It’s no wonder that Showtime sent two episodes of Penny Dreadful to TV critics for their review. As you will no doubt recall, I found the pilot episode to be disjointed and slipshod, but last night’s second episode was everything that its predecessor was not. The program shows much more control over its style, and individual scenes have a more rigorous aesthetic, extending from the improved set design to a more controlled set of color palettes. If the whole still doesn’t quite add up to more than the sum of its parts—there is still no unity in terms of color palettes, and the cinematography fails to rise much above standard TV blocking, with intermittent and obvious CGI backgrounds contrasting poorly with on-location shots—it is a marked improvement over the aesthetics of the first episode. All the same, the subject matter really could stand a bit more stylization in the visuals an a bit more epic a feel.
Episode 2, “Séance,” was much more coherent and interesting than the pilot in terms of story, and it offered some important information about and development of its main characters and their relationships, as well as introducing some new characters, including Dorian Gray and a consumptive prostitute played by Billie Piper, fresh off her last role as a prostitute.
I wonder if the story wouldn’t have done with a little more consideration to its theme. The episode order for this series is short—just eight episodes—so at 25% of the way through the series, we should have a good idea of the major theme of the series. But I get the sense that the show is fighting against its material, especially since the show’s creator, John Logan, admits to taking his inspiration not from the actual Victorian material but from Universal Horror’s treatment of it—and not in the good movies, but from the 1940s cash-grab “monster mash” titles like House of Frankenstein. He says he had not read a penny dreadful before making this series, and it shows.
The British Museum Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) delivers what I think is meant to be the show’s theme, the coming battle between good and evil spawned by sexual transgression, for he says that some hieroglyphs foretell the rise of a “serpent-prince” who will overtake the earth and extinguish the light of goodness when joined in sexual union with his mate. There is talk of the devil and of evil and a dire warning to avoid tempting the dark gods, building on the show’s centerpiece, a séance that involves a lot of implications of incest, and Dorian Gray’s budding necrophilia.
Lyle’s warning comes just seconds after a mention of what ought to instead be the overriding theme of the series—the human refusal to accept the finality of death. Consider the horror clichés the program has decided to take on: Frankenstein’s Monster, an amalgam of dead men raised to unnatural life; Count Dracula, a mortal man raised to unholy immortality; Egyptian mummies, preserved in hopes of a resurrection that never came; Dorian Gray, another mortal who defies death through supernatural means; spiritualists, who communicate with the angry souls of the dead from whatever life lies beyond. It is hardly controversial to see, in fact, the overriding theme of Victorian horror as an exploration of the line between life and death, a sort of substitute for the promises of religion that upper class Victorians increasingly came to doubt. The Victorians themselves recognized this theme; Bram Stoker made it utterly clear when he caused Dracula to speak to Renfield words borrowed from the Devil’s speech to Jesus in Matthew 4:8-9, for the vampire was the unholy mockery of God’s promised resurrection of the flesh.
Now, I’ve only seen what’s been broadcast, but it seems like the writers don’t want to make this obvious connection the actual theme, despite the presence of a crucifix in psychic Vanessa’s (Eva Green) chamber that might have suggested a richer thematic parallel to Christianity (resurrection, eternal life, etc.) that could have given this show more weight than a general-issue monster mash. The talk of demons and the introduction of a serial killer who tears apart women each month—apparently foreshadowing the Wolf Man—implies that the writers are instead following the Supernatural and Buffy playbook with a looming Manichaean battle between imperfect embodiments of good and seemingly-unstoppable pure evil to forestall the Apocalypse. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity if that turns out to be the case. And in this series, the origins of evil come squarely from the Middle East, with little sense that the show recognizes or plans to deal with the imperialist and colonialist impetus for seeing non-Western peoples and cultures as evil.
In that, Penny Dreadful betrays the spirit of its Victorian inspiration but is entirely in keeping with the themes of post-9/11 modern apocalyptic horror. The Middle East origins of a terrorist menace inspired by the promise of divine reward and threatening to destroy upper class white elite power probably wasn’t a conscious theme on the part of the writers, but it looms in the background with each mention of evil Egyptians plotting destruction of the nearly all-white cast. (So far, there is one black man, a servant, who I presume will later be more important.) It is almost tempting to read the brief CGI shot of the twin towers of the under-construction Tower Bridge as a symbol of the building up of a civilization that would come crumbling down 120 years later under a new and different threat, also from the Middle East. I don’t, however, think that there is as much thought behind the shot as all that. Nevertheless, Penny Dreadful is certainly more of our era than the Victorian (just as Universal Horror was a Depression-era creation) and appears to be enacting modern concerns over politics and sexuality underneath a veneer of evening dress and gaslight.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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