Every week I think I might have something interesting to say about Penny Dreadful, and every week I find that my thoughts turn to other and better dramas that manage to have more—and more interesting—things to say about horror, monsters, and the Victorian period.
This week Penny Dreadful (S01E04 “Demimonde”) supposedly intends to examine the highs and lows of Victorian society in search of the dark heart that hides beneath the veneer of the Gilded Age. To that end we see men in evening clothes stealing away to slum it with commoners and get splashed with blood while watching a dog kill rats, a bloody scene that contrasts with the audience at the Grand Guignol, where commoners and aristocrats alike engage in more sanitized bloodlust as they enjoy a werewolf play, complete with copious amounts of stage blood pumped from below by the Frankenstein’s Monster.
The supposed theme is hit hard enough that A.V. Club reviewer Scott Von Doviak marked it explicitly in his episode review: “Thematically the episode is about its characters confronting the darkness within themselves…” Except, of course, that it isn’t.
I remarked two weeks ago that the show seems to be fighting its own material, and here again the writers don’t seem entirely in control of their own theme. There was really very little of the “dark heart” except, ironically, on the episode’s surface. Instead, the episode delved into some disturbing territory that seemed to heavily imply that men could finally be happy if they could get over those wretched, evil women and find their love and comfort with one another.
Each of the main plot threads reinforces that theme. In the most “shocking” reveal, Dorian Gray and the apparent werewolf cowboy Ethan Chandler decide to forsake the love of women altogether and have sex with each other. (I presume this, along with Dorian’s haircut, is a nod to Oscar Wilde.) This comes about because Billie Piper’s prostitute explains more or less directly to Josh Hartnett’s Chandler that there can be no chance for a real relationship between them (she has tuberculosis and is a whore) and therefore their sex can only be transactional. Gray tries making eyes at icy psychic Vanessa Ives, but she is too busy ruining everyone’s lives by falling prey to Dracula’s manipulations and therefore bringing grief to Sir Malcom Murray’s house. There, in turn, Murray tells Victor Frankenstein that he loves the young man as a replacement son, and the implication is quite clear: If only his whorish daughter Mina hadn’t given herself to Dracula, maybe Murray could build a healthy father-son relationship with Frankenstein and live happily ever after. (He is apparently more devastated by the death of his son than his daughter as a vampire bride.) But Frankenstein (who does not express any interest in women, even to acknowledge their mere presence) is also denied healthy male relationships because his Monster is terminally horny and demands an immortal bride—and a “beautiful” one at that. His unquenchable need for female companionship threatens to undo Frankenstein. Had Frankenstein taken the precaution of neutering his Monster, he might have also enjoyed a happy existence free from the polluting influence of women. To summarize: Women are (a) whores, (b) prey for monsters, (c) fickle, and (d) the cause of every man’s ruination.
I do not believe this was the intended message, but how else are we to read at least three (!) separate plot lines that all remark on how men may be better off without women?
The show’s creator, John Logan, is openly gay and has explicitly said that he likes horror monsters because of his sexuality, as he told Slate magazine: “I realized what really attracted me to them was the very deep kinship I felt that has to do with growing up as a gay man.” The idea of horror monsters as allegories for the gay experience is nothing new and is a potent theme for horror. True Blood and In the Flesh have both made the subtext into text, but the theme goes back in film at least to gay directory James Whale’s brilliant Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Prior to this, similar themes can be found in literature, such as the lesbian seduction in J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla and, to an extent, the attraction of the male narrator to the vampire Lord Ruthven in Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” But what troubles me about Penny Dreadful is that Logan seems to have nothing to actually say about this important horror theme and quite possibly isn’t quite aware that he has foregrounded it since he gives nominal attention to the poorly-drawn female figures who are repeatedly claimed to be the center of the show but are in fact bejeweled decorations navigating the Madonna-whore complex.
Contrast that with a thematically similar show, the BBC’s Ripper Street, which also attempted to explore the highs and lows of Victorian society in the wake of the Ripper murders. This past season that show did a sensitive and quietly devastating episode about homosexuality in late Victorian London that had something useful to say about the hypocrisy of the old order and the inhumanity of a legal system that systematically rendered some people non-human. Even NBC’s abysmal Dracula made an effort to explore the theme in a more heartfelt way, culminating in tragedy and suicide. Surely a show about monsters could find a wealth of material here, and yet the narrative betrays not the slightest hint of depths beyond its surface.
But Logan himself said that he intended the queeny fop Sir Ferdinand Lyle (the Egyptologist) to be the show’s gay figure, as though he conceptualizes homosexuality as a performance: “The London of 1891 was not a time when gay men could be celebrated for their displays or affectations—as Oscar Wilde would be the first person to comment. So Lyle is in one way my attempt to grapple with the many complex sexual mores in the Victorian era.” It strikes me as uncomfortable to reduce the gay experience to lisping, decorating, and theatrical hand gestures (which are how Lyle is defined: characters comment explicitly on his interior decorating skills), so in that sense having the traditionally masculine Chandler having sex with the Byronic Gray at least moves us forward from there in terms of exploring the complexities of sexuality.
As Logan knows, Oscar Wilde, the creator of Dorian Gray, was imprisoned in 1895 for being gay (but only because he sued a man for calling him a sodomite); but it seems difficult to envision reality intruding on the show in such a way. I don’t get the sense the Penny Dreadful intends for any of its characters to actually live in the Victorian world so much as in an ersatz Victorian fantasia composed of horror movie clichés and the detritus of costume dramas. It’s a postmodern reflection of twentieth century critiques of Victorianism and fetishism of the same, rather than an actual attempt to grapple with the period on its own terms.
The best horror is grounded in a reality from which the monster is a shocking departure; Penny Dreadful is all departure and no grounding. As such, it can reach the grotesquerie of the Gothic in form but not the true depth of horror in its function. There are four episodes left, and there may be changes ahead, but at the halfway point in the series, it would seem an odd time for weight and consequence to enter this pseudo-spooky confection now.
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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