One of the most successful horror series ever broadcast, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful gets its name from the Victorian penny dreadfuls. According to Judith Flanders of the British Library, these cheap, sensational, highly popular news-booklets, originally called Penny Bloods, initally concentrated on adventurous stories about pirates and highwaymen, but gradually shifted their focus onto crime and its detection. The penny dreadfuls replaced 18th century gothic horror, as they began to concentrate on supernatural and horror tales, including Varney the Vampire (cover of a vampire penny dreadful below), which influenced Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful takes the Victorian penny dreadfuls, as well as the Victorian literature inspired by them, and gives us the “origin stories” of their characters. Thus, Dracula‘s Mina Murray is given an entire family, while Frankenstein‘s titular character gets to create more than one Creature.
Original characters, such as Vanessa Ives, played by the brilliant Eva Green (above, standing), and Brona Croft (Billie Piper, above seated) further flesh out the series’ exploration of evil, and of human choice to consciously do either good or evil.
The series begins with Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, above L) hiring a professional gun, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) for some dangerous “night work.” Along with the father of her childhood friend, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa is searching for her missing friend, Mina, who has been taken by some sort of Creature (also called Vampire, below).
Dr. Frakenstein (Harry Treadaway) enters the story when he is hired by Sir Malcolm to do an autopsy on one of the dead Creatures.
Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) is also introduced in the first season, though his story isn’t as integrated into the main stories. Also, there are at least two “Creatures” initially: the Vampire Creature hunted by Sir Malcolm, as well as those created by Frankenstein, the most striking of which is played by Rory Kinnear (below).
In addition to helping Sir Malcolm search for his missing daughter Mina, Vanessa has her own dark secrets, as does everyone else in the show, including Ethan, Sir Malcolm, Frankenstein, and Dorian. Of course, readers of the books will know some of Frankenstein’s and Dorian’s secrets. And viewers may guess Ethan’s secret.
Cast of PENNY DREADFUL season 1 (L to R): Danny Sapani as Sembene, Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Billie Piper as Brona Croft, Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler, Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray, Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, Rory Kinnear (in doorway) as Frankenstein’s Monster/Creature, Harry Treadawell as Victor Frankenstein
In any event, the show’s initial season, despite its few weaknesses, was a stunning exploration of good and evil, in which everyone has a very dark secret. My blogs do contain Spoilers, since I wrote them after watching the episodes.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch Penny Dreadful yet, you can watch the Season Premiere Episode 1 free on its homepage on Showtime. You can catch up with the remaining episodes on ShowtimeAnytime.
The premiere of season 3 is Sunday 1 May at 10 p.m. ET.
In its second season, Penny Dreadful creator-writer John Logan introduces Witches who pursue Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) for their “Master,” Lucifer. The focus of the show changes from the characters’ hunting external evil, represented by the Vampire Creatures of the first season, to protecting Vanessa from her own internal evil, which the witches wanted to “give” their Master.
The head witch, Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory, above R) had been hunting Vanessa since season one, when she appeared at the séance as Madame Kali (below).
The storylines of Frankenstein and Dorian Gray become more complex even as they are more integrally tied to the story of Vanessa and Ethan. We also learn more about Vanessa’s past when the Cut-Wife (Patti LuPone) story appears in flashback.
My blogs do contain Spoilers, since I wrote them after watching the episodes: you have been warned.
Viewers don’t know quite what to expect from season three, although it looks like the members of the extended “family” have been scattered around the globe. Also, from the official trailer, we see that Patti Lupone, who played the Cut-Wife in season 2, is returning as Vanessa’s doctor.
You can watch both seasons of Penny Dreadful with a free trial of Showtime. The premiere of season three is already available for viewing on Showtime, but if you can wait, then the official premiere is Sunday. Afterward, you’ll be ready to join the rest of us #Dreadfuls on Twitter and buzz about the show.
Season 3 Premiere Sunday 1 May
10 p.m. ET
After you’ve watched the first two seasons, or if you’ve already seen them, you might enjoy Wired’s gifs to catch you up on what’s happened.
