“Vanessa Ives: Stay with me tonight.
Ethan Chandler: And tomorrow?
Vanessa: I promise you, we will be less afraid.”
– Penny Dreadful
I’ve raved about my favourite TV show before on the blog, but apparently I’m not quite done gushing yet…
Penny Dreadful is hands down, no question, the most incredible TV show I have ever seen. Every single aspect of the show, from the remarkable actors to the detailed sets to the dialogues and attention to detail, is flawless. I’ve mentioned my love for the show and the characters (many of whom I’ve loved through literature for years), but I think it’s time to break it down and describe the precise reasons why I enjoy this show so much…and am so eager to get you all to watch it too!
Penny Dreadful is one of those rare TV shows that is written impeccably. It feels more like a piece of theatre or like a Victorian novel being read aloud than like a TV show. Perhaps the fact that it is a Showtime series, and not one on network television, has something to do with this, but I’m more inclined to think that the beauty of the way the show is written has everything to do with creator John Logan. Logan is quite literally a genius, and I believe that the world’s foremost Victorian novelists like Dickens and Mary Shelley would agree. Logan not only accurately and lovingly pays homage to some of the greatest literary characters of all time (more on this in a moment), but he puts words into their mouths, and into those of his own fictional creations such as Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler, that are 100% truthful to and appropriate for the Victorian context. Although the series is often raunchy and dark, it is always genuine and authentic. This loyalty to the Victorian setting and genre does not take away from the poignancy of the story, however – on the contrary, Logan gives his characters such profound, modern and applicable lines that a modern viewer can’t help but be intrigued by the fact that their own preoccupations and concerns are being represented in a more ancient context. Logan is a writer of astonishing caliber, and even the simplest lines and scenes in the show have given me chills.
“Ethan Chandler: You will not die while I’m here. You will not surrender while I live. If I have one goddamned purpose in my cursed life it’s that.
Vanessa Ives: You are one man.
Ethan: More than that and you know it. We are not like others. We have claws for a reason.”
– Penny Dreadful
As I mentioned a moment ago, John Logan, in creating Penny Dreadful, pays homage to the most unique, wonderful and interesting characters of English literature. While he creates his own fictional beings who are equally exciting and engaging (particularly the show’s protagonist, Vanessa Ives, as well as her fellow strong female lead, Brona Croft/Lily – more on them in a moment), he also borrows from the Victorian era’s greatest stories to reimagine the lives of some of literature’s most fascinating characters. From the beginning of the series, Victor Frankenstein, his Creature, as well as that formidable vampire Dracula have been focal points. However, Logan also borrows from lesser known texts, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in so doing, he introduces a modern audience to the strange and enchanting tales of an era that is often stereotypically perceived as prim and proper. In the most recent season, Logan decided to introduce the viewers to another much loved character, a certain Dr. Jekyll – once I learned that Dr. Jekyll was going to be featured on the show, I rushed to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel (which I had been meaning to do for years), and I am so impressed with the way that Logan investigates Dr. Jekyll’s troubled past, before he gives in to his alter ego Mr. Hyde. Logan treats these characters with such love and affection, cherishing them, allowing them to speak for themselves, but also placing them in circumstances that are new and require accommodation and adaptation. This take on some of the characters I have grown to admire is absolutely breathtaking and novel.
This brings me to my main reason for prizing this show so highly – the wonderful actors. I don’t think I have ever witnessed such incredible performances in a TV series. I’ve spoken about this before, but Eva Green (who stars as Miss Vanessa Ives) has to be the greatest actress of modern times. She is extremely versatile – one moment she is sitting quietly, composed and collected, and the next she is possessed, tortured and crazed – and she truly gives herself over to her performance without restraint. There have been several scenes in the show where she has taken my breath away, and in a recent episode (3×05), she conveyed more emotion and turmoil with her eyes alone than I have seen most other actresses express in full feature films. She deserves recognition of all kinds for her flawless portrayal of Vanessa Ives.
Having said that, another actress in the show gives Green a run for her money. Billie Piper as prostitute turned fierce immortal Brona Croft/Lily is absolutely unreal. I’ve encountered Piper in films before, most notably the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but I have never seen her in a role so strong and forceful. Her manner of speech alone is confident and collected, but she also clearly portrays the turmoil and emotional pain of her character. There are so many moments when she addresses male characters with such ferocity, and it is amazing to behold a Victorian woman standing up for herself and her peers. This fact is really down to John Logan as well, who has made a huge focal point of season 3 the struggle of Victorian women to rise up and obtain their own status and freedom. By creating strong female characters and allowing such talented actresses to play them, Logan is providing the modern female viewer with models of strength and confidence.
**My apologies for the explicit language in the following quote.**
“Brona/Lily: We flatter our men with our pain, we bow before them, we make ourselves dolls for their amusement, we lose our dignity in corsets and high shoes and gossip and the slavery of marriage! And our reward for this service? The back of the hand…the face turned to the pillow…the bloody, aching cunt as you force us onto your beds to take your fat, heaving bodies! You drag us into the alleys, my lad, and cram yourselves into our mouths for two bob when you’re not beating us senseless! When we’re not bloody from the eyes, and the mouth, and the ass and the cunt! Never again… will I kneel to any man. Now they shall kneel to me.”
– Penny Dreadful
The rest of the actors and actresses are equally incredible, from those who play more minor characters like Hecate Poole (actress Sarah Greene) to Rory Kinnear, Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Reeve Carney and Timothy Dalton (a legend, and a dashing Mr. Rochester as well) who round out the male leads. I’ve never been more impressed by their performances than I have been while watching season 3. And, speaking of Dr. Jekyll and Dracula (aka Dr. Sweet), Shazad Latif and Christian Camargo do an excellent job of inserting themselves into the cast in the current season – their acting caliber is exquisite and so they fit right in with the established characters. They also have some formidable shoes to fill, playing such iconic characters, and they definitely have no problem with such an undertaking.
I honestly can’t say enough about this show – that much is probably obvious! I highly recommend it, not just for those who love the Victorian era, but for anyone who is interested in good storytelling and masterful acting. My father doesn’t have any interest in the Victorian era whatsoever (strange, I know!), but he has called this his favourite TV show of all time – if that isn’t proof enough that the show is pretty great, I don’t know what is.
Check it out if you haven’t already, and if you have, let me know what you think of it in the comments below.
Girl with a Green Heart