Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein walk into a bar, where a father mourns his daughter Mina after she’s been taken away by the forces of the night. They talk philosophy and poetry, and killing; all tangled not only within these matters of life and death, but also into the life of one exceptional woman. But no, this is not the beginning of some cheap joke; the conclusion is not one for humorous types anyway. This is how I would describe Penny Dreadful.
Quick disclaimer: This review will be relatively spoiler-free; obviously, there are some things I need to mention, but I’d hate to ruin the story for you. If you do want to watch it after my recommendation, PLEASE, do not visit Penny Dreadful’s official site or any major film databases (you click at your own risk) till you are done – the final season is still fresh in everyone’s memory and you are bound to find out what happens in it even from a little glance. Check out the official trailer instead.
The stories of Penny Dreadful, for there are more than one of them, at first glance seem rather simple. The overarching plot revolves around Vanessa, a young but accursed woman who searches for her childhood friend Mina alongside Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm, and an American ex-cowboy type, Mr. Chandler, whose favourite hobby is running away from his past. But while these three go about their merry business, other characters, including some iconic literary heroes, do not just wait for the plot to develop. Frankenstein makes his monsters, like one would expect. Dorian Gray ponders over immortality while picking up countless women (and men) and throwing killer parties. Monsters terrorize the city, humans turn out to be more monstrous than anything else, so in a nutshell-any day in London.
Some would call Penny Dreadful a horror show – I wouldn’t. It is indeed more of a gothic novel that lost its way and instead of a book materialized itself in the form of a TV spectacle. I say lost, but what a marvelous loss it is; if all stories got lost this way, our imagination and creativity would live a wonderful life. One of a kind it was, I must admit, because it managed to bring along not only the plot elements of an old, well, penny dreadful, but also its spirit, its language and its unique pacing.
But maybe we should start at the beginning.
I have never been one for gothic novels. I could probably write a book on the reasons why this particular book genre drives me insane; no point in boring you with the full set of reasons. Let me just say that I find them rather… patronizing, to say the least, or maybe condescending and by being such simultaneously leaving very little room for critical thinking, as more than the paranormal my symbol of gothic novels is a narrator who explains everything to such an extent it not only bores the reader to death, but also makes one feel like the narrator believes he or she is talking to very very very young children. I mean, very. Try The Time Machine, if you need a good example of this over explaining obsession.
If there was a dashing blonde missing from the show and, on top of that, her name was Mina, there were bound to be vampires about and, let me tell you, I have never hopped onto this whole vampire hype train. Salem’s Lot is my least favourite Stephen King book, regardless of my Stephen King obsession, yet it constitutes one of the total of three that I have read on vampires in my whole life. I am still not sure how I made it through Dracula actually; and although I did (to my own surprise) enjoy Interview with the Vampire, I barely made it to book… three of the Chronicles, and that was much of a stretch.
How on Earth did I end up watching Penny Dreadful then?
I have no idea. But I am glad I did; because behind the facade of monsters and, well, penny dreadfuls hides a true gem that has very little to do with our modern idea of horror.
To me Penny Dreadful is a show about loss, about the absolute solitude of being one of a kind, unwanted, unnecessary, not suitable. It talks a great deal about not fitting in; yet somehow it manages to escape the shallow No one gets me vibe of American teenage shows and look deeply into the eyes of darkness. And dark it is, I assure you.
This reminds me of the by far most often used comparison I have heard when it comes to Penny Dreadful – that it is basically a Victorian English version of Once Upon a Time; it takes well known stories and established characters and mashes them together. To some extent, that is true. But, as there is always a but: where Once Upon a Time looks for new twists and shock effect, Penny Dreadful focuses on expanding its source material. This difference is too big to make these two in any way comparable – yes, they are a collections of stories, yet there is little else that connects them.
Because by far my favourite thing about this show is how faithful it is to the plots it borrows. Not in a more… literal sense, of course, as it tells its own events and although often they are allegorical to those from the literature, they cannot be called the same. But it is the spirit of the stories that remains; and after years and years of watching blood thirsty Frankensteins that is indeed an unusual thing to experience. It is the message of its source material Penny Dreadful holds dearest – a wonderful attitude I wish others would adopt as well.
It is also marvelously Victorian. Yeah, I know I said I don’t like gothic novels; but that is not at all because I dislike the atmosphere of Victorian England as such. It may not be my cup of tea, but I enjoy it in small doses. And as I said already, a show that feels like Victorian England and not just looks like it is a rare thing. It should be appreciated regardless of personal taste.
What makes Penny Dreadful so old-fashioned, for me, is its pacing. No one ever rushes in this show. Like, EVER. One of my favourite quotes goes something like: Sir Malcolm, there hasn’t been anything urgent about the Egyptians for 2,000 years, and it sums up the attitude of this show completely. An emergency? Someone’s life is in danger? How about we discuss it during dinner next Thursday? Characters travel for months, don’t see each other for weeks, take their time and don’t run around like headless chickens… And although there is no intense sense of everything-is-happening-at-once, of course, for-a-very-dramatic-reason, the show does not seem too slow or boring – miraculous, isn’t it? Especially in the world we live in, where everything needs to be here and needs to be now.
