Death is not serene. This is the truth young Frankenstein learns, looking down at a dog, its body emaciated, its eyes crawling with fat, white maggots.
In Episode 3 of Penny Dreadful we get some of the most explicit back story so far and it occupies our time for much of the hour, both for Frankenstein and the character introduced at the end of Episode 2. The second hour challenged our expectations of this show. The third does it again. Not so radically, and with less flash than the seance, but it shows just how smart it is, and the depth to which writer John Logan understands what he is doing. Penny Dreadful isn’t just a show where things happen and the plot unfolds, but one where themes and ideas play out. Animals occur a lot in Episode 3 and questions are raised about their relationship to man: how they are treated? What responsibilities do we have to them? How much distance there is between us, really?
We see this in the new character’s name – Caliban, a half-beast half-human from The Tempest – as well as his early experiences. This isn’t just thematic play; it informs our understanding of his world view and his relationship to Frankenstein. We also see it in the latest expedition – to London Zoo this time – but it’s something that is present throughout. It’s worth noting that Ethan (Josh Hartnett) seems to be the only character with an affinity for beasts. Another thread dangled in front of us.
The danger with Penny Dreadful was always that in trying to combine multiple classic stories they would not mesh adequately, and we’d be left with something malformed. However, as one story progresses, it has ramifications for the others, most importantly in the way the characters develop. The series understands its source material, even down to the language used. Listen to the way Caliban speaks, more fitting for the Gothic, Romantic prose of Shelley’s original than that of the others’ late Victorian Realism.
Both in idea and execution, Penny Dreadful clearly takes inspiration from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was a story about damaged loners forced to cooperate, trying (and sometimes failing) to keep a grip on the shreds of their humanity.
This programme could have been a romp. A cowboy and a mad scientist and vampire hunter teaming up and going on an adventure. This is not that thing because they are not a team; they are individuals and the tensions and bonds between each other bend and warp with each new development. (True Detective and Game of Thrones take note: this is how you do a sex scene. Show us the way the characters move together. Show us how their eyes meet. Show us what this means to them. Don’t just point the camera at tits and call it a day.)
The episode ends looking towards the future. A call to The Master. We all know who it is but Penny Dreadful is holding off. It’s teasing us because it understands that horror isn’t about jumps and scares. Horror is about an atmosphere suffused with tension. It’s about knowing something is there, standing behind you in the dark and forcing you to turn to face it, slowly, slowly.
Season 1 to 3 of Penny Dreadful are available on Sky On Demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £6.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.
Where can I watch Penny Dreadful online in the UK on pay-per-view VOD?