Lots of heavy breathing noises and unseen evils make the opening sequence of Penny Dreadful – the murder of a mother and her young daughter — traditional startle horror, but everything that happens afterwards is a weirdly modern fusion of all the classics.
Set in Victorian London in 1891, Penny Dreadful introduces us to Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a reserved woman with a habit of summoning spiders and/or visions when she prays. Lightening the mood, at least initially, is Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett).
Ethan is a gunslinger in every sense of the word, showing off his formidable shooting skills in his first scene before demonstrating his less metaphorical talents with some athletic sex up against the side of a circus wagon. Ethan’s a dream romance hero if you like them callous, charming and needing to be tamed. When he tells his conquest that he’ll never forget her, she points out that he doesn’t even know her name. The scene sets up what is one of the most interesting things about Penny Dreadful – strong heroines and, unlike most cable fare, male, rather than female, nudity.
Shortly thereafter, Vanessa confronts Ethan about his theatrical deceptions as she seeks to hire him for some unspecified, dangerous, and possibly criminal work. She enumerates his flaws with a deductive reasoning not dissimilar to Sherlock Holmes. It’s one of the first of many references to classic stories of mystery and horror throughout the episode.
Upon Ethan’s arrival for the unspecified assignment that requires his weapons, we are introduced to Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), whose goals and purposes are as opaque as everyone else’s. Their walk-through of an opium den is the first of many unnecessary colonialist fantasies that pepper the show. Of course, the work Ethan has been hired doesn’t even have anything to do with the opium den and everything to do with the vampires – full of The Lost Boys style poutiness – living in its basement.
An action sequence ensues, but the murder and mayhem is of little interest compared to Vanessa’s ability to walk through the violence unscathed and essentially unnoticed, following the sounds of a child’s cries.
The vampire guardians defeated, the trio enters a charnel house. The gore is grotesque, but an oddly refreshing counterpoint to the current trend for the sexy and glittering undead. More vampires soon pop out of the woodwork, and there seems to be little purpose in it, beyond showing us Vanessa’s uncanny ability to stare them down without harm.
Having killed what seems to be a master vampire of deeply inhuman form, our trio takes the body to the ghoulish workplace of anatomy students. We’re given a quick overview of the manner in which research cadavers were acquired in the era, before being introduced to a young, cocky, and brusque researcher. Among other things, he has a keen interest in electricity, and while Penny Dreadful won’t tell you this until the end of the episode, this is the moment at which you should deduce that you’ve just been introduced to Victor Frankenstein. He gleefully examines the vampire corpse and finds hieroglyphics embedded inside its insect-like body.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all this horror, Ethan accepts Sir Malcolm’s invitation to visit his house and find out more about his mission. There, he once again encounters Vanessa who not only verifies her status as single, but provides us an info dump about the demimonde, a place where “some unfortunate souls are cursed to live always, if you believe in curses that is.”
As her monologue continues we find out the vampires have stolen Sir Malcolm’s daughter, and in their quest to recover her they could do with a man of Ethan’s talents.
Despite this assertion, Vanessa then proceeds to warn Ethan off their work, saying a wise man would forget what happened, leave the house and never look back. Despite her words, it is clearly a seduction that takes the trope of a heroine who says no but means yes and turns it on its ear, because Vanessa has all the power in the room. If you weren’t clear on the show absolutely setting up this romance, Vanessa underlines it for us by performing a tarot reading for Ethan (after insisting he look into her eyes). The card she draws is The Lovers.
Sir Malcolm continues to assemble his team of the reluctant, ill-informed and complexly motivated, with an odd interaction with an Egyptologist (Those hieroglyphs inside the vampire? Totally from the Egyptian Book of the Dead), followed up by a meeting with the still unnamed Victor Frankenstein at Sir Malcolm’s private club.
When Sir Malcolm makes his pitch to Victor regarding joining his team, Victor is at first skeptical, calling Sir Malcolm’s work an “amateur occultist society.” But Sir Malcolm manages to seduce Victor to his side both with his intensity of passion (to save his daughter he “would murder the world”) and with the promise of possibility (“with me you will behold terrible wonders.”) When Victor asks how much of the world they’ll have to murder, Sir Malcolm asks if he cares. Everyone here is a monster. Even those that seem perfectly human. The seduction is complete.
When Sir Malcolm returns home, Evan is in the street staring longingly into Vanessa’s windows. They have extended eye-contact, and there’s even some heaving bosom action, but if it’s unclear if it is longing or challenge. Ethan is clearly wrestling with his feelings, if not for her, then about the situation. It’s all dreadfully unclear, including perhaps to Ethan, who then wanders away.
Inside his home, Sir Malcolm encounters his daughter Mina (as in Murray, from Dracula). She looks frightened and vulnerable until she vamps out, shows off some fangs, and shatters the lights in his home with her scream.
Vanessa and Sir Malcom then debate whether Mina remains inside the monstrous form she has become. Their conversation then turns to some unnamed transgression of Vanessa’s that may be the cause of their situation. While the audience waits to hear whether it was a sexy transgression, Sir Malcolm tells us yet another story about Africa to explain the moment when the hunter becomes the hunted.
Victor, meanwhile, hurries home in a rainstorm. This is intercut with Vanessa praying obsessively and then hallucinating and/or summoning a really huge number of spiders. If you’re arachnophobic, the spiders may be a deal-breaker for you.
Back in his rooms, we see Victor’s lab, strung with electrical wires and with a scarred and sewn cadaver on a work table at the room’s center. He tends, tenderly, to one of the stitched up wounds on it. Then a lightning strike puts out the lights in his lab. When they return, the work space is empty.
This brings us to what is absolutely the highlight the episode. Victor and the now animated Creature (Rory Kinnear in an utterly staggering and very naked performance) find each other in the dark. They stare at each other with such a profound look of fear, awe, recognition, and gratitude that I was almost moved to tears by the Creature’s discovery of Victor’s. The Creature touches Victor’s face, takes his tears on his fingertips, and then seemingly places them in his own eyes as he examines them. When Victor speaks to him, the Creature smiles with some of the purest joy I’ve ever seen on camera.
The episode ends with a proud and trembling Victor, at long last, introducing himself.
As perhaps should be expected about a show set in Victorian London, Penny Dreadful seems to be all about love and seduction with little room for sex. But with all those corsets, quivering lips, and longing looks, I suspect that will change before the end of this eight-episode season. Normally, in a horror series, I’d worry about who will live long enough to fall in love, but in Penny Dreadful, that really doesn’t seem to be an obstacle.