Penny Dreadful was a three season Showtime costume drama pulling together many beloved proto-fantasy and horror stories into one delicious stew of Victorian streets, well spoken dramatic lines, and questionable plot points.
It brings together Frankenstein, his Creature, Dracula, werewolves, Dorian Grey, witches and other bits of gothic horror into one glorious mess.
The last season wrapped up in June 2016 and I finally got around to finishing out season three. And well. I have feelings about it all, in general. Join me in a (relatively) quick review of all three seasons of Penny Dreadful.
Spoilers for each season as we go.
Season One: Creatures and Vampires and Adorable Firing Range Bonding Scenes
The first season, in brief: Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) are hunting for Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn) — Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Vanessa’s friend — who has been taken by a vampire. They are assisted by Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American sharpshooter and secret werewolf, and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). Yes, that Frankenstein. He’s got an annoyed and murderous Creature (Rory Kinnear) on his hands. The Creature, in turn, spends some time working in a theater. That goes badly. Ethan, over the course of the season, falls in love with Brona Croft (Billy Piper) — a prostitute dying of consumption. The season ends with Brona dying and Frankenstein taking her body as the base for his Creature’s bride. Vanessa and Sir Malcolm corner the vampire, find that Mina is too far gone and Sir Malcolm is forced to shoot his daughter.
Oh yes, and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) is running around. He sleeps with three out of five of the main cast and is generally mysterious and bored.
The Poetry of Horror
We are blessed and cursed with a multitude of Frankenstein adaptations, some of which stray quite a bit from the original. Mary Shelley’s Creature learned language by reading Paradise Lost and he speaks with a Miltonian style and vocabulary. Her Dr. Frankenstein stands at the nexus of science and faith. It takes an unhealthy amount of poetry in the soul to believe in a resurrecting a corpse. Alas, our pop culture Creature lost his poetry and became a groaning inarticulate monster, and his creator became a mad scientist.
Penny Dreadful’s Victor Frankenstein gets that right — or at least closer to the lovely tragic hubris of the original. He quotes literature. He’s got a lovely sense of drama and language to go along with the craziness of bringing not one, but two, corpses back from the dead.
Writing. And Actors!
More and more I am convinced that the trick to tackling archetypical stories with dialogue is putting just the slightest twist to the cliche. Which is hard. We use cliches frequently when we speak, and we use them to express important feelings and truths. We say “I love you” — which is a fine phrase. It’s just difficult to use effectively as a tool to convey that sentiment on screen. (e. g. which of these is most memorable and effective?)
Now, Penny Dreadful has its share of cliches — in the dialogue and the storytelling — and, in my opinion, it frequently gets away with these in the first season by using those little twists and casting great actors, who give great performances.
For example, Sir Malcolm and Ethan are chatting about Brona’s consumption and Sir Malcolm says that the illness and its treatment are going to change Brona. Instead of “I’ll still love her” or “I’ll love her anyway” Ethan replies “Then I will love what she becomes.” It’s just this side of trite, barely personal, but it works. And it does double duty as foreshadowing her as Frankenstein’s next Creature.
And I’ll take a moment here to say that all of the main cast is fantastic. Eva Green is willing to be a screaming, weeping, snotting, sweating mess and she’s intense and frightening by turns. Timothy Dalton’s clipped delivery and cold determination are surprisingly nuanced — as is Josh Hartnett’s humor, humanity and love story. I’ve talked about how much I liked Harry Treadaway’s Frankenstein already. Billy Piper is fantastic, despite a thick almost-Irish accent.
The weak links here are Reeve Carney — who doesn’t get much to do, and is disconnected from most of the cast for most of the season — and Rory Kinnear. Kinnear seems even more a victim of the plotting than Carney. So let’s talk about that…
The Creature spends most of the season flipping between vitriol for Frankenstein and being entirely inarticulate with everyone else. It doesn’t read. He survived on his own and made it from Geneva to London. He’s spent the time watching humans — and even if we want to make the argument that his observations don’t translate into experience with interaction, it seems like he probably should have a better handle on imitating human behavior. His attacking the actress, his poor attempt at makeup — it’s inconsistent with his bitter and explicit rage with Frankenstein. And he’s pretty random about murdering people. And he has no connections with any of the other main cast.
Now, let’s talk for a moment about Proteus. In the second episode of Penny Dreadful, one of the more moving scenes is Frankenstein’s (second) Creature emerging from the lab he was resurrected in and beginning to regain his memories. The episode ends with the Creature appearing and tearing Proteus apart.
