Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Cult-TV Review: Penny Dreadful, Season One (2014)

Penny Dreadful, Season One, is all about the most terrifying monsters ever to challenge humanity. 

But if you believe that by that description I refer to Dracula, Dorian Gray, or The Frankenstein Monster, you are mistaken.  

Although the Showtime TV series, created by John Logan, involves those beings, all the series’ real monsters stem directly from human nature, from human psychology.

For instance, spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) contends with shame over a past indiscretion and betrayal (“Closer than Sisters”). This shame literally possesses her at points, or paves the way, perhaps, for her spiritual possession (“Possession.”)

Similarly, Egyptologist Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) deals continually with his own guilt and vanity (“Séance”), arising from the death of his son, and the abduction of his daughter, Mina, by a vampire.

Meanwhile, young Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) deals with irresponsibility regarding his own creation or child (“Resurrection,” “Demimonde.”)

Even Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) -- a gung ho American gunslinger -- grapples, at least after a fashion, with his own flaws.  In this case, the primary foible may be cowardice, since Ethan ran away from his life of wealth and privilege in America (“Night Work.”)

In Victorian England of the Pax Britannia -- the unusual but remarkable historical span that gave us both Jack the Ripper and the works of Charles Darwin -- these conflicted characters serve as our heroes while they battle the monsters imagined by Stoker, Shelley, and Wilde. 

These monsters move in and out of human society, occupying its fringes, but Ives, Murray, Frankenstein and Chandler are grounded or anchored in that society of 1891; as consumed by their personal foibles as they are by their supernatural quarry.

I am just now catching up with the final episodes of the first season as I write this review, though the second season is currently airing on Showtime. But at this stage, I can state that I admire Penny Dreadful’s dedication to character, and its central leitmotif of psychological monsters vs. literal ones. 

At first glance, one might mistakenly believe that this horror-themed series is some League of Extraordinary Gentleman-type pastiche of Victorian literary figures -- a superhero movie, essentially -- when in fact, it is the very opposite. The monsters may be mythic, but the people all possess feet of clay.

Indeed, Penny Dreadful's excavation (or perhaps I should write “exhumation”) of the central protagonists, so flawed and self-destructive, takes narrative precedence over the depiction of the famous monsters, and it is a fascinating idea.  The Frankenstein Monster (Rory Kinnear) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) represent -- much as they do historically -- “othered” horror figures, derided outsiders dwelling beyond the concept of normality. In other words, their physicality or exterior qualities make them “different” and outside of the norm. They are easily pinpointed by others, and derided for their dreaded differences.

But Murray, Ives, Chandler, and Frankenstein, in contrast, showcase the societal norm as sick and faulty.  They may be beautiful to gaze upon (quite unlike Caliban, or Proteus…), but they represent an Establishment and society that is corrupt and decadent to its core, destroying itself with lust and avarice and ambition. 

The nature of the series’ protagonists creates an unusual kind of suspense or tension in the individual stories.  

In the pitched battles with the undead, for example, whether aboard plague ships or beneath opium dens, one is never quite certain if the “heroes” will succeed, or even if they will all be fighting on the same side at the same time. They are each so tortured and obsessed with their own history, we sometimes wonder if they can trust themselves and one another enough to engage the enemy.  Only one character among the protagonists seems dependable, though he remains inscrutable: Sembene (Danny Sapani).

One episode, “Possession,” deals beautifully with this very concept. Murray, Frankenstein and Chandler attempt a multi-week cure/exorcism of the possessed Vanessa Ives, and are committed to their cause. But before those weeks are over, questions of motive and secret agendas are raised. 

The result? Trust among the characters is diminished, not enhanced.  So a story that begins with the openly acknowledged need for “trust” ends instead with a retreat to separate, individual corners because of the acute recognition that at least one of the monster fighters may not be acting out of the purest or most honest motives.  

Trust gives way to bitter accusations and frissons.

