Penny Dreadful Review: ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’ (Season 3, Episode 3)

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, 20 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.

With a third of this season’s nine-episode run now complete, it’s still surprisingly difficult to judge where we should be at this point in Penny Dreadful’s story arc. Season one forced us to slowly stew in dread and suspense until the last few episodes, building up the struggles and motivations of its central characters. Season two jumped straight into supernatural action, then stepped back to let side stories unravel, and plotlines settle into place.

 

Season three seems like it’s trying to do both action and suspense simultaneously, and episode three of the season gives us two main storylines to follow. One is set in the American West, as werewolf Ethan Talbot continues to be pursued by various people. The other is set in London, where Vanessa Ives seems to lose all the progress she made in her therapy with Dr Seward last episode. Vanessa comes to realise she is still being stalked by a powerful evil she can’t yet name, and at the end of the episode we learn that Dracula has plans to break Vanessa both mentally and physically.

With Van Helsing dead in season one, I would love to see Vanessa become the key agent of Dracula’s demise in Penny Dreadful – if, indeed, he does meet his end in the show. She still has a long way to go as a character if this is to become her role, however.

As in previous seasons, Vanessa’s storyline bears most of the slow horror in this episode. Are these monsters in her head, or are they a physical threat? And on which front will she need to be strongest in order to resist them? Once again, a key scene between Vanessa and her psychoanalyst, Dr Seward, explores the relationship between pain and sickness, fantasy and delusion. Seward believes that Vanessa sees monsters, but she does not believe in the supernatural herself. ‘It is a dark root without a name, from which grows illness’, Seward theorises. Monsters come from pain, and represent the speakable part of the unspeakable. To cope with the unspeakability of its experiences, ‘the mind creates order around it’.

Vanessa, tired of Seward’s cool rationalism, comes down on the opposite side of the argument. ‘Such things have a name’, she says. ‘They are witches, they are vampires, they are Lucifer. They are all those things which walk in your nightmares’. While monsters (real and fantastical) may always be unspeakable to a certain degree, for the first time the show firmly grounds Vanessa’s mental demons in a physical reality. Vanessa is forced to confront one of these monsters in the fun house hall of mirrors she visits with Dr Sweet, and another when she uses hypnotism to revisit her memories of the asylum. She has lost her faith; her ‘soul’. Will she lose her mind as well?

Ethan’s story is shaped by a markedly different kind of confrontation, not at all fraught by the doubt and tension that colours Vanessa’s experiences. Ethan’s story teases us with apocalypse, and with a legend of salvation. As we learned last season from Lucifer’s memoirs, Ethan is the ‘Lupus Dei’ or ‘Wolf of God’, who will play some vital role in a great battle to come. In season two Penny Dreadful’s heroes believed that Ethan could save Vanessa from the witches. Now Hecate, one of those same witches, is attempting to shape Ethan into a weapon for the forces of evil.

How does Hecate plan to corrupt the noble Ethan? By ensuring he is ‘painted with blood’, a phrase that returns several times throughout the episode.  In the case of Hecate, this symbolic gesture of belonging amounts to embracing the monster. It means acknowledging your own brutality, rather than denying it as Ethan does, slaughtering hundreds in his unconscious, werewolf form. All in all, the Chosen One trope is common enough to make the ‘Wolf of God’ storyline seem pretty predictable, and at the moment it feels unlikely that Ethan will turn to the proverbial dark side.

Like Hecate, Dorian Gray also talks about being ‘painted in blood’ this week, describing to a vulnerable Justine how ‘In the Dark Ages, in certain parts of Europe, novitiate nuns were asked to pledge themselves to God… in blood. […] Much as soldiers in ancient Rome would have to prove themselves by killing an enemy. You were not a Legionnaire unless painted with blood.’ No coincidence, I would wager, that Dorian cites two major colonising forces as his examples here.

Other minor storylines in this episode follow up on these themes. Apocalypse of a different kind is brewing in London, as Lily Frankenstein sets out to form an underground army of ‘whores and fallen women. The disgraced and the powerless. […] All those invisible women who move unseen through this great city’. We are treated to a glimpse of a suffragette march, but when Justine remarks that Lily and the suffragettes have a lot in common, Lily disagrees. She wants mastery, not equality, and she plans to achieve it through stealth, not overt protest. She, too, will paint the world red.

