Neo-Victorian Review – ‘This World Is Our Hell’: Penny Dreadful (S3E5)

This post contains some plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion

After last week’s welcome respite from the grand narrative, Penny Dreadful returns to the story of Ethan Talbot, with a secondary plot that follows Jekyll and Frankenstein in their quest to find a permanent cure for social deviance. Ethan and Hecate are still being pursued by various authority figures, and an uncertain welcome awaits them at their destination. Jekyll and Frankenstein are still working on a way to prolong the effects of Jekyll’s serum, and it seems they may finally have succeeded.

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In general, the episode does much more telling than showing, which is extremely effective in the final exchange between Ethan and his father, but is not executed as well in most other scenes. For the most part, we are treated to two stationary characters recounting war stories and traumatic experiences in highly artificial language, not dynamic engagements with space, or with a particular emotion (does apathy count?).

Ethan’s story is a family drama, where father figures are plentiful, but dysfunctional. His biological father sent him to the army. Kaetaney forced him to keep fighting, against that same army. Sir Malcolm Murray is also far from an ideal father figure. He originally hired Ethan as a mercenary, and is now using him (and the other characters in Penny Dreadful’s central band of ‘heroes’) to fill the void left by the deaths of his own family – deaths for which he was indirectly responsible. Murray and Talbot Sr. are intercontinental mirrors of each other: explorers, patriarchs, and ’family men’ unable to protect their families. The Talbot homestead is a more colonial, but equally fine reflection of Murray’s London mansion.

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Both Ethan’s story and that of Jekyll and Frankenstein are built on binary oppositions. Must we embrace guilt, or embrace sin? Should we have to live as monsters, or can we be reborn as angels? Inevitably these oppositions will need be overcome in order for the series’ central conflicts to be resolved. This week, characters either argue for the one or the other, but in her encounter with Dracula last week Vanessa already discovered that there is a third option: rejection of the choice entirely.

In a moment I wish had received more attention this week, Jekyll questions Frankenstein’s assumption that they are at all alike, in the end – just two maligned scientists working to overcome monstrosity:

You think we’re the same. Fellow outcasts. But if you could undergo this treatment… if you could have every horrific moment struck from your memory every time your work was denigrated and you were treated like filth. If for one moment you could feel like a lamb, and not like a beast… wouldn’t you do it?

With this question, Jekyll refers to their serum, which removes ‘evil’ impulses by removing dark memories. As Frankenstein explains to their subject, Mr Belfour, ‘It is our memories which make us monsters, is it not?’.

‘No,’ is Frankenstein’s answer. He would not take the serum himself, though he declines to elaborate further. ‘And that, my true friend, is the difference between you and me,’ replies Jekyll. Jekyll wants to be accepted by others. Frankenstein wants others to accept him. Is it memories that create monsters, and what does this mean? The episode implies that Frankenstein isn’t a ‘real’ monster, and doesn’t understand true suffering or oppression like Jekyll does. Frankenstein has only been rejected and condemned for what he has done, not for what he is. Again, for me this was a truly interesting exchange in an episode that repeatedly tried to engage my academic and moral intellect, only to fall short at the finish line.

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Benjamin Poore’s recent article on season one of Penny Dreadful offers several insightful points on this topic, though he is more interested in the show’s experimentation with genre than in its race or gender politics. In analysing the effect of the show’s title, Poore argues that it ‘gives the show a kind of outlaw, rebellious power: this is the show they don’t want you to watch, this is the show they’ll try to shut down or brand obscene’ (p. 66). This is of course not the case, as Poore also points out later in his article. Penny Dreadful is critically applauded for its adult content, not maligned for it, and in many ways it’s far less socially and politically transgressive than other programmes currently on television.

