This article contains Penny Dreadful and Salem spoilers.
Neither Showtime’s Penny Dreadful nor WGN’s Salem made it to season 4. The two supernatural shows ran almost concurrently on opposite ends of the horror genre. Salem was a spooky soap opera with Dark Shadows in its blood; Penny Dreadful had the traditions of Victorian literature, as well as Hammer and Universal Horror movies, coursing through its spirit. The mystic at the center of Penny Dreadful is god-fearing and repentant; the last standing witch on Salem is neither cowed nor apologetic.
Both series deal with problems of biblical proportions. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) will forever be part of a trinity with a fallen angel, and a wolf of god called Lupus Dei. Anne Hale (Tamzin Merchant) and Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) keep company with the likes of archangels Samael and Beelzebub. The fate of mankind itself lies in the balance in the lead-up to both shows’ finales, but opposite sides triumph. Vanessa may speak Verbis Diablo, the ancient “Words of the Devil,” but the devil listens to Anne.
Salem Season 4 is in entertainment hell. It was happily consigned to network damnation by Adam Simon and Brannon Braga, who had the stout lack of heart to end the series on the most upbeat of downbeats. The hero didn’t win. The villain carries the day. And it wasn’t any villain. This was a series about witches, and the audience fully expected the heroine to triumph. Mary Sibley was, after all, the most powerful of the Essex witches and not only survived, but thrived at the end of the series. But the villainess Anne Hale rose from the shadows of a good man and a few bad women to command the hearts and minds of a faithful following.
During the run of Salem, the audience’s focus was on the magnetic witch at its center, Mary Sibley. The comparisons to Penny Dreadful’s Vanessa Ives were unavoidable. They both had dark secrets and hair, magnetic eyes, and a strong will. But Sibley is not the victor at the end of the show. She is allowed to go free into the sunset with her true love, John Alden (Shane West), but they only get permission to survive the red mercurial future from the true heroine of the series, Anne Hale. So we hail Anne Hale as the Anti-Vanessa Ives, not Sibley who got to fulfill the life that Ives was due.
With Anne’s ambition trumping Mary’s anguished love, Salem concluded on the exact opposite note as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. During the concurrent run of both shows, they each explored similar dark terrain and even specific subjects, like possession, exorcism, and the rights of women and how important it is to fight for every triumph, no matter how small. Vanessa Ives gave her life to save the world from a dark future, ruled by an ancient demonic force. Anne Hale gave up other lives so she could not only live, but be the dark force that holds sway over an entirely New World.
John Lennon said one of the reasons he thought about bringing the Beatles to Allen Klein’s table was because the tough talking manager had a plaque over his desk that read: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I shall fear no evil because I’m the biggest bastard in the valley.” Anne Hale is the baddest witch in the continent. She is the evil to beat all evil, just as Vanessa Ives was the good soul that had been waiting for eternity just to give in to the temptation of playing the daughter of God.
Hale goes the other way. She is on the fast track to godhood and she’s starting with the old hood. She can walk through angry crowds in the worst areas of town in her cloak and no daggers will touch her because she is the savior to the high and low. Hale doesn’t go over or under people’s heads, she gets into them. Even her sermons are accessible to the highbrow and lowbrow.
Penny Dreadful was quite highbrow in spite of its origins. The original penny dreadfuls of the 1800s were short, gothic novels printed on cheap pulp paper and sold for a penny apiece. The TV series was a proper English horror tale built on the gothic ghosts of classic horror movies past. Salem was an improper American frightfest built with seven gables from logs that interpreted modern classics and Giallo filmmaking. Penny Dreadful called on the spirits of classic novels to bring all our favorite monsters to the parlor dripping with class. It looked positively posh. But it was a monster mash of Universal B-pictures like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Mad Monster Party stirred in liberally. Penny Dreadful treats these popular horror stories, and the low-budget thrillers of cinema, with the utmost respect, a feat rarely seen since the publication of many of their 19th century source materials. It was all so quite British. Quite.
Salem is American. Set in a harbor town on the new frontier, it was rugged. Not Deadwood rugged, but it didn’t bother with the thees and thous of the truly isolated New England horror The Witch, which was impeccably researched to recreate the historic setting. Salem is set during the hysterical witch trials of the late-1600s that swept across the Puritan refugees at the same time witch and vampire hunting was all the rage in Eastern and Western Europe.
The ending scene in The Witch is actually inspired by an etching that this writer happens to have on a tourist T-shirt from the town of Salem. The drawing shows a small gathering of children in various stages of happy levitation. Beneath the image the word “oops” is written, as a reminder that spiritual ascendance and descendants can be very surprising. You really didn’t want to be caught practicing magic of any kind during the time period. In the Balkans, even jugglers put down their balls lest they be proclaimed wizards messing with the newly theorized laws of gravity. In some circles you couldn’t even mention apples.
Penny Dreadful is set in the late nineteenth century where practicing witchcraft was practically encouraged. The show begins in 1891, the year Madame Helena Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society died. Blavatsky opened the doors to allow the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which the poet William Butler Yeats belonged to, and Ordo Templi Orientis, to dictate 20th century western mystical thought. 1891 was also the year Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’ creator, founded the metaphysical investigation group, the Fortean Society. You can see its descendants on basic cable now.
Besides Mary Shelley, who published The Modern Prometheus aka Frankenstein in 1818, Penny Dreadful merged the late 19th century works of Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde into a loving tribute. The series was Goth poetry and grindhouse Grand Guignol told by Victorian emos with a stiff upper lip.
Mysticism might have found a new understanding during the Victorian era, but the period was defined by the repression of sophisticated civilization. Man was supposed to rise above the beast. Baser impulses were seen as evil, or at the very least, self-destructive, as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can attest to. Although Dorian Gray might disagree.
Salem was based on the transcripts of the witch trials, religious scholarly tropes and tall tales of the American frontier. The evils in the woods were very real and also very beastly. The people of the era didn’t only rise above the animals, they cooked them.
Vanessa Ives and Mary Sibley both got involved in treacherous love triangles. Vanessa loved Ethan, and Mary loved John. But Ives sweetly slept with Dracula (Christian Camargo) and Sibley self-consciously screwed Baron Sebastian Marburg (Joe Doyle). She drew the line at her grown son, the angel Samael, played by Jon Fletcher, who proclaims himself god’s gift to women.
The audience is never really clear whether Anne Hale should dump Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel). Sure, he’s better with a rat in his gullet, but she always seems to truly want his love. I was hoping Dracula and Vanessa would work things out on Penny Dreadful from the moment he took her to London’s equivalent of The Bronx Zoo’s World of Darkness. The werewolf, whether he calls himself Larry Talbot or Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is fighting for the love of a good woman. Dracula is doing it for love, but good has nothing to do with it.
Penny Dreadful season 3 rode to a close with the double creature features “Perpetual Night” and “The Blessed Dark.” Scripted by series creator John Logan, who wrote every episode, the conclusion offered up Vanessa Ives as a sacrificial lamb to save the world from endless night. Salem’s conclusion, “Black Sunday,” written by Brannon Braga and directed by Adam Simon, spared the lambs to serve their endless days on a platter.
Either series could survive its finale. Dr. Frankenstein could put knobs on the sides of Vanessa Ives’ neck and zap her back to life. Salem could rewrite early American history with Anne Hale as a founding mother. But they lie as contemporary bookmarks on either side of the horror bin.