This post contains some plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion.
This week’s episode of Penny Dreadful is essentially all about submission and dominance. It takes us on a tour of all the key characters and stories this season, and throws in a few more for good measure. In each story, we are given an example of how characters refused to submit, submitted to easily, or were forced into submission, and the episode then explores the effect this relationship to submission has had on them. Ethan’s refusal to confront his problems has taken over his life. Lily is so scarred by being broken into submission by the various men who used her that she is determined to break them in return, as well as dominate them. She has been given a new life, but refuses to let the old one truly die. ‘I’ve suffered long and hard to be who I am,’ she tells Frankenstein during his failed kidnapping attempt. ‘I want my scars to show’. Vanessa, physically weak and emotionally fragile, is arguably the strongest of them all. She is not afraid to submit to others, or risk her heart again and again.
This episode is also primarily about women. Both Lily and Vanessa are discovering the pleasure (and power) of surrounding themselves with other women, and the two characters provide some interesting contrast. Lily’s gang of prostitutes is united by a common goal. They need each other to bring down the men of London, and they find shared intimacy and gratification in the violence they enact along the way.
Vanessa needs a family to feel whole, but has been abandoned by the men who swore to protect her last season. She fills the void with a circle of female and/or feminine friends: Ferdinand Lyle, Dr Seward, and now the thanatologist Catriona Hartdegen (played by Perdita Weeks). Catriona seems poised to fill the gap left by the sudden death of Van Helsing in season one. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen points out in this YouTube interview about the character: ‘Van Helsing is the guy who knows everything. He’s a man of science, but he’s also a man of religion’. Van Helsing was the one who knew what Dracula really was, and how to take him down.
Like Vanessa and Lily, Vanessa and Catriona also make for a fascinating contrast, both visually and narratively. Catriona with her fencing, ‘un-womanly’ wardrobe, and study of death, Vanessa with her dresses and demureness. I’m excited to see where the final few episodes of the season take them together, and what traits Catriona is able to bring out in Vanessa. In any case, it is clear that Vanessa is stronger with these friends than she was without them.
Whether a solitary woman can be more powerful than a solitary man is something this season remains unclear about, however. At Seward’s suggestion, Vanessa confesses both her feelings and her fears to Dr Sweet. Of course, she doesn’t yet know that Sweet is Dracula, and is probably the last person she should be sharing or sleeping with. Vanessa dominates both the conversation and the subsequent sex, and is privileged in almost all the shots, but we know that Dracula is playing the long game.
Dracula wants Vanessa to depend on him, and to submit to him. Really, it seems that all he desires is for her to be his bride. Their relationship thus becomes a clever and thinly-veiled analogy for the social inequality of traditional marriage, in which the male partner holds dominion over the female partner. ‘There is a creature hunting me,’ Vanessa tells him. ‘He has been hunting me since the dawn of time. He wants to drink my blood and make me his bride’. So far, then, Sweet is still the real predator, and Vanessa however fierce she may seem, is still his prey – a fact subtly emphasised by the animals that appear in the background and foreground of their respective shots at the taxidermy museum.
In this season, then, there is still no beast quite so fierce as the upper-class white male.
– This is also the episode where everyone dies. Logically the show is probably just making space for the gang’s final encounter with Dracula, but I was still somewhat disappointed to lose Ethan’s father, hunter (inspector Bartholomew Rusk), and partner in crime (Hecate Poole) all in the same episode. It felt as though we were only beginning to know them – though in this show, I suppose, they might always return.
– I liked the way Dracula / Dr Sweet spins the story of the vampire bat, intertwining nature with religion. Like himself, the vampire bat was ‘fated by God’ to live by night, forced to drink blood to survive. It’s an intelligent design metaphor taken to new levels.
– Here’s hoping that Ferdinand Lyle’s trip to see Egypt (and the tomb of Imhotep) is a hint that next season’s featured creatures will be mummies.
– John Clare’s face-to-face encounter with his son is shocking and heartbreaking, but I’m still uncertain of the relevance his family and his past have to the overall plot, or to his further development in relation to the other characters.
– I hadn’t noticed until this episode how light Vanessa’s clothing choices have become. There’s actually a very interesting featurette about Eva Green’s wardrobe team over on the official YouTube channel that discusses the reasoning behind this artistic decision.
– ‘I knew you were too mean to die.’ Malcolm says what we were all thinking when he left Kaetaney behind in the desert last week.
– Catriona Hartdegen doesn’t seem to have any literary antecedent, but I have my fingers crossed that she’s related to Van Helsing in some way, as well as taking over his typical role in the Dracula narrative.
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.