Penny Dreadful: Victorian London and the City of Angels

When the original series of Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) was released, it went straight to my heart and became my favourite show on TV. Abel Korzeniowski’s romantic theme composition, so beautifully fitted to the opening titles, immediately swept me away into the world of the show, a loving reconfiguration of Victorian Gothic fiction and its Universal monster movie offspring, melded with the repressed societal realities which informed the original tales. Although I was dubious about some of the decisions made in the second season, I was prepared to accept them in the context of the other material, until the conclusion of the third and final season left me seriously questioning whether the show’s creator John Logan knew what he was doing. Having just finished watching the so-called “spiritual successor” Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020), I thought I’d collect my thoughts on how my relationship with the series has changed from devoted to conflicted.

An ensemble piece lives or dies by its casting, and however I might feel about later seasons of Penny Dreadful, they are never lacking for a strong central cast. Eva Green as Vanessa Ives is the heart of the first incarnation of the show, providing a thoroughly compelling performance as an extremely complex character with many facets. Vanessa Ives is the estranged childhood friend of Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn), from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), who in this version of the story is the daughter of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a fictional analogue of the great Victoria explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890). They enlist the help of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American sharpshooter later revealed to be a werewolf, to search a nest of vampires for the kidnapped Mina. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who is in the process of building a new creature, is brought in for vampire dissection duties, although his consultation with haematologist Abraham Van Helsing (David Warner) is disrupted by the return of his original creature (Rory Kinnear). Also in the mix are Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (distinguished stage actor Simon Russell Beale), Sir Malcolm’s Senegalese manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani), immortal aesthete Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Irish prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper), dying of tuberculosis and later to be reanimated as Lily Frankenstein.

The first season’s plot is a radical reinterpretation of Dracula in which the turning of Mina Murray is part of an elaborate scheme by the unnamed head vampire (Robert Nairne) to lure Vanessa (a natural medium who is prone to demonic possession in the throes of passion) to his side. The vampires presented here are more feral and pestilent than generally depicted, owing more to their original depiction on screen in Nosferatu than to Stoker’s novel or later film versions. Frankenstein’s articulate creations are truer to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, revised 1823) than most later film versions. The first of Frankenstein’s creation adopts the name Caliban as the result of a stint in the Grand Guignol Theatre, which also pays a glancing homage to The Phantom of the Opera. Although Dorian Gray here is little more than a decorative catalyst for events who sleeps with three of the main characters, the season is tightly plotted and interweaves the different character threads effectively.

Season two gives a more prominent role to Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), who appeared briefly as the medium Madame Kali in season one. Here she is revealed to be the leader of a coven of witches known as Nightcomers, beautiful women who transform into hairless, scarred, supernaturally strong beings running around naked and clawing out throats. The lack of subtlety exhibited by this portrayal of witches sits uncomfortably against the far more nuanced exploration of Vanessa Ives’ back story and her training in a more benevolent form of witchcraft – while it may be intended to be a visual literalisation of the urges she’s fighting against, it came across to me as tacky sensationalism. As Evelyn seduces Sir Malcolm in order to gain access to Vanessa, Evelyn’s daughter Hecate (Sarah Greene) attempts to seduce Ethan, whose lupine double life identifies him as the Hound of God (a concept which is never clearly explained). Meanwhile, Ethan is being pursued by Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge), a Scotland Yard inspector who knows what Ethan is (and whose role owes a lot to Inspector Krogh from 1939’s Son of Frankenstein.)

Billie Piper’s character, whose role in the first season amounted to little more than a humanising doomed romance arc for Ethan, comes into her own as the resurrected Lily, named after Victor Frankenstein’s dead sister. Although both Victor and Caliban see Lily as belonging to them, she proves herself to be their superior, wrapping them both around her finger before asserting her independence and abandoning them entirely. She pursues a mission of revenge against her abusive former clients until a renewed encounter with the undying Dorian leads to the formation of a new relationship of equals.

