I Love Penny Dreadful and Penny Dreadful Loves Me

Sunday’s episode1 of Penny Dreadful was so excellent that I just felt an irrepressible need to break from the regular format of this blog and incoherently ramble about it. Penny Dreadful in general is excellent; it is definitely one of those shows where I feel like I am the exact target demographic, like this show wants me, [name redacted] of [location redacted], to be happy. But how great was this episode? Well, on Monday, alone in my room, I found myself grinning just remembering some of the scenes from it, and dear reader, I do not grin lightly.

Sunday’s episode of Penny Dreadful was largely about FASHION2. I mean, that’s totally reductive: when we say FASHION, we really mean, the Significance of Appearances3 in Victorian Society and, You Know, Gender Stuff. But we cannot emphasize the FASHION part enough, because on Sunday’s episode of Penny Dreadful:

Victor Frankenstein and Vanessa Ives go shopping

First, a digression: A good measure for the strength of the writing on a TV show in terms of characterization is to take each line of dialogue and see if you can guess which character said it without relying on explicit references to the plot. If you have well-defined and distinct characters, then their lines shouldn’t be interchangeable, right? A real person will be fairly consistent in the vocal cadences and specific vocabularies s/he uses, as well as the general world view that actually informs what s/he is saying, but will differ to some extent in all of those things from any other real person; the dialogue on TV shows should reflect that if the writers want the show to be realistic on a character level. A natural extension of this measure is then to put any two characters in a room together and see how they interact with each other—how is the interaction between characters A and B informed by the established relationship between A and B and the individual personalities and communication styles of A and B? How does that differ from an interaction between A and C? Or B and C? Or any other possible pairing? And in, say, an ensemble sitcom with well-established characters, trying out different combinations of characters each episode tends to be a relatively simple4 and reliable way to generate audience interest (and laughs); if you have a 6-person main cast (the Friends-style hangout sitcom), that gives you 15 possible character pairings to try out before resorting to more desperate tactics (marriage, pregnancy, double-scheduled dates, etc).

Back to the topic at hand: Penny Dreadful passes both tests with flying colors, and the pairing of Vanessa and Victor is comedy gold. Vanessa had gone through a lot of dark shit before the show’s storyline even started, and what with recently being possessed by the Devil and watching her, let’s say, bosom friend Mina die and the whole current witch situation, it makes sense that we would see her in Serious and Pained mode most of the time. But with Victor, Vanessa gets to show a more playful side of herself and it is DELIGHTFUL. Vanessa teases him mercilessly and clearly takes great pleasure in making Victor uncomfortable, but it’s never mean-spirited (when she is not being possessed by the Devil, that is). And Victor totally respects her and fears her and is almost definitely a little bit in love with her, because how can you not be? Plus, this season we’ve mostly seen Victor from a position of power interacting with his creations, so it’s fun to see him get thrown off balance.

For context, Victor has asked Vanessa to help him buy clothes for his “second cousin” who’s “visiting” from the “country.” For context on that context, the “cousin” is actually the reanimated corpse of Brona, a consumptive prostitute with a terrible Irish accent who was sleeping with Ethan (and sometimes Dorian Gray) in season 1 and whom Ethan brought to Victor when she was dying, because Victor is, in theory, a doctor, and whom Victor proceeded to smother with a pillow because his first creation spent the whole season blackmailing Victor into making him a bride. ANYWAY, here is Victor trying to describe Vanessa’s ~aesthetic~:

VICTOR: Being a country girl, I thought I might buy her a dress or two so she’ll fit in.
VANESSA: And you’ve never shopped for women’s clothing before.
VICTOR: In a nutshell, yes.
VANESSA: Then I shall be delighted to assist you.
VICTOR: You always dress so, you know, with the collars and the—black things with the—always very completely dressed.

That’s just a snippet of the utter delight that was this entire scene; I have a few more shitty gifs of it5, but ultimately, one should probably watch it for one’s self, because no gif could possibly do justice to the way Eva Green just fucking chows down on the word décolletage.

Ethan Chandler throws footwear-related shade

Oh man, Ethan Chandler. I love this character so much. I feel like there needs to be some scholarship on the rise of this very specific type of male character: this sort of dude who gives off the initial impression, because of his looks or occupation or general aura, of being traditionally “masculine” but is actually very openly sensitive and progressive in his behavior and doesn’t really take part in the expected macho posturing. I mean, maybe there isn’t anything new about the existence of these characters, but the reactions on the more feminist side of the internet to Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim, Chris Evans as Captain America, Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending, Tom Hardy’s entire public persona, etc. feel noteworthy. It might have something to do with seeing this type of character in more male-oriented genres, where we’re more used to seeing jerks with hearts of gold or stoic badasses

