It’s no surprise that I’m studying literature (though I’ll probably be forever impoverished for the decision) because I just love a good story. There is, in a book – or a good movie or television show – the plot, a chain of events driven by character actions, and then there’s the more subliminal but often pervasive mood created through all elements of work, including scenery and word choice. But, my point in this post is not really to be technical. My point is to proclaim, happily, that through the suggestion of one of Michael’s friends, we stumbled upon a phenomenal, intricate story thanks to the popular Showtime series, Penny Dreadful. Penny Dreadful’s third season aired this spring, but Michael and I, in our infinite fandom, have been busy re-watching the first two seasons to “fully prepare” before we settle down and view the third. This post, then, is my introductory post: I will likely write more on specific questions the show raises in future posts. After all, Penny Dreadful is complex and intelligent, and many facets of the show could be explored. In this post, I aim to discuss why I love the show through an exploration of the main characters. And, bonus, if you haven’t seen Season Three yet, neither have I, so there will be no Season Three spoilers! In fact, there are no major plot spoilers in this piece, so read away, without fear of any undesired revelations.
Vanessa Ives: Eva Green kills it as Vanessa Ives, the strong, self-possessed but tormented Penny Dreadful heroine. Not only does Vanessa have demons, but she’s being chased down by demons – specifically, the devil, who dubs her his dark angel and wants her to help him wreak terror and malice over the world (at least, that’s his motive according to the detective work of the show’s characters). While typical Victorian literature – and even post-Victorian literature—often depicts the tormented woman, plagued by a psychological malady, Penny Dreadful – which takes place in the Victorian Era – inverts that motif. Sometimes Vanessa may appear to be mentally ill, but she’s really valiantly fighting against the demonic that seeks to possess her body. Vanessa is, despite her trials and a murky past – unfailingly kind and highly privy to social nuances. In the show’s first season she is, more or less, fearless, and boldly goes where few women would have gone in the Victorian era to hunt down and save her friend Mina, ostensibly from a sprawling vampire clan. If you haven’t gathered from my post, I love this character. She’s a prime example of how we’re starting to regard women thanks to feminism’s arduous strides. While society still has far to go, we recognize and depict strong, intelligent women who, in this case, also happen to be warm, understanding, and notably non-judgmental. Indeed, one senses that with Vanessa’s demonic malady comes a tinge of additional insight and intuition. She seems to see beyond the everyday; her relationship to darkness concomitantly gives her a luminous wisdom.
Ethan Chandler: As a teenager, I gushed over Josh Hartnett in H20 (the more recent version of Halloween) and followed his every move in The Faculty. So far as I can gather, he fell off the radar for a while, and I basically forgot about him. However, he emerges brilliantly – and maturely – in Penny Dreadful as Ethan Chandler, the gun-toting American who finds himself slap dab in the middle of London as part of a traveling firearms show. He’s immediately charming with his thick, Western American accent, and when he starts working with Vanessa and her friend Sir Malcom (Mina’s father) to find Mina and rescue her from the undead, his character’s boldness, compassion, and subtle intellect are evident. He is mildly chivalrous and perpetually polite. He puts his life on the line without reservation, on the one hand because he’s hired to, but, on the other hand, because he seems notably invested in helping Vanessa and Sir Malcolm find the missing Mina. Like all the show’s characters, he has his demons, but that only makes him a more complex, alluring, realistic character. He appears clear-sighted, and the viewer consistently trusts his motives and admires his warm heart.
Victor Frankenstein: True to the highly scientific, hubristic over-reacher in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful is peculiarly obsessed with making the dead come to life. When the show opens, he’s just resurrected a dead man and named him Proteus. As he’s teaching Proteus how to live life, his first creation, a “creature” who names himself John Clare, intercepts the merriment to murder Proteus and lament his own piteous condition. Succinctly stated, Clare is slightly malformed and feels unloved. (While I sympathize a bit with John Clare, he’s also insufferably whiney and melodramatic). As such, the calculating, rational, but basically good Frankenstein must run from two demons: his opiate addiction, and the vengeful John Clare, who demands Frankenstein make him a mate. One sees, when one looks at Victor Frankenstein, a smart, mildly cocky, lonely little boy in a man’s body. Because of his medical expertise, Sir Malcolm and Vanessa enlist him as part of the vampire hunting team, and he soon becomes a son figure to Sir Malcolm. Sir Malcolm notes that when given an unknown specimen (a vampire) Frankenstein was not afraid to peel back the skin, a metaphor for his willingness to delve more deeply into the unknown, uncharted realms of science than your average scientist.
Sir Malcom Murray: The stern, sophisticated, but ultimately warm Sir Malcom was at one time an intrepid explorer on the African continent who had a loving family at home in London – a daughter (Mina), a son, (Peter), and a wife. Peter dies while exploring with his father, and Mina disappears (and finds herself amongst the undead) leaving Sir Malcom emotionally scarred and intent on finding his daughter. In season one, there is a not-so-subtle tension between Sir Malcom and Vanessa, who work together for Mina’s life but bear clear resentments against one another. Ultimately, however, this pair puts their feud to rest, and Sir Malcom becomes a father figure to Vanessa. Initially, he’s difficult to like, but as the show progresses he gets assiduously warmer and more thoughtful, and then, finally, a few pivotal acts show the audience who he really is. He is, to say the least, an interesting symbol of imperialism and London’s desire to dominate non-Western Culture. While Ethan Chandler, who admits to killing many Native Americans, might be an unusually caring representation of American Imperialism, Sir Ian Malcolm seems to represent British Imperialism. It is worth noting, in Penny Dreadful, Chandler and Malcolm see the shortcomings of their Imperialistic practices and to a degree deem them practices of the past.
Dorian Gray: I’ve saved the most magnetic character for last. Reeve Carney is arresting as Dorian Gray, the wealthy, attractive epicurean who’s obsessively, ineffably attracted to Vanessa Ives. Dorian is, shall we say, ahead of his time in Victorian England. He has an especially open mind regarding sexual practices, and he’s perversely excited by anything unusual. Compared to the tumult that the other characters find themselves in, his life seems almost unrealistically easy. We don’t know where his wealth came from (probably inherited) but he doesn’t work. We assume he gallivants around London wooing women (until he falls in love with Vanessa), and he spends the rest of his time in an elaborate room adorned with skilled portraits of anonymous faces that stare back at him. He seems like a pretty good guy by modern, more liberal, non-Victorian standards, but we learn that he has a few unexpected tricks up his sleeve. Of all the characters, I’m most excited to see what route his character takes in Season Three. Without giving away solid spoilers, I think Dorian has an open mind and a great capacity for justice, but he also has a proven capacity for unexpected malice.
Of course, there are myriad other cast members that comprise a complete entourage of interesting characters, but these are the most important ones. By pulling from the best that gothic literature has to offer (note Mina is the name of the main character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with Victor Frankenstein and Dorian) and adding some additional, riveting characters into the mix, Penny Dreadful becomes an amalgam of contemporary thought, Victorian London, the Gothic Genre and literature in general. As for myself, I’m expecting to (finally) view Season Three tomorrow, on my birthday, and I cannot wait to see who next appears on the scene.
2 thoughts on “Captivating Characters: A Look at Penny Dreadful”
Happy Birthday Kalie! Here’s hoping starting ‘Penny Dreadful’ Season Three is an excellent present. Who am I kidding? We both know it will be awesome. So let’s say this, here’s hoping it’s possible to fully mentally and emotionally process all the amazing new material :).
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Well, it would appear that it’s off to a good start!
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