Penny Dreadful: Origin of the Species

Penny Dreadful’s third chapter, Resurrection, unexpectedly deals in origin stories, a unique turn for the third episode of an 8-episode limited series. Spending half its running time in flashbacks, this outing, while not the best to date by far, still has a few gems to offer.

We begin with a gruesomely beautiful sequence illustrating young Victor Frankenstein’s first encounters with death. Wandering through a pastoral field of buttercups, Victor stumbles upon the maggot-infested corpse of his beloved dog. The sudden juxtaposition between the beautiful and the gory is a trick the show uses frequently, repeating it minutes later in a conversation between Victor and his mother. Intending to comfort him in a time of need, Mother Frankenstein inadvertently vomits blood all over him, dying in the next scene. That death sets the forward momentum for the Victor Frankenstein myth, bringing us forward to the moment where Frankenstein’s first creation rips his second creation in half in a fit of rage and jealousy.

Penny Dreadful s01e03

This scene shifts us into the second origin story of the episode: that of the Frankenstein Monster. Abandoned at “birth” by a horrified Victor and beaten in the street by terrified crowds, the Monster finds kindness and companionship in an old stage actor. In an amusing and vaguely Meta turn, the Frankenstein Monster gains employment as a stagehand in the aptly titled Grand Guignol theater. Here, actors stage gruesome theatrical events such as Shakespearian classics and, as seen in this episode, the tale of Sweeney Todd. It’s an amusing variation on the classic Frankenstein origin, both explaining the Monster’s proclivity for floridly worded monologues and giving him an opportunity to covet.

Toward the end of the episode, the Monster reveals his demands by threatening to kill his maker if Frankenstein does not provide a Bride. Frankenstein replies beautifully, “You seek to threaten me with death? If you seek to threaten me, threaten me with life.”

As we approach the end of the episode, we realize we’ve been watching another origin story all along. The central characters – consisting of Malcolm Murray, Vanessa Ives, Sembene the manservant, Ethan Chandler, and Victor Frankenstein, finally come together in a cohesive team embarking on a single mission. They have captured another man/creature in their continued search for Mina Murray and have banded together to heal whatever caused his affliction in hopes of eventually saving Mina.

Not everything in the episode worked. The characters spend a good amount of time exploring the thematically fertile grounds of the London Zoo only to be accosted by a pack of dogs. They are saved by Chandler’s apparent skills as a dog whisperer, but it’s something of a so-what moment overall.

Still, it was clear to me from the first episode that writer John Logan understands his creation beginning to end and confidently plots the overall arc of the show. The episodes thus far have spent a great deal of time getting to know its characters, exploring their faults, and revealing, if not unraveling, their mysteries. If it’s not obvious, then I have to admit that I’m completely in the tank for this show and find it to be an incredibly fun way of re-inventing Victorian-era horror literature. In fact, I fully anticipate revisiting the entire series to see how small, insignificant moments foreshadow or comment upon events later in the series. John Logan is the real star here, and his enthusiasm for the material and joy for clever dialogue is infectious.

Given that, I’m willing to overlook a few hit or miss moments… as long as Showtime continues to foot the bill for the blood, which must be a very large bill indeed.

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