Penny Dreadful, Victorian Gothic-Horror

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Genre: Victorian fantasy/horror

Synopsis: Malcolm Murray’s daughter, Mina Murray, has been abducted by vampires. He and Mina’s childhood friend, Vanessa Ives, will do anything to help her. Vanessa has the power to sense things, from the beyond. She uses this power to try to find Mina, even as it threatens to consume her.

The cast consists of literary favorites such as Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Grey, all set in Victorian England.

Series: 1 season consisting of 8 episodes

I don’t remember ever being so confused about a show. Sometimes Penny Dreadful is quite good, but sometimes it’s just plain weird. I am glad that I’m watching it, and I’ll continue–it’s got some great stuff in there. But it’s also got a lot of WTF in there, that makes it hard to pin down exactly how I feel about this show.

The pilot intrigued me right off the bat. The show is very atmospheric. It feels gothic, with a touch of horror that brings an awareness to the space the characters are in.


1. Eva Green – Technically, this has the feel of an ensemble show, and the time is divided between different characters. That said, Eva Green (as Vanessa Ives) is kind of the star. While all of the cast is really good, and I love several of the characters, Eva Green is fantastic. She just has presence. That presence makes it easy to believe that Vanessa could stare down a vampire–she practically exudes force of will.

There was one (weird and creepy) scene in which Eva Green pretty much had the spotlight for a full six minutes–and her performance captivated, instilling a sense of creepiness and dread for what might come next–even though those six minutes were pretty much a monologue with some special effects. (As a side note, it was also kind of satisfying to see the look on Dorian Gray’s face–the immortal guy who’s seen it all was like, ‘okay, I wasn’t expecting that‘.)

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2. Vanessa Ives – The character Eva Green plays is an assertive Victorian gentlewoman holding back a psychic power that takes a heavy toll on her, and may yet destroy her. She manages to be formidable without resorting to violence. She stands up for herself against Malcolm’s verbal attacks, refusing to take that from someone who’s done worse himself. The backstory that lead her to where she is now is…weird. It is revealed in the dreaded episode 5, which I am pretending doesn’t exist, as a matter of personal preference.

3. Victor Frankenstein – He has to be one of my favorite characters, if not my favorite. When a man of action and a man of intelligence are put in a room together, usually the man of action dominates. But Victor Frankenstein was no less formidable than Malcolm. His ideas and beliefs were no less solid, he didn’t feel intimidated by Malcolm, and certainly wasn’t afraid to tell Malcolm exactly what he thought of his notions of adventure. I liked his speech about the only knowledge that matters, in the pilot. Even when I disagree with him and realize that his beliefs are too narrow (and maybe kind of elitist), I can’t help but admire the intention behind his perspective. And it does a great job of setting his character.

In fact, here’s the scene:

Of course, it’s kind of ironic that someone who argues against the value of botany even knows what the word “variegation” means. Spent some time reading up on this so-called pointless science, Victor?

Nonetheless, he’s portrayed as a man with his own ideas about the world, ideas that he’s willing to stand by. He has a narrow focus, though he’s more willing to look beyond that than he appears to be. And he’s a caring person, despite his unapproachable exterior–I’ve never seen the revival of the Frankenstein monster scene, in any incarnation, portrayed as quite so personal.

4. Proteus – Said Frankenstein monster is heartbreaking. This new chance of life seems to have left him with some knowledge, but no memories. Some understanding, but the innocence of a child. He makes life seem sacred…well, you have to watch Alex Price sell it. I can’t possibly describe his performance in a way that would do it justice. His scenes with Victor are beautiful.

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5. Caliban – His introduction is horrifying, and his backstory is equally so. This is kind of brilliant, as it creates a contrast between what someone’s done and what’s been done to him to drive him to it. The actions of the person who wronged him are understandable, if no less cruel. The cruelty was unintentional, but no less traumatizing all the same. The show put together this beautiful moral quandary that’s complicated, and reflective of how life is complicated. Mistakes–even huge ones, with awful consequences–can be made by good people as easily as bad ones.