Which is a wasted storyline. I’m not saying that Proteus should have survived the season, or even that pulling in the Grand Guignol Theater isn’t great fun — but the relationship of a caring Frankenstein with his second Creature, contrasted with the tension between him and the first Creature had a lot more room in it. That all had my interest — and interest shouldn’t be wasted in favor of the inconsistent and convenient bits of plotting the Creature was left with.
The Family We Deserve
Finally, I’m a sucker for stories that revolve around the family we create. The main arc of Vanessa and Sir Malcolm’s narrative is coming to terms with having become family accidentally. Victor and Ethan become friends — and Vanessa suggests that “the boys” should be invited to the Murray house to help decorate for Christmas in the last episode of this season. There’s a lot misery at the end of the season — Brona and Mina are dead, and the Creature is once more on his own, and so is Dorian to some extent — but there’s also a sense that this odd little family will persevere.
Season Two: Witches? Okay…
So — the first time I tried to watch Season Two of Penny Dreadful, I only got through one episode. I’d been out of the world for awhile and it felt like the characters hadn’t held onto their development. It did not catch me. The next time I tried I went right from rewatching Season One into Season Two and it worked much better. The narrative picks up almost immediately and things like Sir Malcolm’s run in with Evelyn Poole make it feel continuous, rather than regressive.
The season, in brief: In season two a coven of witches, lead by Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory) come after Vanessa — who is apparently a bride of darkness capable of bringing on the end of the world if she submits to Lucifer. Ethan, Sir Malcolm, Victor, Semebene (David Sapani) — Sir Malcolm’s servitor and friend — and the wonderful Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) all work to try to keep her safe and away from the devil. Meanwhile Victor and the Creature resurrect Brona as Lily. Predictably, that goes poorly, culminating in her dismissal of them both as she dances away with Dorian Grey. The Creature takes a job in a wax works. Ethan’s past catches up with him. Sir Malcolm has an affair with Evelyn Poole before realizing she’s evil.
The season ends with Vanessa free from Lucifer’s agents, Semebene dead by Ethan-as-Werewolf, most of the witches gone, Ethan headed back to America, and Sir Malcolm off to Africa with Semebene’s body.
Mixing Up the Pairings
This was smart. Semebene bonds with Ethan. Lily nee Brona has important sequences with Victor, the Creature and then Dorian Grey. Vanessa spends time with Victor, with Ethan and with the Creature. Adding Mr. Lyle to the mix gave a different tonal foil to everyone. Ethan has an interesting relationship with the inspector investigating murders he committed in werewolf form. Sir Malcolm has his fling with Evelyn.
Changing up who is spending time with whom fleshes out the characters. It also gives us fun and cheerful opportunities for lighter moments and humor to bleed through the perpetual London grey.
Hope in the Midst of Darkness
One thing this season remembers is that that the darkness hits harder when there is some light to contrast it. *cough cough* Season Five Game of Thrones *cough cough*
The sequences like Ethan and Vanessa having fun in their miserable little house on the moors — flirting while Ethan chops down the tree Vanessa’s mentor was burned alive under… And Vanessa shopping with Victor for women’s clothing for Lily — the woman Victor has resurrected as a wife for his Creature and now fallen for himself…
What I mean is that the darkness is never far off, but giving the audience and the characters moments to breath reminds us why we care about saving the world.
Right. Okay. Angelique is a prostitute who falls in with Dorian Grey for the middle of the season — until Dorian is distracted by the undead Lily. Angelique is also a queer character in a period fantasy tv show. While we don’t get modern explicit vocabulary, Angelique reads as a trans woman and I’m going to treat her as such as I continue with this note.
I’m going to start with the bad. Angelique dies — Dorian kills her when she finds his portrait. This plays into the tragic queer trope, the dead female prostitute trope, the trans character as sex worker trope, the all-non-major-characters-must-be-exited-with-death trope… Not pretty.
Up until that point there’s a lot of good things going for the character. First, she’s actually a character, and she and Dorian deal with her place in society in different ways. She gets to have actual feelings, and she’s portrayed as desirable and clever.
Given that Ethan, Dorian and Mr. Lyle are all a bit queer, given that the world of Penny Dreadful is one where people die — frequently horribly — and given that Dorian’s personality and magic(?) means that he isn’t going to stay attached to her, does that end up justifying her death?
