Season 2 kicks off with a couple Ensemble Hangouts setting up our new antagonists for the season. Rather than do a straight up recap, let’s jump straight to talking about witches! (Okay, one quick note: This season has the delightful distinction of having Simon Russel Beale’s Mr. Lyle as a series regular, which more shows should really do.)
The Witch Archetype
Nearly every culture in the world include folklore or fairytales about practitioners of magic. In the west, one of the most common versions of this magic-user idea is the witch.
Witches are typically feminine-identified. While men certainly can practice witchcraft (or be accused of doing so) and will occasionally have the label thrust upon them, when most people hear the word “witch,” they first think of a woman.
Various other accoutrement of witch-dom can include skin conditions (warts, green skin, etc.) sometimes covered up with glamours or shapeshifting, familiars, candles, pentagrams, cauldrons, etc. Magic can manifest as spells, curses, prophecies, and potions. Moral orientation can range from Chaotic Evil all the way to Lawful Good a la the various girls and women of Dumbledore’s Army (whose rebellion is against a system that has been corrupted by evil, with the intent of restoring true law and order) or the saccarine pink-itude of Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
The common strand running through most portrayals of witchiness, then, is that of a woman or group of women with power.
Witchcraft, Religion, and Magic
The witches in Penny Dreadful – bearing the delightfully evocative sobriquet of “Nightcomers” – come from a particular strand of the witch archetype. These women are straight-up in league with Lucifer, harnessing the powers of the devil to advance their goals and his.
Their target is Vanessa Ives, who is herself an interesting edge case right on the border of witch-dom. Yes, she has a close connection to the devil, as illustrated several times last season, most memorably in “Possession.” However, that connection isn’t voluntary. She isn’t seeking out the devil; to the contrary, he’s the one seeking her.
Vanessa clearly has some amount of psychic/magical thing going on. She stares down vampires, speaks of the demimonde while consulting her tarot cards, and has visions, all on top of (or because of) the aforementioned link with the devil. Also, when you’re drawing a scorpion in blood on the floor by candlelight, you’re at least walking up to witchy ritual.
And yet, that blood scorpion is drawn on the floor in front of her crucifix right before she starts praying to God. True, she’s not sure she and the Almighty are on speaking terms, as she shares with John Clare (nee Caliban, Frankenstein’s first creation). Her desire to believe and be a good Catholic, despite everything that’s happened to her, aren’t just not typical witch behavior, they’re the opposite of typical witch behavior.
Whatever their moral orientation, witches are almost never portrayed as being on the same side as organized Abrahamic religion. When they are, they’re usually manipulating the system as a tool of their own designs rather than sincere believers. (The only quasi-exception that comes to mind is Melisandre, the witch-like, vaguely medieval-Christian-ish Red Woman from Game of Thrones who uses her powers in the service of the Lord of Light. And even her faith is more Zoroastrian than Christian, per George R.R. Martin.)
For a witch-adjacent woman to also be striving for devout Christianity is rare, in part because it runs counter to some of the most common themes of the witch archetype.
Witches are women with power, usually in societies where women aren’t supposed to have anything close to that level of power. Organized religion, in particular, tends toward the male-dominated. Women who can offer similar (or better) services than the church are a threat. The kind of woman who would seek such power also typically isn’t interested in using it in service of patriarchal religion, even if they would have her.
Monsters by Nature vs. Monsters by Choice
This plays into the show’s ongoing depiction of monsters trying not to be monsters. Vanessa, Ethan (who knows he’s some kind of monster, even if he doesn’t know exactly what), and John Clare are all monsters who see something monstrous in themselves that they didn’t ask for. Their ways of coping with that vary dramatically, but they are all Monsters by Nature striving to control, redirect, or avoid their monster-dom.
By contrast, Sir Malcolm and Victor Frankenstein are Monsters by Choice who are grappling with occasional success with their chosen monstrosity. Sir Malcolm is a selfish and manipulative abuser of power. From his past exploits and exploitation in Africa, to the way he treated his wife and children, to his recent manipulations of his allies in London, all of Sir Malcolm’s monstrosity is a result of his own free will. There is no supernatural force driving him to do these things. Similarly, Victor’s early neglect of his first creation, his murder of Brona, and his creepy sense of entitlement to and longing for Lily (Brona’s resurrected body, as yet unaware of her true past) are all driven by his choices. He experiences guilt and regret and seeks other ways to atone for his mistakes, but he is ultimately a monster of his own making.
Dorian Gray is an interesting border case, as he does have a supernatural origin, but it’s not clear at this point in the show if that is a cause or an effect of his own inner monstrousness. He appears to be a Monster by Choice, as one suspects his pre-existing vanity and appetites drove him to seek out supernatural means of securing eternal life and beauty. It is possible, though, that his condition was inflicted upon him, and the version of Dorian we see is in fact a Monster by Nature driven to increasing excess by the boredom of unwanted immortality. The show hasn’t given enough evidence for a final conclusion, although I suspect the former.
The vampiric enemies of Season 1 were Monsters by Nature. In this show’s world, when a person becomes a vampire, they become a monster with no true remnants of the original person left inside. As best we can tell, none of them sought out their condition.
Season 2’s Nightcomers are Monsters by Choice with no regret for the choices they made. We don’t watch them grapple with angst over their actions, which distinguishes them from Vanessa, Ethan, and (to a lesser extent) John Clare. That makes them in many ways more psychologically disturbing than the vampires. Their leader, Evelyn Poole, is particularly terrifying.
Next up, a Vanessa Spotlight episode!