Penny Dreadful,
directed by Damon Thomas, James Hawes, Paco Cabezas, et al
(Showtime, 2014-16)

So far as literary gothic Victorian horror goes, you can't go far wrong with Penny Dreadful.

Sure, the Showtime series had its weak points, and some folks will quibble about the strength of the ending. And, while showrunner John Logan insists he planned the series to end after three seasons, it certainly feels like certain plot lines were tied off too quickly -- or just left hanging entirely.

But still, this series is pretty damn good. And dark, so dark.

And it succeeds where the 2003 movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen failed, bringing literary characters together in a single story that, for the most part, works well.

Center stage goes to Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a world-traveling adventurer who has run afoul of dark forces, and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), once Murray's daughter's best friend and now his ward of sorts; she, too, has danced with darkness, although of a very different sort. When the series begins, they are working together to save Murray's daughter, Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn) from the vampire who holds her captive, but they need help. And help they find, in unlikely places: a traveling Wild West trickshooter and lycanthrope using the name Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a struggling scientist named Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a quirky Egyptologist named Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) and Murray's sworn protector from his African adventures, Sembene (Danny Sapani).

The ageless Dorian Gray (a somewhat out-of-time Reeve Carney) moves on the outskirts of their circle, not quite one of the gang but intertwined nonetheless. Other key figures include Victor's first creature, who assumes the name of the poet John Clare (Rory Kinnear) and dogs the heels of his creator; a consumption-ridden prostitute named Brona Croft (Billie Piper), who takes up with Ethan in the first season before taking on a darker role in the Frankenstein story later on; a spiritualist and satanic witch named Evelyn Poole, aka Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), who has plans for both Vanessa and Malcolm; and Hecate Poole (Sarah Greene), Evelyn's ambitious daughter.

Oh, but there are webs within webs, and many characters more to tell the tales. Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge), a one-armed inspector with Scotland Yard, believes Ethan to be guilty of a gruesome slaughter at a seaside inn. Kaetenay (Wes Studi), the last free Apache, believes Ethan has an unshakeable destiny. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif) has scientific insights that could help Victor in his work, and vice versa. Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks) is a thanatologist with much-needed knowledge of the supernatural forces affecting Vanessa. Professor Abraham Van Helsing (David Warner) has insights that will help Malcolm face the vampire (Robert Nairne) who holds Mina in thrall in the first season. Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone) is a heath witch who trains Vanessa in spellcraft in one season; Dr. Seward (also LuPone) is a psychotherapist who treats Vanessa's depression in another. Renfield (Samuel Barnett), Seward's secretary, finds himself servile to Dracula (Christian Camargo), who dominates the third and final season of the series. Jared Talbot (Brian Cox) is a ruthless rancher in the New Mexico territory who has a grudge against Ethan.

And there are more. If you know your literature, you'll recognize many of the names listed here; others are unique to the series. And yet, they weave their stories together here in a rich, blood-soaked tapestry that is dark, suspenseful and at times quite thrilling.

The series is short -- only 27 episodes in three seasons -- and some storylines could have used another season to fulfill their potential. Viewers will be left with many questions about the ultimate fate of John Clare and Brona Croft and the future of Dr. Jekyll, for instance. Viewers may well feel cheated that the expected showdown -- between Dracula and the Wolf Man, between Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, or both -- never comes to pass. Viewers may be confused about the mystical "wolf of God" thread that seemed forgotten by the end. And yeah, you kind of wonder if Ferdinand found the tomb of Imhotep on his journey to the Nile.

But the series overall is well written, well crafted, beautifully filmed and extremely well acted. Dalton leads the show with extreme gravitas, while Green and Kinnear, in particular, demonstrate a broad range; one episode in the third season, featuring only the latter two actors in a single room of an asylum, is gorgeous in its emotional depth. Piper shows probably the biggest transformation from beginning to end, playing one person but two distinctly different characters, and I would love to see what happens to her next.

The entire series is presently available on Netflix, which is how I binge-watched it, as well as other venues. Or you might want to buy a copy, as it would do well with more than one viewing to capture every nuance within.

review by
Tom Knapp

1 October 2016

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