“Do you know the word ‘vampire’? It is not familiar to you in some way?” Van Helsing (David Warner) asks Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).
It’s only after six episodes that Penny Dreadful finally drops the “v” word, but it really makes it count (ahem). Over the course of the series, John Logan has carefully reworked such famous terms into something shadowy and unknown. Combining and colliding characters together, the series is a Rubik’s cube of the familiar and unfamiliar. When the beasts do rear their heads, they are somehow changed into something frighteningly new.
“A Penny Dreadful?” asks Frankenstein, thumbing through a paperback from Van Helsing’s library. “As literature it is uninspiring,” the wearied doctor says, eyes wide open, “but as folklore, it is not without merit. [It] missed the facts, but caught the truth.”
That struggle between fiction and honesty, between civilised exteriors and internal consumption, reaches a new high in Episode 6 – fittingly called What Death Can Join Together, after a poem by Shelley. While we’re still reeling from the revelations about Vanessa Ives and her relationship with Sir Malcolm, Van Helsing reveals Murray’s target as the fanged demon (we thought) we knew. A scene on a plague ship immediately recalls Stoker – “for the Dead travel fast”, mutters Helsing, quoting the original text – but is reimagined into a gun-toting set piece, one that sees Josh Hartnett’s Ethan, Sir Malcolm and his faithful helper, Sembene (the delightfully ominous Danny Spani), unleash their firepower in a fantastic, claret-strewn showdown. While wearing hats. Penny Dreadful likes hats.
Dracula’s narrative, though, is just one of many toying with death. Frankenstein’s monster wrestles control of the story back from Bram to deliver one of many unexpected shocks, while Dorian Grey takes us down an even darker path: dinner with Miss Ives.
“There are things within us all that can never be unleashed,” smirks Vanessa, flirting with the invincible man of the portrait. He smiles at the idea of being different – powerful – while she shies away from it. “We would cease to be – and another would exist in our place without limits,” she shudders. You can almost see Dorian’s fringe quivering with excitement.
That same passion continues to give Hartnett’s Chandler and his beloved, Billie Piper’s Brona Croft, a warm note of affection that in other performers’ hands could seem out of place – even as Brona finds her body taken over by illness. “She will cease to be who she is,” Sir Malcolm warns Ethan, gravely. “Then I’ll love her for who she becomes,” he replies, matter-of-factly.
Acceptance of truth over fiction, spooky depths over sexy surface, is the challenge facing each character. The horror comes from the fact that those who embrace it are no more likely to survive than anyone else.
Roles from each story are inherited by those from others, to ends that remain impressively unpredictable: all of these figures are battling against their immortality, each blow ripping out pages from the other books on Penny Dreadful’s shelf.
The thematic complexity of Logan’s script is only matched by the dextrous direction of Coky Giedroyc, who lets blood boil both on the battlefield and in the boudoir. If there’s ever been any doubt that Eva Green is a demon in the sack, What Death Can Join Together confirms it with alarming, erotic immediacy. Timothy Dalton, meanwhile, channels James Bond as he proves every bit the action hero. “Chicanery,” his moustached baritone rumbles at the deceit around him. But even his glorious facial hair wilts in the transformed face of what he thought he would recognise.
His manservant Sembene looks on. “Where I come from,” he declares, “we know: some people cannot be saved.”
It’s a statement of intent for us as much as Mina’s father. It’s taken six episodes for Penny Dreadful to drop the “v” word, but in that time the series has grown its villain into something much bigger – and more sinister. As folklore, it is not without merit. As a masterful exercise in reworking literature, it’s inspiring.
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?