Showtime, currently streaming on Netflix
Creator: John Logan
Starring: Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear, Reeve Carney
“I believe in curses. I believe in demons. I believe in monsters. Do you?”
With roots in Nineteenth-century literature ranging from its most sublime poetry to the pulp stories of the penny dreadfuls, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful filled a gap for many fans of Gothic culture. While the Victorian era is a popular milieu for true crime, crime dramas, and Steampunk, it has often been under served when it comes to horror. Though Alan Moore created the brilliant graphic novel, From Hell, its 2001 film adaptation was a resounding flop. 2012 gave us an adaptation of The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe, which referenced the Hammer horror films of the mid-twentieth century, but it came and went with only a little fanfare. And so, when Penny Dreadful premiered in 2014, it was in a class by itself, especially when it came to American television.
The first season introduces us to our main characters, most of whom are drawn from literature: Frankenstein and his monster (Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear, respectively), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and a character inspired by Dracula– Sir Malcolm Murray, Mina Harker’s father (Timothy Dalton). Ethan Chandler is an American sharpshooter fleeing the American justice system (Josh Hartnett). The star of the show around whom the rest of the cast orbits is Vanessa Ives, who comes to life thanks to a masterful performance by Eva Green.
As the first season opens, Sir Malcolm is searching for his daughter, Mina, who has been kidnapped by a monster. To aid him, Vanessa attends the Wild West Show where Ethan is performing in order to recruit him for ‘night work’. He is reluctant at first but is charmed by this mysterious woman and agrees. That night, he, Vanessa, and Sir Malcolm go into the basement of an opium den where a nest of terrifying creatures reside. They manage to kill them, but Mina is not there. They take the corpse of the master of the nest to a place where medical students perform illegal autopsies on stolen bodies. There, they meet a brilliant but arrogant young doctor (Harry Treadaway) that Vanessa convinces to aid them in their cause. With their combined skills and knowledge, they determine that the creature lives on blood and that it has an exoskeleton covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Book of the Dead. The hunt continues, now aided with this new information. Both Malcolm and Vanessa are determined to find Mina, Malcolm because he is her father, and Vanessa because she was Mina’s childhood friend– and who she once betrayed in an unforgivable manner.
That night, a storm brews over London. Lightning strikes the young doctor’s laboratory just after he arrives home, animating the fresh corpse attached to a machine. Though frightened, the doctor introduces himself to the newly animated corpse by saying, “My name is Victor Frankenstein”.
Ethan, meanwhile, is shaken by recent events and ends up in a ramshackle inn near the docks. He meets a cheerful Irishwoman, Brona Croft (Billie Piper) who is afflicted with Consumption and scrapes by making what money she can as a sex worker. As they converse, it’s clear that Ethan is developing an interest in Brona. He asks to rent a room at the inn after Brona leaves. Brona, in the meantime, goes to the home of a wealthy young man (Reeve Carney) who has hired her to pose for a series of erotic photographs.
As the season progresses, we learn about the relationships between the characters, their histories, the darkness within them all, and their past sins. Sir Malcolm may be a famous explorer, but he is also an agent of British colonialism. The animated man we meet early in the season is not the first that Dr. Frankenstein has created. Dorian Gray seems like a cultured aristocrat, but darkness lurks under his beautiful exterior. Ethan will not say what legal troubles are in his past, but he says it would kill him to turn back and face them.
But among all of them, Vanessa contains the most darkness. In her soul, there is a shadow of something ancient and evil. It gives her strange abilities, but it could unleash horrendous darkness into the world if she loses control of them.
“Do you believe there is a demimonde..? A half-world between what we know and what we fear. A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt.”
There is no actress in Hollywood or anywhere else who could have embodied a dark and complicated character like Vanessa Ives. Here is a woman intelligent enough to deduce with Holmes-like accuracy, fearless enough to face down terrifying creatures of the night, devoted to her friend enough to live with someone who hates her, and beautiful enough to capture the eye of every man who looks at her. Unlike many actresses, Green has superb vocal control, which allows her to deliver complicated Victorian lines with ease and insert anything from airy delight to purring seduction into them. This control is obvious in episodes 102, ‘Seance’, 105 ‘Closer Than Sisters’, and 107 ‘Possession’, but an observant watcher will see it in virtually every scene she is in.
Another factor that makes Green irreplaceable in the role is that she is unafraid to look ugly in scenes that require it. In the episode ‘Closer Than Sisters’, we see the history between Vanessa, Mina, and Sir Malcolm. As a young woman, Vanessa fell victim to a strange illness and underwent a variety of frightening Victorian “cures”. These supposed treatments destroyed her beauty while she suffered from the illness, but Green commits to her performance in these scenes as fully as those where she is clad in fine gowns.
As the season progresses, Vanessa becomes the heart of this group of sinners. She smooths their rough edges enough for them to work together and in turn they come to love her enough to aid her in her darkest hours. Though the younger men become like brothers, her relationship with Sir Malcolm is contentious enough that they are often at each other’s throats, and Sir Malcolm comes under fire for his treatment of Vanessa.
“Remember us as better than we are.”
“I’ve learned long since, that truth is mutable.”
