Not since the film Van Helsing was released have we seen so many classic horror icons on a single screen. Yet, while the film was extravagant and full of action, it was catered to give its audience a thrill ride using the bare minimum of depth and originality, barely touching upon the source material to which the characters portrayed payed homage to. When I first saw the trailer for Penny Dreadful I thought the same of it. Even with its dark and eerie imagery and overall murky semblance, it looked just like another Van Helsing. Now it isn’t that I did not enjoy the film; I actually thought it was decent if not a little lackluster. So I decided to give Penny Dreadful a chance, and am I so grateful that I did.
From the very first episode I was hooked. On the surface, the cast ensemble was very well chosen. Eva Green, ever typecast as the typical femme fatale, gives life and an absolutely shocking performance as the idealistic yet spiritual Vanessa Ives. Timothy Dalton brings guilt, anger, loss, and love to a single melting pot in his emotional yet pragmatic execution of Sir Malcolm Murray. Josh Hartnett gives us a character who is so multilayered and mysterious that every piece of him we think we begin to understand is only followed by a great hunger to dig farther in so that we may eventually get but a glimpse of his core. And these are only the first three characters we meet at the start of the opening season! From Victor Frankenstein to Dorian Grey, the series is full of such vibrant yet opaque characters that you will get lost in how authentic their screen presence is.
The actors, however, aren’t the only thing working in the show’s favor. John Logan creates a slum of Victorian England and I mean that as a compliment. The streets and buildings of London are dank, dirty, and utterly pestilent to behold. Yet beauty does exist in the lavish sets such as the many mansions and museums featured at length in the series. The dismal aura over all of London and its superbly grim yet bright facade is soft yet brazen to the gaze.
Nothing is without its flaws, and Penny Dreadful is certainly no exception. This being said, the series’s triumphs vastly out weigh its flaws (though I hope that you will form your own opinion by watching the show). This first article will recap the first two episodes in its entirety and should they peak your interest, then you do as Dr. Frankenstein and be not afraid to pull back the skin and look beneath.
Do not be amazed by anything you see here.
The series’ debut episode titled “Night Work” sets our expectations early on how creepy and unsettling life was in London shortly after Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of the White Chapel district. We are first shown a young woman going to her bathroom in the dead of night only to be pulled by an invisible force out of her window without so much as a scream. Her daughter immediately wakes from the sound of shattering glass. As she slowly creeps to the bathroom her shrill cries hide the sound of whatever takes her along with any hope of seeing it. Thus we are already given a mystery that wants solving not even five minutes before the opening credits begin.
After the credits we are introduced to Vanessa Ives in a very ambitious way. She is kneeling in her nightgown before a cross of Christ on the wall, lit only by faint candle light. Her chants are uncomfortable and barely coherent, yet recognized as Latin. She stops as a bug crawls from the crucifix and an ominous whisper fills the room. Her neck and eyes begin to contort as the whispers become more severe. From this scene alone we learn that Vanessa is very religious but also very afraid. Something has a hold of her in a sort of pseudo possession. Another mystery is revealed.
The following scene gives us a date of the series, September 22, 1891. Out in a park, an American named Ethan Chandler, in costume is conducting a parody of a battle against the Native American tribe lead by Crazy Horse. He is charismatic with a simple charm of words and showmanship and an excellent sharpshooter with revolvers. Yet the man has his vices, as we see him take a woman he does not know behind one of the show carriages and immediately move to a bar afterwards. Vanessa gives us a glimpse who this Ethan is in their exchange at the following scene.
She wants to hire him as gunman for some “night work” and proceeds to follow his lack of interest in being a body guard with harsh truths that she notices about him based on his behaviors and clothing. This includes judging that he comes from a past with money based on his clothing and accessories, that he has a drinking problem that doesn’t affect his sight but gives him a trembling hand he tries to hide, and various wounds from brawling. She ends the exchange by saying that he is “A man much more complicated than he likes to appear.” There is obvious chemistry between the two, and this serves heavily as the series’s base, though I can promise that it doesn’t slave itself to the cliché romance of most media.
