Penny Dreadful Reads The Picture of Dorian Gray

dorian-gray-penny-dreadful-36904602-2400-3263This post contains minor plot details from seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion.

You may recall that I spent the first part of the year reviewing the last season of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist blog. In my final post, I talked a bit about the show’s intertextual relationships with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). ‘Perpetual Night’ (episode 8) wraps up Victor Frankenstein’s story, and ‘The Blessed Dark’ (episode 9) presents the final showdown with Dracula, the season’s main antagonist. This week I discovered that Benjamin Poore – author of Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) and the recent article ‘The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic’ – has cited my reviews in his own blog post with the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Referencing my reading of the show’s ending through Frankenstein and Dracula, Poore adds his own analysis of Penny Dreadful and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)Like Wilde’s novel, and like Dorian Gray himself, Penny Dreadful is destined to be forever trapped in fin de siècle London:

The paradox of The Picture is that the portrait is painted in the contemporary London of Wilde’s time, but as time passes and Dorian looks no older, we don’t move forward into the first half of the twentieth century (well, we do in the Oliver Parker film adaptation, but that’s another story).[8] In the novel, Dorian never ages, but London never really stops being 1890s London either. How could it be otherwise, when Wilde barely survived the end of the century himself? So it is with Penny Dreadful. To mangle the words of Vincent Starrett, in Penny Dreadful it’s always 1892.[9] The series is crowded with figures seemingly queuing up to escape the nineteenth century, but who cannot do so; they’re stuck in a fin de siècle moment.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_307_0478
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

Poore also draws on Frank Kermode’s theories about the function of endings in narrative, highlighting the infinite possibilities Penny Dreadful creates for the exploration and expansion of this eternal London. Dorian serves as a powerful metaphor here as well:

Kermode also remarks of novel reading in The Sense of an Ending, that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity’.[11] He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’.[12] It strikes me that Penny Dreadful has a lot of kairos ­– a series of divine prophecies being fulfilled – and not a lot of chronos. Dorian has escaped from chronicity, and so have many of the supporting characters. That’s why, even if official television sequels are not forthcoming, the world of Penny Dreadful provides almost limitless scope for fan works and reinterpretations.

‘You’ll be back’, says Dorian in the series’ final episode, ‘And I’ll be waiting. I’ll always be waiting’.

You can read the full post at the link.

Now all that remains is an analysis of Penny Dreadful against Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The addition of Dr. Jekyll in season three, and his relationship with Victor Frankenstein, felt exciting but unfinished. Perhaps we will see the good doctor in his own spinoff series – or perhaps we should leave that to the many other television adaptations of Stevenson’s novel in recent years. Poore also has a fascinating post on Charlie Higson’s current Jekyll and Hyde adaptation for ITV, for those interested in reading more about the novel’s contemporary reincarnations.

All Penny Dreadful Season Three Reviews Now Online

Image © InsomniaTSO on DeviantArt
Image © InsomniaTSO on DeviantArt

In case you missed my original post on the subject, I’ve been writing regular recaps of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist, a researcher blog with the British Association for Victorian Studies. After each episode, I talked readers through what we’d seen, reflected on what previous episodes and seasons had brought, and speculated on what was to come – sometimes with the help of various academic theories. This week, the last instalment (covering the two-part season three finale) went online.

You can find links to all of the posts (which obviously contain spoilers for the series) below:
Season Premiere: ‘The Day Tennyson Died’
Episode Two: ‘Predators Far and Near’
Episode Three: ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’
Episode Four: ‘A Blade of Grass’
Episode Five: ‘This World Is Our Hell’
Episode Six: ‘No Beast So Fierce’
Episode Seven: ‘Ebb Tide’
Two-Part Season Finale: ‘Perpetual Night’ and ‘The Blessed Dark’

Image © aquiles-soir on DeviantArt

Here’s a (largely) spoiler-free excerpt from my final post, to give you a taste of the review series as a whole:

For me, Penny Dreadful’s greatest success this season was the way it captured a sense of religious dread. With this I don’t mean the way it used religious figures or Christian iconography to signal a supernatural evil, though it does so in many cases. Instead, I’m talking about the way it explores themes of existential angst, and lets its viewers experience both the desire for salvation and the fear of damnation.

