On the surface, the first season of Penny Dreadful, by Showtime, is about a group of monster hunters trying to save Mina – the girl from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think it’s a TV show that most will either love or hate. The critics seem to like it overall, but I know some viewers who have had trouble adapting to how it tells its story. This is understandable. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it or leave it during the first few episodes. Then I figured out what Penny Dreadful was really about and how much I was missing. Even some of its fans have missed the real point. (Keep reading to find out what that is.)
The most obvious comparison to make with Penny Dreadful is surely League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which did some things well and some things badly. (The ending of League was pure stupid on buttered toast.) Both feature characters and settings from Victorian England. But Penny Dreadful is not a ripoff of League. Or if it is, then it does whatever League was striving for and does it far better.
When I first started to watch the show, I thought it didn’t know where it was going. Now, I realize the show wasn’t the problem. I was. That’s because I didn’t understand the show’s central conflict. You could say that I was paying attention to the wrong things and waiting for the story arc to turn on the wrong axis.
Here’s the secret to Penny Dreadful: It isn’t about killing vampires or rescuing Mina. These are just the things that get the characters working together on screen. Instead, Penny Dreadful is about the monsters within us all. This isn’t unusual by itself, but the show truly revolves around this theme and focuses on it almost exclusively. The battle against external monsters all but slips into the background. If you pay too much attention to this outer conflict, you’ll miss the good stuff and be underwhelmed. There’s only so much I can say without spoiling it for you, but a closer look at the major characters will give you some things to think about when watching the show.
Malcolm Murray, Mina’s father and the leader of the monster hunters, feels a drive for success and fame, a drive that has already cost him dearly. His son died trying to earn Malcolm’s approval. His daughter is in the clutches of some Egyptian god that apparently has ties to Dracula – as in, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Even as the story progresses, Malcolm begins to understand that he may not be able to save his daughter despite his knack for getting what he wants.
Will he do what’s necessary to set Mina free?
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green! Hurray!) begins the series as a psychic who has partnered with Malcolm for reasons we don’t understand at first. We only know that she is committed to finding Mina.
Soon, we learn that Vanessa has a literal demon inside of her, a demon that is trying to possess her. It is this demon that gives her the psychic power she wields. She wants to be free of this monster, but she is in possession of it as much as it wants to possess her. Without it, she is nothing more than an ordinary Victorian woman. With it, she can help save Mina and possibly many others. I suspect that the demon also gives her the chance to indulge her own darkness from time to time.
As you will see, Vanessa’s demons are as mental as they are literal. Is the demon really there, or is it just a figment of her tortured psyche?
Victor Frankenstein (yes, that Victor Frankenstein) starts as a young doctor who is consulting with the monster hunters. We soon learn that he is as driven by a thirst for knowledge as Malcolm is for glory.
Also like Malcolm, this drive has led him to make mistakes and even shirk his responsibility to his own children. By children, I mean the monsters he has created and abandoned, of course.
Like all the heroes, Frankenstein is a complex personality capable of things both good and bad. He consults with the Abraham Van Helsing, a character I hope we’ll see more of, too.
Ethan Chandler is an American and a bit of a cowboy, not to mention a sharpshooter who is basically working as hired muscle for Malcolm.
His demons are buried a little deeper than most and we are told that there’s more to him than meets the eye. His girl friend, played by that man-faced chick from the first season of Doctor Who, has tuberculosis and he is desperate to save her any way he can.
Ethan’s father has men looking for him, but Ethan won’t be going back to the states without a grisly fight.
Caliban is basically the first monster that Frankenstein created; think of him as the creature from Mary Shelley’s novel. Caliban is tormented by his unnatural appearance and the fear he causes in others. But his real problem lies within. Just like the original creature in the novel, he is capable of great compassion and great anger. He is super strong but also pitiful and desperately alone.
I hope he’ll find his way in the mix of monster hunters at some point. Of course, the others don’t know that he exists or that Frankenstein knows how to create monsters of his own. I suspect they’ll figure it out during the second season. 🙂
There are other, less prominent characters that I hope will get more screen time in the second season. I’d really like to know more about Sembene, for instance. Dorian Gray is also a noteworthy character, but he isn’t central to the team in season one. I’m really hoping Doctor Jekyll will make an appearance in a later season as well. What Victorian era character would be better for the show than him?
So I highly recommend Penny Dreadful, although some might find it an acquired taste. If you want a TV show that’s mostly about monsters punching each other and vampires getting staked, there is some of that here, but probably not enough to keep you interested. If you want a complex drama about the inner demons of its central characters, then this one is for you. It’s been renewed for a second season. I can’t wait. 🙂
UPDATE: I’ve begun rewatching the first season of the show. I’m seeing everything with new eyes this time around. There are threads throughout Penny Dreadful that you might miss the first time, especially if – like me – you didn’t quite get it at first. I’d love to go into detail, but that would ruin it for you.
There are a lot of questions raised in the first episode. Let’s just say that most, if not all of them, will be answered by the end. 🙂
I also had an interesting exchange with someone over at Den of Geek who apparently thought the show was sexist and racist and that this made it pretty awful. Or something. A rant ensued. Good times.