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, 13 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.
This post contains plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful, as well as a few minor comments on the HBO series Game of Thrones that might be construed as spoilers.
Penny Dreadful’s identity as a show hinges on a small number of key characteristics. One is its appropriation of Gothic monsters. Another is its status as a premium cable series, and a work of ‘quality television’. Robin Burks of TechTimes.com had the following to say about the series in this context:
Penny Dreadful doesn’t need the shock and awe that shows such as Game of Thrones often rely on. Instead, it’s a smart and frightening tale told slowly by candlelight that holds a light up to the monster that lives within all of us.
In other words, Penny Dreadful frames itself as an intellectual show, for an audience of television connoisseurs. Arguably, Game of Thrones does the same, though it is increasingly criticised for its utilisation of nudity, gore, and sexual violence. While Penny Dreadful may not need to resort to Game of Thrones’ particular set of shock tactics, there’s no substantial difference between the way this episode handles its ‘adult’ content and the way the season six premiere of Game of Thrones does so.
For example, the episode closes out in a surprise reveal much more reminiscent of Game of Thrones than it is of Penny Dreadful. Dr Alexander Sweet, the taxidermist and zoologist who is Vanessa’s most recent object of attraction, has been Dracula all along. This makes him one in a long line of monsters to whom Vanessa feels drawn, and this attraction may well have something to do with the sexual nature of the demon that possesses Vanessa. In any case, there is none of the abject terror present at the end of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’. Instead, the finale relies on inappropriate desire to unsettle the viewer – though both scenes rely heavily on the superb acting of Samuel Barnett. Falling to his knees, Renfield latches onto Dracula’s bleeding wrist a little too eagerly, and a little too amorously, for comfort. ‘You will be flesh of my flesh,’ Dracula tells Renfield, ‘blood of my blood.’
Mirroring its conclusion, we open Episode 2 with violent spectacle and some light Oriantalism, as Lily and Dorian make their way through Chinatown. Here they enter a private club, where gentlemen pay to watch as young girls being beaten to death. This is where we are introduced to a new character, Justine (played by Jessica Barden). We are exposed to her body in intimate detail long before we know her face, let alone her name.
Like Brona/Lily, Angelique and Vanessa before her, Justine is yet another stereotypical Strong Female Character with sexual trauma in her past. Vanessa and Lily represent two vastly different responses to sexual trauma, linking them to different perspectives on both feminism the New Woman. Lily reflects the violence and oppression that was inflicted upon her, planning to take down not just the men who wronged her, but the patriarchy altogether. This trauma is clearly the reason Lily has chosen Justine to participate in her vendetta against the gentlemen of London. Vanessa turns her pain inward, blaming herself for the violations she has suffered. So far no character paints a very positive picture of female identity and agency, but then again few characters in Penny Dreadful are shown to be truly admirable.
Across the pond in our B plot, we rejoin Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm on their journey to find Ethan Chandler (nee Talbot) in North America. Ethan, we discover, is an honorary Apache, though exactly how he came upon this identity is unclear. Kaetenay claims Ethan as a son, but he also reveals that Ethan killed his first family. Certain bonds, he argues, are as strong as the those created by blood. Kaetenay describes a hatred for someone so strong that you cannot kill them, but instead wish them to suffer with you forever.
Not only does this echo some of Sir Malcolm’s familial issues in seasons 1-2, it also opens up an allegorical discussion of American colonial policy. How do you live with someone who has done you a terrible wrong, or whom you yourself have wronged?
Memory, identity, and forgetting in the light of monstrosity is once again a strong theme on Penny Dreadful. In this week’s therapy scene, Seward’s practice of recording sessions on wax cylinders causes Vanessa to comment on the burden of memory technology imposes on us. ‘How could we forget anything?’ she asks, to which Seward responds ‘Why would you want to?’ Seward blurs the lines here between therapy and confession, as she compels Vanessa to not only tell her story, but to ‘tell me your sins’. Though it seems to help Vanessa temporarily this episode, not only does her confession visibly disturb Dr Seward, it also falls into Renfield’s hands, and through him Dracula is able to glean the information about Vanessa he so desperately (and mysteriously) desires.
To what end? Is forgetting ultimately the better of Vanessa’s options? Hopefully all will become clearer next week. Stay tuned!
- The mandatory ‘laboratory reveal’ camera pan around Jekyll’s workspace in Bedlam was a nice homage to classic horror. Also, the barber chair at its centre is a fun nod to Sweeney Todd.
- Renfield can’t stand the bells memorialising Tennyson. Is this because he doesn’t like to be reminded of the past? Is it a negative reaction to what Tennyson stood for particularly? Only time will tell.
- Does anyone happen to know the artist responsible for the paintings hanging behind Renfield and Vanessa in the reception hall scene?
- Most memorable quote this week goes to the following exchange between a broken Victor Frankenstein and the increasingly indifferent Lily:
‘I must save you from all of this, one way or another. You are my responsibility. I created you.’
‘I need no man to save me. And I think… in a way… I created you more than you created me.