I recently finished the second season of Penny Dreadful and can’t stop thinking about it. I will admit – I was reticent to invest my time in this series. The first season didn’t get the best reviews (not that this has ever stopped me before), and I think that it’s entirely possible that the name of the series itself put me off a little. After all, a “penny dreadful” was a less than favorable slang name during the 19th century for serials of sensational fiction. So, basically, the name itself advertises as “cheap thrills” for the masses. But while the series does use many familiar monsters and horror tropes, it manages to do so in an often surprisingly insightful and quality way.
PLEASE NOTE: SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.
The series has a variety of familiar names and creatures. There is Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his monster (a.k.a. John Clare played by Rory Kinnear), Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney), a Western side-show star/werewolf (Ethan Chandler played by Josh Harnett), an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray played by Timothy Dalton), and a possible voodoo priest (Sembene played by Danny Sapani). At the center of it all is Miss Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), the doomed spiritualist who is possessed by demons. It all sounds far too fabulous to be put together in any manner that could work – but it does.
During the first season, a sort of team is formed by Vanessa, Victor, Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Sembene. Together they face a variety of supernatural threats: the majority of which are vampires in the first season, and witches in the second. The first season begins their friendship and the second cements it, since now that the characters are familiar both to each other and the audience, there is opportunity to work in more development. And, the second season is definitely worth waiting for.
Victor pretty much nails the theme when he is discussing his new love with Vanessa. He explains to her that he had given up hope of being loved and thought that it was only for other people – he had resigned himself to the fate of the “exceptional”. This choice of wording is apt in describing the suffering he has undergone throughout his life due to his focus on, and success in, the realm of the mind rather than that of the heart. However, it also fits the singularity of each of these main characters, and the loneliness that plagues them. They may fight monsters together, but they are each very alone when it comes to fighting their own personal demons.
Throughout the second season, they each manage to catch a glimpse of that love that seemed so out of reach, touch it, be warmed by it – only to watch it slip from their hands. There is true torture here where love is concerned: Victor loses his love, Lily (Billie Piper) – a love that he himself created – to the more seductive Dorian Grey; Sir Malcolm is spellbound by Mrs. Poole simply as a means to her nefarious ends; and Ethan and Vanessa come together just long enough to see the other for who they are, grow to love them, and then be so devastated by the blackness within themselves that they cannot find a way to share the path going forward. Perhaps the saddest fate is that of the monster, John Clare, who is shunned by the “love” created for him by Frankenstein, betrayed by the blind girl who pretended to befriend him, and – most tragically – finally seen and loved by Vanessa, only to have her refuse to share her path with him for fear of him falling victim to the black curse that surrounds her life. The weaving together of these story lines is elegant, clever, and tragic.
In addition to the substance of the series, the cinematography is gorgeous and dark. The casting is spot on, as is the dialogue and acting. The exchanges between Josh Hartnett’s character, Ethan Chandler, and the investigator Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge) are some of my favorite, with Hartnett quickly volleying back Hodge’s questions and digs with short, terse responses.
However, all this is not to say that the series isn’t over the top in places – it definitely is. But the balance between the sensational and deep is interesting and well done. This series has the bitterness and bite of dark chocolate with the sweetest black cherry filling. I can’t wait for Season 3.