Penny Dreadful is the Dracula fix-it fic I’ve been wishing for since I first read Bram Stoker’s staggeringly awkward and tacked-on ending when I was sixteen. Within the first few episodes it’s obvious that this show is a genre retrospective and deconstruction, which I gotta admit made me a little hesitant at first. Deconstruction and nostalgia is kind of the big thing right now, what with every other new movie being a remake, popular old TV shows getting reboots, etc. It’s also combining a bunch of different stories which is also a current flavor of the week- I mean, it seems like every other super-hero movie or TV show has some sort of cross-over angle. Penny Dreadful distinguishes itself, though, by being written by people who seem to truly love the source material, and judging by what they eventually did with the re-imagining of Dracula, they seem like they love the source material for many of the same reasons I do.
Even when they’re being faithful to the letter of the original stories, it’s still pretty bomb. Case and point, Frankenstein. So. Freaking. Welcome. After decades of adaptations that paid little to no attention to Mary Shelley’s novel. I mean, props to the Kenneth Branagh movie, Robert DeNiro makes a pretty neat Creature. That’s kind of the only nice thing I can say about that movie though. I haven’t seen Branagh’s Hamlet adaptation, but his Frankenstein film doesn’t make me too confidant in his ability to direct movies that he’s also starring in. That box being checked, Penny Dreadful seems like it cares about the letter and spirit of the work more than anything else. Other than the over-arching Dracula plot, it doesn’t try to adapt the blow-by-blow story of anything else. But it does use alternative details of Frankenstein’s plot points in really imaginative ways to develop new versions of the characters.
Mostly. It does have the Creature’s demand that Victor make a bride for him, but that’s used in a way that’s far more relevant to the characterization of the new Victor Frankenstein and Brona/Lily. Even though it’s the Creature that makes the original demand, everything that follows relates way more to Victor and Brona/Lily.
To almost anyone who has read Frankenstein, it’s hard to overlook the role of Victor’s attraction to his adopted sister. In Penny Dreadful, the sublimated incest is re-interpreted as a kind of sexualized father-daughter relationship when Victor resurrects Brona without her memories and tries to isolate her. This is an important detail because it begins a problem that may, potentially, last until the very last frames of the last episode of the third season. And it may even have some substantial roots in the original novel.
Mary Shelly gave Frankenstein the subtitle The Modern Prometheus and there’s more than a few analogies drawn in the text between the book’s plot and a sort of Edenic “fall from grace” situation. Prometheus and Eve\The Serpent gave humanity the gift of it’s next great step forward at the cost of a simple life. Shelley’s novel also begins with a quote from Paradise Lost in which Adam is wondering if the naked state of innocence upon birth can allow for any responsibility to a creator, almost as if innocence connotates autonomy and God should know better than to expect otherwise. So that sets a clear parallel between Prometheus, Eve and Adam speaking as one of the first creations in the universe.
These parallels matter in Penny Dreadful because of the various statements about the goals of Dr. Frankenstein throughout the story. Near the end, when the Creature is reunited with his human family, his wife asks him if Victor meant for his memories to be wiped. The Creature replies “his only goal was resurrection” and that any other consequence was accidental. The words of Victor himself do not seem to contradict this. In the original novel, though, Victor creates a being from different body parts with the expressed wish to make an original newborn being.
Getting back to Brona/Lily, this point of departure from the original text seems to be informing the new portrayal of Victor’s incestuous desire, but I’m not sure how yet. Novel Frankenstein starts with the framing device of Victor talking to the ship captain on his death bed and then begins his story from his earliest memories. We see Victor’s attraction to his foster sister blossom in childhood and early adulthood. In Penny Dreadful, we know almost nothing about his background and we see the incestuous dynamic unfold in the present of the story. And entirely through showing rather than telling. When Brona awakens as Lily, she’s absolutely docile and credulous. It’s kind of hard not to see the father-daughter parallel. Since we know that Victor’s creations in Penny Dreadful definitely had former identities, Victor moving into an authoritative creator/father role is really hard to ignore. What was shown implicitly as sublimation in the original novel is now a visible, front and center plot point.
I’m not sure what the writers were driving at here, but moving a layer that was implied in the original text to the level of plain visibility seems like it has got to be intentional. Whether this is supposed to give any new dimension to the incest, though, it does face us directly with the different pictures of the creatures as newborns versus pre-existing beings. After all, Victor is treating Lily like a (sexually available) newborn. And the story ends with Victor abandoning his sense of possession because he’s absolutely convinced of the authenticity of Lily’s pre-existing identity. If something ends with one side of two different things being validated, then presumably the discussion up until that point matters.