In one of the more visceral moments of this surprisingly gory episode, Dorian, Lily, and Justine literally paint each other in the blood of the man who abused Justine, smearing it onto each other’s bodies in a disturbing sexual threesome.

This episode metaphorically paints its audience in blood as well. What does it mean that we are complicit in, and may well take pleasure in, watching this violence unfold on screen? Are good and evil really intertwined, or is that what we tell ourselves to absolve us of our guilt? Can monsters be named, or can they only be deferred?

In our final minor plotline, Henry Jekyll disagrees with Victor Frankenstein on this last question. Their difference of opinion is marked by the adversity Jekyll has faced as a result of his class and racial background. He is angry, but must push his anger aside in order to function in society. We cannot afford, he argues, to be both angel and demon: ‘We must be the that thing the world demands of us’.

After this jam-packed hour of television, I hope we get a slower, more focused episode sometime soon. All the jumping around from storyline to storyline, as entertaining as it may be, is also starting to feel a little crowded.

Notes

  • So far, this season has done a much better job of addressing themes of race and oppression than the previous two, in that it at least acknowledges their presence in discussions of monstrosity. I am still waiting for it to pay more than simple lip service to these themes, however, and this episode’s depictions of Ethan as a White Saviour of Natives and monsters alike has done little to convince me this will happen.
  • As far as I can tell, the title of the episode (‘Good and Evil Braided Be’) is a reference to Herman Melville’s 1855 serialised novella Benito Cereno.
  • Lily waxes romantic about Ethan as the only man who ‘didn’t want to fuck me or beat me’. While this presumably piles another layer onto the Wolf of God mythos the show is building, but I don’t find Ethan’s lack of appetite for sexual or physical abuse all that glamorising.
  • Kaetaney’s appearances are frequently accompanied by the sounds of a rattlesnake. Is he fated to be another Western stereotype of the skinwalker, as his relationship to Ethan suggests? The appearance of the rattlesnake alongside the wolf and scorpion in Sweet’s taxidermy museum suggests that the series is also drawing a less literal parallel between human and animal, as it did with Vanessa and the scorpion in season two.
  • Renfield eating a fly was a nice camp nod to the Dracula mythos. Also, vampires are visible in mirrors in Penny Dreadful.

Gender and Horror (CfP)

ĸó_2015_08_04_16_23_23_663 Three scholars from Leeds Beckett University are inviting chapter submissions for a new edited collection on gender and horror. The call for papers is below.


This edited collection aims to re-examine horror in an era of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings. There have been many developments in the horror genre and whilst much of it has been reliant on previous material, there are also many shifts and changes such as:

  • cross-over of genres (for example, teen romance paired with vampires and werewolves, or horror in space);
  • new formats such as Netflix, and cinema no longer being the only place we see horror;
  • a resurgence of stories of hauntings and ghosts;
  • and the popularity of ‘found footage’.

We wish to focus specifically on horror from 1995 to the present, as after a brief hiatus in the mainstream, the 1990s saw the return of horror to our screens – including our TV screens with, for example, Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and with horror and its characters more knowing than before.

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We are happy for you to compare older material with newer versions, such as the recent Netflix version of The Exorcist (2016) with the original film The Exorcist (1973). The main requirement is that you interrogate whether the portrayal of gender has changed in horror – it may look like something different (more positive?) is happening, but is it?

We hope to encourage diverse perspectives and we welcome early career researchers and new voices to offer a different light on classic material, in sole- or multi-authored chapters.

We’d also like to gently remind potential authors that ‘gender’ doesn’t only apply to women, it applies to men and masculinities, and it encompasses non-binary identities and experiences, as well as issues about ‘race’, ethnicities and class.

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The schedule is as follows:

  • You send your chapter title, 200 word abstract and brief bio by the end of May 2017.
  • The finalised proposal will be sent to the publisher Emerald in early summer.
  • Your final first draft chapter (approx 7000 words) should be sent to us by January 31st 2018 (reminder/s will be sent).
  • We will return any comments/revisions by the end of March 2018, and ask that you send us the final revised chapter by the end of June 2018.
  • The completed manuscript will be submitted in July 2018 for publication in early 2019.

Please send your chapter titles, 200 word abstracts and a brief bio to the book editors by the end of May.