Although both Eva Green and Billie Piper are well served by this season’s story, one character in particular does less well, and it’s particularly disappointing that this is the one character of colour. In the first season, Sir Malcolm’s manservant Sembene was a cipher, a talented tracker and fighter with a mysterious history who returned to England with Malcolm due to an unspecified sense of obligation. His role in season two looked to be more promising – he began to develop a strong friendship with Ethan and, although many of their scenes together were built around a companionable silence, he was given more to say and the window into his past was opened another crack. And then his character was casually tossed away, sacrificed to the gods of bad writing, as he was manoeuvred into a situation which made no sense for him to be in, just so that he could be an innocent casualty of Ethan’s lycanthropy. It was a cheap throwaway moment with little purpose other than to shock the audience and make Ethan feel more sorry for himself, and the fact that this was inflicted on the one black character in the story before we had any real sense of his past independent of his relationship with white foreigners was offensive.

The most surprising thing about season three to me is that John Logan went into it knowing that it would be the concluding chapter of the story. The juggling of the different story arcs is much more poorly handled than in the previous two seasons, to the extent that it feels like 1-3 episodes had been arbitrarily chopped, and the ending itself is an utter travesty for the central character.

Most of the season is devoted to Ethan and his is forcible return to his family in America. Ethan Chandler’s real name is finally revealed to be Ethan Lawrence Talbot, an explicit nod to the the Larry Talbot character in The Wolf Man (1941) who was the original “American werewolf in London”. Although Hecate pursues Ethan to America and helps him along the way, she receives little in the way of thanks, as this strand of the story is largely about Ethan coming to terms with the three father figures in his life: Sir Malcolm, his current surrogate father, who begins the season in Zanzibar; Kaetenay (Wes Studi), the Apache werewolf who took Ethan under his wing after his first transformation; and Jared Talbot (Brian Cox), the morally bankrupt father Ethan fled.

Back in London, the most successful strand of the story follows Lily as she uses her connection with Dorian to liberate exploited women from their oppressors and create her own army of empowered women, while Dorian becomes increasingly marginalised within his own house and Justine (Jessica Barden), an escapee from a de Sade novel, takes her radicalisation to the extreme. While this is going on, Victor Frankenstein teams up with Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif) in a misguided attempt to “fix” Lily, helping Jekyll with his experiments in the use of chemistry to “pacify” the inmates of mental institutions. Although some attention is given to the racial prejudice Jekyll experiences as a man of Indian descent, the hints at the potential of a sexual relationship between Jekyll are never explored and are a wasted opportunity.

Similarly wasted is Vanessa’s new friend, thanatologist Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), a fascinating new character who only appears in the final 4 episodes as a replacement for Professor Lyle. A skilled swordswoman who dresses in traditionally male clothing, she’s introduced far too late to receive any real development and deserved a follow-up season in which she could be featured more heavily. But by far the biggest tragedy of the season is the way in which Vanessa Ives, previously the central character of the series and still the theoretical focus of the story, is completely sidelined and betrayed by a story in which she falls under the sway of a charming man who turns out to be Dracula (Christian Camargo). For some inexplicable reason, while she has successfully fought off her supposed destiny as the Mother of Evil in the preceding seasons, here (after a promising story thread following her psychotherapeutic treatment under Patti LuPone’s Dr. Florence Seward) she succumbs to Dracula’s influence and embraces her role with astonishing rapidity before finally begging Ethan to kill her and thus save the world. If more time had been devoted to this aspect of the story it’s just barely possible that her descent could have come across as more plausible, but it’s difficult to see any way of making that ending work without spitting in the face of her entire character arc.

Others working on the show must have had similar thoughts, as producer Chris King collaborated with Andrew Hinderaker & Krysty Wilson-Cairns (who wrote three episodes of the third season between them) to create a sequel in a spinoff comic from Titan Comics. Although not as richly characterised as the source series, it does at least provide a more satisfying endpoint for the characters, despite being let down by internal artwork which bears little resemblance to the characters and is frequently difficult to decipher, even for a seasoned reader of comics who enjoys a more experimental visual style.

Which brings us, after a four-year gap, to Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, a series set in 1938 Los Angeles which bears no relation to the original run of Penny Dreadful beyond the idea of using local mythology to create a new story exploring the era’s underpinnings. Leaving behind the strain of Victorian Gothic fiction which developed from England’s penny dreadfuls, this time we’re in the land of pulp fiction, musicals and the Hollywood dream in a story which feels more like an off-model pitch in the mode of HBO’s True Detective crime anthology series. The story kicks off with the discovery of four murder victims, a wealthy white family whose faces have been carved to resemble Mexican death masks. Assigned to the case are Jewish Detective Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) and his new partner, Detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the first Mexican-American detective of the LAPD. Their investigation provides a lens through which to investigate racism and bigotry against the other within America on the cusp of World War 2.