Her whole arc is decent storytelling in a vacuum — and having a trans character in a big budget period piece is a good thing. But you can’t divorce pop culture from the context of life or it loses its meaning. If we had a hundred stories that included queer characters in Victorian London with a comparable budget to produce and advertise those stories, and half died and half lived happily ever after, then I doubt her death would bother me (narratively speaking). But that’s not the world we live in.
I think the show was trying. And I’m glad that Angelique was a part of Penny Dreadful. But I think her death was a bad choice, on a lot of levels.
On a similar note, let’s look at our character of color! Who also dies! Dammit…
Remember everything I just said about context, real life and tropes? Yeah.
Insult to injury, Sembene sacrifices himself rather than letting Ethan sacrifice for him.
I didn’t mention Sembene in my discussion about the first season, because I knew I’d be talking about him here. He didn’t get much fleshing out until season two — and even then he remained close to a stereotype as a wisdom spouting badass. He got some great moments — bringing Sir Malcolm back from possession and helping Ethan with his werewolf problem and the fights with the vampires in season one. But he never got his own story, and that’s who died.
His death breaks up our little family: guilt over his death sends Ethan to turn himself in to the police — who hand him over to the Americans — and Sir Malcolm back to Africa. While I appreciate that his ending has consequence (unlike Angelique’s) it doesn’t make up for the real world context again.
Same conclusion as I had for Angelique. And there’s some compounding of problems when the deaths at the end of season two were: the witches (all women), Sembene (the black man), and Angelique (the transwoman).
Ghosts and The Desire for Normal
I just want to take a moment and applaud the hallucinations of the finale. Victor Frankenstein is trapped with all three of his resurrected Creatures — The Creature, Proteus and Lily — while Sir Malcolm is haunted by his dead family. And it’s crushing to watch these two men being talked towards suicide in different ways, by different ghosts. It’s equally heartbreaking to see Vanessa’s vision of her ‘normal’ life with Ethan and their imaginary children.
There are easy cliches in both those scenarios, and again — the acting and that slight bend away from easy dialogue choices make these hit home.
Season Three: Trainwreck Time
I’d heard the last season was disappointing at best and bad at worst. But I went for it, based on how much fun I had with the first season and the general solid intensity of season two. I wanted to know the ending.
Recap: Ethan is taken back to America to face his father. He is pursued by Hecate, a witch, Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay (Wes Studi) — an Apache man who claims to be a different sort of ‘father’ to Ethan — and eventually by agents of various law enforcement. After a nasty confrontation with his father and a lot of death, Ethan heads back to London with Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm. Meanwhile, in London, Dr. Frankenstein teams up with old friend Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif) to try to invent a serum that will pacify Lily, because Lily is on the other side of town putting together an army of former prostitutes to wreck havoc and murder on London — much to the distress of Dorian Grey, who likes his privacy and his mansion. Vanessa spirals into a nasty depressive period and seeks help from Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone), an early psychotherapist. She falls for the adorable Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo), who turns out to be Dracula. Vanessa finds out that he is Dracula and submits to him. This brings on an unnatural plague fog in London. The others all get together to rescue Vanessa, but it’s too late. Ethan shoots Vanessa and the world is saved.
Who the Hell is the Redhead?
We added three new characters this season. And I think it’s because someone was trying for more diversity? Maybe? We got white women, along with both Native American and biracial men. And one of them worked.
I was intrigued by the interpretation of Dr. Jekyll. But he didn’t do much in a plot which remained mostly disconnected from everything in this season and the previous ones.
Kaetenay, our Apache character, is harder to parse. It is possible that this was a thoroughly researched character — I can’t comment on how accurate or inaccurate the depiction of Apache culture is. I’m going to guess it’s the usual mixture of makebelieve and different Native American cultures. His parallels with Sir Malcolm are well done, and excuse some of the short hand when it comes to Kaetenay’s relationship with Ethan. We’re back in “the family we deserve” territory, and it’s a good theme for the show.
But making Ethan into the subject of Apache myths… And savior myths. Please, can we not do that? Almost all mythology is mildly zenophobic — if you aren’t part of the culture, you sure as hell aren’t going to be a hero. And if the end of the world is happening in England — not Apache Lands — it’s even less likely we’ll be bothering with a myth about it (in a world where myths have some basis in serious, tooth and claw reality anyway).
There are a dozen other reasons this is troubling and bad storytelling too — see the comments on Semebene and Angelique about context.
Finally, we have Miss Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks). What the hell?
Okay — so “Hartdegen” is the name given to H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller in the 2002 movie (he has no name in the book). So maybe this was meant to explain the anachronistic hair and clothes. Except we get nothing but her name and google to make that connection.
