Spoilers for the first season of Penny Dreadful ahead
“Do you really want to be normal?”
That question, delivered by a seemingly benign Welsh priest (though given the particular show’s propensity for sneaky evil presences, one shouldn’t be too sure) concludes the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, fading to black before the show’s erstwhile protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) can respond.
It’s an apt question to ask – even an apt question to end a season on – considering we’re dealing with a show about characters who are either grotesque, extraordinary or a mix of both. But it’s also pertinent to the show’s structure itself. Like the critically lauded but structurally uneven True Detective before it (also a moody slow-burner entrenched in the history of horror fiction, albeit the two shows picking two separate – Transatlantic, even – branches of the tradition), Penny Dreadful had eight episodes in its first season.
Apart from being somewhat atypical in the current trend of ongoing ‘prestige’ television dramas, whose seasons generally take in at least 10 and up to 13 or 14 episodes, Penny Dreadful – perhaps contrary to its title and the associated cultural pedigree that that implies – opted to unspool its story in slow drops, instead of at a frenetic pace, with a twist and/or “shocking” character revelation at every corner.
In addition to this, the show also kept its cards to its chest – and still has quite a few, it must be said, even after the season one finale – so that while it was hoped that the viewers would remain intrigued by the mystery, it was never quite certain which parts of the story had the most urgent implications for our characters. And to make things even harder for itself, the show dedicated two whole episodes – precious time, for such a considerably brief season – to flashbacks.
This begs the question: is Penny Dreadful just slow, or have we been ‘spoiled’ by a certain degree of acceleration in the way TV series tend to be delivered?
Indeed, Penny Dreadful has nothing like the immediate (and sustained) hook of Breaking Bad, which works because it’s striking, simple and also workable over the long term: Walter White’s cancer is a looming portent of doom, while his gradual transformation into a drug baron can be enjoyed episode-to-episode (or perhaps more accurately, it can be charted from season to season) because it’s precisely that: a transformation, a journey, an element of the story that yields new developments by its very nature; and in this case, it’s a particularly seductive element as it promises to transform our protagonist from hero to villain. Neither can Penny Dreadful boast of the huge cast of characters and intersecting story-lines one finds in Game of Thrones which, unlike Penny Dreadful, can satisfy a large and varied swathe of viewers with each episode, as George RR Martin’s vast, medieval-fantasy world can flicker from one sub-plot to another in the blink of an eye, with each sub-plot practically catering to its own mini-genre (political thriller, domestic drama, picaresque journey, fantasy actioner… even horror of the ‘torture porn’ variety).
Penny Dreadful – perhaps by dint of its title alone – can’t even claim to be ‘above’ genre television, necessarily. It can’t afford to luxuriate in the longueurs of a Mad Men without consequence, because its premise, and the cultural milieu it pastiches, demands a certain amount of genre-familiar action: an expectation corroborated by the memory of the literary characters it has adopted (who are, at the very least, a century old, which increases the expectation we have of them substantially).
Am I suggesting that Penny Dreadful is faultless, or that any faults it may have should be forgiven because we appear to have been ‘spoilt’ by accelerated storytelling (even in long-haul drama) in this day and age? No.
Come the conclusion of season one, a couple of things about the show still rankle me slightly, namely:
1) The season’s primary plot engine: Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa’s quest to retrieve Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn). It just feels a little thin. Though there’s enough simmering interpersonal drama between Malcolm and Vanessa to spare (as we learn about half-way through the season), and though of course the supporting characters also do their part in filling up the episodes leading to the climax, the sweep of it just doesn’t feel epic enough to justify an entire season. (I wonder if a plot reshuffle would have worked better… if, say, Mina is actually retrieved earlier on – even as early as the third or fourth episode – but it turned out that she is still gripped by whatever evil she appears to be possessed by. The rest of the season would then progress much in the same way, but it would also be free of what is essentially a threadbare ‘final destination’. As it stands, it feels as though the story will only get going come season; and
2) The fact that Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) appears to have been thrown into the fray to elicit sexual tension and titillation and little else. His character arc will doubtlessly pick up come season two (we weren’t offered a glimpse of his infamous portrait after all), but it was sloppy of the writers not to leave any breadcrumbs for us at all. Come the final episode, he’s a cipher – and not a tantalizing one, at that.
But you’ll be hard-pressed to deny that Penny Dreadful is a sumptuous, atmospheric and impeccably photographed show, despite all its faults. This isn’t just cosmetic praise: its production value works towards creating its atmosphere of gloomy dread and, ultimately, menace. And I think this is far more worthwhile a dramatic pursuit than endeavoring to create a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type show, which this easily could have become, and which even I suspected it may have been (and I probably wouldn’t have minded one bit if that were the case, I must admit).
Like Hannibal – a show I love and admire even more than Penny Dreadful – it shoots everything in a gloomy chiaroscuro, reinforcing the sense that, if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for these characters, they’re going to have to work through plenty of gloom to get to it. But more than just being a trick of cinematography and production design, this prolonged sense of foreboding helps the story.
Because it’s a story about how evil is incredibly hard to beat. Though we were promised Dracula, and though some kind of vampire mythos is most certainly at play here, the suggestion is that the old Count (or some version of him), is being helped, or is subservient to, an ancient Egyptian deity who appears to be channeling powers we’d normally associate with Satan (at least in pop culture lore).
Eva Green’s Vanessa is of course the fulcrum of all this: because this demonic presence appears to have taken a liking to her, she’s also made to serve as bait for Mina – or, at least, as a tracking device. In a show as restrained as this – restrained, at least, within its genre – Vanessa’s moments of demonic possession were the key set pieces… and it’s commendable that the ‘wow’ factor of the show depended not on shocking key character deaths (Red Viper, anyone?) but rather, on an actress’ talents, necessarily OTT as those particular moments were. The adage ‘force of nature’ is one of those hateful phrases that are tossed around too easily, but Green certainly gives the show her all: she can switch from beautiful to horrific, from formidable to crushed, in the blink of an eye.
Her effective martyrdom, powerfully rendered by Green, points to one thing above all: there is no talisman or magic charm, no arcane incantation that will drive this malevolent presence out for good (though our boy Ethan (Josh Hartnett) surprised everyone with his spot of impromptu exorcism, which saved Vanessa’s life in the season’s penultimate episode).
The chosen tone of John Logan’s show – which has thankfully been confirmed for a second season – makes perfect sense for the kind of property (the word is crucial here) that it is.
Save for Vanessa, we know a lot of these characters from their source material (that includes Malcolm Murray, who is H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain in all but name), and the show can’t play too closely to that. Instead of exploiting its Gothic and supernatural pedigree for effects-laden gimmicks and sensationalist shocks, it’s playing the long game, and keeping us guessing.
Or would you rather it were a “normal” show, after all?
1) Do you think that the eight-episode arc is proving to be a real challenge for TV writers?
2) Genre historians! Would you say that Penny Dreadful follows an old-school model of storytelling? Did the original penny dreadfuls have a similar structure? Haven’t had a chance to research this myself, so I’m really curious about this.