Penny Dreadful: The Progressive Face of Horror?

We ponder how Showtime's Penny Dreadful offers love, choice, and feminism in the time of Cholera.

Penny Dreadful has returned. I, for one, have deeply missed the gothic decadence, gripping performances, and existential philosophizing for which the show is known. Past the impeccable acting and set-pieces, it’s the latter element—the questions on faith, society, and life—that draw me in the most.

These are questions that we all ask of ourselves, of our partners, our friends, or our community, and Penny Dreadful boldly frames such questions against the backdrop of the repressive (and surreptitiously sinful) Victorian era: a dim age where the struggle for independence, acceptance, and freedom shine brighter. Is it okay to be mentally, physically, or sexually different? (Obviously, yes.) How do we reconcile our strangeness with the status quo? How do we embrace and celebrate that uniqueness, even? 

Take Vanessa Ives, the show’s main heroine. She’s ballsy, smart and sophisticated, though she’s not beholden to fashion or the frivolities of the women of that age. In fact, she masquerades as an airy aristocrat while possessing the spirit of a revolutionary. She’s clever enough to know that she must behave and act—for the most part—as a woman of her standing, in that age, should. But beneath her veneer, hides a heroine who challenges the establishment, who challenges the notion that she is weak or delicate, who challenges even God and the Devil themselves.

For not far into the story, we learn that Vanessa is a woman who has been touched by cosmic forces: a conduit who can channel the powers of light and dark. Lucifer wants her. God would have her spend her life repressing her powers and praying for his distant attention. Both choices are rather shit. Ultimately, and during the conclusion to season two’s arc, her decision to serve God or the Devil is rebuked toward either master. She will not be a saint for His Holiness or a Bride of Darkness. She will be herself: Vanessa. And with such a realization of her power, and of the faults and loneliness of that choice, she will be divine in her own way.

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Personal power plays a huge role in the motivations of Vanessa and the cast; and not in the vainglorious, Twitter-spamming, flaccid encouragement, Me-generation way that has become so popular. Personal power—in the sense that nearly each and every choice we make to be good or evil—is our own. Deep stuff for a period piece. But Penny Dreadful goes past personal consequence, even, and strides into the realm of politics, rights, gender conformity, and sexual freedoms.

Take a moment to watch this BAFTA-worthy performance by Billie Piper’s character, Lily. (aka Brona Croft: former consumption-riddled prostitute, now a reanimated, premodern, and vengeful feminist.)

What makes that performance so good isn’t just the acting or her lines, it’s the relevance to the themes and conflicts of our age. Somehow, Penny Dreadful conveys its messaging about social issues clearly while many modern shows flounder at the same task. Clear and strong is Lily’s message—there’s no mistaking the culture of misogyny and expectations that have bred her monstrous anger. Likewise do the social themes on sexuality and gender expand to other characters, and aren’t limited solely to the ladies of the cast. Dorian Gray has a dalliance with Ethan Chandler (the Wolfman). It’s a one night, too much absinthe, “college,” kind thing for which each man feels no lasting shame, and from which no one’s fundamental sexual or behavioral nature is changed. It’s sex and it happens—as sex sometimes does.

Later on, Dorian, who’s sexuality quite fluid, develops a fancy for a transvestite/ transgender character (sex reassignment wasn’t an option then, however the character in question surely wanted to be herself: a woman, not a man). And it’s not the disdainful British lords throwing them shade while they’re gallivanting around town that eventually shatters the romance; it’s Dorian’s new lover discovering his hideous portrait. For Dorian loves Dorian, most of all—and that romance with eternity and vanity must never end.

The show paints everyone in gray. There are no saints, or moustache twirling villains, though Hellen McCrory’s manically and brilliantly played witch shaves close to that mark. In Penny Dreadful, there are just people: the broken, strange curiosities and flotsam of accepted culture. In each monster, we can see hints of the monsters in ourselves. Good art, I believe, forces us into that introspection, and each time I watch Penny Dreadful, and these jaw dropping performances, I cannot sleep, I lie awake, pondering.

“Oh, Lawd,” you might be saying, “I can’t believe you lured me in the promise of werewolves and gore, then made me read all this politically correct, social justice warrior blather. Why should I give two farts about the progressivity of Penny Dreadful?” Well, you’re on Den of Geek, so, assumedly, you’re a “geek”—a person who enjoys the darker, stranger or more eccentric choices life has to offer. Perhaps you’re a clairvoyant, a werewolf, or destined bride of Satan like Vanessa (or you like to don such costumes at Comic-Con). Whatever. The point is, we are all monsters; those of us who share a penchant for the strange. We should find unity and solidarity in our differences, even if our differences are matters of degrees and taste. At one point, before Hipsters started playing D&D for a taste of retro-cool, we (the geeks) played those games in secret, in the company of other monsters, where we would not feel ashamed. We celebrated our shared taste for the strange.

I don’t know where that solidarity has gone, or if it’s harder to sift from the crap flood of Kardashian-obsessed social media, but our collective geek-spirit needs to be rekindled or continue to be nurtured in gardens where it already grows. So I welcome shows like Penny Dreadful, Jessica Jones, and Sense 8 that can stay true to the subject matter and genre of their work while interweaving their material with intelligent, provocative purview. I should think that we want more content, more tales of the strange, since that opens the gates for every kind of story—including those that specifically resonate with us.

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Putting matters of humanitarianism and universal compassion aside, you should watch Penny Dreadful because it’s awesome. Period. If you don’t believe me, Vanessa mystically pimp-slapping the Devil might do the trick.

Stay weird and wonderful.