Previously on Penny Dreadful, “Seance”
Reminder: As a feature of the Penny Dreadful rewatch, the extras section at the end is divided in half. The first part is for first-time viewers. The second is for veteran viewers and contains full-series spoilers.
In Episode 3, “Resurrection,” Penny Dreadful travels into classic cinematic horror territory and unveils the first set of flashbacks, the genesis of Victor Frankenstein’s quest for immortality. With the sudden, vivid decline of his beloved mother, the singular person who understood him, we see the moment Victor’s maturity arrests and his quest for immortality begins. A second flashback shows his first Creature’s nightmarish birth, blending the familiar moan of Frankenstein’s monster from early movies with the poetic diction of Shakespeare-veteran Rory Kinnear and startling modern gore, a device that exploits our familiarity with the subject to focus on the horror of the man experiencing resurrection. Life, it seems, is not serene either.
Caliban’s awakening and his self-definition parallels the formation of what I call the Dreadfuls, the core group of adventurers who silently vow to stay the course until the End. As Caliban is honed by the kindness and cruelty of mankind, believing himself a predator, the Dreadfuls are the finished product, their depths as yet unknown. “We here have been brutalized with loss,” Vanessa tells Ethan, and Malcolm calls them all unkind people. This group, born in blood, is surely one of predators and demons.
Or are they? Much emphasis in last episode was placed on the interchangeable nature of man and animal, while “Resurrection” steps a bit farther into man vs. monster. Caliban shows not only his capability for violence, but the poetry in his heart, the desires that kindness awakens. If the nature of man is fluid, is the nature of monster just as fluid? Can they be redeemed, and, if so, how? This is the very heart of Penny Dreadful—the question of just how much humanity is in humanity.
Lessons in Death
A privileged young Victor, quoting Wordsworth’s Intimations on Immortality, comes across his first encounter with death, his dog Bradshaw, covered in maggots, followed swiftly by the second, his beloved mother Caroline who wastes away from a horrific bout of consumption. While attempting to comfort him over Bradshaw, she suddenly falls ill, coughing volumes of blood all over his face, awaking him to the idea that death is indeed not serene, perhaps a transformation. At her funeral, he stands separately, then clears his childhood art for a large tome of Human Biology.
Once again, Victor is spattered in the blood of a loved one, his original Creature raging from his abandonment. He flashes back to the bloody, horrific birth following Victor’s crude repairs. Lightning flashing, the Creature screams in agony, grasping for Victor but he escapes and never returns. Alone, the Creature learns the ways of man through the unfortunately-placed window, over a horse-breaking yard, believing he is a predator. Finally, he studies Victor’s Romantic literature.
“I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified… Were you really so naïve to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? Who is the child, Frankenstein, thee or me?”
Violent, the Creature declares Proteus’ death a mercy, considering his own introduction to London was the exact opposite of Proteus’, a polluted night on a lurid street full of vicious dogs and cruel men who beat him. But a kindly drunk actor lifts him from the street, offering dinner and employment as stage hand in the underbelly of the Grand Guignol theatre, currently rehearsing Sweeny Todd.
He even names the Creature, believing he wants to remain anonymous: Caliban, from The Tempest. Caliban compares the actors to himself, “creatures of perpetual resurrection.” Still rejected overall, Caliban finds a place of belonging in the shadows, and time… To watch Victor and his new creation, wondering if his creator felt his “inexorable” pull. Though somewhat contrite, Victor refuses to love him or associate with him, calling Caliban a demon, but Caliban returns the insult and demands he make him an immortal companion… or else.
“You seek to threaten me with death. If you seek to threaten me, threaten me with life.”
Confessions: During my first viewing of the series, as is true for many, I was so put out by Proteus’ death that I found Caliban’s story annoying, infuriating, and melodramatic. I am not alone in considering fast-forwarding through it, such was my anger at him. Watching in retrospect, however, all of these scenes feel very different. While Caliban is by nature quite dramatic, considering his abandonment and subsequent adoption by an actor, his rage is not unreasonable nor are his demands that his basic needs be met by his creator. I don’t deny that Rory Kinnear, an experienced Shakespearean actor, chews quite a bit of scenery in the only emotional role set in a notoriously restrained time, but in a spectrum of monsters and what makes one monstrous, he is a necessary anchor on the extreme side; and so, I now must concede that this plot is not nearly as irritating as I’d originally felt.
Vision: Vanessa walks upstairs past the lion trophy. Time stops, her tea cup frozen as it falls to the floor. Tiger roaring. Snake hissing. Monkey screeching. Falcon screaming. Mina begs for her help. She is surrounded by night creatures.
The Mariner’s Inn
Ethan and Brona have All The Sex in a manner that makes it clear that they’re truly involved. She hesitates at a final kiss, her consumption a scorpion on the lips from The Lovers tarot, but he pursues it anyway. She confesses that she has no money for medicine, spurring him to report to Grandage Place. Because Ethan, underneath his heart of darkness, is a great guy, in case you missed that neon sign.
Malcom and Vanessa are planning an expedition, to which Ethan agrees without detail, revealing he has legal trouble in America. In turn, Vanessa relates her vision and how Mina was engaged to Jonathan Harker but was enthralled by a vampire.
“I’m affected by forces beyond our world. You don’t question that?”
“There’s a lot I question about all this, but not that.”
