Why we didn’t actually deserve Penny Dreadful

I want you to actually watch Penny Dreadful so you won’t find anything more than very light spoilers here.

I love Penny Dreadful. Entirely and unashamedly. I ate it with my eyes while simultaneously wishing I was sitting at a roaring fire with a tome of Poe while outside a pea-souper of a fog lingers around gas lamps in Victorian London. The door would be locked and bolted and faceless figures in cloaks would be swishing through the shadows. Ok, maybe the 21st century has less pollution, typhoid, smallpox, and child labour but something about that pungent atmosphere is appealing, wouldn’t you say?

Ok, maybe those bits aren’t appealing but do you know what is? Vampires, werewolves and witches. Creeping shadows and sharp teeth with dripping blood. Gothic horror staples delivered with an ensemble 21st century cast and a demon fighting HQ in a giant London mansion with a big staircase to look broody on. When Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) loses his daughter Mina - a rewritten version of Bram Stoker’s ill-fated character - he goes on a quest to find her. He’s joined by the cursed Vanessa Ives, played by a gleefully gothic Eva Green, and Josh Hartnett as gun for hire, Ethan Chandler, who may or may not be hiding a monstrous secret. Not so spoilers, he’s totally hiding a monstrous secret

The trio are joined by none other than Dr Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), who happens to be midway through his appalling experiments but also makes a handy doctor for this amateur team of Victorian demon hunters. Add in bonus characters from swathes of gothic literature and an arcing plot with all kinds of creature features and yes, you’re already feeling guilty about the fact that this is a programme that you have somehow managed to miss for three seasons. But don’t worry, you can still catch up and the nice thing is, it’s already over. Now there’s a nice gift wrapped package of nasty on Netflix. Sorry, it seeps.    

Last month when the series came to its dramatic conclusion on TV, people howled that it had been cancelled. Yet this actually wasn’t the case. It wasn’t the swinging of a studio axe executing a series for disappointing ratings. Writer and creator John Logan, incidentally the Oscar nominated writer of Gladiator, Skyfall, Spectre and next year’s Alien Covenant, had always planned for his gloriously theatrical mash up of Victorian literature to have an ending. There it was, at the tail of 27 episodes, leaving us reeling at the television phenomena that he’d somehow got away with. The words, ‘The End’ hovered dangerously before the credits fell. A perfect true finale, making it ideal for future binges on Netflix. 

Penny Dreadful is sumptuous, opulent and brutally gory. It’s packed with monsters of the night so vile that sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll cackle and wonder how we ended up with horror this deliciously depraved in a primetime viewing slot. There are moments in every single one of its seasons that surprise and shock but are somehow never just played for the appearance of buckets of gore. The horror of Penny Dreadful lurks firmly in its source material. The pallor of the vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the utter misery of Frankenstein’s monster’s self-loathing, the beauty and sadness of Wilde’s immortal Dorian Gray and, yes, the pints of oozing AB+ dribbling from teacups.  

The hellish and beautiful version of Victorian London - all swirling fog and filthy stairwells - that Dalton and co inhabit not only manages to contain its monsters but gives its characters exactly what they need. Time. Every cursed member of this 19th century Scooby Gang hunting down the things that live in the shadows has their own twisted backstory. A reason that they too are a monster but somehow deserve the right to stay in the light. Fifty shades of morally gray is required reading material for all of these characters. 

I’m not sure how I’ve got this far without just repeatedly hammering the words Eva Green into my keyboard, Shining-style. John Logan has already said she was his muse for the show and Green delivers a scenery chewing, extravagant and theatrical turn that is simultaneously underplayed and sensitive. Vanessa Ives has a connection to the evil that runs through Penny Dreadful but somehow she manages to never be the victim. Entire episodes are dedicated to her past and often literal demons but like a Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she accepts her fate and gets on with it. There’s plenty of comparisons to make to the best thing Whedon has ever done - no, you shut up. With giant helpings of brooding glances, monstrous lust and an artful script, this just happens to sound like Victorian poetry instead of the sassy teen speak that defined a generation. 

And speaking of monstrous lust, the sexuality of Penny Dreadful is like a thin trail of flaming gunpowder that snakes through the three seasons. Sex and gender is fluid, relationships can’t be defined, love isn’t the happily ever after that we always dream of, and there’s a maturity in its portrayal of attraction that’s well beyond its 19th century roots. Dorian Gray’s relationship with prostitute Angelique is especially refreshing. The very definition of a raised eyebrow and pointed “and? Is this bothering you?”. 

While the third season is a mess of plot threads and potentially slightly jumps the shark in scale, it enjoys nothing more than gleefully chewing up its characters emotionally and spitting them out in chunks. Hearts are there for breaking. If you want warm fuzzies, go elsewhere. Nowhere have I seen such a delightful disregard for the emotional impact on an audience. Game of Thrones is happy to kill its fan favourites but you know it’s playing you, it’s set you up and you fell for it. Penny Dreadful almost feels like it’s playing nothing but itself. It’s a tragedy because it has its roots in misery. This is the fiercely unashamed vision of a creator doing exactly what he wants. 

If all of this wasn’t enough, the supporting cast of Penny Dreadful knew they were onto a good thing. Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory clearly had a absolute ball with spiritualist Evelyn Poole, while the incredible Patti LuPone crops up more than once in delightfully rich form. Let’s face it, watching LuPone smoke a cigarette for three seconds is more interesting than every season so far of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.  All the while, Timothy Dalton smoulders through the whole affair making every word seem far more dramatic just for the fact that he said it. There are no weak performances. Billie Piper is wondrous as usual, Rory Kinnear’s creature hurts just to look at and even Josh Hartnett pulls off the fact he’s stolen his hair from a 90s skater band. 

I still can’t help but feel it’s too much. It’s too perfect. It should never have managed to stealth onto our screens. The cast couldn’t believe its luck and neither could we. These are 27 episodes that scream future cult classic. You haven’t watched? Go. Now. And don’t blame me for the fact that you won’t know what to do once it’s over. Or the nightmares. 

Images: Showtime

Louise Blain

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in gaming, technology, and entertainment. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland. She can also be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, Netflix UK's YouTube Channel, and on The Evolution of Horror podcast. As well as her work on GamesRadar, Louise writes for NME, T3, and TechRadar. When she’s not working, you can probably find her watching horror movies or playing an Assassin’s Creed game and getting distracted by Photo Mode.