It’s Halloween, so I thought this would be a good time to write a bit about a show that I recently finished on Netflix. In honor of all things spooky and scary, these are my thoughts on the acclaimed show Penny Dreadful.
Penny Dreadful opens with a mysterious woman meeting with a Western show performer to hire him for some “night work.” They go on to meet with her equally mysterious, though more aristocratic, employer and take their new compatriot down into a den of horrors. They slay a monster and take him to a mysterious doctor.
The woman is Vanessa Ives, played by Eva Green, clairvoyant and frequent victim of various possessions. The Western performer is the American Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, and he definitely has a secret. But then, who doesn’t in this show? The aristocratic leader is Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Timothy Dalton, a former explorer who just wants to find his daughter, who has been abducted by monsters.
Now, if the name Murray rings a bell, congratulations, you’ve kept up to date on your vampire lore. Yes, Sir Malcolm’s daughter is Mina Murray of Dracula infamy. The show brings in various “penny dreadful” tales, from Dr. Frankenstein to werewolves to some that stretch the meaning of “penny dreadful.” I certainly wouldn’t consider Oscar Wilde such a thing. But that is rather besides the point.
The show is dark and fun at first, though it suffers a bit from trying to smush all the plots together at once, rather than treating the premise as a sort of monster-of-the-week. Instead, there is one major monster in each of the three seasons, and then side plots that allow various peripheral characters to shine. As the show progresses, however, it becomes clear that the main plot will always revolve around Miss Ives and her dark secrets.
Despite Eva Green’s brilliant performance as the troubled and tortured Miss Ives, I think this is the major weakness of the show. Without giving anything away terribly, the show ends at the end of the third season when the story of Miss Ives comes to a satisfactory conclusion. I liked that they concluded the story the way that they did, as it fit such a dark show. But I disagree with the showrunners that the story is entirely about Vanessa.
We come to care about almost every character that is in the show for more than one episode. Most notable to me is the character of “The Creature,” or Frankensteins (first) monster, played by Rory Kinnear. The Creature gains revenge on Dr. Frankenstein in a way, but learns that revenge is rather hollow and that he must now make a life of this half-life he has been granted by the good doctor. He adopts the name of John Clare, an homage to his love of great literature and the feeling he has that books are the only things that will not shun him. Except Vanessa Ives, though that is merely a wistful subplot that was never destined for fruition.
Clare goes from shadow to shadow, trying to find his place in the world, even finding that he can access old memories from before his death and resurrection. He struck me as a beautifully tragic character, neither too good nor too bad, and always tugging at my conscience and emotion. I would have loved to have continued to see what he made of the existence he’s been thrown. While the other characters are similarly nuanced and compelling, that is the biggest reason I found it disappointing that the show ended when Vanessa’s story ended.
But I wholeheartedly recommend Penny Dreadful for anyone with a love of old monster stories. It’s not terribly scary, though there is a fair amount of blood, and as much horror as you’d expect in a story about all social classes in Victorian England. It’s not a large time commitment, and it can be both quite fun at times and emotionally wrenching (and later cathartic) at others.