Two plots came to a head, but the choices that the series made in addressing them were disturbing. To explain this, I need to back up a bit. As the episode opens, we reenter the show’s world of strange gender dynamics. The men are all very upset because they have been made miserable by women. In his one appearance, Dorian Gray tears up because Vanessa won’t have sex with him again. Ethan is sad because his prostitute girlfriend Brona is dying of tuberculosis. Sir Malcom is wrought with agony because he can’t find Mina and is stuck dealing with Vanessa. Frankenstein’s Monster (does anyone bother to call him Caliban?) is sad because Maude, the pretty actress on whom he has a crush, doesn’t like him back and won’t hurry up and be undead for him. Victor Frankenstein is anguished because the Monster won’t shut up about his girl troubles. Dear God, he seems to be thinking, doesn’t he realize I don’t care about women?
In dealing with the men’s anguish, the writers chose what I would call an unwise course of action. They decided that that solution was to give men total control over all of the women’s bodies, leaving the women passive objects for the men’s purposes. This happens four times, which I will rank from the lightest to heaviest male assertion of power.
- Caliban’s actress girlfriend Maude rejects his proffered love and instead explains that she is happy with her emotionally and verbally abusive actor boyfriend Simon. She likes it when men tell her what to do, and Caliban responds by physically attacking her.
- Sir Malcolm finally finds his lost daughter Mina, but instead of trying to save her, he puts a bullet in her, presumably killing her (though it isn’t clear that this actually killed her since who knows what this show’s rules are for vampires—they’ve never been established). In doing so, he asserts his patriarchal authority by deciding Mina’s future for her and asserting that “I already have a daughter,” referring to Vanessa, whom he has now assumed responsibility for as a father figure.
- Speaking of Vanessa, she decamps to a church to ask Jesus to take control of her body, but the sinister priest concludes the show by asking her in essence why she isn’t happy having a (male) demon controlling her instead.
- Finally, and most dramatically, Victor Frankenstein asserts his (and his Monster’s) control over Brona, the prostitute dying of consumption. Victor essentially tells Brona to just relax and let death come because he knows best. He then murders her and takes her body back to the lab so he can reanimate her for his Monster, thus subjecting her against her will to having her mind and body remade for the pleasure of men.
That Frankenstein agrees to do this for his Creature reflects the show’s actual theme: daddy issues. Victor finally feels paternal regard for his misbegotten monster. Ethan is pursued across continents by his father’s men. Sir Malcolm finally rejects his natural born children (dead Peter and undead Mina) in favor of his chosen family, Vanessa and what she calls “the boys.” They, in turn, look at Malcom as a father. Thus, the secret of Penny Dreadful is that it isn’t a horror show at all but rather a soap opera about men’s efforts to forge relationships of various stripes, particularly those of fathers and sons.
That, of course, is a fine enough subject for drama—a sort of Gothic Field of Dreams--but it is hardly the horror series we were promised. Penny Dreadful isn’t horrific enough to be horror because deep down the show is too in love with its own characters. There is an interesting show beneath the surface, but it needs either admit that it is a male soap opera or else fully embrace the Gothic exuberance of the actual penny dreadfuls from which it takes its name. There is altogether too much misery unleavened by any sense of fun, which if nothing else animated the show’s direct inspiration, the late Universal monster mash movies, which were billed as “monster vs. monster in cataclysmic destruction!” In keeping with much modern TV, Penny Dreadful mistakes darkness and depression for depth. We were promised monsters, and we got moping. Lord Ruthven, Sir Francis Varney, Count Dracula, and Mr. Hyde would eat these sad-sacks for lunch.