But right, Ethan Chandler. Okay. This is how we meet Ethan Chandler in the pilot: we see him perform as a sharpshooter in some sort of traveling show and proceed to bang a groupie backstage and then broodingly read a letter from his father. So we know that he looks like Josh Hartnett and is good at shooting stuff, sexing ladies, and having father issues, which altogether, gives us the initial impression that Ethan Chandler is perhaps just another blandly attractive reluctant hero type who’s there to fill the role of the Normal Human in the Midst of Supernatural Weirdness6. And the “Best of Ethan Chandler” compilation video on Showtime’s official Penny Dreadful YouTube channel does very little to dispel that notion, although it was made after the (SPOILER, but not really7) werewolf reveal. But as I’ve said, Penny Dreadful loves me, and it’s no accident that our introduction to Ethan is as a performer. Because his “simple American cowboy” persona is just that—a persona. At this point in the second season, it should no longer come as a shock when he does something to subvert that persona8, but because he’s an American gunslinger who looks like Josh Hartnett in a TV show, it’s still sort of surprising when he does something that shows that he’s perceptive and worldly and just, like, so fucking genial

So, for context: a witch (the unsubtly named Hecate) is trying to get close to him in order to use him against Vanessa. She sets up a sort of “meet-cute”, in which she runs out in front of a carriage so that Ethan will rescue her, because Ethan Chandler is just that type of dude, and they have a seemingly flirtatious and friendly conversation—lots of smiling and chuckling and eye contact:

HECATE: I grew up in Maine but when I graduated from Northwestern, I decided I’d had enough of the great cow pastures of Indiana and lobster fields of New England and deserved some proper civilization among properly civilized people.
ETHAN: And you’re traveling alone?
HECATE: Yes, Mr. Chandler, American women sometimes do travel abroad without armed guards. I have a degree in botany a sensible pair of shoes, and a very generous account at the American Express. [looking at Ethan’s books] You’re studying Latin.
ETHAN: I’m trying to make myself into one of those civilized people you’re hoping to meet.
HECATE: Just don’t go crazy naming your kids. Are you a scholar of some sort?
ETHAN: Do I look like a scholar?
HECATE: No, you look like a—I don’t know what you look like. A train robber.
ETHAN: Have you ever been out West?
HECATE: You mean like California?
ETHAN: And the New Mexico territories.
HECATE: Not yet. Adventures to come.

And then the act fucking drops:

ETHAN: Then he must have come to see you.
ETHAN: My father. Your accent’s good, but no trace of a Yankee in it for a girl who says she grew up in Maine. Northwestern is in Illinois, not Indiana. Maybe the Pinkertons are hiring women now; if so, I applaud them for it, because I am all for emancipation. My father failed with them and he failed with you. So go back and tell him to leave me be or the next time he sees me, I’ll have a gun to his head with my finger on the trigger. I hope you enjoy the Alhambra, it’s supposed to be very dramatic. And honestly, those aren’t very sensible shoes.
[Ethan picks up his hat and leaves]

I mean, minus a few perception points for assuming she’s there on father business rather than witch business, but still:


Enough said.

Sir Malcolm refuses to wear spectacles because he is Too Manly to age, dammit!

Not much to say here, but I needed to include this because FASHION. Unlike Ethan, Sir Malcolm is all about the macho posturing; I mean, dude named a mountain after himself.


Victor and Lily have a long discussion about corsetry and the male gaze

As stated in a previous post, I never actually finished reading Frankenstein, but I love Penny Dreadful’s take on Victor. Okay, so I’m shallow, and he’s aesthetically pleasing in that cheekbones/sunken eyes/deathly pallor way9 that is very specifically appealing to me. And I do love my male characters with opiate addictions and god complexes (although, not Gregory House, oddly). But, you know, his views on women are still, as the kids say, ~problematic~.

Of course, the fact that he’s Victor Fucking Frankenstein needs to be taken into account; dude does not have a great track record for respecting bodily autonomy, regardless of gender. Like, because of his particular god complex, he’s actually pretty egalitarian in not seeing people as people. 

But I think, like Ethan, he is probably “all for emancipation” in theory, because he is that type of highly rational and educated progressive. In practice, well: he treats Vanessa as an equal—inasmuch as he treats anyone as an equal—but Vanessa Ives commands respect by her sheer, terrifying existence, so that isn’t necessarily indicative. We know that he was close to his mother and profoundly affected by her death, but that doesn’t really mean anything, either—it’s hard to see our mothers as people (let alone women) who exist outside of their relationship to us10, especially at whatever age Victor was when his mother died. In Victor’s interactions with Lily, we finally get a clearer sense of Victor’s attitude towards women as a man who is attracted to women (we won’t say heterosexual, because this Penny Dreadful and all roads lead to Dorian Gray), and it is…creepy.

With Lily, Victor has the opportunity to create his ideal woman; what that means aesthetically is pure and virginal—he dyes her hair blonde (“[Fair-haired ladies] always seemed kinder. Like angels.”) and buys her a modest (he passes on the dress that shows too much décolletage) white outfit—but still conventionally appealing to the male gaze. Their exchange about the heels he buys her is especially telling:

LILY: Can you help me? I think I’m going to topple over. The shoes are awfully high.
VICTOR: Yes, I picked them for that.
LILY: Why?
VICTOR: I like that in a woman. Displays the talocrural region and the leg’s dorsiflexion.

Yikes, right? I mean, the explicit admission that he is dressing her (his “cousin”) for his own pleasure is chilling enough, but then sort of distancing himself from the sexual implications by putting it in scientific terms—it’s a very specific form of misogyny11 that feels true to the character.

Their exchange about the corset is beautiful and I think there’s not much I could say about it that isn’t already in the text, so I will just include the text, at the risk of including wayyyy too many quotes in this post:

LILY: So, women wear corsets so they don’t exert themselves?
VICTOR: Partly.
LILY: What would be the danger if they did?
VICTOR: They’d take over the world. The only way we men prevent that is by keeping women corseted in theory and in practice. [beat] They’re meant to flatter the figure.
LILY: To a man’s eye, anyway. All we do is for men, isn’t it? Keep their houses raise their children, flatter them with our pain.
LILY: Does this corset flatter me?
LILY: Do you want me to wear it?
VICTOR: I want nothing to cause you pain. Not for flattery, or my vanity or anything under the sun. Now, please go and take it off. The dress will look fine without it.
LILY: Thank you. But I’ll keep the shoes on if I may.
VICTOR: I thought they hurt your feet.
LILY: Yes. But you like them.

I mean, Victor sort of Gets It, but is still fixed on the aesthetics of it all (“The dress will look fine without it.”). Lily is not as naive as we thought and is obviously aware enough of the precariousness of her current position, what with having no memories and relying totally on her supposed “cousin” Victor, to make the choice to appease him with the shoes. Man, this scene.

 Also, I guess, all of the stuff with Dorian Gray and Angelique, but that is like my least favorite plotline

It’s definitely thematically relevant, but I don’t find either character super interesting. They make sense as a couple, because they both seem to get off on shocking people—for Dorian, this is because of the whole immortal ennui12 thing, and for Angelique, it’s probably a coping mechanism for dealing with being a transgendered woman in Victorian society. But I don’t know, I think Dorian worked best in the first season as a device to reveal information about the other characters rather than as a character in his own right? Because god, all of his faux-deep dialogue about human nature or whatever is pretty cringe-worthy, which was sort of tolerable when Vanessa Ives was there to challenge him or roll her eyes, but not so much when Angelique more or less matches his tone.

[1] Season 2, Episode 4, “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places”
[2] To be read in David Bowie’s voice, obviously.
[3] One might even say Façades if, you know, one were so inclined.
[4] I mean, I am not a TV writer, so who knows. But as a concept, it’s pretty fucking simple.
[5] Here, here, and here. And an official clip of at least part of the scene here.
[6] NHitMoSW’s main jobs are: to give all the other characters an excuse to explain the Supernatural Weirdness to the audience NHitMoSW, to steal screentime from more interesting (general female) characters, to have sex with enough nubile young women to fill Showtime’s on-screen tit quota.
[7] Because it honestly would have been a more shocking twist if Ethan had ended up being a Normal Human Male who just happened to have a penchant for speaking in wolfy allusions.
[8] I mean, the major turning point in that regard was season 1, episode 4, with the grabbing and making out with Dorian Gray at the exact right moment in the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde scene that was like one of the most perfect sequences on television, both because of the actual visual direction and what it represents in terms of the show’s commitment to making subtext text, rather than going the more expected route of queer baiting. But that probably deserves a whole other essay (certainly combined with the Clarke/Lexa development on The 100) about bisexual representation in TV and shows challenging our assumptions that characters are straight just because we’ve only seen them in relationships with members of the opposite sex (so far), so I’ll just leave it as a footnote.
[9] See also: Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, Dane DeHaan in anything.
[10] The most relevant quote, from M. Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine:

All at once I realize that [my mother] too is flesh and blood. All at once I realized that the love she bears me represents only a fraction of her feelings, that in addition to that love she, like every other human being, has intestines, arteries, blood, and sexual organs, and that she cannot help loving her physical body more than she loves me. And all at once I am overcome by a feeling of such misery and isolation that I feel like moaning.

[11] It reminds me of this scene in Elementary and this quote from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash:

But at this phase, the all-male society of bitheads said that the face problem was trivial and superficial. It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists.

[12] We don’t know how old he is yet, but he seems to me like he’s only a few years into the immortality thing. He feels more like someone who thinks he’s “seen it all” because he spent a few years abroad and did a lot of drugs in his early twenties rather than someone beginning to feel crushed by decades of hedonistic existence. But I don’t know if that’s intentional or if Reeve Carney just isn’t a very good actor (or both).


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