‘The monster is not in my face, but in my soul…’ ~ John Clare/ Caliban
Penny Dreadful is one of the best shows ever made.
In my opinion, of course. But what’s not to love about an intense character-driven mashup of Gothic figures that imagines Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll as old college buddies?
If you have even the slightest inclination towards the Gothic, you really should give this show a try. It’s nothing short of a travesty that there are only three seasons, but in that limited amount of time they managed to create some of the most beautiful television I have ever seen. [And for a further example of another incredible show cut short, I direct you to BBC’s In the Flesh].
I love that this show is made up of misfits and monsters, exploring the duality of good and evil, guilt and redemption. The series explicitly uses the theme of duality as a framework through which the characters develop, interact, and suffer. There are powerful roles for women, alternative interpretations of masculinity, and a spectrum of gender, sexuality and identity that is rare in the televisual landscape (though there is certainly progress on this front in recent times).
In a way, Penny Dreadful is a (retro-)modern Addams Family – the characters are all strange in their own unique way, but they don’t judge, condemn or disown each other. Instead, they accept, support, and care for one another – after all, who is more qualified to understand a monster than another monster? And when one of their number gets possessed, they exorcise them. Typical family stuff.
A particular selling point for me was the inclusion of Dr Frankenstein and his Creature, the latter of which finally gives himself a name – two, in fact: John Clare, and also Caliban. Rory Kinnear enchants in a role that requires a tricky balance of horror and humanity, and his interpretation of the character is pitch perfect. Unlike other adaptations, the Creature’s past life – pre-reanimation – is also a feature of the last season. It seems that he is not a patchwork of dead parts, but is in fact a person with a past.
Dorian Gray also features in this show, but is somewhat relegated to be about as active in the plot as his portrait – a beautiful image, gathering sins but generally passive in terms of the series’ main story arcs.
And finally, Dr Jekyll. This is my absolute favourite interpretation of the character on screen to date, and Shazad Latif’s haunted, nuanced performance was a highlight of the final season. In this version of the story, Jekyll was born to an Indian mother and a white father, and bears the burden of his ‘dual’ heritage in a viciously prejudiced nineteenth century society. A mixed heritage Jekyll is an inspired interpretation of the lore; the anger he represses at the discrimination he faces on a daily basis contrasted with his calm exterior. I only wish we had seen more of this character, as I feel that there was so much potential to be explored if the show had continued. [Anyone for a Jekyll spinoff?]
And what can I say about the incomparable Eva Green? Her Vanessa Ives is the beating heart and soul in amidst the shock and horror. Created for the series, Vanessa is a combination of all the best Gothic heroines and more. To borrow a common parlance from Showtime’s Dexter, she takes on the burden of everyone’s Dark Passengers, their sins, troubles and past ‘crimes’ as well as her own, and believes that redemption can be found for anyone – except herself.
If you’re not already sold, may I offer a few parting USPs? The Creature enjoys a sojourn as a Phantom of the Opera substitute; Patti LuPone plays a gender-swapped version of Dracula’s Dr Seward; and Dorian Gray dates the Bride of Frankenstein.
There is so much more to tell, but to say anymore would spoil the ride. I do have some issues with the show, and they do need to be addressed, but in an age of problematic television, Penny Dreadful is a precious jewel that is jam packed full of little wonders and is nothing short of a miracle.
I adore this world and these characters and have so many ideas as to how the show could continue – but perhaps that is a post for another day…