On the way to their target, London Zoo, Malcolm explains to Ethan that Vanessa’s gifts make her vulnerable and desirable. To whom? You know. The Devil. Everyone. Whatever.
She walks with her hands splayed, sensing Malcolm hasn’t told her everything, when suddenly they’re surrounded by a pack of wolves. Ethan calmly offers his hand to the alpha, who mouths him in a threatening but measured greeting, then retreats. A trap… and more questions, starting with, “WTF, Ethan?“
They do, however, capture a lone thrall, Fenton, and chain him in the basement for interrogation. The thrall knows Vanessa’s name, whispering that his Master is waiting in the darkness, and repeats Lyle’s interpreted prophecy. He calls Vanessa a naughty whore, then screams from hunger as Malcolm beats him.
Upstairs, Ethan protests their methods, but Victor retorts that maybe pacifying Indians is more his style, provoking Ethan into admitting he was in the Indian Wars. Victor theorizes they might attempt treating the thrall as though he has a blood affliction, experimenting for Mina’s return. Ethan again protests, but Vanessa lays out an ultimatum:
“We here have been brutalized with loss. It has made us brutal in return. There is no going back from this moment.”
Deciding it is time, they silently vow to join until the end, though Ethan swears to Vanessa alone. She demands explanation from Malcolm, who admits that he used her as bait as he believes the creature wants her, not Mina. Before leaving, Victor impresses his newly gained hard lesson on Malcolm—if they transform a life, they become responsible for it. In the basement, Fenton whispers for his Master and smiles at his presence.
Although the expense on the Zoo set is, shall we say, all spent on the CGI wolves, the primary goal of the scene is to cement Malcolm’s utilitarian view of Vanessa’s powers, and body for that matter, and further demonstrate there is more to Ethan besides his daddy issues and sharp-shooting skills in and out of the bedroom. While visually disappointing in contrast with the rest of the episode, it is successful, partially thanks to the scenes bookending it—Ethan’s bedroom and Grandage Place, which are powerful and tone-consistent. The secondary clues for Ethan come from those scenes. Like Dorian, he is not put off by Brona’s consumption and kisses her anyway, drawing a clear parallel between these men. Lastly, Ethan and Victor trade barbs in a semi-brotherly squabble, the first of many, to underline their secret desires to belong, and then Ethan swears fealty to Vanessa only. Hold that thought.
Spoiler-Free Flourishes, Symbols, & Quotes
- Many people wonder why Victor and Caroline say “ourselves alone” when his father is alive. The funeral shows Victor feels out of place in his family, and one imagines he was his mother’s favorite, while his father has 3 other sons.
- Lion head trophy – continual reminder of the hunt that is afoot
- Janus mask – Caliban and Victor are not the only opposite faces on a coin in PD
- Snake sound = underlining adder/vampire
- Shakespeare is labeled “the Immortal” for his art, and Caliban is an actual immortal.
- Vincent quotes Leontes, “I have drunk and seen the spider.” Ahem!
- Useless fact: Leontes’ daughter in The Winter’s Tale is named Perdita, the first name of actress Perdita Weeks, who stars in S3.
- More writerly winking in dialogue about actors and using Sweeney Todd, a penny dreadful in the original sense of the phrase.
- Vincent says most theatres now focus on Ibsen, who is a modernist, much like the rest of their world. Interestingly his best known work, A Doll’s House, challenges the definitions of humanity, primarily the roles of women, which is a major theme in Penny Dreadful.
- Caliban wonders if Victor has felt his “inexorable pull” without realizing it, not unlike the ties between other characters and/or villains throughout the series.
- If you want to read more about Mina’s enthrallment to Dracula, check out the Penny Dreadful comic 1 and 2.
Spoilers & Tinfoil for Re-Watchers
- This is the only episode showing that Victor comes from means, like Ethan, a revelation which further places him in opposition, or Janus face if you will, with Jekyll in S3. Jekyll aspires to these riches, hoping acceptance will come with it, while Victor descended from riches, having lost acceptance from his family and peers.
- John Clare reads Intimations on Immortality over the closing scene of the series.
- John Clare/Caliban’s injury is never explained, though this episode comes closest to confirming an industrial accident. Not only does Vincent assume this is the case, but Caliban describes himself (and Victor) as a man of iron and mechanization.
- Tiger, lion, monkey, falcon, snake – all of the sounds in the vision are images either representing the Dreadfuls in the hunt for Dracula in S3 or are seen in the House of the Night Creatures. The most significant is the falcon, which is Vanessa’s taxidermy project in S1E5, Ariel, and Sweet’s objet d’art when she approaches him to consummate their relationship in S3E6. But the tiger also has quite a lot of screen time.
- Broken tea cup—series-wide image of sanity. Watch for Victor’s chipped tea cup in S2 and S3, Sweet smashing his tea cup in S3, etc.
- Fenton calls them/her Mother.
- “Who doesn’t love a lost cause?” DAMN YOU AGAIN, LOGAN.
- Vanessa’s nature, cont’d. The Janus and coin images are perhaps clues for where Vanessa’s nature was meant to go, i.e. that the being she carries is the primordial Mother goddess of the earth, potentially the darkness covering the face of the deep, prior to the creation of man. Therefore she is the other side of the coin from, or perhaps the life force used by, God.
Penny Dreadful S1E3 = 7.5