I can’t settle upon which particular aspect of Penny Dreadful it is that has me hooked–there are so many: its brooding ambiance, its Gothic decadence, its penchant for weaving modern parables into a tapestry of old world horror. Beyond all that, there’s the matter of the monsters themselves; these creatures who aren’t nearly as monstrous as we’d think, and who are, rather, pained heroes and antiheroes dealing with struggles about faith, belonging, choice, and love. It takes a deft hand to write these stories, and nimble actors to bring those impeccably told narratives to life.
Really, each character is a gem. Ethan Chandler, the Wolfman: torn between man and beast, guardian and murder. Dr. Frankenstein: a scientist driven by his genius down the darkest paths, determined to shatter the veil between life and death because of the loss of his mother (and driven to drugs by his madness, too). And of course, the doctor’s creation, the Creature, aka John Clare: he, who has the heart of a poet, the rage and body of a demon–the smallest glance at the sad, furious expressions carved into his hideous countenance tells the story of his suffering before he even opens his mouth. Dorian Grey: a corrupted, sexual epicure and twisted romantic who’s sold his soul for eternal beauty, and yet still longs for real love. Timothy Dalton’s character, Sir Malcolm, possesses no supernatural powers, though he finds himself as a confluence for various supernatural beings and forces; a place and sentence brought about by his arrogance and poor decisions—faults of which he’s aware, being as human and flawed as the rest of the cast. Sir Malcom’s servant, the silent and thoughtful Sembene, lends a quiet mysticism to every scene he inhabits.
Then, there’s the ladies. Wow. Billie Piper’s addition to the menagerie, a Mrs. Brona Croft, has an insipid entrance to the series, and initially we’re not sure she’s a character of any depth. I mean, it’s Billie Piper playing a prostitute, which isn’t so different from one of her more famous roles in Secret Diary of a Callgirl (fun show, by the way—worth a watch). Except this time, she has an Irish(?) accent. I’m like: “Okay, we’ll see where this goes.”
At first, it didn’t go anywhere interesting. At the end of Season One, poor ol’ Brona, dying from consumption, get unceremoniously murdered by a pillow-wielding Dr. Frankenstein. The not-so-nice Doctor needs a relatively fresh, whole female corpse so that he can make a companion for the one undead creature he’s already brought into the world. That wild creation, John Clare, has been threatening Dr. Frankenstein with a heinous end if the doctor doesn’t find such a mate and cure for his loneliness. Stuff happens, time moves on. Zap, crackle, gasp, and Brona’s back: naked and scarred, an undead bride—a manufactured prostitute, really, since her sole purpose for existing is to be wed.
She meanders through her days in the nurturing captivity of Dr. Frankenstein, showing all the behavioral signs of a subservient, docile creature: learning how to wear corsets and dresses, smiling at all the boys’ jokes—including those of Dr. Frankenstein, who’s taken a shining to the reborn Brona, or Lily, as she’s now called. We’re led to believe that Lily can’t recall Brona’s life, nor what happened to her in that “terrible accident” that occupies a foggy place in her mind–the same accident from which she’s supposedly inherited the zigzagging scars across her body. Although, an astute watcher can see the glimmering depth in Piper’s performance: the glitter of a knife in her stare, the subtle wrinkle in her brow when something of her past is mentioned.
In what has become one of the most empowering and horrifying expositions ever to shake my screen and make me squeal, shit gets real at the end of Season Two. Lily disappears. Dr. Frank and Mr. Clare go mad. Elsewhere, in a smoky London tavern, Lily—seeming much removed from the gentle lamb she’s thusfar played—seduces a random stranger, leads him up to a room, and then strangles him with her crushing undead strength while he’s inside of her. From there, the illusion is shattered, the metamorphosis reaches its climax, and Lily (or the genius Billie), shows the world that not only does she remember who she was—woman, whore, dregs and unwanted refuse of the human race—but that she will rise above her past, she will become a new woman, leader of a new species, a new race. For Brona/ Lily remembers everything from the moment of her waking, everything of her death and resurrection. Filled with terrible purpose, she sets off to crown herself queen of the new world. I screamed, laughed and cheered when this scene played.
Boom goes the dynamite.
During Lily’s unholy ascension, Vanessa Ives was the center of events no less cataclysmic. Now Eva Green, who plays Vanessa, has a scintillating stage presence that cannot be avoided, like the weaving temptation of a snake as it dances, as if she could summon you through the TV with her harrowing green gaze (a gaze perfect for Elemech, Lady of Sorrows—should Feasts ever get cast). It’s intentional, to have someone so drawn and alluring, so striking at first glance. But Vanessa (like Eva) shows us she’s much more than a pouting British aristocrat. Indeed, she has serious issues causing her sullen pouts: she’s a woman connected to the universe, to the forces of darkness and light. She’s a conduit to these forces, and as such, she can be a weapon for evil or a weapon for good (or champion for a third morality in-between).
Here, we come to one of Penny Dreadful’s exquisitely taught moral lessons, which aren’t done with the fire-and-brimstone showmanship and threats of a raging priest, and are instead explored through choices made, good and bad, and thereafter our incremental shifts toward alignment, doom and salvation based upon free-will. So Vanessa’s a witch, conduit, or whatever (not all mysteries need to be made crystal clear), and an incredibly powerful one. We soon learn that Satan has already chosen her as his bride because of her gifts, though that doesn’t make her powerless in this equation—it’s all about choice and consequence, remember?
As the series progresses, we see Vanessa’s battle against the darkness. Well, we don’t just see it, we live it: a journey that’s as guttural, raw and messy as childbirth. I can think of few actors who are as willing to travel to the places that Eva Green daringly goes: morally, spiritually, physically. She makes you believe in her torment, and likewise in monsters and the things that hunger for her soul. She wrenches you into Vanessa’s spiraling madness and then lifts you up into the character’s blissful moments of sanity. Eva pilots your mind so deeply into the tale that when Vanessa is given the choice—by Satan—to have peace, to have everything she could want to make the whispers and torture stop, you think she’s going to take his offer. You almost whisper, “yes”, yourself. Alas, that wouldn’t be a very Vanessa thing to do: surrender. For here’s a woman that has battled the voices of darkness for as long as she can remember, a woman who still holds a flickering candle of self, of pride, and even of love (for the Wolfman).
Season Two’s climax is that moment of choice, then denial, then Vanessa bitch slapping the Devil with Babylonian sorcery and babbling incantations. A riposte that sends the Devil—and his wailing hag of servant played by the inimitable Helen McCrory—back to Hell. Still, Vanessa’s victory comes at a price: the loss her happiness, the loss of one of her comrades, and, perhaps most dreadfully, the earning of eternal vengeance from the Lord(s) of Darkness. (Satan is actually a twin in Penny Dreadful—just go with it.) Despite the drawbacks, and even after a lifetime of haunting and misery, the refusal to surrender is the choice Vanessa makes, and it’s the choice of a hero.
Love and sacrifice. Denial and truth. Damnation and salvation. What does it mean to be human? What must we give for love? May is only a few months away, and then I’ll have another sumptuous indulgence in these questions when Penny Dreadful returns for Season Three.
All my love,