Penny Dreadful Review: ‘Predators Far and Near’ (Season 3, Episode 2)

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!

Notes

  • 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.

Teaching Cultural Studies after Trump

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I’ve been trying to come up with a fitting topic for my 100th post on this blog (hi, guys) for days, but I find that one thing overshadows all the others in my mind: the US presidential elections.

In the wake of 8 November, many educators have been re-evaluating the content of their teaching, especially those working in the humanities and social sciences. Some people have despaired about the value of teaching at all in this climate. MacSweeney’s posted a grading rubric that reflects the logic of the presidential debates. Many of my fellow PhD students and academics have voiced their sense of helplessness, while also sharing the unpleasant realisation that their research—on monsters, on neoliberalism, on class, race, and gender—is now even more relevant and urgent. And indeed, the appeal to popular culture metaphors in the wake of the election has been overwhelming. References to Harry PotterThe Hunger GamesThe Walking Dead or The Purge, are seemingly everywhere.

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While this is potentially a good sign for humanities teachers, it has its dangers and drawbacks as well. In particular, we must be careful that this turn to popular culture does not placate us into a false sense of familiarity, and stop us from taking action against the very real threat to the safety of the very real people around us. The rhetoric behind this election was monstrous, Trumpism is monstrous, and we must take great care not to normalise this monstrosity by comparing it too closely to the fantastical monsters running rampant on our screens.

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As Jacob Silverman pointedly wrote earlier this week, in an article you should really read in its entirety:

Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking […] Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.

Popular culture can inspire us, but it cannot save us: least of all the slew of contemporary dystopias, with their white and blandly lovely protagonists, that routinely dominate the box office. How, then, do we go about teaching it in the wake of Donald Trump? What texts can we use in our teaching and how can we use them?

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A number of educators have already stepped up to the bat. Below, you will find a selection of university-level resources that invite discussion of the key issues in this election, from many different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many also get students looking outside the circle of ‘Dead White Men’ that remains so prevalent in higher education.

I know this list is woefully incomplete. It’s only a start. There are many more suggestions out there for how to equip students to deal with the shape of the future, and hopefully many more will spring up in the coming months. There’s currently even a call for papers (deadline 30 November) asking for responses from educators and calling for action.

Are you working on your own reading list, resource, or syllabus? Please, share it in the comments, or send it to one of the other educators in this list—especially if it includes pop culture texts.

Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0

This syllabus started off as a reaction to a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but has since gone viral. Broadly interdisciplinary (but featuring plenty of readings from literature, politics, and popular culture), it questions not just the driving force behind Trumpism, but also the way mainstream media approaches it:

The readings below introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize electoral control of a major American political party. By extension, this syllabus acknowledges the intersectional nature of power and politics. The course emphasizes the ways that cultural capital like Trump’s grows best under certain socio-economic conditions. Trump’s open advocacy for race-based exclusion and politically motivated violence on matters both foreign and domestic cannot be separated from the historical and day-to-day inequalities endured by people of color, women, and religious minorities living in or migrating to the United States. Concerned less with Trump as a man than with “Trumpism” as a product of history, this course interrogates the connections between wealth, violence, and politics.

Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus

Film and television scholar Dan Hassler-Forest has put together a five-part viewing list that ‘might offer some insight, inspiration, or critical reflection of a world that has suddenly gone from challenging to terrifying’. This one is heavy on popular culture. Part one focuses on ‘Populism and Politics’, part two on ‘Commercializing Media’, part three on ‘Popular Fascism’, part four on ‘Racism’, and part five on ‘(Un)civil Society’. Spoiler Alert: The LEGO™ Movie makes an appearance in part two:

#TeachingTheDisaster: Anthropologists Strike Back

In this list (which covers some of the other syllabi on my own list), anthropologist Zoë Wool responds to a number of the questions raised by the election, including ‘How could this happen?’, ‘What to teach’, and ‘Why to teach’. The blog (Savage Minds) has also put out a call for further suggestions on Twitter, using the hashtag #TeachingTheDisaster.

[EDIT: #TeachingTheDisaster has since been updated with even more resources, including syllabi on the Welfare Reform movement, Standing Rock, and a number of other conflicts.

The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

As the title suggests, this syllabus is focused on historicising institutionalised racism in the United States. Most of the texts in this list are non-fiction:

This Gallatin seminar links the #blacklivesmatter” movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south).

Post-Election Changes To Philosophy Curriculum By Subject

This philosophy-oriented discussion group on DailyNous.com has been taking curriculum subject by subject, allowing members to share and suggest resources for that particular approach. The first session focused on epistemology, but threads on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, critical reasoning / informal logic, and language have since been launched.

Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection

This resource, brought to you by the American Philosophical Association, is an old one, but if you find yourself drawing a blank on who to include in your syllabus it’s chock full of great places to start. Though it starts from a philosophy perspective, and includes a some straight philosophical texts from minority perspectives, most of the texts would be entirely suitable for a literature, film, or cultural studies course.

Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom

This website (launched by MAP), again comes from philosophy, and has a some syllabus lists of its own. More importantly, however, it also has resources for creating an inclusive classroom environment:

The website offers methods for increasing inclusiveness in the classroom and for decreasing the effects of biases more generally. It includes the resultsof research about minority groups in philosophy. It also lists resources for teachers of philosophy who are committed to including in their syllabi readings about issues often overlooked in philosophy classrooms and readings written by philosophers belonging to groups that are typically under-represented in professional philosophy.

The Zinn Education Project’s ‘Teaching After the Election of Trump’

This website has a whole archive of online articles, lesson plans, and resources that offer alternative views of US history, all in loose relation to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (2005). In general these are designed for primary or secondary school students, but many could be easily adapted for university teaching:

Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s history materials and pedagogy emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.