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July 18, 2014

Penny Dreadful: The Mysterious Affair of the SPOILERS
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:26 AM * 15 comments

Once again, I am writing a spoiler thread for a show I haven’t watched. It does protect me from inadvertently spoiling it in the OP, at least.

Reading up on it on the internet, it sounds like a good argument for public domain: the opportunity to recast and reconsider classic figures from literature and popular culture. In a funny kind of way, I’m grateful that Sherlock Holmes’ status is still up in the air in some jurisdictions, since otherwise, I’d worry that his all but inevitable presence would distort the show.

But I digress. Here’s a chance to discuss the show, the characters, the plots, and the possibilities without needing to ROT-13 anything.

Comments on Penny Dreadful: The Mysterious Affair of the SPOILERS:
#1 ::: Jurie Horneman ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 06:44 AM:

Well, what can I say. I was disappointed.

Great production values (how much money was spent on that brief scene where Chandler gets a telegram?), good acting, but a story that seemed to go nowhere.

The initial thrill of figuring out where the story was taking the familiar stories and characters quickly dissipated and turned into a game of guessing who gets to have sex with Dorian Gray and who has done the most awful things in their past.

After watching episode 6, and realizing there were only 2 more episodes left, it hit me how much of what happened was inconsequential, how many characters were effectively useless (Dorian Gray, Brona Croft, The Creature) and could have been eliminated without affecting the storyline.

The main storyline seemed muddled. The revelation of Ives' dark past was anticlimactic, the connection between Ives' problem and Mina's tenuous. The expressions and accusations of guilt told, but didn't show, set up without a satisfying pay-off.

The final twist - Sir Malcolm's one-liner at the end of the final episode - felt both ludicrously unprepared, as well as out of place. (A similar line worked well in Orphan Black, season 1, but here I found it jarring.)

Despite Dalton's acting, Sir Malcolm's motivation seemed confused all through the series. Is he consumed by a need to find his daughter? Or to go to Africa? Does it depend on the position of the moon?

Did that vow everyone swore have any meaning, except as a stand-in for actual motivations for, say, Chandler and Frankenstein to help Sir Malcolm?

I doubt we'll watch a second season.

#2 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 09:49 AM:

I do feel that the finale felt rushed, and that the Mina plot was wrapped up in an unsatisfying manner.

I've been seeing Vanessa as book!Mina and show!Mina as book!Lucy pretty much the whole time. Book!Mina is a clever detective, and Vanessa did that beautiful Sherlock turn in episode 1, and she's been an active participant since then. Show!Mina was a mere Macguffin. (Or is that McGuffin? I can never remember. Freakin' plot device.)

I was horrified when Caliban killed Van Helsing, not because the Creature was being horrible (that's to be expected), but because I was going "NO DON'T DO THAT YOU ARE GOING TO NEED HIM FOR THE VAMPIRE HUNT WTF DON'T WASTE HIS POTENTIAL!" Very disappointing. Also disappointing because I wanted to see more David Warner. It's a pity he has stage fright severe enough to keep him from doing live theater work, because it's a dream of mine to see him play Lear, and has been since I saw him in Hornblower.

I suspect that a lot of the weird pacing/too-pat wrap-ups in the writing came from Logan not being sure if they'd be renewed for a second season. I think if he'd been assured of that, he could have done more effective things with the Mina storyline.

I do think there's still great potential in the second season. You KNOW Brona's not going to be a compliant Bride. (I need to watch the original Elsa Lanchester movie during the hiatus. Dying to see what parallels they'll bring in.) And her lover from her mortal life is PRESENT, and a werewolf to boot, and he is NOT going to like it when he finds out. Victor is in SO MUCH TROUBLE.

I looked at the Vampire Boss Fight in the finale and I think now that the Master Vampire is still out there, since Mina wasn't acting like he'd just been killed in front of her when she grabbed Vanessa. (Hey, Show, you MISSED an opportunity in that scene - WHY couldn't Mina have made an explicit declaration of romantic love for Vanessa? The subtext in episode 5 was SO heavy. GIVE US A CANON LESBIAN PAIRING, HUH?) The continued existence of a vampire threat has potential. (Even though they wasted Van Helsing. DAMMIT.)

I hope they're going to reveal Dorian as a vessel for Amun-Ra. Illusion!Demon!Ethan (yes, an illusion, they cut to a scene of actual Ethan downstairs while the demon!Ethan stuff was taking place, so it wasn't possessed!Ethan) pretty decisively identified himself as Lucifer. But Lucifer doesn't ever possess Vanessa - he interacts with her, speaking to her in her head and appearing to her in the semblance of men that she knows. It's my theory that he was taking on the appearance or possessing Mina's fiance Captain Branson in episode 5, because of the line demon!Malcolm said about "you've taken it into yourself and fucked it" before she had sex with the demon THAT time.