And meanwhile, out in the world, the bloody carnage -- possibly a result of the vampire master, possibly a result of the human Ripper -- spreads.

The first season of Penny Dreadful consists of just nine episodes, but there are at least three obvious stand-out segments: the aforementioned “Possession,” “Resurrection,” and “Closer than Sisters.”  

“Possession,” the calm before the storm of the season finale, promises group unity, and then shatters it, delivering more personal chaos. 

“Resurrection” is a story faithful in spirit and execution to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, recounting the birth and life of the monster, here called Caliban. Much of the episode’s action occurs at the Grand Guignol Theater, and involves the Monster finding a place where he calls home, a place where he can find belonging.  

And “Closer than Sisters” is an absolutely haunting hour that reveals Vanessa’s back story. We watch her childhood and friendship with Mina develop, as well as Vanessa’s eventual betrayal, and the cost of that betrayal on her soul.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Penny Dreadful is also remarkably cast. Timothy Dalton is a commanding, sometimes heroic, sometimes monstrous, presence. Treadaway is perfect as Victor Frankenstein: fastidious, “bloodless” and at absolutely the right age to play Shelley’s protagonist (unlike, say, Kenneth Branagh in the 1994 film).  

Hartnett is also strong as the brash American gunslinger, yet the character and the actor both evidence surprising, buried depths, particularly in Chandler's interaction with an Irish prostitute (Billie Piper) and the seductive Dorian Gray. 

But all these characters, to one degree or another, seem to pivot off of Vanessa Ives, and Eva Green delivers a fearless, nuanced, sometimes bat-shit crazy set of performances here.  I write “fearless” because Green is, obviously, a beautiful woman, and yet she enthusiastically takes her character to some ugly places, both physically and emotionally in the first season catalog. She delivers performances of astonishing rawness in “Séance,” “Closer than Sisters” and “Possession,” in particular.  In the wrong hands, "Possession" could come off like a knock-off of The Exorcist (1973), but Green makes the story personal and individual to her character, Ives, in a way that makes it feel simultaneously fresh and terrifying.

I’ve encountered some folks online who watched Penny Dreadful and dismissed it as slow or somehow campy, though I believe both of those criticisms are off the mark.  

On the contrary, Penny Dreadful takes its time to establish the psychological “monsters” inside its monster-hunter team, and the series doesn’t so much go over-the-top as it does attempt to embody the inherent contradictions of the Victorian Age.  

Like that epoch in history, the series zooms from Reason and Enlightenment ideas (even in terms, actually, of sex) to the heights of wild Romanticism. Murray is a perfect embodiment of this conflict, himself: a man of science and reason now countenancing an exotic world of monsters and irrationality, and not quite knowing where he stands in it, or even, what he really is.  Is he a hero, or a loathsome, vain monster? 

Ives battles the same surging tides and contradictions. On the surface, she is a chaste, proper lady.  But in “Séance,” “Closer than Sisters” and “Possession” a repressed side literally bursts forth from her, longing for expression and release.

I absolutely love The Walking Dead (2010 - ) and its very contemporary zombie apocalypse, yet I must say that it is a delight to go back to the classic literary monsters and the conflicts of the Victorian Era.  

There’s a place still in the genre, today, for Frankenstein, Dracula, and the other characters of that Age;  characters that embodied, at its beginning, the inescapable contradictions of modernity.  

Penny Dreadful, a Gothic entertainment, returns us to that framework, and does so with remarkable style and complexity.

I’m looking forward to the second season…


  1. I was really curious about this series. I heard about it because the score for the series got quite a bit of good buzz among film score fans. And I love a good gothic horror score, so I checked it out. The score is a keeper by the way. :)

    Anyway, the premise sounded like it could really work, or fall on it's face. Your review convinced me to check it out. Besides, Timothy Dalton is pretty much awesome in anything he is in, and Eva Green is really great too. Thanks for the review!

  2. Great show, binge watched Season #1 a month ago. Is there any more needed evidence that television, by far, is developing the superior horror product over the film studios?