The conflict between these two different pictures is even more inescapable with season three’s inclusion of the scene from Frankenstein when the creature is watching a family from a distance. In Penny Dreadful, it turns out to be the Creature’s actual family from his prior lifetime. Something I should maybe get out of the way now is that Susan Stryker’s essay My Words To Victor Frankenstein Above The Village of Chamounix had a powerful and life-affirming impact on me as a young adult, when I was just beginning to come out as trans.
Both Susan Stryker’s essay and the appearance of the Creature’s human family both originate from the same source within the text: the monologue the Creature delivers to Victor on the mountain range, detailing his life experience up until that point. In the original novel, this is the first and only time we see through his eyes. Penny Dreadful used a scene described in the monologue as his literal human origin. I mentioned Susan Stryker’s essay because it deals largely with ubiquitous transphobic beliefs holding that trans people are artificial, medical “inventions” and transsexuality is therefore not real.
I’m not gonna have a big digression here talking about Susan Stryker or transsexuality, but I find Stryker’s parallel between societal repulsion with trans people with the isolation of the Creature very relevant to Penny Dreadful’s rendition of the Creature’s story arc. This show is, after all, contrasting the idea of Victor Frankenstein as the creator of new, original beings against the possibility of those beings having their own prior existence before Victor’s meddling. The repulsion with things that are thought to be a blasphemous aping of the work of God versus reverence for God’s creations is relevant here. And the possibility that the charge of being a false/evil creation is wrong is also important…and if it’s wrong, then the idea of a single God responsible for everything is suspect.
This is not the only time Penny Dreadful examines the idea of God, and this particular examination does not end with Victor setting Lily free and letting go of his desire to control and possess. While the rest of the events of the final episode are unfolding, the Creature has returned to his human family to find his son dying. There are a few transparent attempts by the writers to tie up plot threads before the final season ends and this is one of them: kiddo starts dying just in time to have an impact on the rest of the story. The Creature’s wife, remembering what her husband told her, wants to bring their son to Victor to have him brought back to life. She gives him an ultimatum: bring their son to Frankenstein or leave the house and never come back. The Creature choses the latter and then learns that Vanessa Ives is dead. Dot, dot, dot!!!!!
Along with the Frankenstein analysis of creation and divine sanction, there’s the lingering possibility that everything to do with the vampire plot points may be unfolding according to Biblical myth. The first explication we get regarding the vampiric source describes two fallen angels from the dawn of time, one of them confined to Earth and the other to Hell. The scarified writing on the bodies of the vampiric thralls uses language like “hidden ones” that later comes up again when Mr. Lyle is helping everyone decode the origin story written on random objects. Interpreting all this is made even messier since the big bad of the second season is talked about both in terms of one brother or the other.
At least, I thought it was unclear which brother is identified as the spirit inside the Vanessa doll. At times, it seemed that the Hell brother was completely off-camera and that, from the beginning with Mina and the Murray household, we had always been dealing with the earth-bound brother. Victor Frankenstein even asks if this is the same “vampire master” that targeted Mina and gets an affirmative. The on-camera appearance of Dracula in season three renders this understanding incorrect. It also seems much of the ancient lore of angels is not reliable- there is no reason to think that the brother inside the doll still exists. Evidently fallen angels are quite mortal. At least on Earth? Or something?
Anyway, Dracula is A. a fallen angel and B. the source of all other vampires. It is possible to watch the first season and think that the Christian language with demons and angels and sin and all the rest are things that the human characters are bringing to the party in their own minds that the supernatural creatures are taking advantage of telepathically. Dracula’s identity as a fallen angel seems to make it literal, though. During the confrontation in the asylum in season three, when Vanessa proclaims her devotion to God in the presence of Dracula’s projected astral form, is she talking about “normal” religious belief as we understand it, or is this God a being she personally interacted with? Or simply a language for the supernatural that her belief gives psychic power to?
Near the end of the third season, though, Kaetenay tells us that the prophecy of the Wolf of God was known to the Apaches and that it ties into the apocalyptic events foretold in the myths of all cultures. Evidently, at that point, the writers are easing off of the Christian language and are trying to portray the prophecies and supernatural activity as something that is known to all cultures and exists with or without human belief. The ending of the overarching story is not at odds with this change, but it ties into other themes that had evolved over the series in a way that could inform the story’s earlier Christian perspective.
