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In the heyday of Prestige TV—say, the early 2010s—anything seemed possible. Game of Thrones was busy making high fantasy cool to exactly the sort of people who would have never ever have picked up a George R.R. Martin book before the show started airing on HBO. Hannibal was pushing the boundaries of what kind of stories network television was willing to tell—as well as how much blood could be involved. And Breaking Bad was turning a sad sack chemistry teacher into a snazzily dressed drug kingpin and surprise cultural icon (for both good and ill).
If there was ever a time for a show about dark literary characters brought to terrible life in a gorgeously bleak Victorian London to hit it big, this was it. Throw in plenty of questionable morality and complex issues of faith, love, and death, and this series should be a sure thing, right? Yet, despite being a mix of many of the most popular themes and character tropes from this television era, Showtime’s Penny Dreadful never really managed to break through into the pop culture mainstream the same way that other shows of its ilk did.
And that’s a shame, because it’s one of the most singularly original dramas from the era, and it should have garnered much more widespread attention and acclaim.
In the most basic sense, Penny Dreadful follows the story of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a deeply religious clairvoyant who struggles to keep the darkness inside herself at bay (She ends up being romantically courted by both Dracula and Satan if you want a preview of how that all turns out.) The series begins with her and her partner, a retired explorer of colonial Africa named Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), recruiting an American sharpshooter with secrets of his own named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) to help them track a bizarre supernatural creature that may or may not have kidnapped Murray’s daughter.
Along the way, other familiar characters from classic literature are folded into the story, including Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his Creature (Rory Kinnear), Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and an assortment of figures from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the titular vampire himself. Over the course of its three-season run, the series is delicately beautiful, gut-wrenchingly monstrous, and incredibly ridiculous by turns, dripping with Gothic decadence and existential dread.
As a series, Penny Dreadful is also unabashedly and unapologetically feminist, allowing a variety of different kinds of female characters the chance to claim their power in a Victorian world that was often all too eager to silence their voices. Named after a genre of fiction—the penny dreadful—that’s best known for its depiction of both male violence and female violation, the Showtime drama turns this trope on its head by giving its women the chance to both explore and embrace their own inner darkness.
Green’s Vanessa is the very definition of a tortured soul, torn between God and the Devil himself. Over the course of the series, she is possessed, institutionalized, and tortured, repeatedly punished for refusing to conform to the roles her society and her religion proscribe for her. Her emotional scars and deep-set anger—at herself, at God, at the patriarchy that seems determined to keep her in chains both literal and figurative—are entwined in complex and often devastating ways, but Penny Dreadful never makes Vanessa into anything as simple as a martyr or a monster. Instead, she is allowed to be messy and broken as often as she is steely and righteous, and she gets plenty of agency within her own story. (And don’t get me started on her… let’s just call it rather unconventional sex life.)
But no character epitomizes Penny Dreadful’s willingness to embrace and explore female darkness quite like Brona Croft (Billie Piper). A character who begins the series as a tragic, consumptive sex worker before being murdered and resurrected by Victor Frankenstein because he has promised his Creature a woman of his own (barf), Brona is ultimately reborn as Lily, a sly, brilliant reimagining of both Mary Shelley’s work and a nod to the classic Bride of Frankenstein film. But unlike Brona, Lily is determined that no man will ever again make her a victim. She is ragingly, righteously furious, a woman who is every inch the equal of Penny Dreadful’s worst men and who is unafraid to use the same desirable feminine traits that drew Frankenstein to her in the first place to punish him and those like him.
Initially, the newly resurrected Lily seems calm and unassuming, a perfect and obedient example of an ideal Victorian woman. That this is all ultimately revealed to be a deliberate falsehood, a carefully built facade meant to manipulate the same patriarchal structures and rules that ruined her life as Brona and seek to rule her still now that she is Lily, is a twist that is both painfully sharp and unexpectedly brilliant. Her new immortal existence both critiques and mirrors the many uncomfortable ways that society forces women to render themselves unnatural for the benefit of the men who rule it, and the show ultimately asks its viewers to both approve of and frankly rejoice in her quest to break that oppressive cycle.
As the series continues, Lily eventually becomes a full-on misandrist, recruiting an army of prostitutes to kill the men who once sought to possess their bodies and lives. (It’s a journey, let’s just put it that way.) But there’s basically no other show on television that would have ever tried to tell Brona/Lily’s story like this. Because not only does Penny Dreadful refuse to judge Lily for her monstrous ways, but it also actually offers her something like understanding instead. On any other series, we probably wouldn’t be meant to be rooting for the women out to overthrow the patriarchy quite so explicitly. (Just kidding, we should always root for that!) But here, in a world that’s spent so much time showing us all the ways this system has so clearly failed the Vanessas and Bronas and Angeliques and Hecates of the world, it forces viewers to wonder if maybe it really is time to try things Lily’s way for once. Perhaps the old saying is true, and it is only a monster that can destroy something truly monstrous.
After all, monster stories have been with us for millennia. The earliest example of a man who transforms into a wolf appears in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from around 2100 BC. References to blood-drinking creatures date back to ancient Mesopotamia. Classic literature is full of monsters dressed up as moral allegories and cautionary tales, life lessons for those wise enough to sift the true meaning from their tortured bones. They’re how we confront the things that scare us—whether those things come in the form of supernatural creatures, or other, all-too-real-world threats.
Sadly, women are often left on the sidelines of these kinds of stories, generally present to serve as little more than objects or victims in the larger tales of the men. But Penny Dreadful’s women are explicitly allowed to claim their monstrousness, owning the darkest parts of themselves and claiming them as distinct strengths, determined to write a new story for all who might follow them.
Penny Dreadful is available to stream on Hulu and Amazon with a Showtime subscription, as well as via the Showtime app.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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