In a review of Penny Dreadful’s season 3 premiere on MTV.com, Inkoo Kang argues that the show delivers a vastly more interesting story when it focuses on its female characters. She writes:

Despite its recent improvements, Penny Dreadful remains a show that conjures portent far better than it spins plot, and logic is still cast aside whenever there’s histrionic anguish to be sighed or purple philosophizing to be purred. And yet the drama potently blooms to reveal its “gorgeous secrets,” especially in its depiction of how women were reinventing themselves in this heady era when electric lights, movie theaters, and “talk therapy” were bringing the late 20th century into the future. In such a world, monsters, both benign and sinister, don’t seem like such a far-fetched idea.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kang’s assessment, but would take it in a slightly different direction. Penny Dreadful is better when it focuses on what we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Horror has been a staple of Western culture for centuries. Mad scientists, witches, werewolves and vampires – we’ve seen them all many times over. As a horror fan, I’m used to seeing white, heterosexual men on screen, both as heroes and as villains. I’m used to seeing white, heterosexual (but virginal) women survive while queer people and people of colour die. I’ve heard variations on the stories of these white, heterosexual characters a hundred times.

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Please don’t misunderstand me – white, heterosexual people are great. They entertain me, but they don’t make me sit up and take notice. They do not revolutionise horror. Once we’ve seen something, it loses some of its power to either terrify or intrigue us.

This is why I was far less interested in Ethan’s story than I was in the dynamic developing between Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll. Both are discredited scientists, rejected by the establishment for their methods. It’s been repeatedly suggested, however, that the reason for Jekyll’s rejection by the medical community had more to do with his skin colour than with his science. Frankenstein is increasingly patronising towards Jekyll, ‘fixing’ his formula and criticising the bursts of temper Jekyll occasionally displays. ‘You really must keep that in check, doctor. No one will take you seriously… not even after you’ve inherited your father’s title’, Frankenstein sneers.

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I’ve said this before in other words, and will keep repeating it until something changes: for a show that often claims to breathe new life into Gothic horror, Penny Dreadful has still shown me precious little that I haven’t seen before. Perhaps that’s asking too much of the series. It’s still too rarely we see something truly strange or revolutionary in popular media. Perhaps that’s not the point of it at all. On one level, the show is arguably just recycling old horror (traditionally a lowbrow genre) for a new, highbrow audience. Regardless, every now and then a glimpse of what the show could be shines through. In those cases, I’m tempted to repeat what Hecate tells Ethan: ‘I want to liberate your truest self! The beast that prowls around your heart‘. This is already a good show. With just a little push, it could be amazing.

In the introduction to their edited collection Neo-Victorian Gothic, Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben ask: ‘How can the Gothic go on celebrating otherness as it becomes increasingly homogenised?’ (p. 2). So far, season three of Penny Dreadful is an extended, incomplete answer to this question. And it seems to be answering it on Hecate’s rather zealous terms: ‘There is only one way to free yourself of guilt. Embrace your sins’.

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Do you disagree? Please, let me know why in the comments!

Additional Notes
– Frankenstein’s electrically charged serum gun would give Nicola Tesla (as reincarnated in The Prestige or The Order: 1886) a run for his money.
– ‘Such music my master makes’: Hecate offers an oblique reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Chapter 2: ‘Listen to them—the children of the night. What music they make!’), in the first episode this season where Dracula doesn’t make an appearance.
– On the wall of the cave where Ethan and Hecate hole up, Native paintings depicting the story of the first Apache (and the great evil) feature a scorpion and a wolf. Coincidence?
– The episode tried, and almost succeeded in making me more interested in Ethan’s problems… but then delivered an impromptu ‘now I’m a bad boy’ sex scene. The link between monstrosity and sexual prowess in Gothic horror was already ancient in 1974, when Young Frankenstein parodied the pants off it.
– I feel as though the phrase ‘thee and me’ (uttered this episode by Hecate) returns periodically in the show. I know Caliban / John Clare has used it in the past, though off the top of my head I can’t be sure it was more than these two instances. Could it be a reference to Welsh reformer Robert Owen’s oft-quoted words to William Allen: ‘All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer’? Does anyone else want to hazard a guess?

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.

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