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, 10 June 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.
This week’s episode of Penny Dreadful is essentially all about submission and dominance. It takes us on a tour of all the key characters and stories this season, and throws in a few more for good measure. In each story, we are given an example of how characters refused to submit, submitted to easily, or were forced into submission, and the episode then explores the effect this relationship to submission has had on them. Ethan’s refusal to confront his problems has taken over his life. Lily is so scarred by being broken into submission that she is determined to break the men who used her in return. She has been given a new life, but refuses to let the old one truly die. ‘I’ve suffered long and hard to be who I am,’ she tells Frankenstein during his failed kidnapping attempt. ‘I want my scars to show’. Vanessa, physically weak and emotionally fragile, is also paradoxically the strongest. She is not afraid to submit to others, or risk her heart again and again.
This episode makes a welcome return to the women of Penny Dreadful. Both Lily and Vanessa are discovering the pleasure (and power) of surrounding themselves with other women, and the two characters provide some interesting contrast. Lily’s gang of prostitutes is united by a common goal. They need each other to bring down the men of London, and they find shared intimacy and gratification in the violence they enact along the way.
Vanessa needs a family to feel whole, but has been abandoned by the men who swore to protect her last season. She fills the void with a circle of female and/or feminine friends: Ferdinand Lyle, Dr Seward, and now the thanatologist Catriona Hartdegen (played by Perdita Weeks). Catriona seems poised to fill the gap left by the sudden death of Van Helsing in season one. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen points out in this YouTube interview about the character: ‘Van Helsing is the guy who knows everything. He’s a man of science, but he’s also a man of religion’. Van Helsing was the one who knew Dracula’s true identity, and how to defeat him.
Like Vanessa and Lily, Vanessa and Catriona also make for a fascinating contrast, both visually and narratively. Catriona is an expert fencer, sports an ‘un-womanly’ wardrobe, and studies death, Vanessa is still most defined by her dresses and her demureness. I’m excited to see where the final few episodes of the season take them together, and what traits Catriona is able to bring out in Vanessa. In any case, it is clear that Vanessa is stronger with these friends than she was without them.
Whether a solitary woman can be more powerful than a solitary man is something this season remains unclear about, however. At Seward’s suggestion, Vanessa confesses both her feelings and her fears to Dr Sweet. Of course, she doesn’t yet know that Sweet is Dracula, and that he is probably the last person she should be sharing or sleeping with. Vanessa dominates both the conversation and the subsequent sex, but we know that Dracula is playing the long game. Dracula wants Vanessa to depend on him, and to submit to him as his bride. Their relationship is slowly becoming a clever if thinly-veiled analogy for the social inequality of traditional marriage, in which the male partner holds dominion over the female partner. ‘There is a creature hunting me,’ Vanessa tells him. ‘He has been hunting me since the dawn of time. He wants to drink my blood and make me his bride’. Sweet is still the real predator, and Vanessa, however fierce she may seem, is still his prey—a fact subtly emphasised by the animals that appear in the background and foreground of their respective shots at the taxidermy museum.
In this season, then, there is still no beast quite so fierce as the upper-class white male.
- This is the episode where everyone dies. Logically the show is probably just making space for the gang’s final encounter with Dracula, but I was still somewhat disappointed to lose Ethan’s father, inspector Bartholomew Rusk, and Hecate Poole all in the same episode. It felt as though we were only beginning to know them—though in this show, I suppose, they might always return.
- I liked the way Dracula / Dr Sweet spins the story of the vampire bat, intertwining nature with religion. Like himself, the vampire bat was ‘fated by God’ to live by night, forced to drink blood to survive. It’s an intelligent design metaphor taken to new levels.
- Here’s hoping that Ferdinand Lyle’s trip to see Egypt (and the tomb of Imhotep) is a hint that next season’s featured creatures will be mummies.
- I hadn’t noticed until this episode how light Vanessa’s clothing choices have become. There’s actually a very interesting featurette about Eva Green’s wardrobe team over on the official YouTube channel that discusses the reasoning behind this artistic decision.
- Catriona Hartdegen doesn’t seem to have any literary antecedent, but I have my fingers crossed that she’s related to Van Helsing in some way, as well as taking over his typical role in the Dracula narrative.