John Logan argued that Penny Dreadful ‘has always been about a woman grappling with God and faith’, but never did I expect this journey to be played out so literally. In previous seasons, even when it manifested itself more physically, viewers have always been allowed to read Vanessa’s faith and possession metaphorically, as a way for her to cope with the mental issues that have plagued her since her youth. We were never quite certain if Vanessa was possessed by a demon, or if she was her own demon.

Happy reading – and let me know what you thought of the show in the comments!

Now Reviewing Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist

© VikPiratenholz

This post is a teaser for my weekly review series on Penny Dreadful season 3, starting this Friday (6 May) and featured over at the Victorianist. [UPDATE: You can now find my first review in all its glory at this link.]

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 characters from classic literature into an original story. The similarity soon proved to end there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting recently called Penny Dreadful ‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.

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 relatively gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore don’t have their place – 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.

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. 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 haunted literally, as well as metaphorically.

American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and naturally carries another dark secret as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) are … well … Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein (I won’t spoil the reveals for you). Some additional characters come and go over the course of the series’ first two seasons, all with similar stories. 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 leaves 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 what we loved about the first two, while also correcting some of their flaws? And to what extent can it be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you on the Victorianist, starting this Friday (6 May, 2016).

In the meantime, if you’re eager for more Penny Dreadful, I highly recommend the show’s YouTube channel and production blog. Both are chock-full of engaging and informative material. Depending on your location, you can even watch the season 3 premiere for free right here.

‘Embrace Your Dark Side’: Penny Dreadful‘s Season 3 Trailer

PrintAbout two weeks ago a proper trailer for the next season of Penny Dreadful was released. Various other obligations have kept me from looking at it properly, but this week I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into it. Without further ado, then, my take on this 1-minute-and-45-second trailer.

(Note: there will be spoilers for seasons 1 and 2).

To start, you can watch the whole thing here on Penny Dreadful‘s YouTube channel:

The trailer starts out strong with a shot of the much-touted star of the series Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), before swiftly introducing us to an exciting new location (North America?):

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.29.26

We’re then treated to a none-too subtle shot of the moon, in case we needed a reminder that everyone’s favourite Penny Dreadful werewolf was last seen bound for the New World:

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Let’s hope Penny Dreadful handles the skinwalker associations better than J.K. Rowling did.

Also returning are ‘world-renowned explorer with an axe to grind‘ Malcolm Murray, (Timothy Dalton), American werewolf in London Ethan Chandler (though, as we discovered last season, that’s not his real name; played by Josh Hartnett), Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monstrous creation Caliban/John Clare (Rory Kinnear), the depraved Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and the delightful Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper).

Newcomers to season 3 include Dr. Seward – presumably a nod to Dracula’s Jack Seward – played by Patti LuPone (who also played the cut-wife in season 2),  Dr. Henry Jekyll (followed by Edward Hyde?) played by Shazad Latif, and a Native American warrior played by Wes Studi.

And apparently this girl?
And apparently this girl? Nice addition to the long-running Gothic tradition of creepy women in white, in any case.

We can only hope that Shazad Latif and Wes Studi’s characters fare better than Sembene (Danny Sapani), who died brutally last season – in what was sadly only the last of several appearances that were apparently only designed to help move the storylines of the white characters along.

Don't hold your breath,
Don’t get too attached.

We also get to see some obligatory hints about the Showtime-level sex scenes we’ll be treated to:

Naturally when Vanessa says she's been 'touched by Satan' she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously bloody) sense. 
Naturally when Vanessa says she’s been  ‘touched by Satan’ she means it in the sexual (and gratuitously gory) sense. It’s Showtime, dammit!
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.33.18
Is the woman sleeping with John Clare in this scene black? In a trailer where the tagline is ’embrace your dark side’? If so I see a series of thesis paragraphs on unfortunate colonial subtext in my future.

Not a bad trailer by any means, but some of the things it teases are worryingly familiar to me. I’ve written before about how, despite that fact that I absolutely love the show on a personal level, on an academic one it has some issues with the way it represents monstrosity. Specifically, it capitalises on a number of the characteristics of monsters established by critical theorists, without actually delivering on most fronts. It also has a problematic relationship with its LGBTQ characters, despite show runner John Logan’s frequent linking of monstrosity and his own homosexuality.

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Except the cheesy classic werewolf font. The show delivers all the way on that one.
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.33.00
Also (potentially) the Bride of Frankenstein front. Give me more of Lily Frankenstein – but less, please, of the ‘prostitute with a heart of gold‘ stereotype and the ‘Strong Female Character with a sexually traumatic past‘ stereotype.

