“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Perhaps one of the most haunting lines in literature, the last sentence of F Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby captures not only the central theme of the story, but also the entirety of human experience. Every heroine and hero of showrunner John Logan’s horror TV series Penny Dreadful, which incidentally owes a lot to literature as we will learn, are similarly unable to let go of their past, forever affected by it. They don’t (or can’t) let bygones be bygones.
Penny Dreadful is a cocktail constituting disparate components that should not gel together, but they do. Victorian-era London rendered in breathtaking detail, art design that would probably impress followers of Aesthetic Movement, protagonists who rub shoulders with several literary characters of that era, and a story that is not afraid to delve into the absurd. That sounds unwieldy and a touch ridiculous for a bona fide TV show, but fret not.
For with this Showtime horror series, Logan pulled off something really, really special.
There was something bewilderingly audacious about Penny Dreadful that fascinated me. Being a huge horror fan, I am perpetually on the lookout for great spooky stuff, and this show appeared to be right up my alley, and I decided to give it a go.
While its title refers to cheap, lurid works of serial fiction that circulated in 19th century United Kingdom, Penny Dreadful is anything but cheap. I admit ignorance about the show’s budget, but everything about show feels high quality, be it production quality, sets, camerawork, or CGI.
It has a varied ensemble cast but the plot is mostly centred around a haunted (literally and metaphorically) woman called Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Vanessa is the soul of the show (Logan used the word “spine”), and the story is mostly about her struggles against the forces of the dark. Every other character just assists her in her quest, operating on the sidelines and occasionally bursting forth.
I do believe Green gives one of the top 5 TV performances in the 21st century. She is absolutely sublime, driven and determined in portraying the anguish of a vulnerable woman clinging desperately to her God to save herself from the Devil. She also embodies the guilt from having wronged her friend. It is a tour-de-force performance for the ages, and like the show, sadly overlooked.
Over the course of the show, Vanessa fights two of the most popular villains in horror: Lucifer and Dracula. I’ve always imagined how these two powerful ‘Dark Lords’ would fit into a single story. And who would be more powerful? Surely Dracula as the Alpha Vampire is more than a match for the Fallen Angel? Penny Dreadful provides interesting answers. Turns out, God cast out not just Lucifer as per the Bible, but his brother too: Dracula. Lucifer and Dracula are two equal and opposite entities who have the same goal: to make Vanessa their bride.
In the first season, Vanessa seeks for her friend that she had wronged and also fights against possession by Lucifer. Apart from the main plotline, there are other minor subplots. There is Brona (Billie Piper), a bitter prostitute tired of men using her body, who almost lost her faith in men and humanity before she found a man she could love, and who loved her back. But sadly, their relationship was not to last. There is the familiar hedonist Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) from Oscar Wilde’s philosophical novel, doomed to immortality, who does not feel any emotion – every person, according to him, including himself, is to be used to gratify the senses. What else is there, he wonders.
Then there is Dr Frankenstein, a man bent on giving life to dead people as a passion, not realising what monstrosities he is giving birth to. As with other eccentric individuals that populate the world of Penny Dreadful, his past comes back to haunt hi,, though more literally than he would like, and kills the only good thing he ever created. The viewer is shattered, but one also can’t help but sympathise with the ‘Creature’ (Rory Kinnear), a man who does not remember his past but knows that his terrible appearance is because his torn body was put together crudely as a mere experiment by Dr. Frankenstein – the man who he very reasonably loathes.
Vanessa Ives decides to take on the Devil to assuage the guilt of betraying her friend. Her most trusted companion Sir Malcolm likewise wallows in guilt for being neither a good father nor a good husband. The American gunslinger hired by Vanessa and Sir Malcolm, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), has his own demons that he keeps to himself. His ‘demon’, only one of many, is the big reveal of the finale of the first season. There is also a mysterious African Sembene, Malcolm’s friend and aide — a solid and silent presence.
When direct possession does not work, Lucifer turns to his witches to try to force Vanessa. There is a compelling contrast here. Vanessa may be weak physically, and she might require the firepower and muscular strength of the men around her, but it is her will of steel and equanimity in adverse situations that count against Lucifer. Although Penny Dreadful is brilliant almost throughout, it is the second season that would make you fall in love with the show. It was more focused, engrossing and darker than the other two.
The Dracula arrives in the third season. While Lucifer was all spirit – trying to get hold of Vanessa’s soul — Dracula wants the body, as he himself is a material entity. The final chapter of Vanessa’s story finds herself alone. Malcolm has gone to Africa to bury his old friend Sembene. Ethan, finally fed up of his other self, surrenders before the Pinkerton agent who’s been following his bloody trail and leaves with him for his homeland: the Wild West. Stripped of her companions and protectors, Vanessa seeks new friends. She finds one, but he is far from ideal.
Even during the comparatively weaker parts of the show, the incredible visual touches stay and there is always something interesting going on in this show. The theme of light vs dark is subtly evinced. In third season, bright red Chinese lamps contrast against the foggy, gloomy landscape. The deep blacks and greys of Victorian London are juxtaposed against the vibrant oranges and duns of America in third season. You get a sense that this city does hide monsters in its shadows. Even gore and bloody scenes in this show look weirdly pleasing to the eye.
Penny Dreadful is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Tip: While this show is not a slow-burner, it will take time for you to get into its strange world and appreciate the gloomy atmosphere. Stick with it, and you will be rewarded.
Under the Radar is a weekly series that talks about one great movie or TV series that for some reason slipped most people’s attention — flew under the radar, so to speak — and is worth checking out.