But the two scenes share thematic similarities. In both the supposed innocent core of a girl is threatened by a demoniacal outside force representing evil. In both, the girl is physical violated by that monster, mentally dominated by him, and confined to a bed where she is attended by multiple men looking to free her from this control. In both, the demonic force is represented (explicitly or implicitly) by sexuality, which is equated with extinction of the self, either in the form of physical or spiritual death, or both. And in both cases, Catholic rituals and rites are employed as the only effective way to combat the scourge of the devil. This is especially odd in Dracula, taking place as it does among Protestants, who explicitly comment on their discomfort with relying on Catholicism to save them.
Penny Dreadful draws on these themes but reduces them to their similarities rather than using them as a springboard to build something new. In this episode, Vanessa is possessed by a demon, and I must comment here that Eva Green does remarkable work portraying Vanessa’s turns between normalcy and full on possession. We need not speculate any longer that the demon is meant as a symbol of the evils of female sexuality; Dr. Frankenstein explicitly informs us that in his opinion, it activates (essentially) when she is sexually aroused.
But thematically, the show is an odd echo of the Dracula original. There, as I noted, most of the men involved in trying to save Lucy were in love with her, and all of them were sexually attracted to here. Here, however, the symbolism is different. Sir Malcolm essentially sees Vanessa as an object or a tool, one he loathes. Ethan Chandler sees her with sympathy, but like a rabid dog he wants to see put down rather than used as a weapon. Dr. Frankenstein pointedly has no interest in women whatsoever, as underscored when Ethan attempts to teach him to shoot and knowingly retracts an analogy between handling a trigger and brushing a woman’s neck when he recognizes Frankenstein’s ignorance. Even Sir Malcom—robustly, rapaciously heterosexual—claims to be motivated mostly by his desire to reassert his patriarchal control over the life choices of his daughter Mina and honor his dead son Peter. Therefore, unlike Dracula, the parallel scene here is stripped of its sexual overtones, leaving Vanessa’s sexuality as a monster with little external threat.
It is something to be tamed and controlled, of course—that theme carries over in each version. But here it is rather abstract. These men don’t really have a vested interest in the outcome; indeed, Ethan is ready to kill her before he performs and exorcism on her and (in theory) puts her sex demon back in the bottle and renders Vanessa nonthreatening again. Instead, we see Ethan and Frankenstein bond over shooting—could the phallic symbolism be more blatant? And Ethan explicitly identifies (though jokingly) Sir Malcom as their “Dad.” Even the revelation that Ethan had been having sex with Dorian Gray didn’t do much to phase the other men.
Perhaps the most important revelation in this episode is that the show has no real plan to tell a complete or coherent story in this eight-episode run. Instead, it is all set up for future seasons of a Gothic soap opera about the many and varied was men relate to one another, and how women seem to threaten this.