By Price Peterson
Penny Dreadful S01E08: ‘Grand Guignol”
There’s just something about Penny Dreadful that makes me want to elevate my language into the more poetic, elegant English of Victorian literature: Aye, gorblimey guvnuh that Eva Green is a right brilliant totty, cheers jolly good. Just kidding, I don’t know what any of that means, I can barely speak American let alone anything approaching the frequently next-level vocabulary of Penny Dreadful. Regardless, no discussion about this instant classic series can start anywhere other than how amazing Eva Green is. Eva Green is perfect basically. Her intense, frightening, eerily cool, tour-de-force performance was the centerpiece of Penny Dreadful and is what held together an otherwise unwieldy monster like the tightest of stitches. I’m not saying we should give Eva Green all of the awards for her work here, but if she doesn’t win them then awards are MEANINGLESS.
Because Eva Green is a national treasure. For what nation, you ask? The nation of TV. In which I am currently a political prisoner, long story.
Penny Dreadful wrapped up its eight-episode introduction with “Grand Guignol” and I do mean “introduction” rather than season in that it was about as audaciously open-ended as viewers can be reasonably expected to put up with. It didn’t even bother explaining the killings that opened the first two episodes! The entirely too brief season felt at best like a particularly riveting prologue to the madness that will surely follow, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing, necessarily. The slow-burn pleasures of Penny Dreadful meant it was less a cheap-o, rip-roarin’ yarn like the title suggests and more a macabre tone poem. To be fair, at least one major plotline was tied up in the finale—Mina’s fate—but for the most part this season was more about revealing the dark corners of the characters’ backstories. Where I assumed Penny Dreadful’s disparate elements would congeal into something approaching a league of monster-hunters, it ended up more an examination of a found family. Well, a particularly dysfunctional one, at least. But family for sure.
When it comes to expectations, it could be argued that “Grand Guignol”‘s lack of surprise was one of its biggest surprises. For example, did anybody not see Ethan’s wolfman twist coming from a mile away? Ever since he communed with wolves at the London zoo it was telegraphed so explicitly that he had lupine abilities that you’d be forgiven for discounting it out of hand for being TOO obvious. Same with Brona’s consumption happening to coincide with The Creature’s demand for a female counterpart. There was absolutely nothing surprising about seeing her corpse lying prone on Frankenstein’s table, but the circumstances of his decision to murder her certainly were. And while Mina’s eventual death was also telegraphed by frequent discussions about whether she was beyond redemption or not (and then Vanessa’s epistolary promise to her that she loved her enough to murder her), it was Sir Malcolm’s cold-blooded decision to murder Mina in order to save Vanessa that packed a punch. A classic The Good Son ending! I certainly wish that stand-off had seemed more epic, but in another sense I’m just glad that Vanessa and Sir Malcolm have cemented their dysfunctional father-daughter bond. Plus, when he intones that “I already have a daughter,” it had the nice double-meaning in that she might literally be his daughter. (Sir Malcolm loved to get busy in the hedge maze with Vanessa’s mom.) But yeah, it’s all mere suggestion at this point; a talking point for a future season, as are most of Penny Dreadful’s plotlines.
It’s a comfort to know that Penny Dreadful has already been renewed for a second season, if only due to the sheer number of loose ends and storylines still to be explored. Like I mentioned, who exactly was the ripper-killer from the opening episodes? Is Vanessa really a reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess? Is the demon within her dormant, and is IT what’s responsible for her clairvoyance? (The priest in the final scene heavily implied that she’s better off keeping the demon inside her lest she become too basic.) Why is Ethan fluent in Latin? What does his full wolfman getup look like? Will Dracula look even scarier than his scary vampire henchmen and their scary vampire wraiths that look like Sheri Moon Zombie? Will we ever see Dorian Grey’s painting? Will Dorian Grey finish seducing all the rest of the characters? What’s Sembene’s deal? Did he accidentally fall asleep on a waffle iron? And why the sudden reintroduction of the psychic woman from the earlier séance scene? Why was she buying a pistol? Will we ever see Proteus again? And most importantly, will Undead Brona still talk like that? Guys, I got questions!
But, you know, maybe Penny Dreadful isn’t really about answers. From its set design and production and elegiac music, this thing isn’t like anything else on TV. It’s, more than anything, an escape. It’s an exercise in mood and emotion, no matter how confusing. I’m constantly complaining about TV shows spoon-feeding us exposition, but Penny Dreadful’s lack of information bordered on impenetrable at times. It’s saying something when we didn’t even fully know Vanessa’s relationship to Sir Malcolm until Episode 6’s hourlong flashback episode. But that’s why Penny Dreadful was such a success: It engaged our brains and haunted our hearts and kept us wondering—or nightmarin’!—all along. And, you know, Eva Green. Because OMG Eva Green.
Seriously, Eva Green.
Great first season. More of an appetizer than a meal, but what an appetizer. I truly miss it already.