Showtime’s Monster Mash-up 'Penny Dreadful' Gets Better By Focusing On Its Female Characters

The werewolves and vampires increasingly feel like a sideshow to the series's real strength

The best scene in Penny Dreadful’s disjointed Season 3 premiere, which aired last night, featured a feast. The repast wasn’t of flesh, as debated aboard The Creature’s (Rory Kinnear) marooned ship in the Arctic, nor of blood, despite Dracula’s surprise appearance at the end of the episode. Rather, it was a modestly garnished, one-woman affair: Eva Green’s witchy Vanessa Ives pouring a jar of milk down her throat so fast she could barely swallow it all and tearing apart a loaf of bread with her teeth like a lioness ripping open just-caught prey. Her sly eyes unfocused for once, Vanessa was a feral creature in a Victorian nightgown that silently screamed melancholia, haunting her own trash-strewn, spiderwebbed mansion. (As per usual, the Showtime series’s production designers prove themselves among TV’s most inspired.)

As entrancing as Green regularly is on the Gothic action-melodrama, though, even she couldn’t distract from the middling first season’s glaring Smurfette problem. (Yes, Billie Piper’s dying Irish prostitute, Brona, also numbered among the cast, but the character was a nonentity until she was transfigured into Lily, the intended Bride of Frankenstein, in Season 2.) Aside from its turn-of-the-century London setting, Penny Dreadful’s lures to outsiders are its lurid twists on familiar figures like vampires, werewolves, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), the father (Timothy Dalton) of Dracula victim Mina Harker, and Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his Creature. But it was creator John Logan’s most original character, Vanessa, who stole the show — partly because Green was the only actor who could rise above the show’s silly self-seriousness and ponderous pacing that debut year, and partly because of the inherent interest of watching a character revolt against societal norms. Penny Dreadful made me ravenous, but only for one thing: I wanted more Vanessas.

The sophomore season delivered. The flashback episode, in which we learn about Vanessa’s brief mentorship with the outcast witch Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone), is easily the show’s finest and most touching installment. Just as intriguing — and rather more surprising — was Lily’s self-transformation from a sheltered naïf to an angry nihilist who rejects both her creator and her betrothed to paint the town red (in both senses) with Dorian Gray, a man who, unlike those two others, is both invincible and hot. While Vanessa feared the solitude that often accompanies otherness — a theme in which the second year dabbled — Lily was her foil, embracing her power and inhumanity so she could rule over the world.

Season 3 promises to build on these encouraging character developments, and the harder it leans on its female characters, the more resonant and inventive the show becomes. (It’s also rather noticeable that Green, Piper, and LuPone are the show’s three greatest performers.)

Dreadful does threaten to return us to the first season in one regard: More suitors are lining up to pine for Vanessa. (At least the premiere gave us Vanessa and museum zoologist Alexander Sweet’s (Christian Camargo) charmingly nerdy flirtation over preserved scorpions, as meet-cute as this show’s ever gonna get.) But the emotional centerpiece — and the comic highlight — of last night’s episode was Vanessa’s visit to the stern “alienist” (i.e., psychologist) Dr. Seward (LuPone again, who joins the cast for Season 3). Green fizzes with LuPone like she does with no other cast member, and the good doctor’s recitation of everything she’s discerned to be wrong with her new patient is both wryly professorial and poignantly maternal.

[Note: Spoilers for next week in this paragraph.] Even more auspicious are Lily and Dorian’s schemes, revealed in the second episode. Lily recruits another prostitute (Jessica Barden) as part of a feminist-revenge plan to take retribution against men who abuse women. On the other side of town, Dr. Frankenstein and his friend Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif) plot to stop Lily by sedating her through methods that the latter perfected by experimenting on political dissidents. As if all that weren’t squicky enough, Lily’s besotted creator (and in the show’s lore, her “father”) is determined to make her fall in love with him. For a show that has largely been happy to work within a good-versus-evil framework with only tinges of moral contamination, Lily and Dr. Frankenstein’s battles already feel like some of the most ambitious and complicated stories the show’s ever attempted.

Which is why it’s a letdown whenever any of the male characters enter the picture. This season's New Mexican adventures of Dalton’s Malcolm and Josh Hartnett’s werewolf outlaw Ethan threaten to repeat the embarrassing racialized trope of the wise, helpful, and enigmatic person of color with a Native American character (Wes Studi) — the show already ran through this with Sembene (Danny Sapani), Malcolm’s wise, helpful, and enigmatic African servant who sacrificed himself for the sake of a white character’s development last season. Dorian seems to be fine letting Lily take control, and The Creature is stranded god knows where and will be back hopefully not anytime soon. Initially the attraction, the monsters are quickly becoming the sideshows on their own series.

Despite its recent improvements, Penny Dreadful remains a show that conjures portent far better than it spins plot, and logic is still cast aside whenever there’s histrionic anguish to be sighed or purple philosophizing to be purred. And yet the drama potently blooms to reveal its “gorgeous secrets,” especially in its depiction of how women were reinventing themselves in this heady era when electric lights, movie theaters, and “talk therapy” were bringing the late 20th century into the future. In such a world, monsters, both benign and sinister, don’t seem like such a far-fetched idea.

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