Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: Penny Dreadful

The trailer for the second season is out,which is why it's time for me to weigh in on the first season of Penny Dreadful. Or as I like to call it – That Escalated Quickly: The Show.

There's a good chance you already know what a penny dreadful is – and if you didn't, the show itself eventually provides the answer. But why pass up the chance to give a brief history lesson? Emerging in the Victorian era, penny dreadfuls were serialized stories of a lurid nature that sold for (duh) a penny each. Filled with highwaymen and vampires, murderers and werewolves, the "dreadful" part of the name was coined by Victorian pearl-clutchers who were convinced such stories would lead to a rise in crime.
Despite their low literary quality, penny dreadfuls hold an interesting position in the history of both publishing and pulp fiction. Their mere existence was evidence of the rising literacy rates in England (particularly among the lower classes), and their popularity indicated that more and more people were prepared to spend their money on entertainment.
And some stories featured in penny dreadful magazines made a lasting impression on the Gothic genre, such as Varney the Vampire (again featured in the show itself). First published in 1847, it directly inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula, and codified many of the vampiric traits that we recognize to this day (immortality, blood-lust, aversion to the sun, etcetera).
So why name a show after penny dreadfuls? They were both cheap and badly written, two qualities I doubt the showrunners wanted attributed to their project. Perhaps it was because the title Gothic Horror doesn't have quite the same ring to it (despite the presence of plots and characters taken from famous 19th century horror novels) and because the term "penny dreadful" evokes a certain atmosphere that permeates the entire show. It is not the quality but the ambiance of those Victorian serials that the show is attempting to capture – and it's not the first to have tried.
Coming on the heels of the ill-conceived remake of Dracula on NBS, I can imagine quite a few viewers cast sceptical glances at Penny Dreadful, which has a number of superficial similarities. Both shows are set in Victorian London, rely on Gothic trappings and the work of Bram Stoker, have a vaguely-steampunk vibe, enjoy copious amounts of blood and gore, feature a female protagonist surrounded by supernatural forces that have a vested interest in her, a supporting female character who is transformed (entirely against her will) into something unnatural, and a single black character who works as a manservant to a rich white guy.
But whereas Dracula was content to take the names of familiar characters and throw them into a story that had so little resemblance to Stoker's novel that it's a mystery why they didn't just spin their own original tale, you can tell that the writers/creators of Penny Dreadful absolutely love the material upon which their show is based. Even as it mixes-and-matches the content of half a dozen Gothic novels (particularly Stoker's Dracula, Shelley's Frankenstein and Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray), there is enough care taken in the crafting of each character and their intersecting plot-lines that you're left in little doubt that John Logan and Sam Mendes are familiar with the books and interested in exploring the themes and meaning of each one seriously.
Well-known literary figures have been thrown together into original plots long before this (Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the dire 2004 Van Helsing movie come to mind) but what's really striking is just how well the mash-up works here. It really shouldn't, and yet it does.
This may have something to do with the care in which the atmosphere and setting is established; giving the unusual narrative solid groundwork on which to flourish. Again, it takes only a quick comparison with Dracula to see the difference:

Which show do you think takes itself more seriously?
It's at this point I should give a summary of the show, though that's easier said than done – partly because it's so unique, and partly because one of its strengths is throwing the viewer into the deep end without any context as to what the hell's going on. All we're armed with is whatever knowledge we have of the original novels upon which the show is based. Any other answers are not immediately forthcoming.
Penny Dreadful focuses mainly on the odd dynamic that exists between the mysterious Vanessa Ives and her guardian Sir Malcolm Murray. It's kinda-sorta-mostly a paternal vibe (in a very dark and dysfunctional way) but at the same time you can feel more-than-a-little hint of sexual chemistry between them. For the first few episodes at least, you'll be watching their interactions carefully, trying to figure out exactly what lies between them.
It soon becomes clear that the pair are looking for someone, and in this search they employ the services of American gunslinger Ethan Chandler and dedicated surgeon Victor Frankenstein. As the show goes on, other familiar names and faces pop up: Dorian Gray, Abraham van Helsing, Mina Murray, and of course, Frankenstein's Monster (here called Caliban).
And yet despite being so heavily based on pre-existing material, Penny Dreadful is also surprisingly suspenseful. For this we can thank the slow-but-steady petering of information from writers to audience. Every scrap of exposition, every veiled comment, every little hint as to what's really going on is held out like the proverbial dangling carrot. It's all given just enough illumination so that viewers can grasp each character's immediate goals, though it remains a challenge to truly understand each one – for of course, all of them have their heavily guarded secrets.
Let's take Vanessa as a prime example. We first see her at prayer, frantically muttering, trembling with passion, and only stopping when a spider appears from behind the crucifix on the wall – only for it to reappear at her shoulder and crawl down her arm. We learn nothing from this scene but what it infers: that this is a woman at war with something subtle and strange.

