Pop culture journalist Theresa DeLucci joins Nightmare’s very own Christie Yant, as well as Angela Watercutter, writer and Wired editor, to discuss the TV series Penny Dreadful. This panel first appeared in July 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the discussion or other episodes.
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In this panel, we’ll be discussing the Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful, a Gothic drama featuring classic characters from Victorian literature such as Dracula, Dorian Gray, and Doctor Frankenstein. The show recently concluded its third and final season, and this will involve spoilers for all three seasons, so just be aware of that. I’m joined by three guests. First up, we’ve got Theresa DeLucci, making her sixth appearance on the show. She’s written about Hannibal and Twin Peaks for Boing Boing, and she’s also a frequent guest on Den of Geek’s You Still Know Nothing, a Game of Thrones podcast. Her article “Five Reasons to Watch Penny Dreadful” recently appeared on Tor.com. Theresa, welcome to the show.
Theresa: Hi, thanks for having me back.
Next up, we’ve got Christie Yant. She’s the associate publisher of Nightmare and Lightspeed and is a writer and editor for the independent comics publisher Kymera Press. Her short fiction appears in books such as The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy and magazines such as Analog and Science Fiction World. Christie, welcome to the show.
Christie: Hey Dave, glad to be back.
Also joining us today is Angela Watercutter. She’s a writer and editor for Wired, where she writes about music, TV, and movies, but mostly movies. She’s also the main person behind the scenes who helps get our posts up on Wired.com each week, and you should also go check out her recent articles “Penny Dreadful Might Be Blood-drenched, But It Ain’t Horror,” and “Five Books You Must Read to Truly Get This Season of Penny Dreadful.” Angela, welcome to the show.
Angela: Thank you so much for having me.
Let’s start off with Theresa. Around this time last year, we were getting ready for our Hannibal panel when it was announced that Hannibal had been canceled. Then, this week, just as we were getting ready for our Penny Dreadful panel, it was announced that Penny Dreadful had been canceled. I can’t help feeling like it’s a bit of a curse or something.
Theresa: Yeah, I think you should stop watching shows.
Or at least stop doing panels about them, right? Why don’t you tell us a bit about overall what is your reaction to this news that Penny Dreadful has been canceled?
Theresa: Horribly shocked and disappointed. At least with Hannibal, I think the showrunners really knew that it was coming and had planned for it more. I know John Logan, the creator of Penny Dreadful, says this was always his design to have it end the way it did, but it really did not come across that way in the last two episodes. It felt very rushed. I’m just bummed because Penny Dreadful became my favorite show since Hannibal, and where am I going to get my dark, sexy, blood-drenched, smart drama now?
Christie, what are your feelings about this turn of events?
Christie: I second all of that. I was so dismayed. There were so many threads that they kicked off in even season one that they never even remotely came back to. I have so many questions unanswered. I feel the same way. The last two episodes were so disappointing to me. I was not at all happy with the way it wrapped up. I’m hoping against hope that some other network picks it up and that they get to move on. But, I don’t know, the way they ended it, who knows if they even can?
So, you’re not buying this idea that this was the plan all along?
Christie: Oh no, not at all. There are too many questions unanswered.
Angela, what do you think about all this?
Angela: I would cosign everything that everybody else said. I appreciated the fact that it was dreamed up as a three-season arc. And TV now never really has this ending. It either gets canceled or keeps meandering every time it gets renewed, and we end up with a lot of these unanswered questions. I appreciated that they set out with this sort of arc in mind, but at the same time, to everybody else’s point, it didn’t actually end anything. It just sort of stopped happening. There was no real resolution for me when I saw it. After I saw that ending, I thought, well, I guess that’s one way to do it. But then, maybe they could just reboot the show with a whole other series of these Gothic tales. You could have Penny Dreadful and have it be a more serialized thing, but then they announced that it had just been canceled outright, and so I was like, well, I guess we don’t even have that dream anymore. That was a big disappointment for me. It wasn’t that they were just ending this three-season arc, but that they were ending the concept, which I found to be quite disappointing.
I know that you’ve been covering Penny Dreadful a bit for Wired; do you have any behind-the-scenes insight? Or do you know anything about the production or the people involved that might shed any light on this?
Angela: I interviewed John Logan about the third season before it had started, and he had mentioned in that conversation that even before they launched season one, like when he was pitching the show, that he had envisioned a three-season run that ended with this confrontation where Dracula shows up. When he said that, he was like, “Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have seasons four and five,” but I look back on it now, and I was like, maybe that was always kind of lip service. You don’t want to show your cards too early in that regard. Maybe this always was the plan and this was always what was going to happen. He’s now working on the script for the next Alien movie. He has other things going on. Perhaps this is just sort of the way it was always meant to be, unfortunately.
I’ve been watching interviews with him all day, and he mentioned a number of times that he had ideas for seasons four and five planned. It just adds to Theresa’s point that it doesn’t seem like this was the plan all along to me.
Theresa: I think it adds a certain weird expectation. If they went into the third season press with all the advertisements being like, “The final season, the final showdown,” I don’t know if that would have helped or hindered. I think maybe he felt that that would hinder it. To have people feel like, “Oh, bummer, it’s the last season, well I guess I won’t start watching it now.” But they could have done it in a way with like “The final showdown between Vanessa and Dracula.” Play that up a little bit. It could go both ways. I can see why he wouldn’t want to have everyone know it was the final season. I feel that with Hannibal because it was always such an on the bubble show, and always at risk of getting canceled, that I think Bryan Fuller always ended every season like it could be the last because he felt like it genuinely could.
Did you guys have any sense that this show might get canceled because of the ratings? How has the show been doing in the ratings? Was it not a surprise because of that?
Theresa: The season three premiere was definitely a lot lower than the season two premiere and the season two finale. So, viewership was going down, and that does kind of tend to happen with most TV shows, but I guess even on cable there’s a certain level of expectation of viewership that I don’t think the show was getting. Just culturally people talking about it, I didn’t know many people who watch Penny Dreadful, it was nice to finally meet people . . . and I felt like I just started meeting people this year who are like, “Oh yeah, I love Penny Dreadful. It’s so great. Why is everyone talking about Game of Thrones?” Or, “Why is it airing at the same time as Game of Thrones? That’s ridiculous.”
Christie: Yes, that was a mistake.
Theresa: Everything is on Sunday night now. You could put something on Thursday or Monday would be nice. Outlander airs on Saturdays. It’s not in any danger. People watch TV differently now.
Christie: I was going to say, if I didn’t have everything TiVo’d, I don’t know which of those two shows I would pick. Well, I would pick Penny Dreadful. My husband would pick Game of Thrones, and then it would be fisticuffs every Sunday. It just seems like a tragic error. And, like you, I feel like I hadn’t been hearing anybody talk about it either, and it sounds like you two have done some incredibly scholarly outreach to the people on the subject. I just wrote my first newsletter on Penny Dreadful two weeks ago, encouraging people to see it, right before they announced that they were cancelling it. I was like, “Why didn’t I start doing this sooner? Why wasn’t I talking it up and letting people know?” But, again, not everybody has a TiVo, so if it came down to Game of Thrones versus Penny Dreadful, I don’t know what would have happened.
I blame myself, because if we had done this panel a year ago, probably millions of people would have watched the show and that might have saved it.
Theresa: All right, well we’re going to blame you too then, Dave.
Angela, you said in one of your articles that you wrote that you describe yourself as the resident Penny Dreadful evangelist. Could you talk a little bit about what your experiences have been?
Angela: The long and short of it was that even back in season one I was ringing the bell in the halls, like, why aren’t more people watching this show? Essentially because you want to have at least one person to have that watercooler conversation with when you come in on Monday. I slowly brought a few people around to my cause, but not nearly the numbers. It’s sort of to that point of what we were talking about earlier. It was up against Game of Thrones. Come in Monday morning into the Wired office, and everybody just wants to talk about Game of Thrones, which is fine, I want to too, but guys, you’re already watching Game of Thrones, you’re already watching Veep and Silicon Valley. Add on an extra hour and watch Penny Dreadful. I need somebody to talk to about this. I was the one kind of championing it from the beginning because it is that, like I wrote in my piece, there is that thing of it didn’t really always have a genre. I feel like people who liked horror or fantasy or certain sort of baroque storytelling weren’t really sure if it was for them and it took a while to get people’s attention and make them realize that there was something for everybody on that show. I had to keep poking at it as much as possible to get other folks in the office to watch along.
Theresa, did you have any experience trying to get other people to watch this show?
Theresa: I did. It took me a while to watch the show too. I wasn’t watching from season one. I would see the ads everywhere and be like, “Well, it looks interesting. Possibly cheesy.” I didn’t have Showtime at the time, but now my parents do, so there are other means of watching it. I was not interested in watching it at first, and also because Sunday was so crowded I wondered when am I going to find time? But once I finally did watch the first season, I was blown away. So, then it became a matter of going to all my horror-loving friends, particularly women, being like, no, you have to watch this show. Give it a chance. You’ll love it. Dorian Gray sleeps with everybody. It’s crazy. You’re going to love it. And they did, and now this week they’ve all been really mad that I’ve got them watching another show that yet again got canceled.
When you say particularly women, why do you think that the show appeals particularly to women?
Theresa: I’d say it’s about seventy percent Vanessa Ives, thirty percent Lily or Brona Croft. Incredible performances. My number one reason would be Eva Green as Vanessa Ives. I wasn’t very familiar with her outside of Casino Royale and The Dreamers. Her early work with Lars von Triers. I was blown away by how physical her performance was, with such a limitation of this presentation of a Victorian woman in a very rigid society, and here’s this woman who is fighting for her soul. It came across as so real and sympathetic and truly frightening. Particularly scenes in the first season with Madame Kali and the séance. I’m like, where is her Emmy? Then, once we get into the whole Bride of Frankenstein thing, that’s obviously incredibly tied in to women with agency. It’s really smartly done. When Sansa Stark was disappointing me because her storyline was such a bummer last year, I was like, well, at least there’s Lily. Lily is giving me everything I want.
Angela: There was such a great thing with those two characters, particularly Vanessa Ives, I think, because of the subject matter, going into this everybody thought it was going to be The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, maybe it was, but they took out the gentlemen part. It was all these great stories from Dracula to Frankenstein to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the center of them, this time, was female. That was sort of the twist that got put on all these things, and I think that made all those stories that you had heard before so much more interesting and new and vibrant.
Christie: Even the supporting cast is full of women, right? They took the Dr. Seward character, who was male in the books, cast a woman, Patti LuPone. She was fantastic in both roles. In season two, the John Clayton story arc . . . I just had this total feminist melt down at the end of that arc. I wept for like two hours. I felt like every injustice ever perpetrated against women was contained in this one arc in season two between Vanessa and the John Clayton character. I haven’t actually done the numbers on this, but I don’t think that they reached parity because the primary cast is still mostly male apart from Vanessa and Lily/Brona. But, they went far in bringing in villains who are women and supporting characters who are women, and it’s so refreshing.
It’s interesting, Theresa, because you mention that Hannibal was your favorite show, and then this became your favorite show, and I really see a lot of similarities between this and Hannibal in terms of the sumptuousness of it, which is the best word I can think to describe it.
Theresa: That’s a perfect word for it.
I didn’t know anything about John Logan, but just from watching this show, I felt fairly confident that he was a gay man, and I watched some interviews with him today, and he is, and that didn’t surprise me at all. Brian Fuller, who did Hannibal, was also a gay man. I just wonder if there’s something about that sensibility that comes through very clearly in both of these shows.
Theresa: Yeah, I think Logan and Fuller are both so empathetic towards outsiders. I think that’s something that Will Graham, Hannibal Lecter, Vanessa Ives, Lily, Dorian are all lonely, estranged characters, but then adding this element of over-the-top theatrics to it really is what pushes it over. This visual style as well gets across loneliness. It’s really a show about outsiders, people who don’t fit in, and they come up with found families, and murder husbands, and wolf guardians. Things like that. It really is relatable. It’s a warped kind of family, but they’re all families on their show.
I mentioned, Angela, that you have this article “Penny Dreadful Might Be Blood-drenched, But It Ain’t Horror,” and you said a little bit about this earlier, but I was wondering if you could expand on that. In what sense is this not horror?
Angela: I think it’s horror because it has bloody scenes, but its purpose is not to scare you. It is Gothic romance, right? It’s this idea that it’s dark and twisted and kind of works on you in that way, but it’s not meant to frighten in the traditional sense that I think horror does. Like the Gothic romantic novels of the eighteenth century, it brought through this idea of the romance and darkness that’s involved in living on the other side. There was just a lot of that that I think came through in Penny Dreadful that bookworms really probably appreciated. It was such an interesting and wonderful thing to see on the screen.
Say a little more about that because you wrote this article too about the literary influences on Penny Dreadful.
Angela: I think that the basic texts have been Frankenstein, obviously, Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, and then this season they brought in just a touch of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’d be curious what the panel thought because we talked about the sort of unanswered questions. I felt like they kind of brought that in this season and then didn’t do a lot with it. When I interviewed John Logan, I asked him about the book Carmilla, which is this sort of lesbian vampire tale from, I think, 1872. He was very surprised when I brought that up because it’s a little bit more obscure of an influence, but that was something that he felt very strongly about when he was doing the whole Lily storyline this year because she brought in Justine, that woman that her and Dorian found at the very beginning of the season, I think in episode two. She kind of became an acolyte of Lily’s, and they sort of formed this intense female friendship that became the heart and soul of the show, and that’s one of the things that Logan extrapolated from Carmilla. Obviously there are other sort of literary influences throughout the three seasons, but those have been, I think, the biggest ones.
I agree with you about the Dr. Jekyll story. It’s one of the things where it’s very, very difficult to believe that that’s what they had in mind, to wrap it up like that. I actually saw in an interview that he had said that he had originally wanted the character to be Dr. Moreau, but they couldn’t get the rights to that, so they ended up going with Dr. Jekyll instead.
Angela: With the way season three ended, if they did want to reboot it past the Dracula arc for a fourth season, I thought that Dr. Jekyll would have been where it would have gone. It seemed like that was an intentionally unanswered question, and so I was surprised, again, when it was canceled. I thought for that, that would be the window into the next segment of the show.
Christie, what did you think of these literary influences? Were you familiar with them, or what did you think of how they were used?
Christie: I was familiar with them, and it’s what drew me to the show to begin with. It just warmed my Gothy little heart. I was all over this thing. I had to go back and look at some details. I had to figure out who Nina was, for instance, because I couldn’t remember. It had been too long. And then when they bring in Harker when she gets married later on, it was like, “Oh, okay. Now that all makes sense.” It felt like for someone who hasn’t read these things in a long time and is not a scholar of them, per se, but certainly my taste and influences have come from that sort of place. I did feel like there were a lot of Easter eggs for me to find throughout. That was cool for me, just going through the entire three seasons. I was really excited about Jekyll, in particular, as an addition, and I really felt that maybe they were going to go in a direction of redeeming themselves for a very particular sin that they had committed in seasons one and two, and that is the sin of killing off every minority character that they had. I was really hoping that Dr. Jekyll was going to get a longer run and that maybe they’d start to correct that, because that was something that really did bother me about the show.
I guess we’ll talk then about the season two finale, which is sort of where I started feeling like the show went off the rails a bit, for me, because I really liked the character of Sembene. I thought he was really underused throughout the whole show, and then when he dies in that episode, I was like, did they seriously just have the black guy die first?
Christie: And Angelique also. It was like, well, you did something right guys. You put them in, but then you killed them off. No.
I think I found the season two finale particularly irksome because it just seemed completely illogical to me that Sir Malcolm would just charge by himself into the witch castle and then that Vanessa Ives would do the same thing shortly thereafter. So then to have such a bizarre, nonsensical course of action lead to the death of this character I really liked was very frustrating.
Christie: And who sacrificed himself so that the white person would live. I had a moment there where I was like, “Mmm, guys. I don’t know.”
Angela: You know this is a trope, right?
Christie: Oh, it’s a trope, I know.
Angela: That’s what you want to say to them, though.
Christie: Right, yeah. And like, how do they not know that? How do they not know? I think Hollywood and Burbank are still trying to catch up to a lot of the things that we have learned in prose fiction, and comics, and literature. We’re not willing to perpetrate those tropes anymore, but it seems like they’re still catching up.
Theresa: Sir Malcolm makes me all kinds of uncomfortable when it comes to things like that, particularly in the beginning of the season. I believe his name was Sembene, and as soon as they show him baking the cake and everything like that, you’re like, “Oh man, that’s it. They’re giving him a back story. It’s coming. I know what’s going to happen in the finale.” And then to open up season three with Sir Malcolm in Africa, bemoaning, like, “Oh, where did everybody go? They’re all slaves in the diamond mine.” I’m like, “Who helped contribute to that? You’re terrible. And now you’re complaining about it.” “There’s no new places to explore. Oh, let me go to America. Oh, now I’ve got a new person of color as my sidekick who is also kind of a really uncomfortable trope.” This noble native spirit, Kaetenay. I wanted to love him so much because I love Wes Studi. He’s a fantastic actor. But the character of Kaetenay never got out of that mystical, noble Native American, spirit guide, skinwalker. “You are all Apache now.” It was just very stilted and just so odd. It really did not make me like Sir Malcolm very much at all. And then we meet Dr. Jekyll, who I think did have a very nuanced, sympathetic backstory. By making him a person of mixed race and what it did to his mother, how he was outcast in both countries. I thought they handled that very well. It’s like two extremes in the same show and in the same season.
Right, and Christie, you mentioned the Angelique character as well. Do you want to say anything more about that character?
Christie: Yeah, I was so thrilled that she was there. It made me so happy. You don’t often see trans people in mainstream television, with some notable exceptions, of course, but I loved her character. I loved her relationship with Dorian. I thought that was going to go somewhere. I was really excited to keep her around, and then, once again, they killed her off. Again, I have to ask, how did you guys not know that that wasn’t okay?
Even aside from it being problematic in that way, just from a plot standpoint, it seemed very strange to me that that character’s story didn’t seem to develop the way that I was expecting it to be or thought it should be.
Christie: Yeah, it seemed thin. I don’t know what their intention was, obviously, but I just felt like that could have gone so far, and it didn’t.
Theresa: She was such an interesting character to introduce because I think what happens with a lot of period shows is you get very sort of white, heteronormative cast because they can just be like, “Well, that’s how it was then.” They kind of did the right thing by introducing these characters, but then, like you said, then they killed them off. It’s like, “But why did you do that?” Especially with Angelique. Actually, it could have been any of the folks that we’ve been talking about. There was a different version of that story where Angelique and Dorian’s storyline came to an end, but then she just went somewhere else. It didn’t have to fall into that trope of killing off that character.
What did you guys make of Lily’s deranged feminist revolution storyline?
Theresa: I think Gamergaters love her now. That’s one of the things that I loved about the show the most, just like how madcap, over-the-top, like, “Oh my God, let’s listen to the Bride of Frankenstein have a fantastic monologue about female agency.” I am on a lot of podcasts about Game of Thrones and other shows, and I feel like I’m brought in to talk about the feminist perspective or how the women are handled, and I think Penny Dreadful is like, legit, out in the open, more than most any other show that’s been on TV in a long time, about female agency and women and fear of women in power. I could talk about this stuff and not be like, “Oh, you’re just seeing stuff that isn’t there.” Or, “Why are you always calling out the feminist things?” It’s so obvious in Penny Dreadful. Lily said it all. When she spoke to Victor and the creature about, “You think you know me. You don’t know anything about me. You created me. You gave me no choice, but I’m aware, and this is what I’m going to do, and you’re all going to kneel before me.” I thought it was brilliant, because when people usually think of the Bride of Frankenstein, she hisses and screams. She doesn’t ever get to speak for herself.
I thought her monologue when she’s beseeching Victor for her freedom at the end was incredibly powerful and very, very well done.
Theresa: Yes. I legit had a little tear roll down when she’s begging, “Please don’t take my daughter away from me by wiping out my memory.” I thought that was heartbreaking.
Angela: There was also that great moment earlier in the season where she was sitting outside, Justine, where they were sitting outside that café, and they see the Suffragettes walking by, and Justine asks Lily, “Do you agree with them?” And she’s like, “No, our enemies are the same, but they seek equality.” And Justine’s like, “Well, what are we after?” And Justine says, “Mastery.” There was that moment of being like, no, no, no, it’s such that over-the-top thing that she played so well in a couple of key moments this season.
Getting back then to the literary influences because, speaking of the Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster, I think most people who haven’t read the novel think of the creature as being the Boris Karloff kind of moaning, shambling giant and not like the Shelly-quoting, soulful creature from the novel. I really liked that they brought the creature from the novel into this TV show, which I think is a lot more interesting.
Theresa: Agreed. I wasn’t a huge fan of him for the first two seasons. I really was mad when he killed the second experiment guy.
No, but that was amazing. Oh my God.
Theresa: That was quite an entrance. That was amazing, but it was like, no, Mr. Prometheus or whoever, you were so nice.
Theresa: Then, oh my God, “What happened?”
I thought that was brilliant, Theresa. That was probably my favorite moment of the first season because Dr. Frankenstein has created this Proteus creature who seems perfectly nice, and you’re like, “Wait, this isn’t the story. What’s going on here?” Then when the original monster just rips him in half, it’s like, “Oh, now I see what’s going on here. I was not expecting that.”
Theresa: That was amazing. Poor Proteus, but yeah, that was absolutely incredible. Definitely one of the best moments of the first season where the show really subverted and surprised. Season two is kind of like, “Shut up, you’re really whiny and entitled. You’re not owed love. Nobody is owed love just by merely existing. Shut up, monster. Go away.” This last season, I liked him more when he was starting to recover some memories and he was visiting his family. I thought that was really poignant and done really nicely. I love him in Antarctica too. Seeing how they’ve literally walked him out of that situation with the stranded ship and the dying people. It was really well done.
That seems kind of weird to me because I felt like at the end of season two he’s sailing off to the arctic, and I was expecting that to really be a major part of the story, and then it was kind of like, “Eh, screw this, let’s go back to London. It’s more interesting there.”
Christie: It was a nice nod to the novel, which opens with Frankenstein pursuing his monster across the arctic, snow, ice, cold, desolation.
Theresa: Beyond the wall.
Christie: [Laughter] Beyond the wall, exactly. It was nice to get that nod. I felt like that was one of those Easter eggs, right? Unless you’ve actually read it, you wouldn’t know that that was a thing. But, it was short and they brought him back to London where he needed to be because that’s where the action was. I looked at it as a cool Easter egg.
Angela, do you have any other favorite moments from seasons one and two?
Angela: I did really enjoy when Vanessa confronted the witches and the whole “know your master” moment. That was the standup and cheer moment, I think, from that season, for me. As much as the way she was dealt with ultimately was not great, I loved everything that Angelique was in. I think that was mostly in season two. There were so many great moments. They played ping-pong at one point, and I was just like, “This is fantastic.” I don’t even know if this has anything to do with the plot, but I just love that these two characters are having a date and going to play ping-pong now. There were many great moments like that.
Theresa: I think one of my favorite surprises, from season one in particular, was Josh Hartnett. I really kind of shamefully had not a very high opinion of him as an actor. I hadn’t seen him in very much. I liked him in Sin City for the ten minutes he was in it. Could not name many other movies he was in.
Theresa: That was so long ago. I don’t remember it. So, he kind of blew me away with his performance too. I was like, “Wow, I’m really liking Josh Hartnett in this. He’s not the poor man’s Ethan Hawke. He’s really quite something in this.” They were so heavily hinting that he was the Wolfman. I think I was a little slow on the draw on that one. I didn’t quite get it. Didn’t get that that was coming until it did and then you were like, “Oh, shit, he’s The Wolfman. Duh.”
How were they heavily hinting? I could see how they were hinting, but I don’t see how they were heavily hinting it.
Theresa: Well, with all the massacres and the “someone’s responsible.” I just felt like when I watched it the second time, I was like, “Oh yeah, there were little clues here with his blackouts,” and yes, there is something else going on here. He’s got another personality. I thought maybe he was Jack the Ripper. So then, when he was the Wolfman, you were really surprised.
The only hint, really, in retrospect was that there’s the scene where he confronts these three wolves in one of the really early episodes and they leave him alone.
Theresa: Yeah, and then after that it was these murders happening around London, and something that seemed supernatural was involved with it. I was like, “He’s the only one we don’t know all that much about. He’s a stranger here in London. There’s no one else to backup any of his stories. He’s kind of a question mark.” I was very surprised when he turned out to be the Wolfman, but then in retrospect, I was like, “Yeah, I could see it.”
Christie, do you have any other favorite moments that you want to mention?
Christie: Yeah, and Ethan, actually, is at the center of it. I was skeptical about him too at the beginning, but he definitely won me over. Largely because of the relationship with Brona, which is one of my great frustrations, which I hope we’ll get back to in a moment. But my favorite moment in, I guess that was season one, was Ethan exorcising the demon out of nowhere. We just rewatched, and chills, chills again. And I didn’t see it coming, and I’m so frustrated that we never found out why he was able to do that. When did he join the priesthood? At no point is this explained to us, but I found that that was just a thrilling moment. After everything that Vanessa has been through. He’s been hanging back this whole time, and it turns out that he has this fundamental power that is complimentary to her, I don’t know if you would call it power, but affliction, we’ll call it. Again, I was hoping that was going to go somewhere. I was waiting for us to find out where in his background this came from. They kept calling him the Wolf of God, but is that just because he was a wolf man or was there more to it than that? Did he get this power by becoming a werewolf, or was there something more? Because it felt to me like there was some sort of religious undercurrent going on there that had to do with something more than however he became a werewolf. Maybe everyone else got it and I didn’t.
No, I completely agree with you, Christie, that all the stuff with the prophecies and the Wolf of God and Lucifer never really gelled for me in season three. I guess that leads into some of my frustrations with the series finale where this resonates with religious people in a way that it doesn’t for me as a non-religious person. I’ve heard John Logan talk about how he sees this as the character’s arc to lose her faith in season two and then get it back in season three. It just fell completely flat for me. I don’t know how you guys felt about it.
Theresa: I was super disappointed in the ending. It’s not so bad a series finale that I can never go back and rewatch the series, not like Lost or the last seasons of Battlestar Galactica or Dexter. I wanted to set fire to everything about Dexter’s finale. But, it was so flat and rushed. Yeah, I thought the ending with her seeing the lord, like, “I see the Lord,” and it did make a little sense in a way because that’s what her big doubt was. That God would never find her again, and she was so lost in the darkness. I get it on one level, but they could’ve made it more epic and more dramatic. It just felt way too rushed. She was separate from Ethan for so long, and then to have the Wolf of God protect her, and then he shoots her? You don’t have to be anything special to shoot Vanessa. That was so lame. Like, what? Really? That’s it? Just a nice, tasteful little bullet in her side to make her all dramatic and a pale pretty corpse. Oh, it was so lame. Boo.
Angela: And the end with a kiss, or whatever that line is. I was like, “Really?” It turned Twilight in thirty seconds or less all of the sudden. It got a little too mushy, I think, for me, at the end.
Christie: I’m rolling my eyes just at the recollection of those scenes. I have nothing good to say about the finale, and we just watched it last night. So, no.
Theresa: The wound is still fresh.
Christie: We sat there just kind of going, “What just happened? Really? That’s it?”
Theresa: We didn’t even get to see her hanging with Dracula. We saw her in her cool black dress for five minutes. I’m like, what the hell were you doing with Dracula? Where did this miasma come from? Can we get a little more with that? Dracula was nothing. He was like, “Yeah, I’m just going to hang on the front porch and play cards. While she’s over in the back room staring at a brick wall or something.” What? What?
Right, and in season three both Vanessa and Ethan have scenes where they embrace the darkness that I just found comprehensibly unpersuasive. They just didn’t seem at all like what those characters would do in any way, shape, or form.
Theresa: Totally agree.
Christie: Until you mentioned it a moment ago, I had forgotten that Ethan and Vanessa had been lovers. Because I’m still wondering what the hell happens to Ethan and Brona. How did they never, ever, ever see each other again?
Theresa: I know. So unsatisfying.
Christie: How did that arc never come back around? Because that was the compelling one to me. I didn’t understand . . . the Ethan and Vanessa thing just . . . zero sparks. Zero chemistry as far as I can tell. But Ethan and Brona/Lily, they’re running in the same circles, but they never see each other again. He never finds out what happened to the person that he was so desperately in love with all that time.
Theresa: The Ethan/Brona thing was inconceivable that we never get any closure on that. Even more than we never see Dr. Jekyll hulk out. Oh my God, all season, “You’ve got quite a temper there, mister. Oh, you better watch yourself or you’ll lose control.” And then nothing. “Oh, okay, peace out. Bye.” I really thought they were going a whole different direction with that. When they first met I was like, “Oh, there’s more to Victor than we know.” I don’t know. Maybe it’s me being too literal about it, but when Jekyll is getting all close up to Victor, and they’re talking about how they experimented in college, I was like, “Oh, this is an interesting angle on Victor and Dr. Jekyll. I could go for this. This is interesting.” And then that never happened either, and he never even hulked out. It got canceled too soon. I thought by the end, the creature and Lily, they were going to bring the band back together for the finale. No, the creature and Lily just walk off. Dorian’s standing in a room for eternity. But then, weirdly, everyone is in Bedlam in the basement. Like, oh, hey Victor, come with us while we go fight Dracula for this woman you vaguely remember from a year ago, maybe. It was just so odd.
Speaking of how this should have ended, I liked this listener comment from Agnes Denny, she says what she would have liked to see was the Catriona character saves Vanessa and they ride off together.
Christie: Can we talk about her for a moment? Ugh, what was that? Again, you cannot tell me that this was supposed to be the final season. You just introduced her, and I don’t know who she is. I looked her up. She doesn’t seem to be any kind of canon character. Insights?
Angela: I thought she had such a great introduction, and then the couple of interactions that she had with Vanessa in those two episodes where they were really clicking, I was like, “This is going somewhere. I support this 100 percent.” Then she just came and killed a couple of vampires in the end, and then we never know what happens to her after that. She was like this really awesome super woman, and then she was just gone. I was like, “Wait, but I liked her. Where did she go? Bring her back. She was great.”
Theresa: I kind of hated her. She was like the Poochie of Penny Dreadful. I did like her introduction. I was like, “Oh, this researcher into death.” I liked her with Vanessa. But, the more she hung out, and it was like, “Oh, she’s great at everything.” She was such that Mary Sue kind of character. She learned all these languages, and she fights karate, and she wears pants, and has short hair. She doesn’t feel any of the loneliness and isolation that Vanessa does. I guess we didn’t get to know her very well. Then she’s showing up in the finale, and Ethan and Sir Malcolm are making eyes at her, especially Sir Malcolm. It’s like, “Blech, gross, dude.” You should be looking at Dr. Seward. Be age appropriate. It just felt like they were trying so hard. Like, look at this cool character. It reminded me of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. That kind of thing. Too anachronistic for me. I was not feeling it. I did read something saying they did think about doing a spin off with Catriona and Sir Malcolm, perhaps. But, I wouldn’t have watched it for very long.
I agree with you that she didn’t seem to fit the milieu as well as the other characters did. I thought she was cool. I think if they had introduced her abilities and character over a much longer span of episodes, I think it would have worked better for me, but just how suddenly she comes and does all this stuff. It was another thing that felt rushed and weird toward the end of the show.
Theresa: I felt like since Ethan and Sir Malcolm were away they needed to introduce a character by Vanessa who could be in physical fights, like physically protect Vanessa because Vanessa wasn’t a fighter like that. But Vanessa has her own powers. She doesn’t need a ninja, fencer lady.
I’m kind of struck that I think Theresa and Christie both said this was their favorite show on TV, if I’ve got that right? And then Angela you said you were evangelizing for it, but then it sounds like you guys have really mixed feelings about the show by the end. Do you want to talk about that a bit?
Christie: Sure, I mean, every show, no matter what, I’m never going to be 100 percent satisfied with anything, but I felt like it spoke to my creative sensibilities. Again, it warmed my Gothy little heart. All the nods to Gothic literature, and again, they did so many things right. They really did. It was really only in the last two or three episodes that they lost me. I think they got canceled, and whatever they say, it wasn’t their fault. You cannot convince me that this was supposed to end right now. But, of course, I think as writers and creators, we’re always looking for things that we can improve in our own work and in the entertainment that we consume. So, if I’m critical of things like killing off Angelique, that’s why. Because I would like to see it done better. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love the show, and it doesn’t mean that I didn’t love her. I did. That’s why I was upset. But, again, still my favorite show. Now it’s gone, and I don’t know what’s going to replace it.
Theresa: I have no idea what could fill the Penny Dreadful-shaped hole in my heart, which was still healing from Hannibal. Like Christie, I was also teenage Goth, inside still Goth, still covered in eyeliner. What I loved about this, Penny Dreadful and Orphan Black both had licensed agreements with Hot Topic, so you could buy scorpion tops and little cheapie knock off corset kind of things and bustles at Hot Topic, and teenage me would have gone berserk for this. What a perfect thing. Between that and Orphan Black, how good is that to be a teen right now loving this kind of stuff? Yeah, you can love something and have problems with it. I’ve been reviewing Game of Thrones for six years now, and there’re things I love about it, and there’re things that I will take them to task heavily for. They’re not mutually exclusive.
Angela, do you want to add anything to that?
Angela: I feel like any time a show ends, there’s that bittersweet period where it was never going to live up to what you wanted it to be, and especially something like this where the end was a pseudo-surprise. I feel like there’s always that sense of dread, pardon the pun. So, I think that’s just where I’m at with it. I will never not have loved three-quarters, five-eighths, or whatever of this show, and the fact that it ended on more of a whimper than I wanted it to doesn’t smear the entire show for me. It’s still going to be one of my favorite shows. I’m definitely also going to have that Penny Dreadful-sized hole in my heart for a while, which is probably what Penny Dreadful would have wanted for me. In that regard, it ended as it should have. It’s a letdown, but I will take many memories . . . what was the line? “Think of me only when you dance.” Then it’s like, “Well, I shall have to dance more often.” I will dance more often now.
We mentioned that the ratings for this were never what they needed to be. Do you think that was inevitable, that it couldn’t have been more popular just given its nature, or do you think that they could’ve tweaked some things that would have made it appeal to a larger audience without losing what you guys liked about it?
Theresa: That’s a tough question because it had all that. Penny Dreadful itself, even what it’s named after, has all those lowest common denominator carrots like tits and gore, you know? Everybody likes that. Well, most people like that in their entertainment. It’s an easy hook to be look, “Oh look, cable, murder, sex, hard-R rating.” But to make it more accessible, I don’t know. Maybe people were turned off by the historical nature of it, the period piece and the literary aspect of it. Maybe people are burned out from Game of Thrones and Outlander. There are all these other historical kind of shows on, and this one was so different. I think if anyone could figure out what would have made them be more popular, there would be a lot more great television shows on.
Angela: I think that there were so many things that were . . . I don’t know if they were specific to a certain kind of audience, but when we talk about the Easter eggs for people who have read, say, Dracula or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or something like that, there are those things where it would catch on with that core audience, and if it didn’t catch on beyond that, after a certain point then maybe it never would have, and if it would have tried to appeal more broadly then all of the original fans who came for those little Easter eggs, and those things that said “I like that thing you like,” then maybe it would have lost its core fan base in the process. It’s a very tough question to answer, I think.
Angela, in one of you articles you quote John Logan: “This show is just too hyper-literate.” And he says, “Thank you, I agree.”
Angela: Yeah, I think if you tell him his show is “bookish” it’s probably the biggest compliment you could ever possibly give him. I think he also said something to the effect of his show will probably hold the record somewhere for the most long phrases of poetry ever recited on a television show. He’s gotten away with citing more Wordsworth than any show runner in the history of cable. But, again, that’s sort of a specific thing that appeals to a certain set of us who wore eyeliner in high school, or at least exclusively black eye liner in high school.
