Penny Dreadful Review: ‘The Day Tennyson Died’ (Season 3, Episode 1)

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 review originally appeared on The Victorianist, 6 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.

This post contains minor spoilers for seasons 1–2 of Penny Dreadful (Showtime/Sky; 2014-2016). It also contains various plot details from season 3, but only in the second half of the review. The transition will be clearly marked.

When the first season of Penny Dreadful was announced in 2013, we were unsure what to expect. Initially, it drew comparisons to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, which also weave familiar characters from classic literature into an original story. It was soon clear that the similarity ended there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting has called Penny Dreadful ‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.

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Wonderfully atmospheric and deeply unsettling, Penny Dreadful delivers its horror without straying too far into the camp and gore that have become staples of contemporary horror (though the first few episodes are pretty gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore aren’t equally enjoyable – I’ve enjoyed few shows more than Ash vs Evil Dead this year – but it’s been difficult to find a good example of finely balanced terror and suspense in recent times.

Penny Dreadful’s other strength lies in its character studies, which manage to be as suspenseful and arresting as its atmosphere. Penny Dreadful sets out to reanimate the horror of Victorian Gothic, and does so in imaginative ways. The first season draws its plot indirectly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina Murray has gone missing and her father assembles a team to search for her. As this tangential relationship might suggest, Penny Dreadful is often more interested in exploring where characters have been than where they are going. In an excellent essay on Penny Dreadful and the Victorian Gothic (which includes spoilers for season 1), Conrad Aquilina explores how the literary monsters that inspire each character form a commentary on their personal characterisation, and on the human condition more broadly:

Penny Dreadful’s characters are dual in their singularity, and we are reminded of their essential difference in the show’s tagline: ‘There is some thing within us all.’ There is some ‘thing’, some inexplicable but real essence which runs counter to sanity and progress and which periodically irrupts in the rational universe from within. Evil in Logan’s Penny Dreadful is not merely ‘something’. Gone is the abstraction that renders it undefinable or negligible, to be replaced by an atavism, some thing, that feeds on humanity’s most primal emotions – fear, hate lust, anger and hunger.

Already, then, we see that the literary monsters Penny Dreadful aims to rehabilitate carry a great deal of metaphorical weight. Notably, the most physically monstrous characters in the show are also the least emotionally and morally monstrous. The way the show deals with monstrosity has not been flawless, of course. As with many contemporary television shows, some very unfortunate representational issues in Penny Dreadful, despite the show’s otherwise nuanced portrayal of the burden of history.

Both superficially and fundamentally, this is a show about the past, and its central characters are all running from it. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – Mina’s father – and his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) are scarred by their colonial experiences in Africa. Their colleague Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has committed a terrible transgression, by which she is literally, as well as metaphorically, haunted. American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and undergoes his own monstrous transformations as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) also reimagine these classic characters and their dark secrets in new and interesting ways.

Will any of them be able to come to terms with who they are, and what they have done? In the ‘last season on Penny Dreadful’ segment this week, we were reminded of the centrality of this question to the show’s overall message. ‘Do you believe the past can return?’ asks Miss Ives. ‘It never leavees us,’ replies Sembene. ‘It is who we are’. So, with the first episode of season 3 fresh off the airwaves, will the third season demonstrate a similar historical awareness? Will it continue to develop these elements we loved about the first two seasons, while also correcting some of their flaws?

Finally, to what extent can the show be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you here week-by-week. This post will be a bit longer than the ones that follow, and the review itself a bit shorter, to accommodate the general introduction it includes. As the season unfolds, and patterns begin to emerge, there will hopefully be more to digest.

REVIEW OF THE SEASON 3 PREMIERE OF PENNY DREADFUL FOLLOWS (WITH SPOILERS)!

For this week I’ll be focusing on several specific scenes in the first episode that seem likely to ground the rest of this season’s story arc. These deal with the show’s representations of the domestic, the monstrous, and the nature of faith.

Penny Dreadful is steeped in domestic spaces. Much of its horror is built on the invasion of said spaces, and most of its scenes are staged in one home or another. The seance from season 1 takes places in the home of Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. The bar in which Ethan Chandler drinks, converses, and later conducts his murderous transformation into a werewolf is the one he lives above. Most notably, Sir Malcolm’s palatial London townhouse is the place the central characters frequently meet, fight, and conspire.

Season 3 also opens to shots of the house dusty, dark, and in a state of general disrepair. It seems that the beginning of this season will be about leaving home, however – at least for the show’s male characters. Penny Dreadful’s main cast was separated at the end of last season, and it appears they will remain so for the foreseeable future. Sir Malcolm (and Sembene) are in Zanzibar, and Ethan has been carted off to the American West. Victor Frankenstein, in London, has buried himself in work that seems likely to keep him quite occupied. His first creation (Rory Kinnear) – who now calls himself John Clare, after the 19th-century poet – is somewhere off in the frozen north. Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper) and Dorian Gray don’t make an appearance in this episode, so we’ll have to wait until next week to find out what they’ve been up to in the interim.

