Penny Dreadful episodes come in two major types, and these episodes illustrate each type. “Demimonde” is what we might call the Ensemble Hangout and “Closer than Sisters” is a Vanessa Spotlight.
Pretty much everything up to this point has been an Ensemble Hangout. Each of the characters gets some screen time, with one or two getting a little extra focus. For example, “Resurrection” gave Frankenstein’s creature, Caliban, the opportunity to catch us up on what he’d been doing between his creation and his bloody appearance at the end of “Séance.” In the case of “Demimonde,” it’s Dorian Gray who gets the extra attention. Along the way, we see each of the show’s main ideas and plotlines advance a bit, plus we get to watch these characters bounce off each other in interesting and sometimes unexpected combinations.
While each Ensemble Hangout tends to have a focal character or two, the Vanessa Spotlight episodes keep the attention on Vanessa Ives. A given season may have only a couple Vanessa Spotlights, and they often stand out from the rest in tone and structure.
“Demimonde” and the Core Elements of Penny Dreadful
By this part, we’re far enough in that we can pull out a few recurring elements of the show and see how they manifest in “Demimonde.”
I can think of few other shows that feel as decadent in their production design and execution as Penny Dreadful. This is a show that luxuriates in its sets, costumes, props, makeup, and score.
“Demimonde” indulges in this from the very beginning of the episode. The first scene gives us Dorian Gray, bored by his own hedonism, surrounded by a tableau of mostly naked people in various stages of erotic congress. The setting for all this is his picture room where the walls are covered in portraits. (In case it hasn’t been said yet, this show is rarely subtle.)
Over the rest of the episode, we get such striking setpieces as: Sir Malcolm’s expeditionary planning space, complete with wall-sized map and an assortment of adventuring equipment; the room where our not-actually-Renfield character, Fenton, is chained up; a rat-baiting pit in an unsavory underground establishment; and, most extravagantly, a show at the Grand Guignol theater. Combine with a range of costumes for our characters as they move through these various spaces, cap it all off with Dorian’s seduction of Ethan Chandler back in the picture room, and you’ve got an episode that’s a feast of production design.
Science, Power, and Modernity
This episode uses two strands to draw out this recurring theme. In one, we get a continuation of Caliban’s storyline with Victor from “Resurrection,” wherein Caliban asserts that he – and the companion he wants Victor to make for him – will be the future, replacing humanity as we know it.
The other strand is Sir Malcolm’s planned expedition to Africa to seek out the source of the Nile. Sir Malcolm’s role as a colonial explorer recurs throughout the series, although usually more in reference to his past. For example, in the very first episode, he and Victor have a testy exchange about Victor’s definiton of science in contrast to the colonial “discoveries” of explorers like Sir Malcolm. His desire to start planning a new expedition at this point seems premature, as the motley group still seems far from rescuing Mina. As an illustration of character, though, it proves illuminating. By making these plans, Sir Malcolm is attempting to exert control over the world through the means he’s most comfortable with, and the planning process also allows him to live in a soothing potential future where Mina has been saved and he can get back to “normal.”
Of course, the plans also give us a chance to see another theme in action. Namely…
Sir Malcolm is Everyone’s Terrible, Manipulative Dad
Even though neither has shown any previous inclination towards the kind of exploring Sir Malcolm is proposing, both Ethan and Victor preen and jockey with each other to appear useful in the eyes of this older man. The family dynamic subtext even becomes actual text at one point when Victor refers to Ethan as his “brother” with particular bitterness. To appease Victor, Sir Malcolm convinces him that the reason he wants to take Ethan is that he doesn’t value Ethan’s life as much as he does Victor’s, explicitly feeding the surrogate father-son dynamic.
This type of manipulation is a recurring pattern for Sir Malcolm, which has already reared its ugly head somewhat prior to this episode and will be immediately reinforced in “Closer than Sisters.” He is deeply effective at getting other people to do what he wants, and particularly doing so by preying on their emotions until they are desperate to serve his ends.
