Well, that was underwhelming. I went into the last episode of the first season of Penny Dreadful expecting S01E08 to live up to its grandiose title, “Grand Guignol.” Surely, if you are going to name your episode after Paris’s bloodiest spectacle and set a good chunk of the action in a theater there should be more to it than what we got. I expected to see the monsters descend on a stage show (I’d have picked the Walpurgisnacht scene from Faust, personally) during the production, the confused audience only gradually realizing that the vampires and undead and what-have-you weren’t part of the show, until finally all ended in an orgy of violence and blood. Perhaps my expectations are too high.
Instead, Penny Dreadful didn’t even bother to address many of its ongoing plotlines at all. Whatever mumbo-jumbo there was about an ancient Egyptian deity threatening the apocalypse, it was pushed aside. Dracula never appeared, and the series treated Ethan Chandler’s transformation into a werewolf as a revelation, even though the show had heavily foreshadowed his lycanthropic tendencies throughout the series’ run. Instead, in a bizarre choice, we spend much of the episode reenacting the set piece vampire fight from episode 1, this time set in the Grand Guignol Britannia rather than the sewers. Otherwise, the scenes were largely interchangeable, give or take a character.
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.
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.
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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