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Vanessa Ives is also in London, but unlike the others she has shut herself up in Sir Malcom’s townhouse, surrounded by dirty dishes, overturned lamps, and unread post. Without the others, she has lost all purpose, and is left alone and vulnerable. The day on which we return to the series (and to Miss Ives) is also the day Alfred Tennyson died – 6 October 1892. Tennyson’s death in this episode also suggests a departure from the strictly Victorian, echoing the locational shift away from London and the domestic. Discussions about poetry and poetics are another delightful staple of the series, and Tennyson’s death is symbolically intertwined with Vanessa’s own loss of hope and faith.

When Vanessa finds renewed strength at the end of the episode, then, and sets out to restore the house to its former glory, this too is symbolic. The domestic – the show’s core aesthetic – will hopefully be restored once more. And though Vanessa has lost that sense of faith and progress we find so stereotypically Victorian, she has found new purpose. In her own words: ‘The old monsters are gone. The old curses have echoed to silence. And if my mortal soul is lost to me something yet remains. I remain.’

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Though this shift away from Victorian ideologies and aesthetics could signal some exciting explorations of, for example, feminist history and postcolonial identity, the rest of the episode still leaves me unsure. While Sir Malcolm is in Zanzibar, he meets a Native scalper and shaman named Kaetenay (Wes Studi), who convinces him that Ethan Chandler needs their help. Kaetenay is one of the few people of colour the show has introduced into a key role, and we can hope that Kaetenay will be better utilised than Sembene, who in the first two seasons mainly served to aid his white teammates, before being brutally murdered by one of them.

When we return to London, it is to follow another promising addition to the cast, the British-Indian Dr Jekyll (Shazad Latif). Unlike the buildup the show indulged in to introduce Viktor Frankenstein, Jekyll’s name is dropped with relatively little fanfare. The show knows that we know the name, and hints at where the season is going accordingly. Sadly, initial impressions suggest that Jekyll’s role, like Sembene’s, will be a supporting one. In this episode the focus is all on Frankenstein, who laments: ‘I’ve conquered death…and have created monsters. None more so than the man who sits before you.’ Will Penny Dreadful remain a tale of white guilt and atonement? Only time will tell.

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The introduction of Dr Seward (Patti LuPone), the alienist Vanessa visits to help her recover from her melancholia, is conducted with equally minor fanfare. The twist here is that Seward (the male doctor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is female. She is also somehow related to Joan Clayton, the ‘cut-wife’ and witch who trained Vanessa in magic. Vanessa’s initial conversation with Dr Seward touches briefly on this, and also introduces the discourse of medical diagnoses – of not being ‘bad, not unworthy, but ill’. Of course, what Dr Seward doesn’t know is that Vanessa also happens to be possessed by a demon. In any case I’m very interested to see how the show will spin out this relationship between the medical, the emotional, and the supernatural in this season.

All in all, the premiere of season 3 marked a departure from the previous two seasons, and the changes it promises make me eager to see what later episodes will actually deliver. Notably, unlike previous episodes the tone of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’ was more adventure than horror, jumping from one character to another and pushing the plot along at relatively breakneck pace until we reach the very end of the episode.

Here, in the very last scene, we come firmly back to horror and suspense. The scene follows Renfield, who is Dr Seward’s secretary earlier in the episode, and this second link to Dracula is immediately suspicious when it’s stated in this final scene. Could this mean what we think it means? On his way to meet a prostitute, Renfield is accosted by what seems likely to be the season’s major villain.

We don’t get to see what terrifies Renfield at the episode’s conclusion, only Renfield’s fear (brilliantly conveyed by actor Samuel Barnett; let’s hope Renfield gets to live for a few episodes so we can experience more of his superb acting). This is part of what makes the scene so terrifying. It is once again the Penny Dreadful we know and love, in all its glory. Clanking meat hooks. Rustling leaves. Whispers and unseen terrors. In a word: spine-tingling.

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After introducing several major literary characters with relatively little fanfare, season 3 saves its name-dropping power for the grand finale, and it’s a doozy.

Dracula’s name is spoken into the darkness before the closing credits, and Penny Dreadful is back with a bang!

Notes

  • Did anyone else assume that the taxidermist Dr Sweet is a nod to series consultant and Victorianist Matthew Sweet? Can anyone confirm this?
  • John Clare’s role in this episode is tantalisingly brief, but the flash of what are apparently his human memories hints that he will be featured more prominently very soon.
  • ‘What if I could tame her? Domesticate her?’ Jekyll is supremely creepy in this scene, where he offers to help Victor deal with Lily Frankenstein. The options are either ‘helping’ Lily or destroying her. Here’s hoping the series unpacks this problematic point of view in future episodes.
  • There were a few nice Penny Dreadful easter eggs in the taxidermy museum – the wolf, the scorpion, the dusty, unwanted specimens. I’m eager to see what other links emerge between Dr Sweet’s museum and the world of the story.