Megen de Bruin-Molé (@MegenJM) is a second-year PhD candidate with the school of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. Her current research focuses on neo-historical fiction, using the theme of monsters and the monstrous to explore how and why the twenty-first century persistently appropriates historical fictions, figures, and traces. Follow her blog (angelsandapes.com) for updates and related articles.
This post will contain minor spoilers for seasons 1–2 of Penny Dreadful (Showtime/Sky; 2014-present). It also contains various plot details from season 3, but only in the second half of the review. The transition will be clearly marked.
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.
That said, Penny Dreadful’s other strength lies in its character studies, which manage to be as suspenseful and arresting as its general atmosphere. Penny Dreadful sets out to reanimate the horror of Victorian Gothic, and does so in imaginative ways. In an excellent essay on Penny Dreadful and the Victorian Gothic (which includes spoilers for season 1), Conrad Aquilina explores how the literary monsters that inspire each character form a commentary on their personal characterisation, and on the human condition more broadly:
Penny Dreadful’s characters are dual in their singularity, and we are reminded of their essential difference in the show’s tagline: ‘There is some thing within us all.’ There is some ‘thing’, some inexplicable but real essence which runs counter to sanity and progress and which periodically irrupts in the rational universe from within. Evil in Logan’s Penny Dreadful is not merely ‘something’. Gone is the abstraction that renders it undefinable or negligible, to be replaced by an atavism, some thing, that feeds on humanity’s most primal emotions – fear, hate lust, anger and hunger.
Already, then, we see that the literary monsters Penny Dreadful aims to rehabilitate carry a great deal of metaphorical weight. Notably, the most physically monstrous characters are often the least emotionally and morally so. The way the show deals with the surfeit of meaning it assigns to its monsters has not been flawless (there are, as with many contemporary television shows, some very unfortunate representational issues), but the attempts it makes are valiant nonetheless.
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 here on the Victorianist. This post will be a bit longer than the ones that follow, and the review itself a bit shorter, to accommodate the general introduction it includes. As the season unfolds, and patterns begin to emerge, there will hopefully be more to digest.
MY REVIEW OF THE SEASON 3 PREMIERE OF PENNY DREADFUL FOLLOWS (WITH SPOILERS)!
You can catch the teaser trailer for Penny Dreadful season 3 right here:
Without further ado, then, my review of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’, Penny Dreadful’s season 3 premiere. For this week I’ll be focusing on several specific scenes in the episode that seem likely to ground the rest of this season’s story arc. These pertain to its representations of the domestic, the monstrous, and the nature of faith.
Penny Dreadful is steeped in domestic spaces. Much of its horror is built on the invasion of said spaces, and most of its scenes are staged in one home or another. The seance from season 1 takes places in the home of Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. The bar in which Ethan Chandler drinks, converses, and later conducts his murderous transformation into a werewolf is the one he lives above. Most notably, Sir Malcolm’s palatial London townhouse is the place the central characters frequently meet, fight, conspire, and call home.
This makes it all the more noticeable when season 3 opens to shots of the house dusty, dark, and in a state of general disrepair. The beginning of this season, it seems, will be about leaving home – at least for the show’s male characters. Penny Dreadful’s main cast was separated at the end of last season, and it appears they will remain so for the foreseeable future. Sir Malcolm (and Sembene) are in Zanzibar, and Ethan has been carted off to the American West. Victor Frankenstein, in London, has buried himself in work that seems likely to keep him quite occupied. His first creation (Rory Kinnear) – who now calls himself John Clare, after the 19th-century poet – is somewhere off in the frozen north. Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper) and Dorian Gray don’t make an appearance in this episode, so we’ll have to wait until next week to find out what they’ve been up to in the interim.
Vanessa Ives is also in London, but unlike the others she has shut herself up in Sir Malcom’s townhouse, surrounded by dirty dishes, overturned lamps, and unread post. Without the others, she has lost all purpose, and is left alone and vulnerable. Fittingly, the day on which we return to the series (and to Miss Ives) is also the day Alfred Tennyson died – 6 October 1892. In a way, Tennyson’s death in this episode also suggests a departure from the strictly Victorian, echoing the locational shift away from London and the domestic. (Discussions about poetry and poetics are another delightful staple of the series.) Tennyson’s death and Vanessa’s own loss of hope and faith are symbolically intertwined.
