“So we fight, boats against the current, constantly brought back to the past.”
Perhaps one of the most haunting lines in literature, the closing line of F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby captures not only the central theme of the story, but the entire experience. human. Each heroine and hero of showrunner John Logan’s horror television series Penny Dreadful, who by the way owes a lot to literature as we will learn, is similarly unable to let go of her past, forever marked by it. . They do not (or cannot) let go of the past.
Penny Dreadful is a cocktail of disparate components that shouldn’t gel together, but they do. Victorian-era London rendered in jaw-dropping detail, an art design that would likely impress followers of the aesthetic movement, protagonists who rub shoulders with several literary characters from that era, and a story that isn’t afraid to delve into the ‘absurd. Sounds heavy and a bit ridiculous for a bona fide TV show, but don’t worry.
Because with this Showtime horror series, Logan has pulled off something really, really special.
There was something incredibly daring about Penny Dreadful that fascinated me. Being a huge horror fan, I’m perpetually on the lookout for awesome scary stuff, and this show seemed to be right up my alley, and I decided to give it a try.
While its title refers to cheap and sinister serial works of fiction that circulated in the UK in the 19th century, Penny Dreadful is anything but cheap. I’ll admit I don’t know the budget for the show, but everything about the show seems high quality, whether it’s production quality, sets, camera, or CGI.
It has a varied ensemble cast, but the plot mostly centers around a haunted woman (literally and metaphorically) called Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Vanessa is the soul of the show (Logan used the word “spine”), and the story is mostly about her struggles against the forces of darkness. All of the other characters simply aid him in his quest, operating on the fringes and breaking out occasionally.
I believe Green is giving one of the top 5 TV performances of the 21st century. She is absolutely sublime, driven and determined to portray the anguish of a vulnerable woman who desperately clings to her God to save herself from the Devil. She also embodies the guilt of having wronged her friend. It’s a tour de force for the ages, and like the show, sadly overlooked.
Over the course of the series, Vanessa battles two of horror’s most popular villains: Lucifer and Dracula. I always imagined how these two mighty “Dark Lords” would fit into one story. And who would be the most powerful? Surely Dracula as an alpha vampire is more than a match for the fallen angel? Penny Dreadful provides some interesting answers. It turns out that God not only cast out Lucifer according to the Bible, but also his brother: Dracula. Lucifer and Dracula are two equal and opposite entities who have the same goal: to make Vanessa their bride.
In the first season, Vanessa searches for her friend whom she had wronged and also struggles against possession by Lucifer. Besides the main plot, there are other minor subplots. There’s Brona (Billie Piper), a bitter prostitute tired of men using her body, who nearly lost her faith in men and humanity before she found a man she could love and who loved her back. But unfortunately, their relationship was not to last. There’s the familiar hedonist Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) of Oscar Wilde’s philosophical novel, doomed to immortality, who feels no emotion – every person, he says, including himself, must be used to satisfy the senses. What else is there, he wonders.
Then there’s Dr. Frankenstein, a man bent on bringing the dead to life out of passion, not realizing what monstrosities he’s giving birth to. As with other eccentric individuals who populate the world of Penny Dreadful, his past comes back to haunt him, albeit more literally than he would like, and kills the one good thing he ever created. The viewer is shocked, but can’t help but sympathize with the “Creature” (Rory Kinnear), a man who can’t remember his past but knows his terrible appearance is due to his torn body. was put together roughly as a simple experiment of Dr. Frankenstein – the man he very reasonably hates.
Vanessa Ives decides to confront the Devil to appease the guilt of having betrayed her friend. Her most trusted companion, Sir Malcolm, also wallows in guilt for being neither a good father nor a good husband. The American gunslinger hired by Vanessa and Sir Malcolm, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), has his own demons that he keeps to himself. His “demon,” one of many, is the big reveal in the first season finale. There is also a mysterious African Sembene, friend and assistant to Malcolm – a solid and silent presence.
When direct possession doesn’t work, Lucifer turns to his witches in an attempt to coerce Vanessa. There is a striking contrast here. Vanessa may be physically weak and may need the firepower and muscle strength of the men around her, but it’s her steely will and even-handedness in adverse situations that counts against Lucifer. Although Penny Dreadful is brilliant almost throughout, it’s the second season that will make you fall in love with the show. It was more focused, gripping, and darker than the other two.
The Dracula arrives in the third season. While Lucifer was all spirit – trying to take Vanessa’s soul – Dracula wants the body, as he himself is a material entity. The final chapter of Vanessa’s story finds herself alone. Malcolm has gone to Africa to bury his old friend Sembene. Ethan, finally tired of his other self, goes before Agent Pinkerton who follows his bloody trail and leaves with him for his native country: the Wild West. Stripped of her companions and protectors, Vanessa searches for new friends. She finds one, but it’s far from ideal.
Even during the relatively weak parts of the show, the amazing visual touches remain and there is always something interesting happening in this show. The theme of light versus dark is subtly highlighted. In the third season, bright red Chinese lamps contrast with the dark, misty landscape. The deep blacks and grays of Victorian London are juxtaposed with the vibrant oranges and duns of America in season three. You have the impression that this city hides monsters in its shadow. Even the bloody, gory scenes of this show seem oddly enjoyable to watch.
Penny Dreadful is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Tip: Although this show is not a speed bump, it will take you some time to enter its strange world and appreciate the gloomy atmosphere. Stick to it and you will be rewarded.
Under the Radar is a weekly series about a great movie or TV series that for some reason has escaped most people’s attention – flew under the radar, so to speak – and worth checking out.