Penny Dreadful is finally here! A few weeks ago I reviewed the trailer and talked a bit about my anticipations for the show, and now I get to experience the dark, brooding magic that is the supernatural underbelly of 19th century London. Come with me as we enter the demimonde! Spoiler alerts below the jump.
After a cold open of a woman getting unceremoniously snatched from a Victorian-era toilet, credits filled with creepy crawly things graced my screen (while I was trying to eat; now I know better). Then, Vanessa (Eva Green) is praying in Latin before a crucifix when a spider crawls across Jesus. Stop it, spider! You can’t crawl on Jesus! Next it’s on her, and she hears super spooky, unclear whispers (maybe she is a Teen Wolf banshee?!) Now, enter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett): working at a traveling “Wild West” extravaganza currently in London, he is the sharp-shootin’-est sharp-shooter in all the land. After his show, he slings a different kind of “gun”, banging some chick up against a wagon. A refreshing reminder that this is Showtime, not ABC Family: yay, never fear, gratuitous sex and bare butts are here! Vanessa intrudes on Ethan’s post-coital tavern brooding to give him a vague offer of some “night work”; it may be criminal, it may be a murder (but is not, apparently, prostitution, as one might assume from the phrase “night work”).
They rendezvous later that night in a foreboding alleyway. Oh, the crowded, narrow cobbled streets of London on a dark and foggy night. Is there any better setting for a psychosexual thriller? I think not. Gorgeous visuals this show has. Onward to an opium den, completely with some picturesque “Chinamen” running the place. There they meet Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton): he wants Ethan to help him find his daughter Mina (ring any bells? #Dracula) who has been taken by the vampires. They run into a trio of vamps and Murray speaks to one in a foreign language—language nerd moment! I am PolyglotPisces after all. I’m frustrated that I couldn’t recognize it off the bat; it might have been some form of Arabic? Given the Egyptological implications discovered later in the episode, perhaps Egyptian Arabic? Either way, a melee ensues with Murray and Ethan fighting the vamps while Vanessa has a major Lydia/banshee moment and goes off to discover that the opium den has in the meantime become a carnage den; something has left it strewn with blood and corpses.
That something is revealed to be an uber-vamp, Nosferatu-style, hiding amidst the corpses. Man, this guy is mega creepy. He is literally stopped in his tracks by a glare from Vanessa, giving Murray the chance to kill it. The next logical step is of course to go to what is basically an underground cadaver lab, where resurrectionists have brought bodies to be studied by medical students and anatomists. Luckily, a young Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) just so happens to be there, conducting some research. He sciences the corpse of the uber-vamp they brought, finding beneath its outer skin what look like hieroglyphics carved into the body. Ethan goes to Vanessa’s home where she explains there is a “demimonde, a half-world between what we know and what we fear”.
Murray and Vanessa next go to the British Museum to consult with a quirky, and exceedingly campy, Egyptologist, Ferdinand Lyle. He helps to translate the hieroglyphics carved into the vampire as something along the lines of “blood cure” or “blood transformation”, or possibly “blood curse”. He seems a bit perturbed and hastily sends them off while inviting them to a lavish party at his house, and leaves them with the information that the hieroglyphs come from The Book of the Dead. Later, Murray invites Frankenstein over to his explorers’ club, where Frankenstein goes on a bit of a rant saying the only meaningful question for science to explore is the mystery of what separates life and death. Murray, knowing Frankenstein could use more money to fund his research, then gives him the offer to be essentially his chief science officer aboard the Starship Penny Dreadful.
Back at Chez Murray, Mina makes her appearance, apparently just to scare her father. Mr. Murray and Vanessa
cryptically imply some sort of personal culpability or guilt for Mina’s current circumstance, and Vanessa once again goes to pray before the crucifix as in the beginning—only this time the crucifix ends up upside-down and not just one spider is crawling on Jesus, but the whole wall is swarming with them. Ewwww. Then over at the tenement building where Frankenstein lives, he sneaks down into his secret lab. His secret lab in the tenement building. Because that makes sense. There he has a very dead and very naked guy (hello Showtime #fullfrontal) on ice, more or less hooked up to some electrical apparatus. Due to some ill-timed lightning outside, the man gets reanimated, and the scientist and his creation share a brief strange, and possibly vaguely homoerotic, moment. The end!
Well, I am very pleased! Like I said, the ambiance is deliciously dark and moody, dat London fog really adds to it (though it is actually filmed in Dublin). The underling vampires were scary but in kind of subtle ways, though the vamp boss was pretty terrifying! I was pretty impressed with the overall quality of writing and of most of the actors. That scene at the end between Frankenstein and his monster was particularly well-done. At first glance, I thought it might have been homoerotic, but I kind of read homoerotic tension into pretty much everything. It was possibly brotherly though—their eyes look nearly identical, as if they’re related. That could be just a casting coincidence, but what if he was trying to bring back his brother?! I think that either possibility, bringing back a lover or a brother, would bring a new level of richness to the Frankenstein story.
On the not so happy side, I’m still concerned about race and gender. Looks like my colonialist predictions from my review of the trailer were spot-on: oh, we had a range of ethnicities seen on screen, but the Asians were running the opium den, the African was apparently a house servant, and at least some of the vampires were presumably Middle Eastern. A period piece always has a tough time with racial representation; I believe that good period pieces should be historically grounded, especially when it comes to showing the shortcomings and horrid inequality of race relations. However, this is no excuse for the writers to never challenge these circumstances. Yes, opium dens were a transplant of a Chinese cultural property that was largely brought over by Chinese immigrants to the West; they were typically the caretakers and operators of these establishments, but couldn’t there also have been a character of Asian descent doing something else; anatomist, explorer, even medium? Any character of color working in a field denied to them in a particular historic era would require some explaining, but hey, writers are smart people; they already have to create and explain their own take on the supernatural, I’m sure they could come up with something. From what I gather from a closer look at the promotional materials, the African character, Sembene (Danny Sapani), though only briefly seen in the premiere, will be a more or less main character, but I am very worried that he’s just going to be a classic examples of the Noble Savage/Magical Negro tropes. Time will tell.
The strong female character was strong—but was the only female character of any substance. There is clearly more than meets the eye to Vanessa Ives. What is her role in Mina’s current situation? Why did one glare from her stop the uber-vamp? What are those voices she’s hearing? Next week will introduce Brona, the character that Billie Piper is playing (she’s an original, not a pre-existing character from Gothic literature), who is an Irish immigrant dying of consumption. Should be an interesting, if possibly not empowering, portrayal. Helen McCrory will also be joining as Madame Kali (that name tho), a spiritualist, which, as I mentioned with Vanessa, was an area in which women could rise to great personal/professional prominence and power during the Victorian Era, a time when most women didn’t have many options to do so.
Despite its flaws, I truly was pleased with the premiere, and I think the show has a lot of potential. In addition to stunning visuals and costuming, the mysteries behind the characters are exceedingly intriguing, and I can’t wait to uncover more and more about the secrets they all seem to have. As is the case in all psychosexual thrillers, things are bound to get more convoluted before they resolve, but I’m looking forward to the dark, twisty road ahead and all the places it will lead us.