If you have any queries, or would like to contribute but need to tweak the schedule, please email us.

Editors:

Dr Samantha Holland s.holland@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

Dr Steven Gerrard   S.D.Gerrard@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

Prof Robert Shail   R.Shail@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

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If you are not familiar with the publisher, Emerald are an independent publisher, established by academics in 1967 and committed to retaining their independence.

And for your future reference: All hardback monograph publishing will be available in paperback after 24 months, and all books are available as ebooks. Emerald commission and cover the cost of indexing if authors don’t want to do it themselves; use professional designers for each individual book jacket; and aim to exceed the royalties of other publishers. They have international offices, but pride themselves on not being a ‘corporate machine’.

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Anonymity and the Privilege of Uncreative Writing

Photo Credit: © Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center
Kenneth Goldsmith, © Cameron Wittig (Walker Art Center)

On on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven months later, on March 13, 2015, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith sparked an internet controversy when he performed a remixed version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the ‘Interrupt 3’ event at Brown University. Recordings of the reading were never released (at Goldsmith’s request), but details and quotations were spread in textual form.

Responses to the reading were varied. Most questioned whether Goldsmith, a white man, had the right to appropriate Brown’s autopsy report – and by extension, his body and his memory – in this way. The answer, in most cases, was ‘no’.

In a post on his Facebook page that has since been deleted, Goldsmith initially defended his appropriation and performance by arguing that he was simply artistically reproducing a text that already existed (as all writing does):

I altered the text for poetic effect; I translated into plain English many obscure medical terms that would have stopped the flow of the text; I narrativized it in ways that made the text less didactic and more literary […] That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.

Of course, Goldsmith contradicts himself a bit here. He both claims responsibility for the text and doesn’t. What is more important in a work of art, the content or the context? In an interview at the 2015 Poetry International (PI) festival in Rotterdam, Goldsmith reiterated his opinion that context is, in fact, everything:

You can watch the full interview (plus a poetry performance) below, and can find more video of this and other festivals over on PI’s YouTube channel:

Goldsmith’s presence at the PI festival was also considered controversial by some, especially in light of other ongoing diversity issues. The Amsterdam-based literary journal Versal issued an open letter to PI in response to their invitation of Goldsmith (and other white, male poets), calling for the organisation to ‘redistribute [their] public funds to the full array of poets engaged in our art, in line with the Dutch Cultural Policy Act’s stated intention for cultural diversity’.

In the above discussion, which included fellow poet and then-PI editor Mia You, four panelists discussed the delicate politics of diversity and representation in contemporary poetry and conceptual art. You referred obliquely to the Versal letter at the beginning of the discussion, which involved several other questions about diversity in contemporary poetry more generally: 

Crucially, in the discussion Goldsmith also recanted his previous defences of the autopsy report performance. He explained that while the words he appropriated were capable of being powerful and potent art, the form and context into which he put those words was a mistake:

In a move that still echoes the attitude of many mashup artists and critics, however, Goldsmith did also suggest that remix is fundamentally liberating and boundary-breaking, partly because it can give its authors a new kind of anonymity. As examples he cited music sampling and re-sharing over the internet, usually unsigned, and later the revolutionary hacking group Anonymous. Anonymity is seen as increasingly central to many social and economic processes in the age of the internet.

Mia You responded with the following question:

In other words, don’t some people deserve the right to be celebrated as authors, or artists, or creative geniuses in their own right, because they were never really accepted in these roles by mainstream culture in the first place? Does the rest of the world have to be done with these modes of identity because white men are?

This was certainly one of the issues in the case of Michael Brown, whose identity came to be defined in the public eye through the work of white men: the police officer who shot him, and the poet who appropriated his autopsy report as a piece of conceptual art. The public never really knew him in his own right, through a persona that he himself constructed.

It’s been nearly two years since Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and just over a year since Goldsmith performed his reading at Brown University.

I started this post last June, but I’ve been sitting on it for a year now. Primarily because it’s a subject I’m still digesting, but also because discussions of cultural appropriation seem to have remained a very relevant and unresolved part of our current media landscape. What do you think? Is remix inherently oppressive in the hands of the cultural majority? Does it create a new kind of anonymity, or a new kind of celebrity authorship? If so, how might we change the discourse?