Later at night, the two meet at the slums of London in an opium den that is portrayed quite nicely. Chinese red lamps are seen in the air every few feet from each other, a haze of smoke forms a light fog in the setting causing Ethan to cover his mouth and nose from the second hand smoke of the drug. It is here that we are introduced to Sir Malcolm Murray, Vanessa’s partner. He is a much older gentlemen. Quick and too the point, he mentions to Ethan that they are looking for someone and to not be amazed by anything he sees. We are not given a shred of personality from this scene but its a great build to another man who does not appear to be what he seems. The trio walks to a basement area of the den and are confronted by three others, they have a sickly and pale look to them. Malcolm appears to lead the conversation with, exchanging angry words with one another in a foreign language I did not recognize.
Hell breaks loose when they are set upon by these strangers who bare their fang like teeth; not simply the elongated canines of a normal vampire, every tooth is just as long and sharp. Malcolm and Ethan both begin to fire at chests and skulls as Vanessa is led off by a young girl’s cries in the distance. Both men are quickly overwhelmed as they are both distracted by Vanessa’s departure and the appearance of more vampires. After a few kills and a moment of respite the two men join with Vanessa at what appears to be a mound of bloody bodies. In it Malcolm pulls a female vampire, the look on his face suggested that he thought it was the person they were searching for. Yet it wasn’t. Suddenly another body emerges from the mound, grey and hairless. This creature is very reminiscent of the classic Nosferatu and immediately sets on the trio until Sir Malcolm pierces its heart with a thin blade. His immediate action towards the female vampire is to interrogate her to learn if there is another creature such as that, just one other.
Enter Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway, a coroners assistant. The body of the grey vampire is brought to him by the three and he is immediately dismissive of it. He is very able and intelligent but also extremely conceded. Yet when the grey vampire corpse is shown to him he is instantly intrigued. He notices that the grey skin is actually an exoskeleton that can be cut off, revealing a black body with ancient Egyptian symbols covering it entirely. Ethan is slightly panicked as he tries to comprehend what’s going but it seems that intrigue still gets the better of him.
Now we come to a scene which I think is the most symbolic, not only to Ethan and Vanessa, but to the series itself. Within the confines of Malcolm’s mansion the two discuss what Vanessa describes as Demimonde, a world where the supernatural walk in our own. She tells Ethan that last night they entered that world. He is skeptical at first but still says he believes that such a place could exist. For clarity sake this dialogue is the point of no return for the future relationship of Ethan and Vanessa and the highlight the pilot. Vanessa begins, “Are you a wise man?”
“A wise man would walk away from this house and make a concerted effort to forget everything he saw last night.”
“That sounds like a warning.”
“It’s an invitation.”
The tarot scene follows immediately as Vanessa gestures him to pick a tarot card, but with purpose and to think of it carefully, not by impulse. He stares in her eyes and picks the card closest to her, the lovers. Now this obvious symbolism for their future may seem like shallow foresight but I urge you to not assume. After a visit to Mr. Lyle, an egyptologist, by Malcolm we learn that the hieroglyphs on the body are from the Egyptian book of the dead; soon after Lyle urges Malcolm he and Vanessa to come to his social gathering the following week. Where the translation concerned only pieces were deciphered and they were concerning a blood curse, which of course points to vampirism.
The final two scenes of this first episode set up nicely for what’s to come for Victor Frankenstein. The first is his meeting with Malcolm in a sort of gentleman club to discuss his employment with Murray and further investigation of this creature. Initially Victor is pompous and skeptical, but Murray moves to appeal to his scientific ego and suddenly brings the true passion out of the young doctor. The characterization so excellent in this scene and gives us a glimpse of the novel counterpart. Victor seeks to “pierce the tissue between life and death.” We also get to see the resolve and anger in the soul of Malcolm. As Victor tries to pry why Malcolm is in this situation he tells him that his daughter Mina was taken by the creature and when asked how far he would go he says “I would murder the world.” The second and final scene is in the hidden basement under Victors apartment. A body fresh from autopsy is sitting in a chair surrounded by wires. A storm comes and the machines and lights burn out from an electrical outage; the body comes alive.
Who wants to know they are hunted by the Devil?
The pilot left us with a lot to expect from the season as well as characters to comprehend. In this episode titled “Séance,” we are given even more characters, ones who, unlike our first few, blur the line between good and evil. The episode opens with a woman waiting in a park near dusk as the city gas lights are being lit for the night. A deep fog settles as she sits on the bench watching the man light fires. As he disappears into the mist a scream is heard and suddenly the woman is set upon by an assailant that once again we cannot see.