If you want to read the books that Penny Dreadful‘s literary characters are based on, Showtime is offering them for sale on its site, but you can get them free as ebooks: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. And I’ve thrown in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde simply because no exploration of the Victorian period and its literature would be complete without it — nor would any exploration of good and evil. Besides, I simply can’t believe the character of Jekyll and Hyde won’t show up, eventually, in Penny Dreadful, though I admit I’ve been saying that since its first season.
◊ Penny Dreadful is rated MA for Adult Content, Brief Nudity, and Violence
When Lucifer fell, he did not fall alone;
they will hunt you till they end of days.
(Cut-Wife to Vanessa)
Last night’s episode of Showtime’s hit show Penny Dreadful, “Night-Comers” (S2E3), took viewers on another flashback into Vanessa’s past, and an engrossing journey it was. From the beginning of the show last year, creator/writer John Logan has said that the emphasis of the show would be on Vanessa Ives, and the flashback in season 1 (E5), “Closer than Sisters,” involving Vanessa’s intentional betrayal of her best friend Mina was one of the finest shows of the season (followed closely by “Séance” [E2] and “Possession” [E7], both of which concentrated on Vanessa and her “demons”).
One reviewer, Scott von Doviak, who felt the episode last night “stalled the momentum” of the show, compared “Night-Comers” to Star Wars, saying that the Cut-Wife Joan Clayton (magnetically performed by guest star Patti LuPone, above R)) was no more than Vanessa’s “Yoda” and that the episode was “too grounded in traditional archetypes” — in this instance, the Wise Old One teaching the worthy Young Seeker — to be as interesting as other episodes.
Von Doviak also insisted that “strictly speaking, [the episode] can’t be Vanessa’s flashbacks… [because it included her] new nemesis Evelyn Poole” (Helen McCrory, above, with cows in field) when she came to her sister’s house. Despite that reviewer’s unfounded objections, “Night-Comers” was the most dread-filled episode of the second season thus far, gave viewers some fine acting by the females in the series, and provided some excellent back-story to the main female character, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, above), one of the most interesting fictional women ever created.
The flashback begins after Ethan sees the bloody scorpion drawn on Vanessa’s bedroom floor and asks her what it’s about. After she reveals that she’s never told anyone the story, Ethan suggests that it’s a good reason to tell him (though I’m not sure why that would be so).
Despite von Doviak’s claim that “strictly speaking, what follows can’t be Vanessa’s flashbacks as they include people and events about which she would have had no knowledge, most notably her new nemesis Evelyn Poole,” this episode was a flashback, for many reasons. Any time a story leaves its “present” timeline to reveal an episode from the past of any of the characters, that episode is, technically, a “flashback” in literary terms.
More important, however, the reviewer who said it wasn’t a “flashback” confused the story’s timeline. He claimed that because Vanessa didn’t recognize “Evelyn Poole” (Helen McCrory, above center) when she came to the Cut-Wife’s house with 2 other Night-Comers, “it wasn’t a “flashback.” Evelyn Poole (I believe she was unnamed in last night’s episode) is Cut-Wife Joan Clayton’s sister, and is, literally, at least as old as she is. When Vanessa saw Evelyn Poole in S2E3, it would have been the first time Vanessa had ever seen her.
The story with the Cut-Wife happens in the past, as is the meaning of flashbacks in fiction. After Vanessa has betrayed Mina, had her “breakdown,” met the Keats-quoting Devil in the guise of Sir Malcolm, and seen Mina on the beach begging for help…
but before Vanessa has gone to Sir Malcolm’s house in London and told him that Mina needs their help (we must assume that this visit to Sir Malcolm is after the apprenticeship with the Cut-Wife because Vanessa knows how to read Tarot, etc when she goes to Sir Malcolm, and now believes that she can help find Mina, which is one of the reasons she gives the Cut-Wife for wishing to learn from her). So, between this sequence of events, Vanessa apparently went to the Cut-Wife, whose reputation is well-known, to discover her own story and who she is. The Cut-Wife story is a flashback.
In the past, when Vanessa went to the Cut-Wife, she could not have recognized Evelyn Poole as one of the Night-Comers — the show’s name for Witches — even if Vanessa had seen “Evelyn Poole” (there is some debate on whether Vanessa saw Evelyn well in the past because she kept covering her face with her hood or walking away when Vanessa came around, but Evelyn was present at the burning, and two men were holding Vanessa’s head so she had to watch). After Vanessa is alone in the house, she checks outside at night. The three women are there, including “Evelyn Poole.” Still, Vanessa would have known only that woman as the one who had come to the house and who was the sister of the Cut-Wife, and that all three of the women out there were Night-Comers.
