[Review] Penny Dreadful (2014)

The first season of Penny Dreadful, a British-American TV show, premiered earlier this year. The first season is eight episodes long and centres on the search for Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Mina. The series is firmly in the horror/supernatural genre, and it adheres to those tropes while also attempting to maintain suspense and present a fresh story to the audience.

The title comes from a genre of nineteenth-century English fiction called penny dreadfuls, and the show’s premise is loosely connected to the sensational contents of these serials. In fact there’s even a meta reference Varney the Vampire, one such popular penny dreadful.

The creators have included a number of public domain characters from classic horror stories: Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Dorian Gray of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray*; Victor Franksenstein and his monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There are also references to other well-known figures such as Jack the Ripper.

*Spoiler Alert*

I am discussing the first season as a whole, so spoilers ahoy.

Dorian Gray is a pretty decent character, but he had no real purpose except maybe as a distraction. I sincerely hope that he has a better role in the next season. I’m also desperately curious to see his painting.

For most of the season, Brona Croft was another kind of ‘nothing’ character – mostly serving as a love interest for Ethan Chandler, as well as his motivation for becoming involved with Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives. But when we see that Victor Frankenstein has taken her to be the new bride for his Caliban, her character’s purpose is revealed. I’m very interested to see how she takes her resurrection and her new husband-to-be. I wonder if she’ll have any memories of Ethan, or if they will encounter each other at all.

Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives were shown as having a complicated relationship, which makes sense given their history. They are appropriately distrustful of and angry at each other, but they also have a mutually beneficial one where each needs the other  in their attempt to save Mina. Though I would argue that their reasons for wanting to save her stem from guilt than anything else. What did not make sense, however, was Malcolm killing Mina in the last episode and claiming that ‘he already has a daughter.’ Uh, what? In episode five Malcolm makes his disdain and hate evident: he told Vanessa that he would kill her in other circumstances for what she did to his daughter. Sure, after he realises he needs to trust her (at least a bit) and is possessed he seems to have more respect and liking for her, but I certainly don’t think that it’s at the point where he would consider her a replacement daughter. Indeed, while she is possessed he pushes her, despite her ‘illness’ to find Mina. Clearly Mina is the priority for him. I accept that Malcolm killing Mina was the only real solution for her situation, but it felt unsatisfactory and in fact strange that he would claim Vanessa as his daughter.

One of the most interesting characters, at least to me, was Vanessa Ives. She is presented as having psychic abilities and as an enticing vessel for possession. In the supernatural context of the show we are clearly meant to believe in her psychic ability, in her connection to the half world, but I was interested in how her character could also be interpreted as being psychiatrically ill, which is most certainly what those who were not acquainted with this half world would have thought. In fact I will have a separate post (read short essay) on her character.

Penny Dreadful has been renewed for a second ten episode season and I’m interested in how the story continues. Overall I was definitely entertained,  and would recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the genre and wants to turn their mind off for 8 hours.

*Fantastic book. One of my favourites.