Famous explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) work together to fight supernatural forces that pose a threat in Victorian London. Penny Dreadful is a hard-hitting period horror series consisting of dark mystery and tension. It centres around a half world, between reality and the supernatural, a place where inner and hidden demons from the past can be stronger than any supernatural creature like vampires, evil spirits or immortal beasts. The series includes a few of literature’s most renowned characters, including: Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature (Rory Kinnear) with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Furthermore, horrific creatures from the iconic Bram Stoker novel, Dracula are lurking in the darkest crevices of London. It’s a show where characters are driven by the curiosity of what is different. Characters like Victor Frankenstein have a thirst for knowledge and experimentation, Some are consumed by world exploration, others by treading the waters of life, death and the realms between. Their dark ventures shed a horrific light on the unknown.
“There is only one worthy goal for scientific exploration. Piercing the tissue that separates life from death”
Doctor Victor Frankenstein
Penny Dreadful is a grand critique of the human race. Humanity fears what it cannot control. As a race, we have this chronic fear of things we do not understand. We are so arrogant that we think we will be number one forever. To become a neanderthal is beyond our comprehension. We don’t like to look at things that may be deemed controversial, immoral or unethical. Resurrection being a prime example as with Frankenstein above. Frankenstein broke ethical boundaries when he created the creature who then named himself after the english poet, John Clare. John Clare is different and that is very bad in the eyes of society. Being unique isn’t good at all. As a collective, we fear difference because we don’t know what they can do. The unknown is our bane and people who want to learn more about the unknown get ousted. Look at Charles Darwin. He brought us Natural Selection but it wasn’t ethical in the perception of society. At the time, unethical was code for not Christian. Religion and science are constantly at logger heads. Who’s to say if religion hadn’t constantly opposed science way back in history, that we wouldn’t be further along now? It’s cause and effect. We are out of our comfort zone and this scares us.
We live in this society that cares more about people’s looks and appearance than the content of someone’s character. This series is set in Victorian London but society hasn’t changed much in this regard, if at all. When John goes out, he can’t get employed because of his looks and not because of his ability to work or his personality. He eventually gets employed by a museum owner called Oscar Putney (David Haig) in the second season, but lo and behold this person had a hidden agenda. Putney’s end game was to make Clare an exhibit in his collection. The English are known for lying, being deceptive, untrustworthy and tricking their way into getting what they want. If English history is any consolation, trickery and deceit should be on the sigil of England. He eventually has his daughter trick John into putting himself in a cell. John hates himself for the way he looks but more so he hates the person he is. Not the poet nor the scholar but the devil inside. The beast he is, inside and out. He longs to fit in with contemporary society but society will never accept him. How can he accept himself when every he goes, he is ridiculed? All he longs for is acceptance and love but both have been declined. He is a lone soul in a great shadow looking for his place in the world. He found his solace with Vanessa Ives.
“What dreams I had of my mate, of another being looking into these eyes, upon this face and recoiling not. But how can that happen? For the monster is not in my face, but in my soul. I once thought that if I was like other men I would be happy, and loved. The malignance has grown you see, from the outside in, and this shattered visage merely reflects the abomination that is my heart. Oh, my creator, why did you not make me of steel and stone? Why did you allow me to feel? I would rather be the corpse I was than the man I am. Go ahead, pull the trigger. It would be a blessing.”
The Creature/John Clare
Vanessa Ives is also out-of-place. A woman looking for identity and is feared though her gift is not in plain sight. She is accomplished in dark magic. She has a dark soul within but her exterior is very ghostly as well. There are times when she doesn’t have the most inviting persona. Furthermore, she is mentally unhinged and has dual personalities. The first being her standard self and the other being when she practicing magic. Every time she has an episode, a little a bit of herself is stripped away. She believes in the unimaginable and things that are so outrageous that “normal” people wouldn’t dare admit to believing in such things. She has instances of depression and standing on a line between insanity and sanity. The madness has worked in her favour more times than one. Vanessa to John is what ying is to yang. It’s a relationship but not an intimate one. A relationship based on mutual for respect for the unknown and other things such as poetry and literature. Their rapport is wonderous to watch.
“Is that what it is to go mad? Your darkest fears made to manifest before your eyes?”
Ethan is a werewolf, Vanessa is a medium, John Clare is a monster and Frankenstein is an unorthodox scientist that revives corpses. They are all outcasts to society, to humanity. They are lost to society but are content when with each other. They have met their ilk and humanity will never understand their plight whether it be physical, mental or spiritual.