Any “problem” with the flashback — and I don’t think there is one — would come with the fact that Vanessa had no reaction to “Madame Kali” in last year’s E2 “Séance” when Madame Kali aka Evelyn Poole walked openly into the party, showing her face, and then chanted things like “Amunet, Amun-ra” which sent Vanessa into her trance and eerie performance. Madame Kali’s face was clearly visible, especially when Vanessa was sitting directly across the table from her.I can only put Vanessa’s lack of reaction last season to the fact that creator/writer John Logan didn’t know where the story was going to go this season, since all the other action in “Séance” (S1E2) concerned events that came up later in the first season (Peter’s death, Sir Malcolm’s infidelity with Vanessa’s mother, Vanessa’s catching them in the hedge maze, etc) though the viewers did not know about everything that was going to happen in the season and so may not have necessarily understood all that Vanessa said during her trance.
Last night’s episode was a valid flashback since, this season, Vanessa has only seen Evelyn Poole’s minions as Night-Comers (above), and not as they appeared at the side of the street after their initial attack (i.e., with clothes and hair) or at Evelyn’s house (below),
nor has Vanessa seen Evelyn Poole as anything except Madame Kali: only Sir Malcolm has (below).
The only problem with the “Night-Comers” flashback, therefore, would be Vanessa’s lack of reaction when she saw Madame Kali in LAST season’s E2 “Séance” because Vanessa didn’t recognize Madame Kali as the Night-Comer from her past who was the Cut-Wife’s sister.
I can forgive that error, given the powerful story from last night’s show. And given the fact that I don’t believe creator John Logan had season 2 entirely written last year.
(As for the reviewer’s comparing the episode’s archetypes to those of Star Wars… this episode of Penny Dreadful was so much more sophisticated, less in-the-viewer’s-face allegorical and more symbolic, and better acted, that I simply don’t think there’s any comparison to comment on.)
& the Night-Comers
After waiting for days in the rain outside the Cut-Wife’s house, Vanessa basically collapsed from exhaustion. Despite that, and despite being told to leave by the Cut-Wife (who aborts unwanted pregnancies), Vanessa stayed. Despite being sexually man-handled (“examined”) by the Cut-Wife, Vanessa stayed.
After the Cut-Wife bit her own thumb, smeared the blood on Vanessa’s forehead, and ordered her to “see” what was on the Cut-Wife’s back, she allowed Vanessa to enter, telling her to leave behind “everything you were,” bringing in only “everything you are.”
Having proved her worth to the Cut-Wife by detailing the fact that she was branded on the back by her own sister (before Vanessa actually saw the brand when she was helping the old woman undress, above), Vanessa was permitted to begin her “apprenticeship,” exploring her untapped and unfamiliar “dark” powers. Vanessa’s lessons begin with “seeing” the brand on the old woman’s back before the Cut-Wife let Vanessa enter, and continue with the Tarot cards, where the first card she draws is The Devil.
During her apprenticeship, which lasts long enough for people to hear that someone is living with the Cut-Wife, Vanessa was almost raped by Sir Geoffrey, Evelyn Poole’s lover in that time-period, but she turned the attack back on him. She not only bit his hand hard enough to draw blood, but she pulled a knife on him.
Vanessa didn’t know that he was the lover of the sister of the Cut-Wife, i.e., the lover of one of the Night-Comers who was seeking her, since Vanessa never saw the two together. The only thing she knew about Sir Geoffrey was that he wanted to have the land on which the Cut-Wife’s house sat, land which she’d been granted in perpetuity by Cromwell in the 1640s — and the show is set in the late 1800s. But I don’t think Vanessa needed to know he was Evelyn Poole’s lover to draw a knife on him when he attempted to rape her.
In any event, “Evelyn Poole” did not give up in her attempt to get at Vanessa, which she accomplished by manipulating Sir Geoffrey’s pride, killing his cattle, and using her powers to “suggest” that a girl in the mob — who’d had her baby aborted by the Cut-Wife — shout out, “Burn the Witch.”
