By Leila A. McNeill
Penny dreadfuls dominated the popular press in the UK in the 19th century. Aimed at lower working class men and boys, penny dreadfuls were cheaply made sensational thrillers that told unbelievable stories of crime, horror, and the supernatural-- they cost only a penny.
Showtime’s 3-season supernatural horror series of the same name, however, was anything but cheaply made, even if some of the lurid thrills were. From the clothes to the set to the cinematography, Penny Dreadful’s aesthetic was masterful. The rich linens that adorned the actors and the sets were a love letter to Victorian material culture. Vanessa’s low-ceilinged, padded asylum cell in season 3 made us feel trapped inside the room with her. The harsh orange hues of the New Mexican desert starkly contrasted with the sullen grays and blues of London.
But what I liked the most about Penny Dreadful is writer John Logan’s portrayal of misogyny and patriarchy. Nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls were full of male violence and women’s violation; they were often so violent that many questioned whether or not the penny dreadfuls encouraged such violence in their readers. The TV series does not shy away from this type of violence, and in season 3, the series really hits a feminist stride as Logan exposes and challenges this violence with the show’s two female leads.
Vanessa Ives, a medium learned in the ways of witchcraft, is constantly besieged by Lucifer and Dracula; one desires the submission of her soul and the other the submission of her body. Brona Croft, a prostitute dying of tuberculosis, is suffocated on her deathbed at the end of season one by Dr. Frankenstein; he resurrects her as Lily in the second season to be a wife for his Creature but he ends up wanting her for himself instead. Though both characters come dangerously close to joining the ranks of the Strong Female Character™ in the first season, Vanessa and Lily, both victims of a male-dominated medical science, show themselves to be much more throughout rest of the series.
In the episode “A Blade of Grass” of season 3, Vanessa is in solitary confinement at an asylum, the Banning Clinic. She insists that she is being tortured as she undergoes all sorts of appalling “treatments,” like hydrotherapy and lobotomy. The orderly believes that “It’s not torture what they’re doing. It’s science. It’s meant to make you better.” Vanessa replies, “It’s meant to make me normal. Like all the other women you know. Compliant, obedient. A cog in the intricate social machine and no more,” and if women aren’t compliant cogs, “Then they’re freaks.” And freaks should be locked up. There’s a lot of history going on here. In the 19th century, women were locked away from a society that reviled them for mediumship, for being sexual, or for just being unusual-- Vanessa is all of these things.
Lily also suffers at the hands of science. In the first season, she is Brona, a prostitute, and in the second season, Frankenstein brings her back to life as Lily, an intended companion for Frankenstein’s Creature, who desperately wants someone to love him. As Frankenstein tries to fill her head with false memories of an accident, he falls in love with his own creation. When he is teaching her how to dress herself again, Lily objects to the corset and says, “It seems...I don’t have the word, um...cruel...So, women wear corsets so they don’t exert themselves? What would be the danger if they did?” Frankenstein answers, “They’d take over the world.” Unbeknownst to Frankenstein, Lily remembers everything from her previous life as a prostitute, and she knows Frankenstein brought her back to life just to be a wife. Gradually, we learn this as she starts to shirk off the innocent veneer. She finally tells the Creature, “We flatter men with our pain. We bow before them….Never again will I kneel to any man. Now they shall kneel to me.”
Lily enlists the help of Dorian Gray to form an army of prostitutes to kill the men who seek their services. Dorian starts to understand that in this new world where women rule, he won’t matter anymore. At one point, he sits at the head of his table like sulky schoolboy while Lily works her prostitutes into a fury, urging them to find men and bring them to her. It’s not the killing that bothers Dorian, after all he’d killed before. The saddest of his victims was Anjelique, a trans woman who loved him, and for a moment, we thought that maybe he loved her too. The problem is that these women threaten his power.. He turns Lily over to Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll, who attempt to tame the monster inside of her in Jekyll’s underground laboratory at the famous Bedlam Asylum. Frankenstein promises take away her rage, to make her “healthy” and “calm,” like “a proper woman” again. As Lily says, “I shall be unmade.” Angry women are monsters that must be brought to heel.
In a stroke of real nuance in a show not known for subtlety, we learn that Lily is working at something much larger than just killing Johns and pimps. Near the end of the series, Lily visits the grave of her young daughter, where she meets another mother who is there also to mourn a daughter. Lily tells her, “Please know that the day a good woman will have to undergo such indignity is almost past. We will not have to suffer our children to starve and freeze and die dishonored on cold hills.” She’s really after a larger system, that intricate social machine that Vanessa spoke of, that has left women with only two choices, to be wives or to be prostitutes. In either role, women are completely economically dependent upon men. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Lily, first a prostitute with a dead daughter then the intended wife of the Creature, is so damn angry.**
In the end, neither Vanessa or Lily get very satisfying endings. Vanessa, after 3 seasons of fighting Lucifer and Dracula, asks her Werewolf Beefcake to kill her so that she may escape the onslaught of dark forces. With her death, she saves the earth from perpetual darkness, or something. Frankenstein frees Lily from her chains after she begs him to let her keep her memories of her dead daughter, but her army of prostitutes has disbanded and she is left alone. At least she gets one final dig at Dorian, who thought for some reason that Lily would want to still be with him.
The show has ended, which is probably for the best since it was in constant danger of running off the rails from the start. But I will still miss it. I will miss the witches, the night creatures, all the angry women, the Werewolf Beefcake. And I will even miss the over-the-top dialogue that gave us gems like this: “You are a great fertile bitch of evil…You are the woman of all our dreams and all our night terrors."
**Note: Lady Science does not endorse the forming of prostitute armies to kill all men.