Tag Archives: Penny Dreadful

Bravo Penny!

VanessaWe interrupt our regularly scheduled blog topic to gush over the Season Two finale of Penny Dreadful. Of course gothic horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if not you are missing some of the finest storytelling, acting, and filmmaking ever produced.

Arguably, a story cannot be truly great if it does not shock the audience in some way. And Penny Dreadful does not wield horror gratuitously but rather as a master surgeon’s scalpel to cut deeply into the soul of the viewer.

One might have worried that Season One was just too good; that the exceptional quality could never be maintained; that the novelty would have worn off; that all the possible shock value had been expended; that Season Two could never hope to thrill the audience like it was their first time.

But Season Two somehow continued to amaze, astound, and even surprise. It works well that the seasons are short, so much like Penny Dreadful novels themselves. If you have not seen the series, stop reading now and go watch it you fool.

The penultimate episode of Season Two opened with an exquisitely brutal confrontation during which Ethan and Vanessa dispatch Pinkerton Agent Warren Roper in a manner that is absolutely mesmerizing in its raw unapologetic brutality. That one could continue to view Vanessa as a relatable and sympathetic victim / heroine after her demonic murder of sadistic Lord Cromwell and then continue to do so after her repeated stabbing of Warren Roper is a testimony to the depth of these characters.

Then in the final episode she walks knowingly into the deadly trap long arranged for her by the devil himself, alone, unprotected, with naked vulnerability. She listens defiantly to his seductive manipulations and eventually draws her lips near his, a faint breath away from a final kiss of surrender, only to snatch it from him with scorn. “Beloved, know your master” she spits at him as she banishes him in spectacular verbal combat.

Is she a sympathetic victim, a mere damsel in distress? Yes, but so much more. And so it is with the entire ensemble cast. They all have tremendous depth and duality of character; all are flawed to the brink of evil yet redeemed all the more profoundly by their nobler qualities.

As Vanessa confronts the devil himself, Victor and Sir Malcom confront their own demons. In a brilliantly parallel sequence, they each battle the horrors and failures of their respective tragic families, each tormented by the very monsters they created.

But since even all that is not near enough drama for Penny Dreadful, Ethan simultaneously confronts the monster within him, and chooses to stop fighting against it and to abandon his chance for love.

We are even treated to another (see here) intimate and powerful conversation between Vanessa and John (paraphrased and abbreviated):

Vanessa: All my life I have fled the darkness only to find myself in deeper darkness still.
John: No matter how far you run from God he is still just ahead waiting for you.
Vanessa: You don’t believe in God.
John: But you do.

Perhaps most surprising is where the writers left the show. It seems to have ended well only for Ferdinand Lyle who has redeemed himself from his duplicity and cowardice. Sembene is dead. As is Miss Poole. Ethan has been shipped off to America shackled in a cage like the animal he is. Victor has taken what refuge he can find in drugs. Sir Malcom is finally aboard ship bound for Africa, taking the body of his son to final rest. John has apparently fled normal society and we see him standing on a boat in the arctic, immune to the cold of death. And Vanessa is left alone, abandoned and purposeless, even forsaken by or at least forsaking her own faith in god.

With the cast so utterly crushed and dispersed, where can the show possibly go from here?

I for one cannot wait to find out. The future will undoubtedly follow the unholy romance between Dorian and Brona, and Hecate will certainly tie in somehow. Hopefully we’ll learn the significance of the scorpion that merged with Vanessa. Beyond that, I am quite happy that I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I will only be surprised if I am not completely surprised by Season Three.

The Atheist Monster in Penny Dreadful

Vanessa speaks with John

Vanessa speaks with John

I’d like to share a powerful scene from a recent episode of Penny Dreadful, aired on Showtime on Mother’s Day.

Seeking a measure of solace from her struggles, Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green) has come to volunteer in a cavernous underground serving as a makeshift cholera ward “in the shadow of so much wealth such suffering” of 19th century London.

There she encounters a horrendously scarred man named John Clare (played by Rory Kinnear). Not incidentally but as yet unknown to Vanessa, John is also the sensitive and articulate “monster” reanimated by the Doctor Frankenstein character in the show.

She notices John reading off in an alcove by himself. Intrigued, she approaches him. After an offer of soup and some preliminary introductions, Vanessa sits next to him.

“They make me nervous,” she confides, nodding toward a woman in a habit. “The nuns.”

“Why?” he asks.

“I was raised in the faith,” she admits. “It was arduous for me.”

“Have you religion?” she asks, changing the subject tangentially.

“Are you offering it?” John counters.

“Do you require it?” she answers with another question, smiling warmly.

“I never have,” he replies.

“Then I shan’t offer,” she reassures him. “And I would be a poor advocate. The Almighty and I have a challenging past. I’m not sure we’re speaking these days.”

A laugh comes awkwardly upon John as he returns a confidence. “I read the Bible when I was younger. But then I discovered Wordsworth. And then the old platitudes and parables seemed anemic, even unnecessary.”

“Mr. Wordsworth has a lot to answer for then,” she teases.

Summoning up deeply considered but rarely spoken words, John elaborates. “The glory of life surmounts the fear of death. Good Christians fear hellfire. So to avoid it, they are kind to their fellow man. Good pagans do not have this fear, so they can be who they are. Good or ill, as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we’re accountable to no one but each other.”

“That’s a profound responsibility,” Miss Ives replies.

“And why you do this, no doubt” he asks, “helping those in need?”

“I came here for selfish reasons,” she confesses. “Do you truly not believe in heaven?”

John’s shy self-consciousness is replaced by a joyful radiance. “I believe in this world. And those creatures that fill it. That’s always been enough for me. Look around you – sacred mysteries at every turn.”

“But no exaltation in life beyond this?” Vanessa challenges, seeking confirmation.

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour,” John responds, paraphrasing William Blake’s “To See A World…”

Vanessa looks a bit sad, “With respect to Blake, I see no wildflowers here, only pain and suffering.”

“Then you need to look closer,” John tells her with compelling certainty.

The conversation is interrupted when Vanessa is called away by a nun who casts a disapproving glance at John.

“Thank you for the soup,” he says.

“Thank you for the conversation,” she answers as she takes her leave. And then, pausing to look back, she adds, “You have beautiful eyes.”

I will not attempt to do a deep analysis of this scene. It is so rich with poetic humanist themes that it is best to let every reader take from it what they will. But I will point out how notable this treatment of humanist ideas is, not only in today’s mass media, but in the context of a show in which demons and by inference god are undeniable realities. It suggests that “even if” god were real, there would still be merit in a purely humanist worldview.

It is certainly not an accident that John, shunned as a monster by his society, was chosen to represent the atheist-humanist character in the show. Of more subtle symbolism is that he is undeniably the product of purely human manufacture. Certainly he was not endowed with a soul by his human creator. Yet he is uniquely passionate and thoughtful with an incredibly “soulful” sense of awe and empathy.

On the other side, Vanessa’s deep faith and powerful mysticism have only left her in desperate need of the comfort and inspiring humanist perspectives offered by this apparent monster.