For Judith Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act’ between a series of binary oppositions, frightening precisely because they stood poised to transgress established identities and social parameters (Skin Shows, p. 1). Ultimately,  despite its self-advertised exploration of identity binaries, Penny Dreadful uses monstrosity (and its Victorian setting) in a way that constructs a false sense of diversity, disturbance, and change. In its attempts to represent ‘everyone’, it instead shuts out all but the privileged minority it represents on-screen.

Rather than using the past to discuss present-day issues, as it claims, the show instead presents the issues of certain Victorian outcasts – many of whom are now far from marginalised. In a sense, then, Penny Dreadful uses its Victorian setting to reclaim monstrosity for the privileged.

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For instance, what is this tasty bit of Orientalism? ‘We may be monsters, but those foreign monsters are way scarier’.

In addition to the predictable issues and reveals, there are a number of scenes where I genuinely have no idea what’s going on:

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.34.42
Who is this creepy dude and why is he smelling Vanessa? Tell me more.
Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 20.35.11
…Dorian and Lily take down a sexual slavery ring? Again, intrigued as to the context of this scene.

I am, however, very interested to find out. With just under two months to go until the premiere of season 3, and a few months more until it’s spun out all nine episodes on broadcast television, Penny Dreadful has plenty of time to change my mind about its politics of the monstrous.

And let’s be honest – they’ve already gone a good way towards placating my non-academic brain with this shot of Timothy Dalton in a cowboy hat:

Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.
Oh Timothy Dalton. You will always be the only James Bond in my books.

What do you think? Are you excited for the new season of Penny Dreadful?

Penny Dreadful versus The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


[EDIT: I penned a running review series of Penny Dreadful season three for the Victorianist. Click here for direct links.]

This article contains (very) minor spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen Penny Dreadful or read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you may want to steer clear.

When the Showtime/Sky television series Penny Dreadful was announced, many fans and critics accused it of plagiarising Alan Moore and Kevin O’Niell’s comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It does, after all, feature a very similar cast of characters and draw from similar nineteenth-century texts, especially if you count the abysmal film adaptation from 2003. Both mashups feature characters plundered from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though LoEG showrunner Mina Murray is replaced by her father Malcolm (played by Timothy Dalton) in Penny Dreadful, as the unofficial ‘leader’ of the band of monsters. Sir Malcolm Murray, like LoEG’s Allan Quatermain, is a hunter and explorer who spent much of his life in Africa.

The role of leading lady in Penny Dreadful is assumed by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), who bears a striking physical similarity to LoEG’s Mina, and, if we’re generalising, both texts also include a troubled young doctor (Henry Jekyll in LoEG and Victor Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful) and a token minority whose main task is to be brooding and mysterious, and to facilitate the other characters in their development (Captain Nemo in LoEG and Sembene, played by Danny Sapani, in Penny Dreadful; though to be fair to LoEG, Nemo is much more fully developed as a character than Sembene has been). If we take the LoEG film adaptation, both mashups also feature characters from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and an American gunslinger. The initial similarities are indeed striking.

Initial similarities aside, however, Penny Dreadful has less in common with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than you might think. Most of these accusations of plagiarism ignore the fact the Moore was also influenced by mashup texts like The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973), and, ironically, was himself accused of plagiarising Kim Newman’s novel Anno Dracula (1992) back when The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was first published. Most accusations of plagiarism directed at Penny Dreadful also don’t consider that both the monster mashup and the anti-hero team were around long before either Penny Dreadful or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Now, as it finishes its second season and sets itself up for another, Penny Dreadful has clearly made a name for itself in its own right. How, if at all, does it relate to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and to what extent is it worth comparing the two texts?


I’ve recently re-read the full comic book series, and am currently (re)watching seasons 1 and 2 of Penny Dreadful for the thesis chapter I’m working on, which has given me the opportunity to consider these two literary mashups side-by-side at some length. Apart from the fact that the public domain material used in both mashups renders it legally impossible to label either as an act of plagiarism, Penny Dreadful and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen do quite dramatically different things with the same building blocks.

If nothing else, Penny Dreadful and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are an interesting case study in the potential of the mashup as an art form. Despite drawing in many cases from the same pre-existing material, each recombined product is distinct and creatively unique enough to satisfy even the fiercest supporters of the myth of creative genius. Which is the ‘better’ mashup? Fortunately, few have ventured an opinion on the subject, though each certainly has its strengths.