As the credits end we are shown Ethan waking up by the docks in pretty severe pain with a gash in his hand, possibly a drunken brawl. He heads into the mariners inn and immediately buys a bottle of whiskey, showing us that Vanessa was not in the wrong about his drinking problem. Afterwords we return to Frankenstein and his new born creature. He is slowly teaching him to eat. To symbolically make him human he lets him choose his own name, from Shakespeare, giving us the romantic in Victor. Proteus as he is now called cannot speak yet but becomes attached to his creator, shuddering in fear as Victor leaves him on his own for a few hours.
The show returns to Ethan and we are introduced to new character, an Irish sex worker named “Brona Croft” (played by Billie Piper). Ethan who is staying at the particular inn she lives in is quite quickly smitten by her friendly and talkative demeanor as she plays a game of twenty questions. They seem to share the same sarcastic yet witty speech and get on pretty quick. Yet from her cough you can tell she is sick. Upon her exit we meet yet another main character, Dorian Grey in his mansion filled with hundreds of portrait paintings all over his great hall. He is played by Reeve Carney. His depraved nature is hidden well by his charm and almost hypnotic rhetoric. Brona arrives at his home to take slightly sultry photographs for him, until she coughs up blood. He is instantly turned on by a weird fetish and goes further to seduce her into one of the series many strange love scenes. His lust for her grows even more when she ends up coughing up more blood, yet this time in his face.
The strange murders that continue to plague London are finally picked up by an inspector. Many seem to think it’s the ripper come again, but he knows better. Jack only had it in for sex workers, yet this new murderer seems to share in his love for taking of internal organs. Malcolm takes interest in the case and makes a stop to offer his advice. It seems that he believes the police forces current tactics are outdated, plainly he tells them they need to stop hunting a man and start hunting a beast. As we know Vampires drink blood, yet all these murders do not lack of gore and blood spilled, clearly it is something else.
Now these next two scenes are so climatic that I had no doubt that this series would continue to show us such a brutal and amazing world that only fiction could create. During Mr. Lyles party, Vanessa is introduced to Dorian Grey. The two are so similar that she is instantly infatuated as they proceed to dissect one another with seductive word play. Later the party conducts a seance led by a medium named Madame Kali. As it begins, Vanessa begins to turn very rigid and holds a single strange gaze. It seems whatever spirit this medium called takes hold of Vanessa. Her voice turns playfully demonic as she addresses Malcolm. She first speaks as Malcolm’s son, as a child yearning for his fathers approval. “Father will you take me to Africa? I’ll prove myself a proper explorer!” Her tone then changes, exhaustion and weariness dominate her face. She calls out for Malcolm, she is sick and dying of hunger and thirst, succumbing to dysentery. “Father…will you name a mountain after me?” Suddenly she changes back to a girl, Mina, his daughter.
The vulgarity of her spirit is almost frightening as she goes on about Malcolm going off and fucking and such, into such a rage that she jumps on the table and bends back so far that people scream in horror. Finally Vanessa is released from her possession and storms off until she finds a stranger in the rain and takes him into her right there on the street. The next morning, when Malcolm returns to Lyle, he is still in shock. The rest of the symbols are translated and Lyle says they are impossible. Two Egyptian gods Amun Ra and Amunet are featured together which is a implication towards the end of day. For if they were ever united Amunet would become the mother of evil. Lyle seems to think that Vanessa is the role of Amunet.
Where the séance scene was terrible and full of horror, the final is beautiful and tragic. Victor and Proteus are finally able to walk the streets of London. He is amazed as all his senses are filled with the sights, sounds, and tastes of London. Sadly memories come back to Proteus as he sees a ship and describes everything on it in detail. Most tragic enough he remembers the worst of those memories. A woman watching him sail away, a woman named Doreen. With a look that could tear apart anyone’s heart he asks, “Victor, what am I?”
In the final moments of this scene we are wrenched away from ever knowing his answer as two hands rip through Proteus’ chest and rip him in half. In shock and drenched with blood Victors stares at a scar ridden face with pale grey skin and yellow eyes as it states, “Your first born has returned…Father.”
Not Van Helsing. Not by a long shot.
Images courtesy of Showtime Network