Welcome, Dreadfuls, old and new! With Penny Dreadful’s Netflix release, it seemed like a great time for an official Season 1 rewatch. Each review will end with a Spoiler-Free symbolism section followed by an all-series Spoiler Section. Also, check my Penny Dreadful comic book reviews for prequel stories like Mina’s kidnapping and Malcolm and Sembene in Africa.
In short, Penny Dreadful is quite simply some of the best TV ever. It takes horror seriously, setting aside Sherlockian steampunk and Twilight sparkles for rich characters saddled by their humanity but full of violent promise. By day, it inhabits grimy Victorian England in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, only slightly past the terror of Jack the Ripper. By night, the veil falls and the Demimonde opens, the world between life and death. A classic mix of horror novel characters, these archetypes, by trade if not name, are no strangers, and yet, their roles and depths challenge our expectations. You might be tempted to assume that supporting characters are window dressing or that you already know Frankenstein’s story.
One of its more delicious aspects is subverting the common device of combining characters on a sliding scale of fringe lifestyles and societal rejection. Writer/director John Logan skillfully navigates this trope by maintaining the importance of each, no matter how familiar or monstrous, and igniting surprising empathy for even the worst possible characters, and I do mean the actual worst. In terms of acting extremes, no series compares, and, as such, even (or perhaps especially) its most lovely cast member, Eva Green, goes through shocking appearance changes. It isn’t for everyone—if you aren’t completely taken by “Séance,” S1E2, you might not be a Dreadful. But, beware: with its deeply-felt, densely-layered visual literature, Penny Dreadful draws you into its web and soon you’ll be wondering where it’s been all your life.
The first episode opens in the British slums on a bitter night, a pregnant mother on the privy snatched shockingly through the window and her child screaming into the haunting credits. The unflinching protagonist, Vanessa Ives, prays desperately at a stark crucifix from which a black spider emerges, undeterred by the holy space, and crawls up her arm, waving its front legs as demonic whispers address her.
“Soon, my child, I’m so hungry.”
In contrast, Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler, the colorfully-costumed headliner of a Wild West show, is so very American—loud, with a fake drawl, and gunfire.
The gasping crowd follows the bullets, but Vanessa watches only him. After some humorous in-character, bare-butt sex with one of his nameless admirers, he settles more somberly into the saloon where Vanessa makes quick work of his lies and offers him some “night work,” which he accepts in exchange for a smile. Let the crackling sexual tension begin.
They meet up with Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray in a Chinatown opium den. Though Malcolm is a fine gentleman, he has an easy manner in the opium den while yet holding himself apart. Along with Ethan, the audience is submersed into the supernatural underworld in search of Malcolm’s daughter Mina, aka Mina Murray Harker (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), who has disappeared as a result of an as-yet-unnamed guilt between Vanessa and Malcolm, primarily a “transgression” of the former. By this point, hints of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are clear, with Malcolm resembling Quartermain, a fearless explorer without supernatural abilities but a considerable man above other men, money being the least of it.
They fight three vampiric thralls in various stages of transition while Vanessa presses into the darkness of the vampire den, which is piled high with skinned bodies, buzzing flies, and platinum-haired vampire brides, one curled around a dead infant. Vanessa draws the presumed master vampire’s curious, mesmerized gaze while Malcolm stakes it.
They then haul the body to an illegal Resurrectionist den where they attempt to hire a scientist, one Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadway). Dismissive and obsessive, he at first resists the distraction, but Vanessa simply pulls back the sheet. He jumps to investigate the slate gray body, discovering hieroglyphics under an exoskeleton. Ethan finally asks,
“Who the fuck are you people?!”
The question is, who the fuck are you? Later, while constables investigate the considerable carnage of the opening murder—ceiling to floor viscera—Ethan worriedly watches as the body is brought out, eavesdropping two gossips and meeting one’s gaze as she says,
“Damn him that did it, right to hell.”
The following day, Vanessa and Malcolm recruit their respective counterparts, Ethan and Victor, in ways they believe will appeal to their nature. Sembene, Malcolm’s manservant played by Danny Sapani, admits Ethan to Grandage Place. Vanessa stresses a shared belief in the demimonde and curses, spreading a deck of tarot while inviting him to join their ranks as a man of hidden depths and violence. Though Ethan claims disinterest, she asks him to pull a card while staring into her eyes: The Lovers, a scorpion poised on a pair of lips. Quite possibly one of my favorite scenes. Ever.
Meanwhile, Malcolm hosts Victor at The Explorers Club, on the surface an appeal to Victor’s curiosity and determination, baiting the younger man’s ego by name-dropping Murray Mountain. After appearing to absorb the information as desired, Victor insults the entire room as full of “solipsistic self-aggrandizement,” passionately declaring,
“There is only one worthy goal for scientific exploration: piercing the tissue between life and death.”
