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, 3 June 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.
After last week’s welcome respite from the grand narrative, Penny Dreadful returns to the story of Ethan Talbot, with a secondary plot that follows Jekyll and Frankenstein in their quest to find a permanent cure for social deviance. Ethan and Hecate are still being pursued by various authority figures, and an uncertain welcome awaits them at their destination. Jekyll and Frankenstein are still working on a way to prolong the effects of Jekyll’s serum, and it seems they may finally have succeeded.
In general, ‘This World Is Our Hell’ does much more telling than showing, which is extremely effective in the final exchange between Ethan and his father, but is not executed as well in most of the episode. We are saddled with numerous scenes where two stationary characters recount war stories and traumatic experiences in highly artificial language—an unwelcome departure from Penny Dreadful‘s usual dynamic engagements with space and nuanced expressions of emotion. (Does apathy count as an emotion?)
Ethan’s story is a family drama, where father figures are plentiful and always dysfunctional. Ethan’s biological father sent him to the army. Kaetaney forced him to keep fighting against that same army. Malcolm Murray is also far from an ideal father figure: he originally hired Ethan as a mercenary, and is now using him (and the other characters in Penny Dreadful’s central band of ‘heroes’) to fill the void left by the deaths of his own family. Deaths for which he was indirectly responsible, I should add. Murray and Talbot Senior are intercontinental mirrors of each other: explorers, patriarchs, and ’family men’ unable to protect their families. The Talbot homestead is an American reflection of Murray’s London mansion.
Building on one of this season’s major themes, both Ethan’s story and Jekyll and Frankenstein’s are built on binary oppositions. Do we embrace guilt, or embrace sin? Should we have to live as monsters, or can we be reborn as angels? In her encounter with Dracula last week Vanessa already discovered that there is a third option: reject the choice entirely. But unfortunately this week lacks much of that nuance, with characters arguing one way or the other.
In a moment I wish had received more attention in the episode, Jekyll questions Frankenstein’s assumption that they are at all alike, in the end—just two maligned scientists working to overcome monstrosity:
You think we’re the same. Fellow outcasts. But if you could undergo this treatment… if you could have every horrific moment struck from your memory every time your work was denigrated and you were treated like filth. If for one moment you could feel like a lamb, and not like a beast… wouldn’t you do it?
With this question, Jekyll refers to their serum, which removes ‘evil’ impulses by removing dark memories. As Frankenstein explains to their subject, Mr Belfour, ‘It is our memories which make us monsters, is it not?’.
‘No,’ is Frankenstein’s answer. He would not take the serum himself, though he declines to elaborate further. ‘And that, my true friend, is the difference between you and me,’ replies Jekyll. Jekyll wants to be accepted by others. Frankenstein wants others to accept him. Is it memories that create monsters, and what does this mean? The episode implies that Frankenstein isn’t a ‘real’ monster, and doesn’t understand true suffering or oppression like Jekyll does. Frankenstein has only been rejected and condemned for what he has done, not for what he is. Again, for me this was the only truly interesting exchange in an episode that repeatedly tried to engage the viewer’s academic and moral intellect, only to fall short at the finish line.
Benjamin Poore’s recent article on season one of Penny Dreadful offers several insightful points on this topic, though he is more interested in the show’s experimentation with genre than in its race or gender politics. In analysing the effect of the show’s title, Poore argues that it ‘gives the show a kind of outlaw, rebellious power: this is the show they don’t want you to watch, this is the show they’ll try to shut down or brand obscene’ (p. 66). This is of course not the case, as Poore also points out later in his article. Penny Dreadful is critically applauded for its adult content, not maligned for it, and in many ways it’s far less socially and politically transgressive than other programmes currently on television.
In a review of Penny Dreadful’s season 3 premiere on MTV.com, Inkoo Kang argues that the show delivers a vastly more interesting story when it focuses on its female characters. She writes:
Despite its recent improvements, Penny Dreadful remains a show that conjures portent far better than it spins plot, and logic is still cast aside whenever there’s histrionic anguish to be sighed or purple philosophizing to be purred. And yet the drama potently blooms to reveal its “gorgeous secrets,” especially in its depiction of how women were reinventing themselves in this heady era when electric lights, movie theaters, and “talk therapy” were bringing the late 20th century into the future. In such a world, monsters, both benign and sinister, don’t seem like such a far-fetched idea.
I agree wholeheartedly with Kang’s assessment, though I would frame it slightly differently to discuss this episode. Penny Dreadful is better when it focuses on what we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Horror has been a staple of Western culture for centuries. Mad scientists, witches, werewolves and vampires—we’ve seen them all many times over. As a horror fan, I’m used to seeing white, heterosexual men on screen, both as heroes and as villains. I’m used to seeing white, heterosexual (but virginal) women survive while queer people and people of colour die. I’ve heard variations on the stories of these white, heterosexual characters a hundred times.
Once we’ve seen something, it loses some of its power to terrify or intrigue us. This is why I was far less interested in Ethan’s story than I was in the dynamic developing between Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll. Both are discredited scientists, rejected by the establishment for their methods. It’s been repeatedly suggested, however, that the reason for Jekyll’s rejection by the medical community had more to do with his skin colour than with his science. Frankenstein is increasingly patronising towards Jekyll, ‘fixing’ his formula and criticising the bursts of temper Jekyll occasionally displays. ‘You really must keep that in check, doctor. No one will take you seriously… not even after you’ve inherited your father’s title’, Frankenstein sneers.
I’ve said this before in other words, and will keep repeating it until something changes: for a show that claims to breathe new life into Gothic horror, Penny Dreadful has only shown me a few precious glimpses of things I haven’t seen before—particularly in the arena of identity politics. Perhaps that’s asking too much of the series. It’s still too rarely we see something truly strange or revolutionary in popular media. Perhaps that’s not the point of it at all. On one level, the show is arguably just recycling old horror (traditionally a lowbrow genre) for a new, highbrow audience. Regardless, every now and then a glimpse of what the show could be shines through. In those cases, I’m tempted to repeat what Hecate tells Ethan: ‘I want to liberate your truest self! The beast that prowls around your heart‘. Penny Dreadful is already a good show. With a little push, it could be amazing.
In the introduction to their edited collection Neo-Victorian Gothic, Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben ask: ‘How can the Gothic go on celebrating otherness as it becomes increasingly homogenised?’ (p. 2). So far, season three of Penny Dreadful is an extended, incomplete answer to this question. And it seems to be answering it on Hecate’s rather zealous terms: ‘There is only one way to free yourself of guilt. Embrace your sins’.
- ‘Such music my master makes’: Hecate offers an oblique reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Chapter 2: ‘Listen to them—the children of the night. What music they make!’), in the first episode this season where Dracula doesn’t make an appearance.
- On the wall of the cave where Ethan and Hecate take shelter, Native paintings depicting the story of the first Apache (and the great evil) feature a scorpion and a wolf.
- The phrase ‘thee and me’ (uttered this episode by Hecate) returns periodically in the show. I know Caliban / John Clare has used it in the past, though off the top of my head I can’t be sure it was more than these two instances. Is it be a reference to Welsh reformer Robert Owen’s words to William Allen: ‘All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer’?