“Closer than Sisters” and the Centrality of Vanessa Ives
Our first Vanessa Spotlight episode gets extra Victorian points for being an epistolary episode, told through a letter from Vanessa to Mina that will go undelivered. This is a nice callback to the original Dracula and Frankenstein texts, both of which are epistolary in their structure.
Most of our main cast are absent for this one. We really just get Vanessa and Sir Malcolm, mostly as younger versions of themselves in the extended flashbacks being described in Vanessa’s letter. On a lesser show, this sort of flashback episode would involve much more Dracula and much less evidence of our protagonist’s flaws.
But this is not a lesser show. This is a show that, yes, is in love with Vanessa as a character, and where nearly all of the other characters bear some affection for and devotion to her. But that adoration is tempered with Vanessa’s own insecurities and (as this episode demonstrates, well-earned) guilt.
Vanessa is Catholic, and this episode takes a particularly Catholic approach to her character arc. After establishing her apparently edenic childhood friendship with Mina and the rest of Mina’s family, we quickly see that surface perfection subverted. For example, Sir Malcolm’s relationship with his son, Peter, shows us yet again Sir Malcolm’s lack of real caring that somehow leads to the neglected person trying even harder to impress him.
The really Biblical event, though, is when young Vanessa sees Sir Malcolm having sex with her mother in the middle of the labyrinth in the Murray family’s garden. This loss of innocence is reinforced by Vanessa’s choice to stay and watch, paired with an acknowledgment of her sinful feelings from her older self narrating the flashback.
From there, things spiral. Vanessa’s friendship with Mina is of central importance to her, taking on sexual undertones. She ends up mirroring Sir Malcolm’s neglect of Peter, so consumed is she with her love for Mina. When Mina’s romantic relationship is on the verge of taking her away, Vanessa seduces Mina’s fiancee. This is the unforgivable transgression that kills the friendship between the families and opens the gateway for the Devil to infiltrate Vanessa’s mind and soul.
Once Vanessa’s sorrow at her deeds and recognition of her own wickedness is acknowledged, the episode moves on to the next stage in the Catholic sin-management process: penance. Vanessa is punished for her transgression by being committed to the not-so-tender mercies of the Victorian mental health care system, where many of her “treatments” would qualify as torture in today’s world.
The penance doesn’t end there, however. Vanessa’s relationship with the Devil follows her back to her parents’ house. When she gives herself over to him for a time, the shock kills her mother. It isn’t until Vanessa is ready to move on and accept the noble quest of saving Mina from Dracula that she regains control of her life. By the time she seeks Sir Malcolm out, both are people who have hurt their families, watched their loved ones die, and pinned their hopes for redemption on the slim possibility of helping Mina.
This recurring idea of a quest for redemption runs through several of our main characters, but Vanessa’s is always one of the most compelling. Perhaps that is why the other characters are all drawn to her; somehow, they can sense that she’s seeking something similar to what they seek.
The Monstrous Questions, Revisited
Ultimately, Penny Dreadful is a gorgeous show about people who think they are monsters and want to do something about it. This distinguishes them from many of the Universal monsters, who are less prone to redemption-seeking behavior.
If we ask, “Who are the real monsters here?” several characters can claim the title. Dorian is a hedonist increasingly indifferent to the pain and suffering of others, except to the extent he can leverage that suffering into a diverting experience for himself. Sir Malcolm is a master manipulator with a colonialists’ blood on his hands. Caliban is a self-loathing creature with entitlement issues and a violent streak. Victor keeps playing god without much care for the consequences beyond his own life. At this point, Ethan is hiding a violent secret of his own, and clearly running away from the consequences of his past actions. And Vanessa betrayed her best friend in the world, neglected others who loved her, and has a…complicated relationship with the Devil himself.
One question around which the show revolves, then, is, “How can a monster redeem themselves?” Only future episodes will reveal how successfully the show is able to explore that question.