It’s tough for Caliban to rack up too many sympathy points, considering how he was introduced. And even tougher when we find out why he’s come back. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that he’s still kind of a child, emotionally. He has never had any emotional guidance, and for all of his intelligence, the intricacies of right and wrong are as yet beyond him. At times, it’s tough to know whether to despise him or pity him. Whether to wish for him to gain that maturity he’s missing and learn how wrong his actions are, or to dismiss him as an unlovable monster for the callousness with which he acts.


Redemption – This is a pretty grey take on redemption. Some of the protagonists have done some pretty bad things, and the narrative doesn’t absolve them of it. It doesn’t forgive them for their wrongs–some of which really don’t deserve to be forgiven (I’m looking at everything Malcolm has ever done, here)–but it does show that broken people can aspire to make their future better than their past.

This is something that I intellectually believe in, even when I want to emotionally condemn some things as unforgivable. Because if people are always defined by the wrongs they’ve done, what incentive do they have for not committing any more? In the interest of prevention, of keeping those capable of hurting people from doing it again, it makes logical sense to acknowledge that all of us can become more than the sum of what we’ve done wrong.

Nonetheless, I don’t necessarily want to see someone like Malcolm continue to proser in his role as a protagonist regardless of what he’s done. Especially when it’s just a background trait. It was just casually mentioned–as something he’d done wrong, yes, but it was barely even addressed. That also feels like a dangerous mentality, so I don’t know how I feel about this.


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1. Episode 5, “Closer Than Sisters” – I’m not a huge fan of this flashback episode, although some people love it. It came out of left-field for me, and didn’t seem to fit in well with the rest of the story. Too much of its first half was not interesting enough, and the second half was confusing and disturbing. I seriously had no idea why all those pieces were put together into one story. I can’t see the logic behind it, unless it was to deliberately disturb the viewers. Shock Value: The Episode. There were good moments, but overall, I just didn’t get it. Nothing in it spoke to me.

I was also disappointed to find out what the betrayal between Mina and Vanessa was. It could have been anything, but instead it was what it always is. Vanessa and Mina especially had plenty of other things that could have come between them–the conflict didn’t have to be over a man.

2. Bad guys wanting female characters as brides or whatever – Female characters can fit into the plot in other ways besides as objects of desire. Finding out how interlinked sex, Vanessa’s abilities, and her importance to the story are–that was pretty disappointing.

3. Diversity – The only non-white main character has so far been relegated to the background. At least a black character in a historically plausible role was included, but I’m disappointed that he isn’t really being used. He could be an interesting character, but at the rate we’re not learning anything about him, we might never find out.

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4. Ethan and Brona – Ethan is a mysterious American sharpshooter recruited by Vanessa and Malcolm. He’s obviously something other than what he’s pretending to be, though what he’s pretending to be is so bland that it’s hard to care. Brona is an Irish (or at least I think that accent is supposed to be Irish) immigrant dying from consumption, and Ethan’s love interest. She isn’t uninteresting, but she has no purpose in the plot other than to motivate Ethan. She could be the most interesting personality in the world, and it wouldn’t matter, because she has nothing to do.

I think both of them have potential, but it isn’t realized in the first season, possibly because of how short it was. But the two of them together? They fall in love almost instantaneously. They do it because the plot needs them to be in love, and it shows.


I don’t even know what I think. My reaction to the first four episodes was mostly positive. Episode 5 really turned up the weirdness, and everything was more uneven for me after that. It’s certainly interesting and unique enough to continue. The good moments are really, really good. It’s just that the weird moments are also really weird. That said, every disturbing scene is worth it for just one moment between Victor and Protheus. And I have to admit that the final line of season 1 was absolutely perfect.

Some of my favorite quotes:

“A man does not live only in the empirical world. We must seek the ephemeral, or why live?”

“As you grow up, you learn we all do things which cause us shame.”

“The monster is not in my face, but in my soul. I once thought that if I was like other men I would be happy, and loved. The malignancy has grown, you see. From the outside in. And this shattered visage merely reflects the abomination that is my heart.”

“Do you really want to be normal?”

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