Penny Dreadful Season 3 Episode 1 “The Day Tennyson Died”
Let’s get it out of the way: Dracula has arrived.
Penny Dreadful started out as a strange, Gothic adventure, throwing audiences right into the world of vampires, Egyptian magic and a collection of characters from Gothic and Victorian literature, or at least those that fit archetypes. But by the end of the first episode, it became clear the show was a roundabout adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina Murray had been abducted, Jonathan Harker was namedropped and Professor Van Helsing himself appeared to weigh in on matters. Then season two took a sharp turn in antagonists, with Helen McCrory and her coven of Satanic witches.
But halfway through, the show’s bigger picture came into focus: Penny Dreadful is not an anthology of Gothic villains, but rather an eternal struggle between two fraternal forces for the soul of one woman, Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives. While season one focused on an off-screen Dracula (or Amon-Ra as he was hinted at), season two focused on Lucifer’s minions. Now with Lucifer seemingly halted for good, Dracula is back in full force. And it seems he spent the last season building an army of vampires to serve him. Now this is properly Gothic.
Egyptian vampire gods aside, Penny Dreadful remains a superb study at broken people. It cares for, much like Vanessa’s new love interest Dr. Alexander Sweet (a character that so far seems to lack any literary or cinematic analogue in horror), those ignored and left to suffer. The last season ended with the cast scattered and distraught, lost in their own pain. And with “The Day Tennyson Died,” creator John Logan seems interested in looking at how the broken ones can come to terms with their damage and recover. Like the United Kingdom having to cope with losing their beloved poet laureate, so to must the company of occult fighters try to move on from their losses.
For some of the cast, that means being forcibly recruited into new causes. Ethan Chandler, or more accurately Ethan Lawrence Talbot (Josh Hartnett) is abducted by his father’s men in New Mexico, freeing him from a future execution but taking him off to a dreaded family reunion. In Zanzibar, the broken and forever badass explored Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) encounters the Apache warrior Kaetenay (Wes Studi), who enlists him in a mission to rescue Ethan and fight coming dark forces. Hartnett’s story is so far introductory this episode, although Penny Dreadful’s crew create striking visuals of the bright and blasted desert, and the presence of the witch Hecate on Ethan’s train adds a nice wildcard to the plot. But it’s the Zanzibar plot that is intriguing, if only for how Studi and Dalton quite instantly become a good team of reserved but forceful warriors.
But it’s back in London with Vanessa and her struggle that proves most central. Depressed, distraught and caught in lethargy, Miss Ives is a shell of her former self when the show picks up on her. Gone is the woman of faith actively trying to fight demons and witches. Until Lyle (Simon Russell Beale, again making the loquacious fop a delight) sets her up for an appointment with a character from Bram Stoker’s canon: Dr. Seward.
With severe suits and an Ayn Rand haircut, Patti LuPone’s Dr. Seward is the brusk, direct figure that the show has never had. Her back and forth with Vanessa point to a season of strong two-handers, akin the subtle and deceptive conversations Hartnett’s Ethan and Douglas Hodge’s Inspector Rusk shared throughout season two. Vanessa starts to rediscover happiness when she meets Sweet, but she first comes alive again in Seward’s office, finally growing fed up with the direct questioning and turning the conversation around. It’s a callback to Vanessa’s innate skill of analysis, something that tops even her magical abilities.
Despite its roots in Victorian literature, the show has avoided using any characters from the Sherlock Holmes canon. The role of the Great Detective was given to Inspector Rusk, although he has more in common with the real-life Inspector Aberline than Mr. Holmes of Baker Street. But with Vanessa there is that ability to know the whole scene from a brief glance. She has the mind of a detective, and it seems that as Seward tries to treat Miss Ives, Vanessa is going to investigate how tied to Joan Clayton Seward actually is. And on the Holmesian note, it appears that Logan has repurposed the Baker Street Irregulars into Dracula’s army of vampires and familiars. The pale begging child who taunts Vanessa is a twisted version of the Wiggins of Holmes’ world.
Also broken is Frankenstein’s Creature, the Monster calling itself Caliban and John Clare. Taking its lead from Mary Shelley’s original novel, Clare is on a ship in the Arctic, trapped in ice. But he decides to leave. This is an unexpected twist for the character; previously the show has suggested he never was a reanimated person like Victor’s later projects Proteus and Brona-AKA-Lily the Corpse Bride of Frankenstein, but following Shelley’s vision of a brand new being born in slime and Galvanism. If it isn’t a retcon, perhaps the predominant body parts Victor used to make Clare are showing a delayed dominance.
The other grand theme of Penny Dreadful returns thanks to the freshly introduced Renfield. As ever, the show remains interested in exploring the duality and hypocrisy of Victorian propriety. Here, Renfield is Dr. Seward’s secretary at a psychiatric office rather than a patient at Seward’s mental asylum as in the novel, but the character is quick to display the whimpering and cowardly aspects of his literary counterpart. Meek and well-mannered in public, Renfield ditches his glasses to venture into the seedier sides of London’s Chinatown, paying for and abusing a prostitute before Dracula’s vampiric irregulars abduct him. In Renfield the show gives audiences the greatest distillation of the Victorian society: Proper and subdued in public, but vicious, sexist and lurid behind closed doors. Every character on the show has reflected that in some way, save for Dorian Gray who seems to get off on challenging social norms (Dorian, along with Lily the Corpse Bride, is absent this episode, perhaps still dancing on a floor of blood), but Renfield paints the picture in stark colors.
That duality is further embodied with another new addition to the show: Dr. Jekyll. Shazad Latif’s chemist is a twist on the Stevenson version, here he is half-Indian, a man caught between worlds. He’s a brilliant chemist and harboring much repressed anger. In typical Penny Dreadful style, some of the dialogue could be corny or too on the nose, but with the actors and the pacing, Jekyll’s comments on anger and his work are foreboding instead of tongue in cheek. Perhaps he already has become Mr. Edward Hyde? It would be the kind of twist Penny Dreadful enjoys doing. But even if he’s still the good doctor, Jekyll, the rest of the lost souls exist outside of the proper society, but aren’t fully of another world. They’re in the demimonde.
But of all of the new characters this season, Jekyll is the most instantly intriguing. Enlisted by Frankenstein to help him destroy Lily and Dorian and atone for his sins, Jekyll instead turns the discussion to using his work to control Lily and make her love Victor again. Latif smoothly becomes a devil on Victor’s shoulder, crooning ideas about taming a woman, poking at the parts of Frankenstein that obsess over control and conquering the natural order. Dracula is assembling a dark army, but right now, Jekyll is the most diabolical force. There is also a rather sly allusion to another Victorian work of horror, The Island of Doctor Moreau, when Victor introduces his lab as the “House of Pain.” The producers apparently wanted to use the character of Moreau, but were unable to. The show remains strong at working in small details and semi-obscure references from its source material.
The show is slowly weaving together a reunion of its core cast, just as Dracula prepares to strike. And it is good that the show is just as fast-moving as ever. It doesn’t seem like Penny Dreadful is going to idle or stretch out the subplots before getting the company back together to take on the Count. If the rest of the season is as forward-moving as the premiere, this could be the show’s best year yet.
Nicholas Slayton is a journalist and writer who has contributed to the Atlantic, the Wire, io9, Comics Bulletin and more. You can follow him on Twitter @NSlayton