So, if it's not Lucifer possessing her, it's someone else, and it's been advanced that it's Amunet. It certainly seems to be a female entity. (Who doesn't think much of men.) Although, during the seance, she did say "Amunet, girl? No. Someone much older." But they've associated Amun-Ra with the snake as a symbol of rebirth, and the character posters have Dorian holding a snake (with bite marks at his collarbone - is that a Cleopatra reference? Is he going to die from this, portrait notwithstanding?) so I think there's something there.

Interesting question - what female deity/entity would be older than Amunet? I'm a little shaky on ancient civilizations but I have the impression that the Egyptian predates Ancient Greece, and certainly much of Biblical history. Babylonian? Sumerian? Gah, I wish I had a decent Ancient Civ textbook around.

Hm. What haven't I covered? I could say admiring things about them playing out Phantom of the Opera through Caliban. Or the criminal underuse of Sembene's character. WE NEED HIS BACKSTORY. We need to see him DOING stuff and an explanation for why he bothers to hang around Sir Malcolm (we got hints, but only hints).

And we need some acknowledgement that DORIAN SHOULD BE WEARING A CRAVAT. (Kidding-not-kidding. Reeve Carney is absolutely lovely but those particular costuming choices are STUPID.)

#3 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 10:02 AM:

It's pretty Grand Guignol. I think namechecking the familiar characters is mostly there because it's a free audience and they're out of copyright, but I feel like it's MOSTLY about eating bugs and spraying blood around. (And I think a canon lesbian pairing would look more like "eating bugs" than "advancing the cause of understanding." Just based on, you know, Dorian/Ethan. )

Having said that, I watched all of it.

#4 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 11:35 AM:

Oh, man, Dorian/Ethan. Even with demon!Vanessa's taunting, I don't think their encounter quite makes it to the "eating bugs" stage. I say this in part because no unpossessed character ever gives him the least flak about it after the revelation, but mostly because of the absolutely STELLAR acting by Josh Hartnett and Reeve Carney during the kiss scene. There is SO MUCH going on there without a SINGLE WORD, just in their facial expressions and their movement.

Um. I'm going to quote my own fanfic here to show what I saw in it, rather than try to talk ABOUT it. First, have a link to a clip of the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djq4w5DrUaI

Now here's how I described it:

The stillness was broken as Ethan strode towards Dorian and seized him by the throat. He stared at Dorian for a long moment, his eyes dark and angry, then yanked him into a ferocious kiss, his other hand holding Dorian by the back of the neck. After a few seconds, Ethan pulled away, the anger in his face now mixed with lust, his mouth open and his breath coming heavily.

Dorian stood unmoving and silent, his lips softly parted, his eyes asking the question: What will you do next? while his body's stillness assured Ethan: It's up to you. Ethan answered him, wordlessly and decisively, grabbing Dorian by the shoulders and tugging his shirt open, shoving it down his arms and onto the floor. Dorian accepted it without protest, and lifted a gentle hand to Ethan's chest, undoing his topmost button with a delicate touch. Ethan's shirt joined Dorian's, and they stood looking at each other again, until Dorian lifted his face in silent invitation, moving the barest fraction closer to Ethan, who closed the gap with another kiss.

It was tender this time, not violent, Ethan's hand coming to cradle the back of Dorian's skull, their bodies meeting, skin touching skin. Another kiss followed, and then another, and the anger on Ethan's face was replaced by wonder as he held Dorian close and looked intently into his face.

This? Is not eating bugs.

And the subtext for Vanessa and Mina was SO strong, and SO in keeping with the historical context of "romantic friendship" that may or may not have been sexual in any particular instance, and I would just LOVE to see that explored within the Gothic-horror context, bringing in the overtones of Carmilla that are RIGHT THERE and were just begging to be worked in in the same manner that they worked The Phantom of the Opera into the Creature's storyline.

I think they could do it without making it "eating bugs". I believe John Logan has good intentions when it comes to female characters - he has centered Vanessa, after all, and said explicitly that he was exploring the restrictions Victorian women labored under. But I think his execution is imperfect, and that he's still carrying a lot of patriarchal baggage that he hasn't unpacked, and I don't entirely trust that he could walk that line without stumbling.

#5 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 02:16 PM:

I'm glad I wasn't imagning the Phantom stuff. Have now seen all but Ep 8, and might knock that off this afternoon (or might not).

#6 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 04:11 PM:

NOPE TOTALLY PHANTOM. My read on Penny Dreadful is that, if you think you see a reference to some other work in the genre that's not specifically named, it's still probably ENTIRELY on purpose.