The snare is set. One cannot imagine a more perfect actor in this role when Timothy Dalton affects the satisfied half-smile of a hunter with clear sights as he coldly admits he would murder the world to save his daughter, and how could one not believe it. Like Vanessa to Ethan, he shrugs off Victor’s question of exactly how much of the world they might murder, their silent agreement forging the beginnings of a father/son bond.
The last introduction is Sir Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), head of the British Museum’s Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities and an eccentric flurry of French/English affectations and fiery hair. Somehow both formal and overly personal, he gushes over Malcolm’s book. Lyle ably interprets the hieroglyphics, sourced from The Book of the Dead, as “a blood curse,” passing it off as metaphoric, but invites them to a fête by way of further vetting their trustworthiness. A reference to his filthy rich wife suggests a marriage of convenience, acknowledging that even half of his field, the Assyrians, is something “we don’t exactly approve of.” Message received.
The Final Act
As an electrical storm blows in, Mina appears in Malcolm’s bedroom. She draws him close with eerie weeping, then screeches at him, eyes red and skin white, before disappearing. Telling Vanessa of the encounter, he recalls a lion hunt from long ago–the moment of becoming the prey. This time, Vanessa’s penitent prayers go even more unanswered as candles levitate behind her, spiders pouring forth from the now upturned crucifix.
Victor descends into his secret lab, strung with a wild web of wires. He blandly regards a stitched corpse in a copper bath of ice, electricity snapping at its feet. After a bolt kills the entire system, the corpse disappears. Lit dramatically, he finds the reanimated man huddled in the corner, bleeding anew from the stitches. The creature tearfully touches Victor’s face, then his own, and smiles.
Overall, a nearly perfect series premiere, ending with the chill of dark revelations that once again challenge our expectations: Vanessa, the assumed heroine, is not just a little haunted or paranoid; Victor, a presumed budding creator, already seems experienced; while Mina, the “prize,” appears beyond help. What does that mean? How much worse can this get?!
Spoiler-Free Flourishes, Symbols, & Quotes
- Ethan’s assistant in the show is played by Owen Roe. He also plays the Minister in S2E3 “The Nightcomers” and Count Odo in Vikings.
- Freeze frame the newspaper: on the left side under the advertisement for Dr Tibbald’s Blood Tonic is a classified titled “Dr Jekyll”
- “Fast as a bat’s wing” and “coils of an adder” = underlining the vampire theme as creatures literally inhabiting the area between life and death
- “Our nature doesn’t change, only our circumstance.” = reincarnation/transmutation
- “Papyri… isn’t that a delicious word? Sounds like something eaten by little Persian boys.”
- Random: The day I discovered Penny Dreadful, Maroon 5’s “Animal” was on repeat. Fitting? You decide.
Spoilers & Tinfoil for Re-Watchers
- “Highly impressive, especially your finale.”
“Well, you gotta leave ’em wanting more, as we say in show business.”
*side eyes John Logan for 100 years*
- Chinatown figures throughout S3.
- Lyle’s declaration that “blood curse” is a metaphor is echoed in the series finale by Catriona Hartdegen when she states that “House of the Night Creatures” is no doubt metaphorical, when it is in fact literal in both cases.
- The Lovers: DAMN YOU, LOGAN. AGAIN.
- Each of Frankenstein’s creatures is reborn in a different style: the first was a bloody horror, producing a passionate, violent creature; the second is on ice, producing a sweet, but simple man; the third is a water birth, producing a “perfect” resurrection.
- Ethanessa Storm Staring
- Tinfoil #1: The lion in the hunter/prey story is the one hanging in the foyer of Grandage Place, thus foreshadowing that Malcolm will survive the series. (I say tinfoil because these are never confirmed.)
- Tinfoil #2: Electrical storms provide energy to the elemental forces inside Vanessa and Ethan within their circular roles (see S2) and draw them together as their true forms.
- Clues about Ethan: repeated references to his true nature, curses, and being damned; a complicated relationship with his father; doggy-style sex (seriously, see S3E5); dogs barking while the camera is on Ethan in the crowd.
- The setting of Malcolm’s recruitment of Victor is designed to gauge his desperation for societal acceptance, one that might have fared more positively with the unnamed “colleagues that fall along the way” Malcolm alludes to unknowingly (Jekyll), whereas Victor reveals he is beyond that point, as he further confirms in the S3 finale when he tells Jekyll that no matter their success, the world will not accept their science.
Penny Dreadful S1E1 = 9.8/10