Tiago and his family are at the centre of a feud instigated by Magda (Natalie Dormer), the evil sister of Mexican deity Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), a benevolent death god. In the pre-titles prologue, set when Tiago is still a child, Magda announces her attention to turn the Vega family against each other and against Santa Muerte to prove her thesis that all humans are corruptible and unworthy, beginning by setting the fields on fire and killing Tiago’s father. When Tiago rushes towards the conflagration, Santa Muerte (in her single act of direct intervention) pushes him away, saving him from the flames and leaving the imprint of a hand on his chest. Although this is not her last appearance in the series, her only other actions are to chastise Tiago’s mother Maria (Adriana Barraza) for calling on her to act, and to greet the dead as they pass on.

Magda, on the other hand, is far more interventionist and appears in a number of different roles in order to instigate violent action and incite prejudice against Hispanics, Jews and homosexuals. She appears as Alex Malone, political advisor to City Councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis), a racist demagogue whose plans for a new freeway require the demolishment of the Hispanic community in Pasadena, which is the first step in her plans to make him Mayor and then President. In service of these plans, she has arranged for him to receive the patronage of Richard Goss (Thomas Kretschmann), German architect and secret Gestapo operative. She also appears as Elsa Branson, a German housewife who fakes domestic abuse in order to inveigle her way into the affections of Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear), married paediatrician and pacifist leader of the local German-American Bund, a connection she intends to exploit. (Frank Branson, her son, can be extruded from or absorbed into her body at will, as needed.) And she is also Rio, bisexual member of the local pachuco gang, intent on firing up the Hispanic and queer community into violent action against police brutality she has helped to exacerbate in her various other manifestations.

The one remaining major character is Molly Finnister (Kerry Bishé), radio evangelist and singer who was forced into her position from an early age under the manipulative management of her ruthless mother (Amy Madigan). Unbeknownst to Molly, her mother also has ties to local Nazi Richard Goss, while Molly feels the burden of her responsibility to others but is allowed little opportunity to escape and simply be herself. Constructed very much in the mould of the “whore with a heart of gold” trope, she finds that escape to an extent with Tiago, but her character trajectory is uncomfortably close to that of Billie Piper’s character in the first season of Penny Dreadful.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is very consciously constructed to reflect the issues of racism in modern America, making several explicit connections between events, policies and people in the series and in Trump’s America. The series works a little too hard to establish these parallels – the opening episode was so desperate to make its points that it felt over the top, and some of the dialogue scattered through the series is so on the nose it threw me out of the story. The final scene of the series in particular feels artificial, as all of the main villains stand in a line next to each other watching the demolition of Hispanic homes while the main character, watching from the other side of the construction barriers, explicitly states the author’s message. Although enough plot threads are tied off for the series to end here, so much is left unresolved and seemingly in favour of the forces of prejudice that the series’ failure to be renewed for a second season works against it. Although there is interesting material to be found here, on the whole the series is probably best viewed as a showcase for the acting talents of Natalie Dormer, who seems more than capable of turning the entire series into a one woman show.

3 thoughts on “Penny Dreadful: Victorian London and the City of Angels

  1. Overall, I agree with you, although I don’t know how you managed to discuss the second season without even mentioning Patty Lupone’s superb one episode wonder, the Cut Wife.

    While I see the parallels between Malcolm Murray and Richard Burton (particularly if one sees his son as an analogue for John Speke), his frequent pairing with Sembene had strong overtones of Allan Quartermain and Umslopogaas to me.

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    1. If I was trying to mention every last detail I enjoyed, I’d still be writing it! But thanks for drawing attention to Patti Lupone’s appearance in that season – I’d forgotten she’d appeared in that episode before returning as Dr Seward (as well as appearing as a singer in the gay club in City of Angels).

      Good point about Quartermain and Umslopogaas! I believe that Burton has been acknowledged as the inspiration for Sir Malcolm Murray (there’s a special feature about him on the home release), but Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne novels were fresh in my mind at the time, so Burton was so firmly in my consciousness (along with the death of his son and the search for the source of the Nile) that any other parallels clearly passed me by. It’s probably significant that the real Burton died one year before the story’s action begins.

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