Television Review: Penny Dreadful, Season 1

Penny Dreadful is a show I had always planned to watch, but it was always on at the wrong time. Then when I borrowed Mad Max: Fury Road from a DVD Kiosk, Video Ezy started sending me promotional codes, and they had the first season of Penny Dreadful. You rent one disc at a time, and I had three promo codes, so I ended up not paying a thing to watch this show, which is pretty great. I’m not a huge fan of traditional horror, but I heard that there’s enough camp in Penny Dreadful that I thought I might enjoy it. It’s not the campiest thing I’ve ever seen, but it stands out amongst the paranormal fiction that’s grown in popularity in the wake of Twilight. It does this through story and character, rather than relying on plot twists, even though there were some moments that were genuinely shocking. There are spoilers for the season finale here, so proceed with caution.

I knew a few things about Penny Dreadful before I watched it: the world was populated with characters from literature, Billie Piper’s Irish accent was terrible, and Eva Green was great. The show delivered on all of these fronts. As far as the actual story goes, I knew nothing, which was great. I’m not spoiler-averse (I often end up accidentally spoiling myself on Wikipedia when I go to research a minor character in a television show), but it was nice to go into it cold. I expected the supernatural, but I had no idea that our crew would be hunting vampires. I’m annoyed that I didn’t guess the end of the first episode until 90 seconds before it happened, but then The Creature’s emergence was a complete surprise (how did he do that?).

Penny Dreadful‘s greatest achievement is in its decision to ground the story in character. We learned details about Mina sporadically – first at a seance, when her spirit possessed Vanessa – before her story was revealed in the flashback of Episode 5. Vanessa and Sir Malcolm are drawn together by their love of Mina, but they only have an inkling of what she has become. Sir Malcolm is willing to sacrifice Vanessa to save his daughter, but Vanessa is aware of the more likely scenario – that the only way to save Mina is by killing her. When Vanessa is possessed in the season’s penultimate episode (definitely the most creative bottle episode I’ve seen), she begs for Ethan to kill her, but he can’t do it. He’s not shy with his bullets, but he is sentimental. This culminates in the show’s season finale, and Sir Malcolm’s decision to kill Mina, precisely because she is no longer his daughter, and the Mina he loved lives in his heart as well as Vanessa’s, who he has finally come to see as a daughter.

Not everything in Penny Dreadful works quite that well. I mentioned earlier that Billie Piper’s Irish accent was not very good, but the character of Brona was also quite thin. I love Billie Piper, but this was something that she couldn’t quite save (I’ll be interested to see what happens next season). Brona is only in a handful of episodes, an Irish immigrant with consumption, then she and Ethan fall in love. The only problem with this is that I didn’t buy Ethan’s affection for her. This is partially because of the show’s timeline – how much time passed between their meeting in Episode 2 and their fight in Episode 4? The following episode takes place the morning after their fight, where they confess their love for each other, and it felt hollow. The show didn’t earn Ethan’s grief at her death the way it earned Vanessa and Sir Malcolm’s as they hold each other and cry in the finale. I am however hopeful for Billie Piper’s role in the show’s second season.

Other thoughts:

  • Dorian Grey is intriguing, but definitely not my favourite part of the show. I think the most amusing moment in the show is when Vanessa had to tell him that he was feeling rejection for the first time.
  • This was a quick one, because I was exhausted this evening, but I’m working on a few things for the rest of the week. Somehow this was easier when I was writing every day.
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