Christie: I think it’s literate. It’s dark. And I think the grotesquerie of it is really a turn off to a lot of people. Just even the opening sequence, there’s dissection going on. That appeals to people who like Hannibal. It’s a real turn off to people who don’t. It would have lost its heart if it didn’t have those very specific kind of notes to it, and it’s what drew me to the show. I love the dark and the grotesque. I love the demons, and the reanimations, and the resurrectionists. I’m into all of that. Not everybody is. Most of my local friends are not. I would not be able to get any of them to watch that show, but where we kind of intellectually and creatively live, we can find our kind on the internet quite easily, but I don’t know that we necessarily are reflective of the population at large.
Right, because this show is very deliberately paced, and I would say when I first started watching it, I really liked that, and it felt very artistic and serious in a way that most television doesn’t feel to me. But, then by season three, I felt like some of the scenes were so long. I was just like, “Oh, get on with it.” I do wonder if they had tightened up the pacing a little bit if that would have cast a wider net as far as potential fans.
Angela: It might have prevented some attrition for sure. I don’t know about getting more later. I agree. There were some slogging things that were happening in season two and three, but I think that would be more a matter of losing people than not gaining them at that point. Because it seems like it would be hard to jump into, wouldn’t it?
Theresa: I feel that way a lot about most TV nowadays. I think the way people view TV is starting to change because they can binge it on demand whenever they want. I didn’t get into Penny Dreadful until after the first season had aired, and then I spent a really awesome weekend just watching it for hours on end and enjoying it, but I couldn’t imagine going into it in season two, fresh. We don’t watch TV like that anymore. You can always go back and find it on Netflix, find it on demand, streaming on Amazon. I don’t think people expect to come into a second season or a third season new. I think it presents a challenge for show runners with how are they going to grow an audience by word of mouth if they’re not getting enough people to actually watch it because I think critics like the show. I don’t think they liked it as much as they liked Hannibal, and Hannibal had an even more active fan base on social media. Penny Dreadful, I really can’t say that much about it. I don’t know many people who even have Showtime in general, which is going to be really weird for the new Twin Peaks series.
One other thing I wonder that might have killed off the show is how expensive it is to produce. I mentioned the sumptuousness of it. You just look at it and it looks like it cost a lot of money to make. One scene that jumped out at me, in particular, is there’s the big dance ball in Dorian Gray’s mansion where then all the costumes get soaked in blood, and I was like, “Oh my God, how much did it cost to have all those costumes and all that fake blood and everything.” I just couldn’t believe the scale of that scene.
Angela: I don’t know what the cost-benefit analysis is for something like that, but I hear what you’re saying. That could have been something that definitely when you look at a balance sheet, like, “Well, is this giving us what we want here?”
We’re pretty much out of time now, any final thoughts on Penny Dreadful? Theresa, final thoughts, anything else you want to say on Penny Dreadful?
Theresa: I still will look forward to watching episodes again. It will always hold a special place in my heart, but I think I will come up with my own alternate head canons after season two, when we see Vanessa becoming a master of her inner dark in her soul. I’ll just try to imagine my own story. And also where Victor and Dr. Jekyll are murder husbands of a different sort.
I forgot to mention something. The Angelique character was played by an actor named Jonny Beauchamp, and my girlfriend, Stephanie, was actually good friends with him growing up, and they used to pretend to be witches together.
Christie: No way. That’s amazing.
Theresa: So jealous.
And so when I met her she mentioned, “Oh, there was this guy, Johnny Beauchamp I was friends with, and he moved to another school, and we lost track of him, and I tried to Google him, and we couldn’t find what had happened to him, and then it just turned out that he had been bullied so badly that he decided to leave school and go to become an actor.” So then he just showed up. He was in the Stonewall movie, there was something else he was in too. It was pretty interesting to have him show up in this thing that we were watching.
Theresa: That makes me extra mad about Angelique.
Christie: Likewise. Well, may success be the best revenge for him.
Christie, any final thoughts on Penny Dreadful?
Christie: Yes, someone please, please, please bring it back. I’m having a Firefly moment, guys. This is really not okay. I guess if no one is going to, then I’m going to go write some Brona and Ethan fan fic.
Theresa: I think I smell an anthology brewing. Continue on your favorite shows in thinly veiled fan fiction.
Christie: I like it. I’ll see what I can do.
Angela, final thoughts?
Angela: I would say, if nothing else, please find another home for Eva Green on cable. I just need her to be in something that I get to watch every week. It doesn’t have to be all year long. It can be a ten- or twelve-episode arc. I feel like she’s an actress who’s always great, and I’m always so happy to see her, but I never see her enough, so please get her another HBO show or Cinemax, Showtime show. If we can’t get Penny Dreadful back, at least get me Eva Green back. The letter writing campaign starts now. That’s all I’ll say about that.
I wanted to mention, man, no one plays possessed like Eva Green. Oh man. She’s absolutely terrifying.
Angela: Her eyes go gaunt, and yeah, there’s something expressive about her face and her bone structure that she can relay that so well without even thinking about it. It’s incredible.
Theresa: The way she drops her voice. You can just tell. Her whole body language changes completely. So impressive.
All right, so someone make a show about someone who’s possessed.
Angela: Starring Eva Green.
We’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Theresa DeLucci, Christie Yant, and Angela Watercutter. Guys, thank you so much for joining us.
Angela: Thanks for having me.
Christie: Thanks for having us.
Theresa: Thank you for letting me join the coven.
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