The Deliciously Un-Modern in Penny Dreadful

The last few weeks, as anticipation has built for the big premium TV channel premieres, I've found myself whispering to friends, "It's not that I'm not excited for Game of Thrones to come back, but..."

But: I was, and am now still, more excited by Penny Dreadful's Season 3 premiere.

I know that Penny Dreadful doesn't draw quite the audience (understatement) that Game of Thrones does, and so I often find myself trying to explain what the show is like and why people should watch it.  Depending on my audience, I change my tactics.  The show is either:

  • a deliberate and skillful re-working of familiar horror tropes in nineteenth-century London
  • a clever amalgam of familiar literary characters, much like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but not as dumb
  • a Victorian supernatural drama that brings history and folklore/myth together
  • a showcase for Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and an array of masterful theatrical actors in pristinely constructed sets (I save this one for those who find vampires, etc. tired or distasteful).

In truth, the reason I'm obsessed with the show is all of those things and much more.

Today, as I watched Penny Dreadful's Season 3 premiere, which I clicked to almost immediately after finding it had been released early, I realized that part of the reason this show intrigues me more than any other is the central role it gives knowledge and discovery (which I suspect I cannot discuss here without spoilers), and its simultaneous embrace and willful disregard for modernity (which i will discuss below).

A couple relevant plot points:

  • In Season 3, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) sees a shrink who tells her to do something she's never done before, and so she goes to the Natural History Museum.  She passes through a room of taxidermied creatures, including wolves and scorpions potent with specific symbolism from the previous seasons, and is approached by a strange and handsome man (the curator?) who tells her more about the specimen at which she gazes. (This encounter is pictured above.)
  • In Season 1, after obtaining an evil creature's corpse and finding that it displayed markings like Egyptian hieroglyphics, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) go straight to the British Museum to consult an Egyptologist with an old-fashioned, free-roaming expertise in the subject matter of which most twenty-first century scholars can only dream.

By simultaneous embrace and willful disregard of modernity, I mean this: public museums are an innovation of the late nineteenth century, the period in which this show is set, and they became a means for spurring acceptable social interaction outside the home.  This is no longer the case and is far from how twenty-first-century viewers of the show would understand these spaces.  Yet Penny Dreadful relies on these museums and public institutions of all sorts (botanical gardens, the theater, parks and gardens) to move the plot of the show forward, either by allowing for those near illicit (or actually illicit) social interactions between men or women or as a go-to for acquiring knowledge necessary for fighting the show's monsters.  

In this reliance, it is stylishly, deliciously un-modern, yet all of these interactions and the acquired knowledge have been crafted with the hindsight of a hundred years.  For example, when, near the end of the first season, doctors treat Vanessa's psychological problems as any one of the gendered psychiatric disorders of the period, like neurasthenia, we understand that this is both richly unsurprising to the other characters on the show and socially complicated by the fact that the doctors are incapable of seeing the true demonic sources of her discomfort.  The show cultivates these layers of historical and contemporary understanding with a sophistication unmatched by even the best recent period dramas.

As I've sat here writing this post, I've tried to come up with other examples where museums and similarly educational public spaces played such a deep role.  There is the episode of Downton Abbey where an art historian comes to examine the family's "della Francesca," and there is also the episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor and Amy Pond travel back to Auvers-sur-Oise in the 1880s and uncover the secret alien causes of Vincent's troubles.  But the only show I can think of that consistently engages with museums is Bones, where the museum is often a set piece, a figure of convenience, or simply irrelevant to the plot in the main.

However, in Penny Dreadful, as in Victorian London (and in this I think, too, of the Salon culture of nineteenth-century Paris), the museum and similar public spaces are so ingrained in thought and public consumption of particular social classes that they are inextricably linked to the most crucial events that occur.  Museums, scholars, and curators, as guardians of human culture and intellectual creativity, reveal to Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and the others the tools they need to fight.  Though this show, like many others delving into witches and vampires and the like, has created its own mythology, there are ways in which the history it appropriates remains critically accurate.  And this is crucial to its paradoxically modern and un-modern charm.