#7 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: July 18, 2014, 08:33 PM:

I quite enjoyed Penny Dreadful, though the whole is less than its parts.

When we had the second whole episode devoted to torturing possessed Vanessa, I felt that characteristic mix of boredom and mild embarrassment one feels in the presence of a fetish* not one's own. The whole "feminine sexual desire is a gateway to the devil" isn't a particularly compelling motif for me: it seemed perfectly clear that it was the guilt that was doing it, and what she needed was some sex-positive therapy sessions rather chaining to the bed, etc.

"Do you really want to go back to being normal?" though. That, now. That's got some heft to it.

The Chandler reveal was so painstakingly built, then utterly wasted on a throwaway scene. After a season of excellent, twisty reveals--the Creature ripping v2.0 in half!--it was incredibly pro forma. Given that they still haven't pulled the curtain all the way back on Dorian, why not save it for later?

It's quite interesting how present the imperial aspect of the era is--Chandler is haunted by the Indian wars, and Murray's sins are all bound up in his colonial African adventures. I can't think of many Victorian stories that make such a point of how the glories of Victorian London are built on piles of corpses.

#8 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 12:15 AM:

I, too, love how present (and criticized) the imperial aspects of the Victorian era are. And yet they criticize without breaking the historical feel of the show. The thing criticizing Sir Malcolm isn't one of his contemporaries, it's something supernatural; and it's believable that Ethan would have doubts about the results of the Indian wars and their effects on children. There isn't an obtrusive "modern liberals in period clothing" feel to it.

I rather liked that Victor put the blame squarely on the guilt rather than on any inherent fault in Vanessa's (hypothetical, as far as HE knew) sexual activity. And I liked that he rejected the efficacy of the alienists of his time to treat it, because they certainly wouldn't have. Of course, then the FREAKY SPIDER SWARM appeared, and he no longer knew WHAT to think, as rational explanations went right out the window.

Tying her to the bed wasn't much of a useful solution, but I presume they were going on "she might injure herself or others". And sex-positive therapy (had it existed) wouldn't solve ACTUAL MALIGN SPIRITS, which, within the show framework, do exist and are to blame for her problems.

My ideas for solutions, which can never happen on the show:

1. A retcon where Sir Malcolm dies and Mina lives. Then Vanessa willingly puts herself under Mina's thrall, not enough to become a full vampire, perhaps, but enough so that other possessing entities can't get at her, because the enthrallment takes precedence. Then they go kill the actual master vampire who controls Mina, who then becomes sovereign. (And she needn't kill repeatedly for her survival. Dorian Gray would make a lovely self-renewing food source.)

2. Vanessa consciously and deliberately invites the possession of some OTHER entity, who can fight off the ones that are after her (the feminine one that possesses her, and the Lucifer or perhaps Amun-Ra one who wants her for a mate). My vote is for Nemesis. They've already made a significant reference to retribution in a line of Victor's dialogue, and then she could use her power to FIGHT CRIME, since she already has Sherlock Holmes-like skills of deduction (as seen in episode 1).

Neither of these will happen. One of them's been jossed already, and the other is far too much of a happy ending for the genre.

But I think I can make terrific fanfic of them.

#9 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2014, 01:19 PM:

(Posting without reading comments, since I've only seen the first episode), but I'd suggest that recent volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and (to a lesser extent, as Newman's a more talented writer) Anno Dracula are better arguments for copyright, as the hoops the writers jumped through to use more recent characters were so evident (and sometimes painful to read).

#10 ::: Cat Eldridge ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2014, 05:49 PM:

@2 Rikibeth, a quick check using Google shows that David Warner has an impressive history of doing theatre. Where did you hear that he did not do so?

#11 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2014, 06:06 PM:

Cat Eldridge, it was probably a Hornblower-related site, but might have been elsewhere. I must remember not to believe everything I read on the web.

How recent is the theater history, though?

#12 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2014, 06:28 PM:

I think that the title was right; it's a penny dreadful. It's clever and looks great but it's a big pulpy adventure full of things to shock, admire and excite.

I also really liked it.

Although disappointed by Dorian's story, I can't help thinking it's appropriate that the man who has been frozen in time wanders into the plot, does a few things that slightly effect him and everyone else, then wanders off again to brood on his own.

#13 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2014, 09:31 AM:

They've promised more Dorian next season. I can't wait.

#14 ::: Cat Eldridge ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2014, 10:55 PM:

Rikibeth, his last theatre work was a production of King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2005.

#15 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2014, 11:45 PM:

AND I WAS NOT THERE TO SEE IT.

*weeps*

*hopes it got recorded*

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