Sir Malcolm Murray is an acclaimed explorer whose lifelong goal has been to discover the source of the Nile. Along the way he encounters African tribes and charts landforms, naming them in honor of England and his own fame, obsessively pursuing his goal no matter the cost. When his daughter Mina goes missing, he turns that single-mindedness to finding her, once again ignoring the cost to those around him. Timothy Dalton brings a gravitas and intensity to the role, playing the part of English imperialist to a ‘T’, and though he is a charismatic figure, it is easy to come to despise him for the things he’s done. And yet, by the end of the season, you might begin to feel sorry for him in spite of his sins.
“There are such sins at my back it would kill me to turn around.”
Thanks to his acting history as a bit of a Hollywood heartthrob, Josh Hartnett’s appearance in a show like Penny Dreadful was unexpected. But like the rest of the cast, he, too, embodies his role perfectly. When we first meet Ethan Chandler, he is performing as a sharpshooter in a Wild West Show, pretending to be a survivor of The Battle of the Little Bighorn. But Vanessa’s initial appraisal of him is accurate. He is “a man of great violence and hidden depths”. What these depths are are often only hinted at throughout season one, but in spite of his violent capabilities he is often the conscience of the group, reminding them to be human and forcing them to think of their responsibilities to each other, no matter what they’re facing.
“There is only one worthy goal for scientific exploration: piercing the tissue that separates life from death.”
Doctor Victor Frankenstein is as single-minded as Sir Malcolm when it comes to pursuing his goals, which are even less justified than the explorer’s. His pet theories result in death for others and personal calamities that could cost him everything. Though he is highly educated, his obsession has kept him from truly living life, rendering him at turns naive or cruel. And rather than seeking wisdom and companionship, he has found comfort in drugs, an addiction that he acknowledges, but is unwilling to treat. Harry Treadaway’s performance is eerie and compelling, and he shows great depths within the ‘mad scientist’ trope. Instead of a one-dimensional character, we are treated to a nuanced portrayal of an obsessed scientist who has long wished that he could be the cherished one– the favored son or beloved friend, but knowing that will never be his lot in life.
“I never say no.”
Though he is not part of the core group at Greenwich Place, Dorian Gray is still essential to the story. There is a mystery to him that remains unsolved (unless you’ve read Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray). He is strange and somewhat ethereal, like he’s not quite from the same time as everyone else. On the surface he seems to be nothing more than a pleasure-seeking dandy. He is obsessed with new sensations and experiences; he loves music, art, and theater, and will welcome anyone into his home– and into his bed. But while he seems to be little more than a wealthy dandy, darkness lies beneath his exterior. And while he seeks new experiences, everything seems to bore him in short order. What is his secret, and what force heals him in moments after he is injured?
“I came in search of those green pastures you hear tell about.”
Billie Piper shines as Brona Croft, a down-on-her luck woman searching for a better life in London, but thanks to her lack of education, her lower-class Irish accent, and the mechanization of every trade (except one) that she can find work in, those green pastures are mere myth to her. What’s more, she is afflicted with Consumption, a common respiratory disease that nearly always results in death. Because Brona has no money, she can’t afford any of the medicines that might help her, and so she turns to alcohol to take the edge off her pain. Throughout it all, though, she tries to grasp whatever small joys are available to her, though even she has moments where despair overtakes her.
“I learned to stay in the shadows, to protect such a heart as this you gave me.”
Rory Kinnear’s turn as the Creature is a study in extremes, capturing the essence of Mary Shelley’s literary creation in her classic novel, Frankenstein. He is at turns naive and hopeful, openly suffering when he encounters spiteful people, and resentful when his attempts at affection are spurned. He hates the man to made him, but must rely upon him to achieve own goals. He finds moments of kindness and acceptance, though, when he meets Vincent, an aging theater manager who offers him a job and a home in the theater.
The acting and script aren’t the only parts of Penny Dreadful that shine. The production value is as high as any other premier drama, thanks to the budget that a channel like Showtime can provide. Every set, from the grimy inn where Brona and Ethan live, Victor’s ramshackle laboratory, Dorian’s shining home, to Sir Malcolm’s estate by the sea feel authentically Victorian, as though the production team was able to travel through time and bring these places into the twenty-first century. You can almost smell the gas lamps that light streets and homes or feel the fog that turns streets into mysterious and threatening places. The cinematography, too, is expertly done, ranging from wide shots to extreme close-ups as the story requires. This is all backed up by Abel Korzeniowski’s lush musical score, which adds to the heightened emotion inherent to Gothic tales.
Though modern horror fans often seek suspense, thrills, and jump scares in their films and television shows, Penny Dreadful still falls into the category of horror, which depicts horrifying or macabre events. The monsters of Penny Dreadful certainly fall into the category of macabre, and the pervasive atmosphere and the dread and emotion it inspires makes it a prime example of Gothic television. For those whose cultural tastes tend toward the darker or Victorian end of the spectrum, Penny Dreadful is not to be missed.
Books, Poems, and Music of Penny Dreadful, season 1:
- ‘Lines Written in Early Spring‘ by William Wordsworth
- ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ by John Keats
- ‘Adonais‘ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
- ‘Liebestod‘, from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner