“Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mister Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear. A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt.”- Vanessa Ives, Penny Dreadful 1.1, “Night Work”
(Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Penny Dreadful season one finale.)
For the past three years, television has been an all seasons Halloween party. Starting right around the time people were decrying the end of TV’s golden age (Breaking Bad had just ended), a tonal shift in televised content happened. With the demise of Walter White, the millennium’s greatest anti-hero, the empty space of moral ambiguity in entertainment was filled with true evils – The King in Yellow, Hannibal Lecter, a Stephen King adaptation (Aaaaaaah!). But nothing quite solidified horror as TV’s new great genre like Penny Dreadful.
It is thematically appropriate, on a meta-level, that Penny Dreadful came along when it did. In a TV landscape filled with monsters from old movies and literature, nothing feels more on-point than a serialized drama that stitches together characters and concepts from Victorian-era horror fiction.
The show’s first season follows demonic vessel Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and big game hunter Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), on their quest to rescue his daughter (her childhood best friend) Mina Harker of Dracula fame. On their eight episode long hunt, Ives and Murray encounter a who’s-who of horror’s greatest generation, including Victor Frankenstein, his monster, Abraham van Helsing, Ethan Chandler (the wolfman played by Josh Hartnett), Dorian Gray and a mummy.
The high concept mash-up is sustained by a high level of self-awareness. The stakes are both apocalyptic and intimate, leading the on screen action to skew melodramatic while earning some legitimate character moments. It simultaneously accepts the abject morality of the other new horror TV shows and still allows Breaking Bad-esque room for a protagonists personal place on a moral spectrum.
That said, more than anything else, Penny Dreadful is fun. It is dealing with century-old characters that have never left our nightmares, playing with our expectations and allowing us to rediscover the reasons they are so transcendent.
The Devil Inside
Penny Dreadful deals with all the big questions from its source material – Frankenstein’s monster has his crisis of faith, and Dorian Gray has his painting – but the characters are all brought together around one central theme: they each have a demon inside of them. This is literal in the case of Vanessa Ives’ demonic possession and Ethan’s more dog-like traits, but the main theme is supported by absolutely every aspect of the show.
Frankenstein has his terrible creative ambition, Sir Malcolm has the Liam Neesonian rage of a father whose children have been taken from him, Brona Croft (Billie Piper) has cholera. It goes on like this, and while the theme permeates even further when you consider the repressive Victorian England setting and the contrast between blood, sex and 19th century fashion, what’s most refreshing about Penny Dreadful is its optimism.
In other modern horror shows, cynicism is the name of the game. Considering that the best of these, True Detective and Hannibal, followed the aforementioned Breaking Bad finale, it feels like a logical progression. Audiences saw a good man turn into a monster, so producers started where it ended. “You thought Walter White was bad at the end there?” said a soon to be revered nihilist working for HBO, “Check out what this Lovecraftian metaphor of a gross man does to children.”
Penny Dreadful reads as a hopeful reaction to that idea, that the darkness inside of all of us is necessarily evil. It gives us a cast of actual Halloween-tier monsters, all with their own inner Walter White to grapple with, and shows us how even they can be heroic.
Season of the Witch
Season two stands to put Penny Dreadful‘s optimism at stake. The show’s first season concluded with the inner devils winning out. Frankenstein euthanized the choleric Brona Croft to appease his monster with an undead bride, Ethan Chandler transformed into a wolf and massacred the patrons of a hotel, Mina Harker was killed by her own father, and Dracula remains unidentified and at large. Frankenstein’s monster even lost his job at the theatre, poor guy. It was dark stuff, but the journey was spectacular, the intentions heroic.
This season the struggle to do good in spite of a monstrous nature will continue, but it is not clear which side will win out. The line between human and un-human has been blurred though framing. In season one, the supernatural forces hunted by Sir Malcolm and his league of extraordinary abominations remained invisible to the audience, but this year, the enemies are completely visible.
Witches have their sights on our heroes, and instead of being an ancient and unknowable entity like last season’s mummy and vampires, their difference is ideological. The coven are humans who have embraced the devil inside rather than keep it bottled up in a waistcoat. They are made of the same stuff as our legendary heroes, just a little less uptight about it.
It’s that conflict between inside and out that makes Penny Dreadful so compelling. If not for their strength of will, Miss Ives and her hunters are just a bunch of witches. The human nature that’s been explored in other shows, it takes that for granted at the outset. Inside all of us is a Frankenstein and a monster, a cowboy priest and a werewolf, a Victorian opium aficionado and the devil himself – we are each, ourselves, a demimonde, and Penny Dreadful shows us how dangerous, awful and fun that can be.