sat back and thought about the characters and their world that I started to understand the big picture. But that was also a drawback to the show, too, where some complex interactions were very easy to follow (the John Clare/Lily/Victor triangle) and others not so much (Sembene/Sir Malcolm).
For me, the turning point came when Sembene died without the audience ever learning his backstory. We saw flashbacks or at least heard verbal explanations for nearly everyone, but not him. From a narrative standpoint Sembene was underutilized, often serving as a stoic counterpoint to the weirdness or outright disbelief of the other characters. Sembene had no problem believing in any of the things they encountered, and that was laudable, but he was too interesting to leave unexplained. If you’re going to deconstruct Victorian tropes with modern film-making, you start with the Noble Savage.
(I really wanted a .gif of his full-body tackle of the Night Comer in the Granditch Place fight, which was awesome and hilarious at the same time, but couldn’t find one. I guess I better learn to make .gifs and do it myself!)
The death of Angelique also was a rather insensitive choice, and I think Angelique as a character became more interesting than Dorian Gray. She and Dorian actually made a good couple. Her challenging him to accept her by wearing Dorian’s clothes was an enchanting moment. Sacrificing her to remind the audience that Gray is evil just felt wasteful. I suppose that is the cost of loving characters in a horror melodrama, though. Dorian’s backstory was also never explored, and the Victorian lit-nerd in me really wants to hear how he made that deal with the devil.
A major shortcoming of the show was its reliance on putting Vanessa in peril, or tormenting her with possession or mental problems. Although that’s entirely thematic to Victorian literature, the show seemed intent on exploding those themes and majorly missed the mark by continuing to do the thing they were railing against. I love Eva Green, and I can watch her speak the Verbis Diablo all day, but I got frustrated with how reactive Vanessa was, or how her actions met with poor results. The entirety of her character arc was defined by the fact that she was desired by dark forces for the power she would unleash, not for any other reason. Every choice she made was put before her by outside forces, so she had no agency of her own. I didn’t even mind the happy dream of domestic bliss with Ethan that Lucifer tempted her with in the second season – after all, who wouldn’t desire warmth, love and affection in that setup? IT’S ETHAN! – but giving that up in the second season so she could be Dracula’s Wife in the third didn’t feel like Vanessa at all, especially given that she knew it meant the end of the world. The third season began with a sense of Vanessa coming into her own power with Dr. Seward’s, and yet that never materialized.
I loved Kaetnay and thought his inclusion was a great choice and brought a lot of interesting possibilities to the conversation, but Ethan’s conflict with his father just never interested me. And I honestly had trouble parsing the layers of Ethan’s relationship with Kaetnay – I think it wasn’t until my 3rd watch that I realized Ethan was to Kaetnay as Vanessa was to Malcolm – an adopted child who is bound to the parent by ties of both love and hate, and reflects the parents’ own sins and triumphs. Honestly I didn’t need that much complexity from Ethan’s storyline – it would have been fine if he was just escaping from the things he did in the army. Additionally, the ‘rules’ of werewolves were never clear to me – Kaetnay is able to control himself after his change, but Ethan is basically a walking chainsaw. Why? Maybe that was explained and I missed it.
We spent a great deal of time getting to know Henry Jekyll, but his ‘transformation’ to Mr. Hyde was only hinted at in the passing of a title. It was implied he would take on his father’s lordship and the power would corrupt him figuratively rather than literally, but I was still hoping for a gruesome transformation scene. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a really good Jekyll/Hyde adaptation.
I love Penny Dreadful so much, and I will miss it. I’m definitely among those disappointed in how it ended, but it gave me so much happiness during its run that I almost don’t mind. I’m sad that it ended, but it inspired me to begin rereading some of my favorite Victorian works – I blew threw Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories a few weekends ago and am currently rereading The Picture of Dorian Gray. As I mentioned, I’ve written some new fanfiction (11 thousand words! It’s not even all smut -only like, 25% smut!) and plan to cosplay as The Creature for some upcoming conventions. This show brought a lot of joy to my life when I needed it, and I’m so glad my best friend recommended it to me over a year ago. I can’t imagine life without these characters, but of course, it’s not a show for everyone. Finding a place where the intelligent, artistic, and dark is genuinely celebrated is such a rare thing – and that’s why it’s so hard to let it go.
I hope you enjoyed this write-up, and that you’ll leave any comments or interesting links down below. I am already trying to find something else to fill the void this show’s cancellation has left, but let’s face it, there was nothing like it.
Goodbye, Penny Dreadful! I hope everyone involved in the show goes on to something just as good, and that Emmy season brings forth a bountiful harvest! You all earned it!
Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Instant Watch.