More clues are metered out as the story goes on. The opening act involves Vanessa coolly hiring Ethan to accompany her and Sir Malcolm into the sewer systems beneath an opium den, where it's soon apparent that even they have a minimal understanding of what they're dealing with.
Despite her companions being attacked by violent individuals with preternatural abilities, Vanessa not only maintains her composure but steps between Malcolm and ... well – this thing:

Which stops dead in its tracks when it looks into her eyes; seeing something that apparently shocks it.

Later still, Vanessa participates in a séance and is overtaken by a spirit that uses her to relay all sorts of bizarre information: pleas in a child's voice to "name a mountain after me", mocking accusations in a high cackling voice, and the revelation that "she" once saw Malcolm engaged in illicit sex.
What does it all mean? Not since Firefly has a show thrown you into baffling circumstances so abruptly and without any predilection to explain anything. We're given virtually no background to anything, but are instead left to our own devices when it comes to piecing together the clues of what's really going on. It's rare to find a show these days that is content to take its time, and to trust in the patience of its audience.
For answers are forthcoming, only gradually and in their own time. For example, the reason behind the vampiric creature balking under Vanessa's penetrating stare is later given some degree of context (along the lines of Nietzsche's warning "if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you") but never any overt explanation.
Because the show also understands the value of Nothing Is Scarier. Just as Vanessa describes the demimonde to Ethan as: "a half-world, rarely seen but deeply felt, in shadows and reflections and out the corner of our eye", so too do the writers know that the most terrifying things in the world are those which you can't see or (more importantly) can't understand.
Yet we are given a few clues here and there, glimpses of a larger plan at work. During their first confrontation with vampires (a word that isn't uttered until episode six), Malcolm and Vanessa kill one of their leaders and discover hieroglyphics carved into a sublayer of flesh beneath a hard exoskeleton.
According to an expert, they depict a spell from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, detailing a blood curse and the search for eternal life. But something disturbs the translator: the fact that the goddess Amon-Et is portrayed alongside her consort Amon-Ra. According to him they never appear together, for Amon-Et is "the hidden one" who conceals a monster inside her, while Amon-Ra is the Serpent Prince, sustaining immortality by feasting on the souls of others.

