I don’t know if I can get the essence of Penny Dreadful into just one word. Excessive? Loony? Dreadful, in a good way? There is a kitchen sink feel to it all, as if creator John Logan had a bazillion ideas and wanted to squeeze them all in. Just looking at the characters reveals this. There’s Dorian Gray, Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, the monster’s bride ... there’s “Ethan” Lawrence Talbot, who is (hard to tell) either The Wolfman, his dad, or maybe his grandfather. There’s Mina Harker, and Doctor Van Helsing. Meanwhile, the apparent main characters, played by Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, are original to the series. (Off the top of my head, I can’t recall another show with both a James Bond and a Bond girl ... given that Logan writes 007 movies ... well, my head is going to explode.)
You get the feeling Logan has no intention of limiting himself. Religion matters, in a good-vs.-evil way, and Eva Green’s Vanessa takes a very personal road, believing in God but using her powers (demonic?) to the point where, knowing “who she is”, she rejects at least the symbols of God. The show’s presentation is voluptuous, full of gorgeous settings and moody music and supernatural happenings ... this is not a show that looks cheap. While Logan has a long tale to tell, he isn’t afraid of jumping this way and that for the sake of a good scene, so continuity isn’t always immaculate. Hey, you know what you’re getting from a show called “Penny Dreadful,” right?
There is some wonderful acting going on. Rory Kinnear’s take on the Monster is both frightening and heartrending, as it always is when the script allows and the actor is up to the challenge (i.e., The Bride of Frankenstein). Many of the others look their parts, which is half the job on this show. When you see Reeve Carney, you can believe he’s Dorian Gray before he has actually done anything. The same goes for Josh Hartnett as the token American.
But this is Eva Green’s show. Emmys aren’t given to the likes of Penny Dreadful, so Green is likely to join her Showtime stable mate Emmy Rossum as an actress doing terrific work without being noticed come Emmy time (pun intended, as always, re: Rossum). Green is totally fearless as Vanessa Ives. Her acting goes from quietly pensive to over-the-top, depending on what the scene requires. It’s in her over-the-top scenes that she really shines. It’s not too much, because it’s closely attached to the show’s overall tone ... she fits right in. Penny Dreadful would be an interesting show without her, but I doubt I’d be writing about it.
(I can’t talk about Green’s Vanessa without noting how much she reminds me of the great Barbara Steele, another dark-haired, odd-looking beauty who had the ability to grab a scene by the throat.)
Perhaps the most representative Penny Dreadful scene came in the finale. Dr. Frankenstein interrupts Dorian Gray and Mrs. Monster as they dance in a large ballroom in Gray’s mansion. First he shoots the monster, but it has no effect ... he doesn’t yet grasp what he has created. He then shoots Gray, but of course, he can’t die. After getting a picture of his future from his creation, Frankenstein leaves, and Gray and the Bride continue with their dance. They are dressed in white ... as they dance, a pool of their blood forms on the floor, while their clothes are increasingly soaked, as well. It makes no sense ... there is more blood than would have occurred if they were ordinary humans, and as near-immortals who cure themselves, they aren’t likely to bleed much, anyway. But the imagery is so extravagant, so soaked with atmosphere as well as blood, and Logan isn’t about to let a little nonsense stop him from giving us such decadent beauty.
But who am I kidding? For a scene to be representative of Penny Dreadful, you need Vanessa.
Grade for Season Finale: A. Grade for first two seasons: A-.