This post contains plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful, as well as a few minor comments on the HBO series Game of Thrones that might be construed as spoilers.
Penny Dreadful’s identity as a show hinges on a small number of key characteristics. One is its appropriation of Gothic monsters. Another is its status as a premium cable series, and a work of ‘quality television’. Just a few weeks ago, Robin Burks of TechTimes.com had the following to say about the series in this context:
Penny Dreadful doesn’t need the shock and awe that shows such as Game of Thrones often rely on. Instead, it’s a smart and frightening tale told slowly by candlelight that holds a light up to the monster that lives within all of us.
-Robin Burks, TechTimes.com, 26 April 2016
In other words, Penny Dreadful frames itself as an intellectual show, for an audience of television connoisseurs. Arguably, Game of Thrones does the same, though it is increasingly criticised for its utilisation of nudity, gore, and sexual violence. While Penny Dreadful may not need to resort to Game of Thrones’s particular set of shock tactics, there’s no substantial difference between the way this episode handles its ‘adult’ content and the way the recent season six premiere of Game of Thrones does so.
The episode opens with some light Orientalism, as Lily and Dorian make their way through what is clearly marked as Chinatown (red lanterns, men with long braids and silk caps selling fruit from street carts). Here they enter a private club, where it is revealed that certain gentlemen pay to watch as young girls being beaten to death. Here we are introduced to a new character, Justine (played by Jessica Barden), though we are exposed to her body in intimate detail long before we know her face, let alone her name.
Like Brona/Lily, Angelique and Vanessa before her, then, Justine is yet another stereotypical ‘Strong Female Character’ with sexual trauma in her past. This trauma is clearly the reason Lily has chosen her to participate in her vendetta against the gentlemen of London, however, and the way this plot line aims to complicate the show’s definition of monstrosity as a choice rather than a condition could yet prove interesting. In essence, Vanessa and Lily also represent two vastly different responses to sexual trauma, linking them to different perspectives on both feminism and the ‘New Woman’. Lily reflects the violence and oppression that was inflicted upon her, planning to take down not just the men who wronged her, but the patriarchy altogether. Vanessa turns her pain inward, blaming herself for the violations she has suffered. Neither paints a very positive picture of female identity and agency, but then again few characters in Penny Dreadful are shown to be truly admirable.
The episode closes out in a surprise reveal much more reminiscent of Game of Thrones than it is of Penny Dreadful. Dr Alexander Sweet, the taxidermist and zoologist who is Vanessa’s most recent object of attraction, has been Dracula all along. This makes him one in a long line of monsters to whom Vanessa feels drawn, and this attraction may well have something to do with the sexual nature of the demon that possesses Vanessa. In any case, there is none of the abject terror present at the end of ‘The Day Tennyson Died’. Instead, the finale relies on inappropriate desire to unsettle the viewer – though both scenes rely heavily on the superb acting of Samuel Barnett. Falling to his knees, Renfield latches onto Dracula’s bleeding wrist a little too eagerly, and a little too amorously, for comfort. ‘You will be flesh of my flesh,’ Dracula tells Renfield, ‘blood of my blood.’
Strange and inappropriate relationships are highlighted across the pond as well, as we rejoin Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm on their journey to find Ethan Chandler/Talbot in North America. Ethan, we discover, is an honorary Apache, though exactly how he came upon this identity is unclear. Kaetenay claims Ethan as a son, but he also reveals that Ethan killed his first family. Certain bonds, he argues, are as strong as those created by blood. Kaetenay describes a hatred for someone so strong that you cannot kill them, but instead wish them to suffer with you forever. Not only does this echo some of Sir Malcolm’s familial issues in seasons 1-2, it also opens up an allegorical discussion of American colonial policy. How do you live with someone (or the memory of someone) who has done you a terrible wrong, or whom you yourself have wronged?
Memory, identity, and forgetting in the light of monstrosity is once again a strong theme on Penny Dreadful. In this week’s therapy scene, Seward’s practice of recording sessions on wax cylinders causes Vanessa to comment on the burden of memory technology imposes on us.‘How could we forget anything?’ she asks, to which Seward responds ‘Why would you want to?’
‘Who wants to remember their shame, or sin, or foolishness?’, is Vanessa’s reply. This leads Seward to blur the lines between therapy and confession, as she compels Vanessa to not only tell her story, but to ‘tell me your sins’. Though it seems to help Vanessa temporarily this episode, not only does her confession visibly disturb Dr Seward, it also falls into Renfield’s hands, and through him Dracula is able to glean the information about Vanessa he so desperately (and mysteriously) desires.
To what end? Is forgetting ultimately the better of the two options? Hopefully all will become clearer next week. Stay tuned!
– The mandatory ‘laboratory reveal’ camera pan around Jekyll’s work space in Bedlam was a nice homage to classic horror. Also, the barber chair at its centre is clearly a nod to Sweeney Todd. I wonder whether that particular character will be making an appearance on Penny Dreadful this season.
– We were introduced to Dracula’s hollow-eyed lieutenant in the previous episode, but in this one we learn he’s also an accomplished violinist. Does Dracula just like a bit of classical music in the evening, or is it a hint about this character’s identity? At the risk of reducing literary characters to their hobbies, what Victorian literary characters do we know who play the violin?
– Renfield can’t stand the bells memorialising Tennyson. Is this because he doesn’t like to be reminded of the past? Is it a negative reaction to what Tennyson stood for particularly? Only time will tell.
– Does anyone happen to know the artist responsible for the paintings hanging behind Renfield and Vanessa in the reception hall scene?
– Best quote this week goes to the following exchange between a broken Victor Frankenstein and the increasingly indifferent Lily:
‘I must save you from all of this, one way or another. You are my responsibility. I created you.’
‘I need no man to save me. And I think … in a way … I created you more than you created me.’
– I’m fairly certain Lady GaGa would kill for the black sequinned dress Lily dons in the first scene this episode. Both Vanessa and Lily have some fabulous costumes as always, but by the look of things we’re still moving away from the Victorian aesthetic. In particular, Lily’s pointed shoulder pads in her scene with Victor and the crow cloak Vanessa wears to the picture show felt more broadly retro-fabulous than faux-Victorian to me. Am I wrong? Correct me in the comments.
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’
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.
Very god review. And, as a matter of fact, the choice of “Justine” seems to me a reference to Marquis de Sade’s heroine in “Justine (or The Misfortunes of Virtue)”.
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