And language, let us add language to that. Penny Dreadful is written in a rather unusual style for TV, but, oh, is it not beautiful? Filled with the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats it is a true delight to listen to. But not only in great disputes on immortality and sin does this fashion show; it is in the little things that makes it that more authentic. Such as when Vanessa bids goodbye to one of the characters and is told to Think of me only when you dance, to which she replies I shall have to dance more often. These moments of small delights are what leaves such a strong impression on me; these are the lines I will never forget.
You might have noticed already how often I refer to Penny Dreadful as unusual – and that is because this may be by far the most suitable way to describe it. Yeah, I know, I know, I just did this big rant on how originality is not the be all, end all thing, but if this show was JUST original, it would flop, no doubt. While because it delivers on its promises and delivers exceptionally well, it manages to find itself a comfortable, safe niche in between all other productions, feeding us something one of a kind and of a very high quality as well.
The topics it touches on… Look again at the one I pointed out first: loss. Putting aside the fact that we, as humans, hate talking about loss, lack of hope, nights without days… Even in comparison with shows that do actually tackle this issue such as The Leftovers (which I still didn’t follow into season 2… not sure why, I think I must have just forgotten about it) Penny Dreadful is unusual still; it puts some beauty into that, tragic yet definitely beauty, that others refuse to see. It is so hard to capture its spirit in a short review like this – I guess you’ll have to just trust me on that one.
It brings in lots of universal topics such as the loss of a child or the loss of an identity or loss of… oneself, but also touches on things closer to our hearts. I have never ever been one for the current propaganda making its way into everything we are fed, but one would have to be extremely ill-willed to accuse Penny Dreadful of running on any agenda. It talks modern talk on female abuse or, I guess, gender identity too, but it doesn’t try to force it on anyone or make a point – these issues seem perfectly natural to it and follow its characters’ bios.
Because at the end of the day that is what Penny Dreadful is – a collection of brilliant personas. Plot? Well, there is one, but since a monster / religion mash is not my style at all, it is not the plot I was in for. It was the people story introduced. It was their lives and emotions, and personal character I was invested in, not whether the next scene will feature a fight or a kiss or a new villain.
I have already talked on how much I adore Eva Green as Vanessa – and my boyfriend can vouch for that, since with my current cold all I am capable of is making Vanessa impressions. But I just cannot help myself. Eva Green’s character is just so well written; I will be madly in love with her for a long time. She knows pain and happiness, she can be strong, but extremely weak too, she knows her stuff, but she also knows when to ask someone for help. She just feels alive.
And she changes. The magic of Penny Dreadful relies heavily on the fact that its characters evolve; and evolve naturally on top of that. Many shows force their heroes into certain situation because the script says so. Penny Dreadful doesn’t. It lets its characters take decisions and accept their consequences.
This tactic had an amazing effect on me as a viewer. Some characters I detested at first glance – but by the time the final minute of the show has passed, I knew I would miss them as an old friend whom I can no longer take with me on the journey onward. My empathy levels were at a lifetime high, which may not be a lot for a person like me, but, trust me, it was simply impossible to distance oneself from these… people, I should say, because they are written well enough to earn this name.
My favourite character remains the same as from the first scene I saw him in, though. It is Victor Frankenstein. I would love to tell you exactly why, but, you know, spoilers, but let me tell you just that – it has been a while since I have experienced a character so pathetically human, so broken yet genius, so… And I mean: anywhere, not only in a TV show, because, quite frankly, he may actually be the first one in my TV watching career.
Penny Dreadful, of course, had its lows too – and they were sometimes quite… low. All the end is coming stories do. This is such a tacky theme to even approach, you see, so discredited by hundreds and hundreds of others. We don’t have to look far, do we? Take even the newest Sleepy Hollow; the only way my friends and I found to watch it was to make up a drinking game for it… and that was even a good idea on top of that. But the highs of this show were SO high, 9 out of 10 times I didn’t even think of it is a devil-kind of story. Yes, I cringed here and there, but since I ended up walking around the house talking about satanic quests with a half-broken voice, I think I forgave Penny Dreadful for these times rather quickly.
Oh, that is a long one! I should probably talk visuals and music, but as I have already confessed in other posts, I am not one to notice these things. I mean… it is a rather appealing show, visually speaking, if gothic vibes are your thing. You can see money pumped into props and costumes. It is just not something I have any expertise in. Story is my thing. Characters are. The rest… The rest annoys me when it is done badly and skips me if it is done well.
Would I recommend Penny Dreadful? Absolutely. It definitely rose to the league of my favourite TV shows; I am still debating whether it can knock Rome off its pedestal because, although Rome is technically better (discount the rushed ending), it never made me feel the way Penny Dreadful did. It didn’t deliver such a splendid conclusion to the story as well – because, trust me, the ending itself is a little piece of art. Don’t worry that the show is finished. It is FINISHED indeed, not just broken and left without a conclusion.
It hit me hard but it also brought so much… little content – it makes for a perfect symbol to this whole you don’t know happiness till you know sadness thing. Penny Dreadful is a rollercoaster of emotions. It rips your heart out and then, with the tiniest gesture, a small drop of light, suddenly makes the world into such a more beautiful place.
Wow, I guess I do really love this show.
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