Monstrous: What Penny Dreadful Can Teach Us About Being Human

by Laura S. Jung

From the first episode, Penny Dreadful is captivating. Eva Green is riveting and bold, with the sci-fi content just right and the gore an acceptable level of over-the-top for something I expect from a sci-fi thriller-meets-Grimm-fairy-tales sort of spectacle. One of the best elements is that Penny Dreadful didn’t ease into the powerful, human, contradictions it would showcase over its too-short life. No, it went straight for the jugular, like the clean swipe of a ravenous werewolf.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to explore some of the themes Ms. Ives and her co-collaborators cleverly broach in this show. Now, to be fair, it’s unfair to privilege Eva Green’s character, because in many ways this is an ensemble cast – but Ms. Ives, as Amunet (The Mummy…anyone? Anyone?), steals the show, so she enjoys a privileged emphasis in my accounting of this show’s value to popular culture. This piece is the first in a series and as such serves to orient us to the show and some of its highlights. In the articles that follow, I’ll delve more deeply into specific themes. But for now, let’s start with some fundamentals.

Don’t Be Fooled..This Isn’t The League of Extraordinary Gentleman

As followers of the series will know, the show combines storylines of some of our favorite didactic horror and fantasy novels. We meet Ms. Ives, the amazing Eva Green. She is a powerful female lead – even in a pseudo-period piece set in the mid-19th century. When we first see Vanessa, clad in full coverage black, with only the added mystery of lace and a Rosary she clutches in her hands, and the simple, yet haunting crucifix starkly centered on her bedroom wall, we aren’t quite sure if she’s cursed with stigmata, or if maybe she’s something else. And then spiders explode from behind the sacred symbols and we know things are about to get weird.

We then meet Mr. Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a brazen American making a mockery of the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of US cavalry. The writers bury the lede a bit, but eventually we learn that Ethan Chandler is an American Werewolf in London. Ms. Ives and Mr. Chandler then join with the stern and arrogant Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and embark on a late night hunt to find Sir Malcolm’s daughter. Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter is Mina, you know, the bride of Dracula. (As an aesthetic detail, I do love that the show opted for the more supernatural Nosferatu rendering of vampires than the shiny, happy human versions to which we’ve all been subjected in the past several years – I don’t think I need to name any examples.)

I feared I might be enduring The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But while there are some overlaps in characters, Penny Dreadful is something altogether different –  and spellbindingly so. Plus, the LoEG movie in no way uses the story of each of these characters in such a human way or to teach us about such human conditions. Penny Dreadful isn’t hokey or campy – and women are powerful and not just side pieces or afterthoughts, there are even episodes that pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. In so many ways this show is remarkable, and in the tradition of the great novels and fairy tales on which it is (loosely) based, Penny Dreadful is here to impart a lesson or two.

Everything That You Fear and All You Hold Dear

The various characters are ideally there to present someone or many someones with whom we can identify in some way. And almost all of them are characters who are driven to speak and live and exist in ways that are intimately informed by their fears – or their deepest desires. In many cases, these are two sides of the same coin. This is what I want my entertainment to do for me. Maybe it’s the permanent side effects of being an (mis)anthropologist, but hot damn if I don’t want art to imitate real, complicated, messy, conflicting, challenging life.

Take young Dr. Frankenstein. He is an introvert, not easily given to working with others or companionship. This, we learn, is his personality, although his distrust of others and the way he shuts people out has more to do with his secrets. And his secrets, not only his original experiment (John Claire), but the two others he creates, are the result of his obsession, and ultimately a fear of mortality, or if we dare say it, death. And he is certainly obsessed as evidenced by that first impassioned soliloquy he imparts when meeting with Sir Malcolm. His endeavor, “piercing the tissue between life and death,” is the only true discovery, the only noble pursuit. I wonder, though, if Viktor realizes that he has not resolved the problem of death, only that of reanimation.

Sir Malcolm certainly doesn’t fear death. No, his is a fear much more terrifying. He fears irrelevance, powerlessness – fears particularly acute for privileged white men, but also relevant to men embedded in patriarchal systems. In a more general sense, he fears failure, which he generally treats as unfathomable except for in the delicate matter of family and parenting in particular. When we see him falter in brief, but powerful moments, his fragility is painfully revealed. And failure is such a common human fear, is it not, especially in this era of late capitalism where we are often made to feel that our existence, our meaning as human beings, our importance and relevance, is tied to what we “do.” For Sir Malcolm, if he is not an explorer, what is he? What is he for?

Both Ms. Ives and Mr. Chandler (whose character, fears, and offerings I’ll address in a later post) fear themselves, respectively, and the consequences that might result in embracing who they are. As for Ms. Ives, she is a strong and strong-willed woman, although for all of her woman power, the writers have also found ways to keep her in a subordinate position to her almost all-male counterparts. Ms. Ives is a powerful witch and is marked and pursued by the Devil. It’s a little HellBoy meets Persephone (of Greek mythology), mashed up with The Mummy and Dracula, if I’m honest, but the point is that she is powerful. Even when she is possessed and all of the menfolk are compelled to watch over her and protect her, she retains her power, she fights back, and it is ultimately her own strength that saves her.

Her character is complicated, and contradictory in so many ways. The demonic possession in Season 1, comes about as a result of falling for Dorian Gray and having sex with him. Her desire, sexuality, and episodes of demonic possession are always linked in the show, initially, as a “psycho-sexual hysteria,” which is an issue I’ll take up in another post dedicated to sexuality in Penny Dreadful. And while this plot line chafes in the worst ways, I love the older priest’s conversation with her, when she eventually goes into the church and speaks to him. His response is both wonder and wisdom. He suggests to her, in a way that caught her by surprise, that if she truly is touched by the Devil, then in a way she is something Divine, and ponders why she would want to rid herself of such a privilege. The response is unexpected – and complicated, something I think that Penny Dreadful does well – it is a celebration of who she is and an affirmation that who we are is always a double-edged sword (or a 20-sided die). She fears herself and her power, but the most unlikely of sources reinforces that she is nothing less than divine.

What Lies Ahead

These characters only scratch the surface of the complexity of human existence and interaction explored in Penny Dreadful. In the articles that follow I’ll delve into the broader themes of gender, sexuality, desire, and mental health as they play out in the characters and plot lines of the show. I’ll take issue with the weaknesses of the show, while examining those didactic aspects that might help us think differently about what it means to be human.

Leave a comment