As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This post originally appeared on The Victorianist, 20 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.
With a third of this season’s nine-episode run now complete, it’s still surprisingly difficult to judge where we should be at this point in Penny Dreadful’s story arc. Season one forced us to slowly stew in dread and suspense until the last few episodes, building up the struggles and motivations of its central characters. Season two jumped straight into supernatural action, then stepped back to let side stories unravel, and plotlines settle into place.
Season three seems like it’s trying to do both action and suspense simultaneously, and episode three of the season gives us two main storylines to follow. One is set in the American West, as werewolf Ethan Talbot continues to be pursued by various people. The other is set in London, where Vanessa Ives seems to lose all the progress she made in her therapy with Dr Seward last episode. Vanessa comes to realise she is still being stalked by a powerful evil she can’t yet name, and at the end of the episode we learn that Dracula has plans to break Vanessa both mentally and physically.
With Van Helsing dead in season one, I would love to see Vanessa become the key agent of Dracula’s demise in Penny Dreadful – if, indeed, he does meet his end in the show. She still has a long way to go as a character if this is to become her role, however.
As in previous seasons, Vanessa’s storyline bears most of the slow horror in this episode. Are these monsters in her head, or are they a physical threat? And on which front will she need to be strongest in order to resist them? Once again, a key scene between Vanessa and her psychoanalyst, Dr Seward, explores the relationship between pain and sickness, fantasy and delusion. Seward believes that Vanessa sees monsters, but she does not believe in the supernatural herself. ‘It is a dark root without a name, from which grows illness’, Seward theorises. Monsters come from pain, and represent the speakable part of the unspeakable. To cope with the unspeakability of its experiences, ‘the mind creates order around it’.
Vanessa, tired of Seward’s cool rationalism, comes down on the opposite side of the argument. ‘Such things have a name’, she says. ‘They are witches, they are vampires, they are Lucifer. They are all those things which walk in your nightmares’. While monsters (real and fantastical) may always be unspeakable to a certain degree, for the first time the show firmly grounds Vanessa’s mental demons in a physical reality. Vanessa is forced to confront one of these monsters in the fun house hall of mirrors she visits with Dr Sweet, and another when she uses hypnotism to revisit her memories of the asylum. She has lost her faith; her ‘soul’. Will she lose her mind as well?
Ethan’s story is shaped by a markedly different kind of confrontation, not at all fraught by the doubt and tension that colours Vanessa’s experiences. Ethan’s story teases us with apocalypse, and with a legend of salvation. As we learned last season from Lucifer’s memoirs, Ethan is the ‘Lupus Dei’ or ‘Wolf of God’, who will play some vital role in a great battle to come. In season two Penny Dreadful’s heroes believed that Ethan could save Vanessa from the witches. Now Hecate, one of those same witches, is attempting to shape Ethan into a weapon for the forces of evil.
How does Hecate plan to corrupt the noble Ethan? By ensuring he is ‘painted with blood’, a phrase that returns several times throughout the episode. In the case of Hecate, this symbolic gesture of belonging amounts to embracing the monster. It means acknowledging your own brutality, rather than denying it as Ethan does, slaughtering hundreds in his unconscious, werewolf form. All in all, the Chosen One trope is common enough to make the ‘Wolf of God’ storyline seem pretty predictable, and at the moment it feels unlikely that Ethan will turn to the proverbial dark side.
Like Hecate, Dorian Gray also talks about being ‘painted in blood’ this week, describing to a vulnerable Justine how ‘In the Dark Ages, in certain parts of Europe, novitiate nuns were asked to pledge themselves to God… in blood. […] Much as soldiers in ancient Rome would have to prove themselves by killing an enemy. You were not a Legionnaire unless painted with blood.’ No coincidence, I would wager, that Dorian cites two major colonising forces as his examples here.
Other minor storylines in this episode follow up on these themes. Apocalypse of a different kind is brewing in London, as Lily Frankenstein sets out to form an underground army of ‘whores and fallen women. The disgraced and the powerless. […] All those invisible women who move unseen through this great city’. We are treated to a glimpse of a suffragette march, but when Justine remarks that Lily and the suffragettes have a lot in common, Lily disagrees. She wants mastery, not equality, and she plans to achieve it through stealth, not overt protest. She, too, will paint the world red.
In one of the more visceral moments of this surprisingly gory episode, Dorian, Lily, and Justine literally paint each other in the blood of the man who abused Justine, smearing it onto each other’s bodies in a disturbing sexual threesome.
This episode metaphorically paints its audience in blood as well. What does it mean that we are complicit in, and may well take pleasure in, watching this violence unfold on screen? Are good and evil really intertwined, or is that what we tell ourselves to absolve us of our guilt? Can monsters be named, or can they only be deferred?
In our final minor plotline, Henry Jekyll disagrees with Victor Frankenstein on this last question. Their difference of opinion is marked by the adversity Jekyll has faced as a result of his class and racial background. He is angry, but must push his anger aside in order to function in society. We cannot afford, he argues, to be both angel and demon: ‘We must be the that thing the world demands of us’.
After this jam-packed hour of television, I hope we get a slower, more focused episode sometime soon. All the jumping around from storyline to storyline, as entertaining as it may be, is also starting to feel a little crowded.
- So far, this season has done a much better job of addressing themes of race and oppression than the previous two, in that it at least acknowledges their presence in discussions of monstrosity. I am still waiting for it to pay more than simple lip service to these themes, however, and this episode’s depictions of Ethan as a White Saviour of Natives and monsters alike has done little to convince me this will happen.
- As far as I can tell, the title of the episode (‘Good and Evil Braided Be’) is a reference to Herman Melville’s 1855 serialised novella Benito Cereno.
- Lily waxes romantic about Ethan as the only man who ‘didn’t want to fuck me or beat me’. While this presumably piles another layer onto the Wolf of God mythos the show is building, but I don’t find Ethan’s lack of appetite for sexual or physical abuse all that glamorising.
- Kaetaney’s appearances are frequently accompanied by the sounds of a rattlesnake. Is he fated to be another Western stereotype of the skinwalker, as his relationship to Ethan suggests? The appearance of the rattlesnake alongside the wolf and scorpion in Sweet’s taxidermy museum suggests that the series is also drawing a less literal parallel between human and animal, as it did with Vanessa and the scorpion in season two.
- Renfield eating a fly was a nice camp nod to the Dracula mythos. Also, vampires are visible in mirrors in Penny Dreadful.