A Bit of Fun

As Mark Clamen of Critics at Large points out in his early analysis of Penny Dreadful, the similarities between these texts are largely superficial. In his review, he probes at the heart of what separates the two:

[Penny Dreadful creator John] Logan’s universe is explicitly gothic to Moore’s more steampunk sensibility, and far less expansive than the graphic novels, both in population and historical ambition.

4604356351_babb2f8aa3_oNot only do the two texts have different aesthetics – LoEG’s cluttered panels often contrast sharply with Penny Dreadful‘s tidy-even-when-gory framing – they also have different approaches to the (late) nineteenth century. Penny Dreadful‘s interpretation of the source material sees Victorian monster texts as literary classics, embodiments of the authors’ efforts to come to terms with their environment and with themselves. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, on the other hand, selects its texts primarily for their entertainment value and sense of adventure, often playing with the fact that we’re still entertained by the same inappropriate things.


Both mashups approach the Victorian canon with a certain reverence, but from completely different angles. As part of an excellent re-reading session of Alan Moore’s work, Tim Callahan talks about how Moore saw The League as ‘almost a bastard stepchild of Lost Girls, just suddenly realising the richness of the literary landscape we’re surrounded by, and that it’s all laying there for the taking.’ In the video below, Moore discusses the development of some of LoEG‘s characters:

For Moore, at least, constructing a story around these characters was clearly about creating a ‘rip-roaring, swashbuckling period adventure’ from the bones of classic adventures he himself admired. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a superhero narrative at heart, and never takes itself too seriously – it’s possessed of a healthy dose of camp. It deals with plenty of serious issues along the way, but this is never really the primary goal of the narrative. The point is to have some fun with the heroes (and villains) of Victorian fiction. It’s a testament to More and O’Niell’s skill as artists (and to the comic book medium as a whole) that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was able to have fun and offer an insightful critique of its source material at the same time.

league 2009

Serious Monsters

In Penny Dreadful, creator John Logan is set on imbuing Victorian monsters with a fresh sense of horror rather than humour, to make them truly frightening again. The first season took itself particularly seriously, and several critics openly suggested that the show might benefit from a bit more camp, and the inclination to enjoy itself more. The second season lightened this serious tone somewhat, but despite its fantastical subject matter, the comparatively mundane themes Penny Dreadful deals with, embodied by its cast of very human monsters, forms the show’s focus. Logan himself explains why this show isn’t really about monsters at all:

‘Within all of us we have secrets, we have demons. We are all monsters,’ says Logan. For him, Penny Dreadful is about the figurative monsters in all of us. Ironically, the serious tone of the show often gets in the way of its message, while The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s irreverent humour allows it to stretch the characters and contexts it appropriates to a greater degree. Although Logan has noble goals for the show, the ‘monsters’ revealed in the process are often disappointingly one-sided.

At the moment, despite Logan’s claims that the show is an ‘exciting way to play with the central duality of what it is to be man, what it is to be a monster, what it is to be woman’, Penny Dreadful seems vastly more interested in certain, arguably more popular or accessible aspects of this ‘central duality’ than it is in others. The show seemingly has no problems exploring hot topics like feminism, bisexuality or trans identities (with varying degrees of success, it should be said), but any time it tries to tackle questions of race or colonialism, for example, the focus is inevitably on white, masculine guilt, inadvertently reproducing the power structures it seeks to undermine. For this and other reasons, Genevieve Valentine of has suggested that Penny Dreadful might have become too Victorian for its own good in this most recent season, often indulging in the familiar stereotypes of its setting rather than pushing the boundaries of horror. Only time will tell, but despite continuing reservations on an academic level, I personally enjoy Penny Dreadful immensely, and I’m looking forward to finding out what season three has in store.



Further Reading

If you’re interested in the literary references to be found in Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, look no further than Jess Nevins’ exhaustive annotations. If you’re looking to explore the cultural context of Penny Dreadful, the internet resources available to you are varied and plentiful. Den of Geeks‘ Michael Noble has a short and interesting piece on some of the mythology and Victorian culture that informs the show, as does Shirley Li from Wired. The official website also has a large selection of supplementary reading, viewing, and listening, including a great production blog. On the more academic side of the spectrum, Sarah A. Winter has written a short article on Penny Dreadful and the Victorian theatre, and Conrad Aquilina and Daniela Attard have put together a delightful, illustrated dissection entitled Penny Dreadful: dismembering and assembling the Victorian Gothic’.