Throw in some snake symbolism (evil and rebirth, a neat little two-for-one) and what the hieroglyphs foretell are the two deities coming together to make Amon-Et "the mother of darkness." This doesn't bode well for those of us who want to avoid yet another Mystical Pregnancy, but neither is it a good omen for the characters who now face the re-emergence of the hidden ones and the end of the world.
Beyond this, the underlying mythology of Penny Dreadful is kept deliberately opaque. The séance involves Madame Kali the psychic pointing to Vanessa and crying: "Amon-Et: serpent, hidden one, your lover, your master", only for Vanessa (or the demon inside her) to reply: "No girl, something much older."
So is Madam Kali identifying Vanessa or the demon as Amon-Et? Is Amon-Et the same entity as the creature that appears to Vanessa in the guise of Malcolm and then Ethan? Is it Lucifer or just some other demon? And what about "the master" that organizes the kidnapping of Mina and the subsequent trap used to lure in Vanessa and Malcolm? The name "Dracula" has yet to be mentioned, so it's still unclear who exactly was calling the shots in this particular situation. And what about Dorian Gray? What force is behind his immortality?
Even by the end of the season, when the Egyptian mythology is largely dropped in favour of a more Catholic rendering of good and evil, we still don't quite have a fix on what's happening to Vanessa or what's working through her; of the forces at play or the rules they exist by.
The show does assume some familiarity with the source material (pretty much everything to do with Dorian Gray will be incomprehensible to anyone unaware of his story) which in turn sets up some expectations in the viewers' minds; expectations that the writers not only anticipate, but deconstruct. The relative ease with which Frankenstein's Monster is resurrected and gently introduced to the world becomes suspenseful as we wait for something to go terribly wrong, as of course it must. And of course, it does – when Frankenstein's original creation turns up.
On the other hand, the show also surprises by simply not doing what you would expect. Caliban proves himself an apt stagehand, and though you're holding your breath throughout each performance, waiting for him to screw up – it never actually happens.
And despite all its ambiguity, the show doesn't try to out-clever its audience when it comes to some of its more projected developments. Often writers will try to catch viewers off guard by throwing in a nonsensical Shocking Swerve, whereas here they deliver on two plot "twists" that fandom had already guessed far in advance: that Ethan was the Wolf Man and that Brona would end up the Bride of Frankenstein. They may not be surprising, but because they are allowed play out organically, they are satisfying as opposed to simply predictable.
It also isn't afraid to take risks with the way its story is structured. A significant portion of episode three is devoted to Caliban's narration of his "life" after Frankenstein abandons him. Episode five is a Whole Episode Flashback, detailing Vanessa's childhood and relationship with Mina's family. And episode nine is an excruciatingly claustrophobic Bottle Episode, taking place entirely within the Murray house, in which the men struggle to control and contain one of Vanessa's demonic possessions.
And it's brave enough to occasionally abandon its core cast and follow other characters on their tangential storylines. Dorian Gray for example, is introduced via Brona Croft, who herself doesn't get fully folded into the mythos of the show until the final episode.
Even the clichés are handled in a surprisingly effective way. The show's opening sequence is straight out of Horror Tropes 101: a woman goes to relive herself in the middle of the night, only for her grisly remains to be discovered by her daughter minutes later. It's all beautifully captured: the woman's shivering, the slow and cautious journey down the hall, the instinctive fear of the little girl, the close-up on her tiny feet, the way she holds out her hands for balance as she walks – gah, it's riveting.
So too is the death of the poor doomed prostitute at the start of the second episode: her pitiful makeup, the apple she has wrapped in newspaper, the way she and the lamp-lighter eye each other before he's killed off-screen in the dense mist. In the few seconds before all these people die horrible deaths, they are humanized.
But amidst all this darkness is light: Proteus remembering the name of his wife, Ethan teaching Victor how to shoot, Brona's joy at the Grand Guignol, Vincent's kindness in taking Caliban under his wing – even a kiss given to Vanessa by a nurse before she undergoes invasive brain surgery. I don't think I would be able to watch if it was all doom and gloom, and the moments of kindness and grace are all the brighter for existing in such a dark setting.
All of the characters featured in Penny Dreadful have one thing in common: a touch of the uncanny about them. The vampiric nature of Mina, the once-dead state of Frankenstein's creations, the wolf residing in Ethan, the horror that lurks in and around Vanessa... It makes all of them, in one way or another, great candidates for stopping the apocalypse. As Malcolm announces at one point: "This is not for the weak or kind. No one in this room is kind, that's why you're here. Look into each other's eyes and pledge to go as far as your soul will allow."
These guys aren't Gryffindors, they're Slytherins. Even Ethan, the most morally-upright of the lot, probably has the highest body count to his name.