Unfortunately, Vanessa’s protection of herself from rape by Sir Geoffrey in the woods would come back to hurt her severely at the end, when he had her branded on the back with a cross, after the mob tarred and burned the Cut-Wife as a witch (in one of the most gruesome yet haunting scenes ever: sorry I couldn’t find an image that wasn’t a meme, because it was so well done that you deserve to see it without silly words on it).
This episode not only accurately showed how women who were different, unusual, or too independent (i.e., without male protectors) were often tormented, isolated, raped, tortured, and even killed, often as “witches.” Since there was no reliable birth-control, girls and women or all ages were often forced to seek out painful and dangerous solutions to their problems: despite the males’ role in the women’s pregnancies, it was the women who were blamed for the pregnancies, and further blamed for ending them.
Meanwhile, any women who aided these women or girls, whether through herbal concoctions or through abortions (horrifyingly and realistically depicted in last night’s episode), were considered evil, in league with the devil, or to be witches, and persecuted for their role in ending the unwanted pregnancies. Any women associated with such “evil” women, like Vanessa with the Cut-Wife, were treated as demonic and “un-Christian” as well.
All About the Girls
After Episode 2 this season, I thought Penny Dreadful was going to be all about the girls, rather than mostly about the boys, as it was last season. Of course, Vanessa will always be one of the girls — probably the most important one — whether it’s with Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton),
with Ethan (Josh Hartnett),
as Dorian (Reeve Carney)’s latest obsession,
with Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear), who is, surprisingly, her intellectual, theological, and philosophical equal,
or as the prey of Evelyn Poole, the leader of the coven of witches, who intends to capture Vanessa and give her to The Master as his bride.Some of the other girls this season will clearly include the Creature’s “intended” Lily (Billie Piper), formerly Ethan’s lover Brona, whom Frankenstein wants for himself. Dorian’s new sexual interest Angelique (below) pretends to be one of the girls but s/he’s a man, so I’m not sure where that story will go.
(Again, this season, I’m not sure why Dorian Gray is even in the show, since he’s so unimportant and not integrated well into any of the other remaining stories.)
One of the most amusing “girls” so far this season is Museum Curator Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russel Beale, above), who has a tremendous crush on Ethan — and his pistols — and who’s being blackmailed by Evelyn Poole / Madame Kali to aid her in her conquest-capture of Vanessa.
Season 2 Predictions:
Vanessa as “Day-Walker”
I suspect that the episode with the Cut-Wife, wherein Vanessa learned to somewhat harness her dark powers — though that obviously doesn’t protect her, either from possession or from attacks by Night-Comers — is key to this second season of Penny Dreadful.
The Cut-Wife claimed that Vanessa is still a Day-Walker, as is the Cut-Wife, because they still believe in God and in good, and have not given themselves completely over to the Devil. One of the reasons the Cut-Wife’s sister still looks so young and lovely despite their both being at least 250+ years old is because she (and her coven) decided to abandon God and follow the Devil. It was her own sister who branded the Cut-Wife and cast her out of the “Coven of Sisters” because she chose not to follow the Devil and to do evil.
Interestingly, the Night-Comers were not able to cross the stones protecting the path to the Cut-Wife’s house. Neither, however, was Vanessa. This may be why the Cut-Wife told Vanessa that she herself had learned to become a witch, but Vanessa had been born one. I would have liked to learn more about why Vanessa was unable to cross the “magic” barrier, but there was no further information beyond showing her unable to do so, and the Cut-Wife’s saying that the Night-Comers could not do so: only ordinary humans could (or something similar to that).
The Sign of the Scorpion
The scorpion, which was present last season and seemed to be a symbol of evil and of possession, became a symbol of good and of protection in last night’s episode. (It was unclear why Vanessa cut her thumb and put the scorpion on the floor of her room in S2E1.)
The Cut-Wife called Vanessa “my little Scorpion” because of her ability to see the unseen world and the past when she identified the person who had branded the Cut-Wife. By the end of the show, the scorpion had become a symbol of protection for Vanessa, who left it on a stone in blood to guard the house.
It looks as if Vanessa will slowly become the major focus of the series, while all the other stories, whether involving boys or girls, will become mere tangents as creator-writer John Logan further explores his incredible character Vanessa, played by the supremely talented Eva Green.
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