When Vanessa finds renewed strength at the end of the episode, then, and sets out to restore the house to its former glory, this too is symbolic. The domestic – the show’s core aesthetic – will be revitalised once more. And though Vanessa has lost that sense of faith and progress we find so stereotypically Victorian, she has found new purpose. In her own words: ‘The old monsters are gone. The old curses have echoed to silence. And if my mortal soul is lost to me something yet remains. I remain.’
Though this shift away from Victorian ideologies and aesthetics could signal some exciting explorations of, for example, feminist history and postcolonial identity, the rest of the episode still leaves me unsure. While Sir Malcolm is in Zanzibar, he meets a Native scalper and shaman named Kaetenay (Wes Studi), who convinces him that Ethan Chandler needs their help. We can hope that Kaetenay will be better utilised than Sembene, who in the first two seasons mainly served as a token character, there to superficially aid the white protagonist.
When we return to London, it is to follow another non-white addition to the cast, the British-Indian Dr Jekyll (Shazad Latif). Unlike the buildup the show indulged in to introduce Viktor Frankenstein, Jekyll’s name is dropped with relatively little fanfare. There is no beating around the bush, though the show knows that we know the name, and hints at where the season is going accordingly. In a counterpoint to the diverse casting, though, initial impressions suggest that Jekyll’s role, like Sembene’s, will be a supporting one. In this episode the focus is all on Frankenstein, who laments: ‘I’ve conquered death…and have created monsters. None more so than the man who sits before you.’ Will Penny Dreadful remain a tale of white guilt and atonement? Only time will tell.
The introduction of Dr Seward (Patti LuPone), the alienist Vanessa visits to help her recover from her melancholia, is conducted with equally minor fanfare. The only real twists here are that Seward is female, and that she is related to Joan Clayton, the ‘cut-wife’ (abortionist) and witch who trained Vanessa in magic. It does mean the episode passes the Bechdel test, which is a trend I would be happy to see continue on the show. Vanessa’s conversation with Dr Seward also introduces the discourse of medical diagnoses – of not being ‘bad, not unworthy, but ill’. Naturally the story is a bit more complicated than this, given that Vanessa also happens to be possessed by a demon. In any case I’m very interested to see how the show will spin out this relationship between the medical, the emotional, and the supernatural in this season.
All in all, the premiere of season 3 marked a departure from the previous two seasons, and the changes it promises make me eager to see what it will actually deliver. Notably, the tone of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’ was more adventure than horror, jumping from one character to another and pushing the plot along at relatively breakneck pace – until we reached the very end of the episode. Renfield (who is Dr Seward’s secretary, and whose identity feels obvious when it’s stated), goes to meet a prostitute, and is accosted by a supernatural force.
We don’t get to see what terrifies Renfield at the episode’s conclusion, only Renfield’s fear (brilliantly conveyed by actor Samuel Barnett; let’s hope Renfield gets to live for a few episodes so we can experience more of his superb acting). This is part of what makes the scene so terrifying. It is once again the Penny Dreadful we know and love, in all its glory. Clanking meat hooks. Rustling leaves. Whispers and unseen terrors. In a word: spine-tingling.
After introducing several major literary characters with relatively little fanfare, the show saves its name-dropping power for the grand finale, and it’s a doozy. When Dracula’s name is spoken into the darkness before the closing credits, I dare you not to feel a thrill of terror, awe, and excitement.
- Did anyone else assume that the taxidermist Dr Sweet is a nod to series consultant and Victorianist Matthew Sweet? Can anyone confirm this? I will try to dig up more information on this for future reviews.
- John Clare’s role in this episode is tantalisingly brief, but the flash of what are apparently his human memories hints that he will be featured more prominently very soon.
- ‘What if I could tame her? Domesticate her?’ Jekyll is supremely creepy in this scene, where he offers to help Victor deal with Lily Frankenstein. The options are either ‘helping’ Lily or destroying her. Here’s hoping the series unpacks this problematic point of view in future episodes.
- There were a few nice little nods to various Penny Dreadful veterans in the taxidermy museum – the wolf, the scorpion, the dusty, unwanted specimens. Also the line from the teaser trailer: ‘All the broken and shunned creatures. Someone’s got to care for them. Who will it be, if not us?’ I’m eager to see what other links emerge between Dr Sweet’s museum and the world of the story.
- As in previous seasons, there is so much STUFF in this episode, and a great many shots of people touching, smelling, or otherwise engaging with material objects. Victoriana at its best.
Read the other reviews in this series of Penny Dreadful season three recaps by clicking the links below. (New links will become active as new episodes and reviews are released.)
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’
Episodes Eight & Nine: ‘Perpetual Night’ and ‘The Blessed Dark’