As it happens, in recent years I've grown tired of popular culture's fascination with anti-heroes, as well as the assumption that making your story Darker And Edgier automatically makes it better. That's a rant for another time, but it left me wondering why I was suddenly making an exception for the folk of Penny Dreadful.
The difference may lie in the fact that these writers have no interest whatsoever in trying to make evil fascinating or desirable – at least, not beyond the thinnest veneer of exterior beauty. It is dark and violent and – well, dreadful. Likewise, there's no question that our key cast are all pretty much assholes. Even when their motives are pure (Ethan's need to get medicine for Brona, Malcolm's desire to find his daughter) their methods are highly questionable, and they'll engage in some pretty awful stuff to get what they want.
Yet we're not asked to root for them or justify their decisions: Frankenstein abandoning his first child, Vanessa screwing her best friend's fiancé, Malcolm naming a mountain after himself instead of his son (as promised) – wow, these people suck. And so released from any need to empathise with them, we can simply watch and enjoy them.
Vanessa Ives is a role that's finally worthy of Eva Green's beauty, intensity and fearlessness as an actress. Like Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black, I suspect it's only the show's genre status that prevents her from scooping up awards, and across these eight episodes we almost see as much range in Green's performance as in Maslany's half-a-dozen clones. The body contortions, the facial expressions, the measured tones, the controlled movements, the magnificent side-eying – and I swear, she DOESN'T BLINK. I watched her closely, and whenever she addresses another character, Green never closes her eyes. Set her this challenge the next time you watch it.
Timothy Dalton is a shoe-in for the paragon of Victorian masculinity; a lustful and virile Big Game Hunter who embodies absolutely everything that's awful about all those things. In stark contrast to his age and hot-bloodedness is Henry Treadwell as a very youthful Victor Frankenstein. It's been a while since I read Mary Shelley's novel, and so I can't recall whether he was originally this young – but if it's a deliberate altercation, then it's one that works well. His youth helps exemplify the contrast that exists between the passionate, thoughtful poet and the cold and ruthless doctor.
Perhaps the most surprising cast members are Josh Harnett and Billie Piper. Though neither are the stand-outs, they're certainly not the weak links either. Brona Croft is clearly going to have a much larger role in the second season; here she's required to be as spirited as possible whilst dying tragically of consumption. Despite Piper's attempt at an Irish accent (at times she sounds like she's choking on it) she gets her hooks into your emotional investment. Her natural death would have been poignant enough, but that she ends up denied a peaceful passing and falls instead into the hands of Frankenstein and his monster is deeply upsetting.
And who would have thought Josh Harnett had this in him? His introduction is perhaps the most uninspiring (a gunslinger at a fair, later seen screwing a woman whose name he forgot to ask for) yet the show spends the rest of the season subverting the brash American stereotype. Deeply sensitive and surprisingly gentle, he serves as the closest thing the show has as an audience proxy – despite the obvious secret that hangs over his head.
Rounding things out is Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's Creature (or Caliban), acting through makeup that makes him the most accurate rendering of Shelley's descriptions I've ever seen. No green skin or neck bolts here! His Caliban is both pitiful and despicable, someone you alternately want to hug and run away from.
Only Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray feels a little extraneous, his background left unexplained and his storyline unconnected to the central narrative (plus he looks a bit like a Lestat cosplayer). Yet watching through for the second time, the character grew on me. His purpose in the narrative is to act as Vanessa's Temptation; the perfect apple of sexual freedom, hedonism, the perks of wealth, self-indulgence – everything she secretly desires and enjoys. Some of his discussions with her are direct parallels to the one she has with the priest in the season's final seconds: that the two are special by dint of their dark gifts, and that though there are heavy consequences to being set apart from the rest of the world, it is not without its advantages either.
The show also reinforces my theory that supporting characters – no matter how small their part – are more essential to a show's success than anyone gives them credit for. Among the other thespians featured in Penny Dreadful – David Warner, Alun Armstrong, Helen McCrory – it is Anna Chancellor who proves a particular standout as Vanessa's mother. She appears in only one episode, but it's her performance that elevates the episode from disturbing to truly devastating. She captures all the grief, fear and despair of a mother with a violently ill child, and despite all the vampires, werewolves and reanimated corpses on display, the show's most frightening scene is Mrs Ives hearing strange noises from her daughter's bedroom and slowly ascending the stairs to investigate.
Just look at her face and tell me your heart doesn't break for her:

You don't even want to know what she's looking at here.
There are some weak notes. As I said earlier, the motivation of most characters largely comes down to self-interest, a fascination with each other and the darkness that surrounds them, and a "why the hell not?" attitude. But the main story is driven by Vanessa and Malcolm's search for Mina, who they believe is being held captive by vampiric forces.
And so it's disappointing that such a pivotal character is given so little development and killed off so anti-climactically. Unsurprisingly, Mina has been turned into a vampire long before Vanessa and Malcolm can reach her, and she remains an enigma throughout all her appearances. We learn little of her but that she's a rather bland object of Vanessa's devotion and a Decoy Damsel – more of a Lucy Westenra than a Mina Murray.
It's a shame, as she was a character well worth exploring on her own terms; someone whose light has turned to a darkness that could match Vanessa's. The costuming certainly invites a black/white comparison between the two women, but to invest in Mina properly we needed to see her without Vanessa's rose-coloured glasses. And sure, this season was packed full of storylines, but Malcolm's abrupt shooting of her prevents any further exploration in season two – besides which, Vanessa would have been the better candidate for killing her (especially after her written promise: "I love you enough to kill you").
More frustrating is the fact she dies with at least half-a-dozen unanswered questions in her wake. How did she get involved with vampirism? Was she targeted because of her connection with Vanessa? How complicit was she in the plan to lead Malcolm and the others in the trap? Where was Jonathan Harker throughout all this? Who is "the master" that she kept mentioning?
Perhaps some of this will be picked up next season, but it still feels like a waste of a character, especially one as iconic as Mina Murray.
On a similar note, Danny Sapani's Sembene, Malcolm's trusted right-hand man, is embarrassingly underused. He opens doors, delivers packages, sits outside rooms, and leaps into action sequences – all largely silent throughout. Making this especially grating is that he's the show's only POC, and the only main character whose backstory has yet to be revealed (beyond a few veiled comments). Fingers crossed that he'll get more focus in the upcoming season.
Penny Dreadful is a show that reveals more details, clues and insights each time you watch it. The orgy of Victorian/Gothic staples is a dream come true for anyone who loves Gothic fiction, and there's so much to be written about so many things: the search for knowledge, the darkness within, the loss of innocence... One scene has a vampire whisper: "so many monsters" when looking at our each of our protagonists in turn, and that seems to be the fundamental theme of the show.
This is a review, so I'll refrain from delving into a full-blown meta, but I can't wait to see what season two offers and how it will deepen the content of season one. Most fascinating is Vanessa's relationship with her demon: what triggers its arrival, the clues as to its true identity, what it wants from her, how much it governs her personality once it takes possession, and the seemingly arbitrary (and therefore scary) rules that shape its involvement in her life. There's an essay on this show's portrayal of demonic possession just begging to be written.
But what's most miraculous is how much gets packed into eight episodes, and how well the writers pull off the fusion of literary characters into a single narrative. I'm still trying to forget certain shows in which absolutely nothing happens for long stretches of time, but every second of Penny Dreadful counts, even as the luxurious pacing allows the actors to actually work at conveying information, emotions and relationships through their eyes and body language.
It's also a story that could only be told a hundred or so years after the books on which it is based have entered the collective consciousness. So much rests on our recognition and subsequent assumptions of what to expect from these characters and their stories, and with the writers' tendency to subvert just as often as they play it straight, it results in a show that is fresh but familiar, old and new at the same time.
It's definitely not for everyone. It's dark and disturbing and gory – but after seeing images of it popping up frequently on my dashboard, watching it at last was like a bucket of cold water over my head. At the time of this review I've watched it through three times, and I'm pretty sure I'll see it again before season two airs in April.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Among everything else I've been raving about, the show is also exceptionally beautiful to look at; filled with amazing camera compositions:

The music and sound is also wonderful, filled with whispers and echoes and meaningful little cues. Just listen to the three notes that play when Ethan and Vanessa look at each other in quiet understanding. 
There's also some great understated humour, as simple as a gobsmacked "who the fuck are you people?" or the mere non-presence of Mr Lyle's perpetually off-screen wife (who apparently loves the gin).
That said, it's all very gory and violent. I have a reasonably high threshold for this sort of thing, but what was depicted here left me wincing at times.
The design of the female vampires is a bit disappointing. Though credit should be given that they're not sultry sex symbols, their identical white wigs are a little uninspired, as are the chaotic fight scenes, where you can't discern anything but said wigs.
Keep your eyes open for all sorts of little clues and details, such as caged birds freaking out when Vanessa approaches, or dogs naturally taking to Ethan.
Much like the "so many monsters" line, Vanessa says it best when she simply announces "We here have been brutalized by loss. It has made us brutal in return." That's why the Penny Dreadful gang are those best suited to the task of handling the legions of hell – because even as they participate in dubious moral behaviour, the hypothesis of the show appears to be that only those closest to the darkness are mentally equipped to fight it.

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