If I were a mad scientist (like, say, Victor Frankenstein), and I mixed “American Horror Story” with “True Detective,” while sprinkling in bits of “Sherlock,” “True Blood” and “Lost,” I’d probably get something akin to Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful.”
The show’s first episode, “Night Work,” is notable for how well-paced and confident it is, allowing us to bask in the show’s atmosphere and beautiful but grotesque creations.
And despite being a gripping hour of TV, the episode also tells us almost nothing about the show’s plot going forward, revealing a bunch of mysteries, characters (some, like Victor Frankenstein, from literature, and some, like Josh Hartnett’s gunslinging Ethan Chandler, who aren’t — at least not yet), and possible story threads. Here’s everything you need to know about the series premiere:
Let’s Talk About That Opening
Now that’s what I call an intro. A young woman awakes from her bed, her child sleeping soundly. Everything is very slow and deliberate, she’s totally fine, until, oh wait, she just got snatched by a monster through a window.
In one short sequence that has absolutely nothing (so far, at least) to do with the show’s plot, it established immediately a unique tone, setting, and visual style; and managed to deliver one hell of a jump scare to boot.
Eva Green’s A Creepster
Green plays Vanessa Ives, a character (also not from any piece of literature) who appears to be the partner of Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray. And she’s about as awesomely creepy as it gets. Just check it out when she tries to smile.
Ives is apparently also some kind of witch or fortune teller in her spare time — hey, we all have to have hobbies — and one of her nighttime seance rituals leads to one of the more disturbing visuals of the episode.
Spiders also appear prominently in the show’s “True Detective”-style main titles, though what they might mean is anyone’s guess.
Hartnett plays Ethan Chandler, an American expat gun-for-hire who is introduced to us as a boozing actor who has sex with groupies. Green’s Ives approaches him to be her gun-for-hire, as she tells him that he is, “one of great violence and hidden depths” — which is a pretty good description of the show, too.
The two clearly have some kind of weird chemistry going on, which is only made more evident when Ives makes Chandler pick a tarot card. The card he picks, to her delight, is “The Lovers.” And while the first episode was pretty light on the sex and heavy on the violence, it’s a good bet that fans of both Hartnett and Green will be getting some delightful scenes in the near future.
What the Hell Is This Thing?
This giant vampire mutant delivers the second biggest jump scare of the episode before he’s dispatched by Murray, but what the hell is he? Some kind of Super Vampire? We know that there’s at least one more of them out and about, and with references to Jack the Ripper abounding in the episode, it’s more than likely this guy’s twin is out wreaking havoc in London.
The only thing we do know is that he has some sick Egyptian tats.
Egyptian Book Of The Dead
No, it’s not the Necronomicon, but every good Gothic story needs a Book of the Dead, and the Ancient Egyptians seem like prime candidates to supply one.
Chandler, Ives and Murray take the monster’s body to Victor Frankenstein (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers doppleganger Harry Treadaway), who peels open its skin — sorry, exoskeleton — to reveal a body covered in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, which are later revealed to mean “blood curse.”
The hieroglyphics seem an apt metaphor for the show, as well. When you peel back the skin, you’re just going to get more mysteries. The slow discovery of these mysteries is a joy so far, but the writers should make sure they don’t pull a “Lost” and bite off more than they can chew. Speaking of…
A simple name is possibly the biggest clue as to the future plans for “Penny Dreadful.” Malcolm Murray reveals to Frankenstein that he is trying to rescue his daughter, trying to cure her of something. In a later, semi-imaginary sequence, Murray sees his daughter, whose name is “Mina,” and who is clearly now a vampire.
Fans of vampire lore know that Mina Harker (born Mina Murray, of course) is bitten by Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel. She never quite becomes a vampire, but does use her new abilities to help husband Jonathan and Van Helsing track and kill the Count.
Clearly, this is that Mina, and her presence in the show almost guarantees the future appearance of Dracula. The way the show is paced, this might not even be this season, but look forward to a Moriarty-like reveal of Dracula as the big bad of the series, and perhaps the driving force behind all the events we’ve seen.
Of course, the show also still has to introduce Dorian Gray, who based on the posters is a very important series character. So any predictions as to where it’s going right now should probably be taken with a few thousand grains of salt.
The Resurrection Man
Murray calls the group Frankenstein is a part of “The Resurrection Men,” which is pretty much in line with what Victor is up to: all he cares about is discovering the flicker of the switch between life and death.
Well, he doesn’t have to wait too long, as a fortuitous lightning strike helps him bring a very dead body back to some kind of life. This of course is Frankenstein’s Monster (Rory Kinnear), who gets a beautiful scene as he discovers life once more, touching his creator’s tears and putting them under his own eyes; and is in pure bliss as he discovers he can hear.
This seems to be the show’s biggest strength, as it allows a character like Victor, who gets about fifteen minutes of screen time in the first episode, and his monster, who gets one scene, to deliver an incredible amount of pathos in a show that doesn’t even have a plot yet. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and to the actors, who imbue a situation that could be incredibly campy with just the right amount of gravity.
I don’t know where “Penny Dreadful” is going, but right now, I’m glad to be along for the ride.
What did you think of the series premiere? Let us know in the comments below.