Showtime’s Penny Dreadful gets it name from the Victorian Penny Dreadful ’s, cheap sensational tales told at the price of a penny. The show characters come from classic horror literature such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Portrait of Dorian Gray and throws these horror archetypes into the same room. While the show does experiment with the original archetypes and stories of their original literary counterparts the creators skillfully do so with great respect for the source material. While the show clearly recreates classic gothic characters, Penny Dreadful never feels like a cheap imitation or a crappy cover. This gothic horror is a sweet new remix of an old genre. One of the most important and captivating elements in this tale is our heroine, the enigma that is Ms. Vanessa Ives (the mother of evil).
Vanessa Ives played by Eva Green is a tormented soul haunted by the devil himself. Ms. Ives finds the devil after transgressing the lines of Victorian propriety by sleeping with (Olivia Llewellyn) Mina’s fiance. The two grew up together and were “closer than sisters,” and this was a true act of betrayal. A series of events follows that leads to Mina being taken by the Vampires, and Ives learns of this via a vision. With the help of Mina’s father Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), he and Vanessa begin to recruit a team to save Mina. Only later is it revealed that Mina’s kidnapping was all part of a plan to capture Vanessa Ives who is prophesied to be the mother of evil. The vampires, the demons, and forces of evil will hunt her till the end of the day and will do anything to make her their bride and bring on the end of days, after all, “we all have curses, don’t we?”
While the show maybe fantastical and outlandish it feels very grounded in reality. What anchors this show in the real world is what the monsters and demons represent; temptation. Mina Murray and Vanessa Ives were neighbors and were more like sisters than they were best friends. Both came from wealthy families and had a very happy childhood. However, the moment that would mark Vanessa forever would be the day that she accidentally stumbles upon her mother and Sir. Malcolm Murray having an affair. “My mother. Your father. More than the shock, the sinfulness, the forbidden act, there was this. I enjoyed it.” Vanessa cherished this forbidden secret while at the same time feeling ashamed for finding pleasure in being an observer to such a sinful act. It awoke in her an awareness of her more “wicked nature.” She saw herself as wicked for finding such pleasure in sin but at the same time viewed herself as being dangerous for her darkness and strong. It would later cause her to question why Mina who is docile and fragile would be the first to venture on the most epic of journeys, be the first get married, find love and know the touch of a man and not her the stronger more courageous one of the two. It was her envy that would later lead to her commit an act of betrayal so obscene.
In Ms. Ives’ inability to reconcile her guilt and shame she begins to suffer a mysterious illness her doctor would later describe as hysteria. Fans come to know that this hysteria is simply the fact that our heroine is marked by the devil forever tormented by darkness. Ms. Ives suffering and torment is a result of her inability to reconcile her dark uniqueness with Victorian-era societal norms. Ms. Ives has always been drawn to the taboo. She finds the darkness alluring and is even seduced by the scent of the Deadly Nightshade for it is “beautiful…delicate, [with a]subtle fragrance. Like a berry, but not a woodland thing. Not a thing of the forest, something… of the jungle…[It speaks to me] ‘Touch me. With your finger. Softly. My scent on your neck. Open your lips. Taste’.” Nightshade is poisonous like all things beautiful.
Victorian society was highly concerned with every action of day to day life. During this period an indiscretion as simple as a burp could bring about social ruin. The Victorian horror story had always been ostracism. Addressing someone incorrectly or wearing the wrong clothes at the wrong time of day and even being a woman caught alone with a man who wasn’t a family member could be the cause of one’s social death. Among all of Victorian society’s many rules of etiquette above all else, a woman was to NEVER have sex before marriage. Men demanded purity from women of their class especially if she where to be his future wife. So while Ms. Ives indiscretion would still result in ostracism today, during the Victorian era this would’ve been paramount. She is forever damned by this indiscretion and the Vampires and monster are devices to externalize this.
The vampires and monsters are oddities and are inherently representations of what it means to be ostracized for one’s uniqueness. These feelings of loneliness, shame and guilt aren’t felt by Vanessa alone. For example, after Dr. Frankenstein is confronted by his creature and compelled into creating a mate for him he later describes this turn of events as fate. Fate in the form of addressing the consequences of one’s actions, actions he described as an immortal sin. The Creature is forever searching for companionship and is constantly rejected and shunned for his appearance while at the same time feeling as though he is superior to normal man or he is the embodiment of industrial progression. All this to say that to be different, to be powerful, to be unique, its the same as it is to be alien. Alone.
“Do you not yet comprehend the wicked secret of the immortal? All age and die, save you. All rot and fall to dust, save you. Any child you bear becomes a crone and perishes before your eyes. Any lover withers and shrinks into incontinence and bent, toothless senility. While you, only you, never age. Never tire. Never Fade. Alone. But after a time, you’ll lose the desire for passion entirely, for connection with anyone. Like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use. And one day you’ll realize you’ve become like them. Beautiful and dead. You have become a perfect, unchanging portrait of yourself.” – Dorian Gray
While knowing this she still prefers to remain unique. Later in the series, the devil himself attempts to claim Vanessa’s soul by offering her a normal life. He fails because a normal life is something she no longer desires and she enjoys being her own person. Being extraordinary. While she may have finally accepted herself and has found forgiveness the companions she surrounds herself with are still at odds with their own sin. In the series final season they all walk alone and this is when we lose her. It is this extreme sense of isolation and loneliness that allow her to be seduced by the darkness. From the very beginning, Vanessa understood that while the dark and dangerous things are seductive and exist within us all, that there are some things within us that should never be released, if we do then we risk being consumed by these things.
“Passion will undo the best of us and lead only to tragedy.” In her moment of weakness, she falls for a man, she is seduced by the dangerous dark, and allows herself to be used and gives into temptation. Her love interest Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) reminds her of her Catholic faith. He tells her that no matter how lost and alone she felt or how far she ran from that he God he will always be there. “…Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power and the Glory, forever and ever.” While everyone loved Vanessa enough to save her Mr. Chandler loved her in a different way. He loved her enough to kill her. He would never allow anyone or anything manipulate her for their own ends. She was alienated for her uniqueness while at the same time being sought after as a possession, as a prize. She desperately sought acceptance, companionship, and love and it was these desires that led to her downfall. Desperation and loneliness can be dangerous because it makes us vulnerable to coercion. In denying them their prize her soul remains intact and not only does she find redemption but peace.