But… what? She feels tacked on in order to give us a scientist lady fighter. Given that one of the things I’ve enjoyed about the show is that they’ve done some great strong female characters without relying on “Strong Female Character” tropes, this was particularly depressing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for these faces in this story. But we’re past the point where tokenism is applause worthy.
The one I think works is Dr. Seward. She’s got a nicely odd connection to the second season. She begins the season treating Vanessa’s tales of demons as a mental affliction and comes around to a unique perspective on events — framed by the entirety of Vanessa’s version of the story and the transformation of her secretary, Renfield. Which is all pretty great. And she isn’t helpless in a fight either, which is also great — see all the things I didn’t like in Catriona. And yes, they could have made both of them characters and she could have been a badass — just not such a tropey amalgamation please.
We’ve Been Here Before And It Was Better
Vanessa deals with possession and variously deteriorated states of mental health throughout the first two seasons. And Eva Green embraces those moments with grotesque enthusiasm. She’s vicious and vital and both hard to watch and hard not to watch. So the finale was going to be difficult, if the idea was to beat the extremes she’d already hit. But just … putting her in white? Really? She’s just beaten?
Vanessa spends three seasons fighting the forces of darkness, refusing to be conquered and what finally takes her down is that she submits? Really? This woman defied Satan! She’s friends with Creatures and battles other Creatures. She fights magic and performs it. And what finally takes her down is that she gives in. So ends the world.
And yes, there is cruel pathetic realism to that — to evil sneaking in because you’re tired of fighting. But it’s so… out of character here? For her to use her agency, to go to Dracula and say, “Yup. Okay, I guess I may as well…” And then worse… to regret it so quickly? To see Ethan two episodes later and say “kill me,” is not making a statement about heroism or realism it’s just… miserably out-of-character-plot-furthering-handwaviness.
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the take on Dracula — letting him seduce Vanessa by pretending to be a man she would want to pursue is nice character and story work. It just doesn’t save her choices and non-choices.
I also don’t object to Vanessa perishing at the end — it’s her story, and let’s be honest, it was never going to be a happy one. But this took the rug out from under everything she did and moved her from tragic to aggravating.
Lily’s plot has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative, and ends up going nowhere. Ethan’s plot has little to do with the narrative, but at least he and Sir Malcolm are sort of checking in with Vanessa. Frankenstein’s plot is ostensibly focused on Lily, but really isn’t all that connected to her or anyone else. The Creature’s plot is so disconnected that I only just remembered he had one. Poor Creature. And Vanessa’s is supposed to be the central bit, but it sort of gets overrun by the bits in America — and it’s mostly her chatting up Dracula.
Perhaps the most egregious lost opportunity is never putting Ethan and Brona/Lily in a room together.
When Victor brings Brona back as Lily, it’s such a fantastic opportunity. There are so many ways to approach it and so much conflict inherent in the situation. But no. No. We don’t know how Lily or Ethan or Victor would have handled it. We never get to know how Vanessa or Sir Malcolm would feel about Victor’s abilities or the way he chose to use them. We don’t know how the Creature might have fit into all of that.
It’s a shame that it’s all too spread out.
Yes, There Were Things I Liked
It was a disappointing season, but once more the actors really go for it and are really good at this. The writing is solid, even when the overarching plotting or character choices are uninspiring. Scenes that spring to mind include: the shootout at the church and confrontation with Ethan’s father (Brian Cox), everything with the determined British inspector; and the episode centered around Vanessa’s time in a mental institution with the Creature (pre-death) as her caretaker. Eva Green and Rory Kinnear (and Patti LuPone) are all killing it.
And In The End…
Yeah, I liked Penny Dreadful. I don’t see myself going back to the third season much, but there will be scenes and episodes I return to for inspiration, to check quotes etc… I will forever have a deep affection for most of the actors and I’m curious to see what the creator does next.
I think what makes me happiest is that this is an interesting effort at reinterpreting a bunch of classic stories. Given that there are so many bad reinterpretations of Dracula, Frankenstein etc… very recently, this was often a loving and thoughtful look at what we can do with retold stories individually and intertwined. And why this sort of narrative continues to hold the imagination.
I could keep writing both about things I liked and didn’t like, but I’ve rambled for a long time.
The first two seasons are streaming on Netflix now, and the third season is available to stream from Showtime. Always curious to see what ya’ll think!
*Relative to the show, this is a short piece.
**This is just a lie. I have so many other things I want to dig into on this show. And I skipped a lot. Because this thing is over 3500 words.