A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Penny dreadfuls were serial literature publications from nineteenth century Britain, published in weekly installments and sold in the streets for a penny each. The idea was to create in effect what is the modern serialized prestige drama, with each installment telling its own tale while retaining threads that would carry forward into the next one. The ability of penny dreadfuls to truly capture the public’s imagination rested on two things: their cheapness allowing for a wide distribution and their sensationalist material that often depicted more risqué stories than could be found anywhere else. There were detectives and murders of the most gruesome sort; demons and monsters and vampires lurking throughout the shadows, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. The penny dreadfuls were dark, mysterious, tantalizing, a breath of fresh air if one would from the maudlin existence about them. The Showtime series, from Gladiator and Skyfall scribe John Logan, functions as a penny dreadful amalgamation of sorts. There’s bits of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Egyptian hieroglyphics, all wrapped neatly in the aura of the Victorian Gothic. That aura alone sets Penny Dreadful apart, the brooding darkness of its secrets imbued within every frame. Yet the darkness never becomes overwhelming. In part due to Xavi Giménez’s breathtaking cinematography, the darkness of the story and everything within it remains tantalizing. It is, as Vanessa Ives charmingly points out to Ethan Chandler, not a warning, but an invitation.
The night work in the most literal sense arises from the demimonde, a half world between the known and the feared. That demimonde gives rise to all manner of creatures and spirits and monsters of the shadows. Vanessa, a mysterious Londoner in fashionable clothing, presents an opportunity for that particular sort of night work to an American showman gifted in the artistry of shooting with a booming Western accent to match. A bit of a daredevil perhaps, Ethan takes the job presented, following his strange new companions towards a darkened locale bristling with the terror of the unknown. There lies amidst the hollowed walls a hope of finding someone lost to Vanessa’s acquaintance Sir Malcolm Murray. Instead in the darkness there lies a host of vampires, one of whom seems to have a particularly keen eye for Vanessa. The excitement is, however, twisted by an extreme sense of bemusement. Ethan is terrified, confused, and above all, angry at what had just happened. Yet that invitation remains far too tantalizing for him to refuse, his eyes betraying a sense of inescapable longing for what he ostensibly leaves behind.
The corpse of the vampire whose eye seemed to be borne to gaze at Vanessa with something resembling a mix of fascination and reverence in and of itself becomes a mystery. Underneath the skin, there is no expectation of what a humanoid body would look like. There lies a curious absence of muscle, of bone, of unperturbed skin. There is, however, an abundance of Egyptian hieroglyphics carved onto thick, gray skin, hieroglyphics that raise intrigue but are undecipherable – until the team finds Egyptologist Ser Ferdinand Lyle, that is. The mythology of Amunet and Amun Ra is vital to understanding the complexity of Penny Dreadful, but here for the moment Lyle keeps it simple. The writing is a blood curse, taken from the pages of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. As Vanessa and Malcolm ratchet up their search for Malcolm’s missing daughter Mina, there arrives in the city a murderous spree inspired by Jack the Ripper. The opening scenes of the gruesome murder of a woman and her young daughter are the most conventional horror shots of the episode, albeit effective ones nevertheless. The gory spectacle engrosses and disgusts the public in equal measure as it were, the remembrance of the Ripper’s killing sprees and the ones that followed spreading fear quite easily. The identity of the mysterious murdered remains suggested yet not revealed.
The most known elements of the episode arrive via one of the most famed or infamous anti-heroes in English literature, depending on one’s point of view. While the episode’s final words may include the phrase “Victor Frankenstein”, the confirmation of his identity remains less surprising than satisfying. The doctor is as he was in Mary Shelley’s incredible novel. Blessed and cursed in equal measure for his incredible knowledge that put even the greatest explorers in England to shame, he remained stubborn in his belief of a higher greatness in his pursuits over those of claiming new lands and trade routes. Those very pursuits, unsurprising to any who have read the original text, are the paradox that lies at the heart of his character. When the vampire’s body is brought to him, he dismisses what lies underneath the white sheets with nary a thought, until Vanessa reveals reality. The pull of knowing more, of grasping this trepidation he is so thirsty to understand proves too powerful. A different sort of night work closes out the premiere, work between Victor and an innocent cadaver. It seems oddly fitting that an episode so obsessed with death and the afterlife ends on a birth, albeit one borne of a dead body. Welcome to the world, Frankenstein’s monster.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Vanessa’s reading of Ethan was fantastic
+“There is only one worthy goal for scientific exploration: piercing the tissue that separates life from death. Everything else, from the deep bottom of the sea to the top of the highest mountain on the farthest planet, is insignificant. Life and death, Sir Malcolm. The flicker that separates one from the other, fast as a bat’s wing, more beautiful than any sonnet. That is my river. That is my mountain. There I will plant my flag.”
+“You have the soul of a poet, sir.”
“And the bank account to match.”
+“You’re moving through the tall grass, getting a glimpse of the prey, the shoulders mostly, the mane. You prepare your rifle. You’re very quiet. And then there’s a moment. The wind changes, the grass stops swaying. The lion turns, looks at you. The moment you realize you are no longer the hunter, you are the prey.”
+The lover tarot card is a keen little sequence. Don’t expect it to pay off just yet, however.
+The cross flipping upside down and the spiders filling the wall
+The final scene with Victor and his monster was stunningly gorgeous; the lightning strikes were the perfect touch
Episode Title: Night Work
Written by: John Logan
Directed by: J. A. Bayona
Image Courtesy: Daily Motion