Por exemplo, action versus inaction. Many character arcs in this show involve either a character trying to maintain the status quo of their existence or trying to change it. The vampire plot-line takes us, at the end of the story, decisively to a place that’s deeply involved with the inaction story arcs. Dracula begins to earnestly fall in love with Vanessa and wants nothing other than to be with her. Dracula tells Ethan that Vanessa is where she wants to be and she doesn’t need rescuing and he’s literally telling the truth. When Vanessa confronted him in the museum and he admitted to what he was, he didn’t force her to be “embraced” in Vampire: The Masquerade parlance (to embrace someone is to make them into a vampire). By way of agreement she says “I accept myself”.
Everything Vanessa does from that point onward contributes to the protection of Dracula. She and Ethan have a tearful goodbye before he shoots her, but just look at the actual consequences for the other characters. Vanessa persuades Ethan to kill her to make the diseased air go away, meaning she made a decision for the greater good rather than her own desire. So what about what she does want?
When Ethan, Malcom & co. convene in London and start the planning for their final raid, Dracula describes Ethan as the one who is prophesied to kill him, to which Vanessa says not all prophecies come true (paraphrasing, obviously). And she totally succeeded in protecting Dracula from the prophecy- her own death stopped the plague and therefore the reason for Ethan to go after him. At least from the perspective of external obligation- London’s not filled with an inescapable sickness any more. He still might seek vengeance. But by ending the plague, Vanessa got rid of the reason for everyone else to think of Dracula as a threat. Vanessa fell for Dracula as much as Dracula fell for her, and she died standing up for her love. You could argue that her own statements on that subject are ambiguous but look at the actual consequences: actions speak louder than words. And even confining ourselves to her words leads us in that direction (“I accept myself”/”not all prophecies come true”).
I understand that my digressions may be one of this blog’s shortcomings but stick with me here because this one matters: in Bram Stoker’s original novel, there was an early subplot regarding Lucy Westenra’s multiple suitors and the possibility of everyone letting her make her own decision. The subplot wraps up benignly enough, but consider how the character ends up. With all art forms that I know of, there are really basic inferences that can be used to deduce authorial intent. One of them is that if two things/actions/images/sounds/motifs/characters are placed together, the author either wants you to see them as connected or the author feels they are connected in spite of their intentions. Lucy’s presence in the foreground starts with multiple men suing for her affection and ends with her as the “bloofer lady”, the newborn vampire that gets the rest of the male characters involved in the essential plot. Need I say more?
Oh hey, something like this happens in Carmilla also. That story opens with some interesting plot doo-dads, like the question of whether the shared dreams between Carmilla and the narrator are predatory telepathy or if it has a more organic and innocent cause. But really it just turns into what modern readers would recognize as a straightforward lesbian romance. And shortly after Carmilla and the narrator confess their love for each other, the narrator’s family kill her off camera. The narrator is just sort of like “oh she was a vampire? ‘Kay, nevermind”.
I haven’t read The Vampyre or Varney The Vampire but at least two of the foundational vampire stories communicate a lot of anxiety about female sexual autonomy. And it’s not like that fear doesn’t bear itself out in the derivatives of those stories. Obviously, this is a trait of older, supernatural gothic fiction that Penny Dreadful attempts to turn on it’s head. Not only does Vanessa “grow up” in the end and make her own commitments on her own terms, but a few of the characters that represent Lucy Westenra’s suitors in the original Dracula novel are also re-imagined in ways that bear this out, i.e. Dr. Seward and Ethan Talbot.
The original Dr. Seward is introduced to us as the author of the medical notes in the subchapters dealing with Renfield and his “zoophagy”. Fictional in-world documents as a narrative device had already been used at the beginning of the novel to make the reader feel like they are getting a private glimpse of something from a second hand source. There is the excitement of eavesdropping paired with discovery- in other words, it creates a voyeuristic effect, like the reader is watching characters that don’t know they’re being watched and discovering something way more dramatic than “normal” secrets.
The medical documentation of Renfield is used in a similar way. We are seeing notes that lay people would not normally be privileged with and also getting more than we bargained for in the end. Essentially, the notes encourage the reader to identify with Dr. Seward, thereby exoticizing Renfield and what is happening to him. Like the female characters whose fates are presented as dependent on the male characters (with the exception of Lucy which conspicuously brings all the characters into the central plot), the person in the care of a doctor is turned into a spectacle. Not just a spectacle, but a spectacle whose potential freedom could invite disaster. With both Renfield and Lucy falling under Dracula’s influence in the end, it even seems implicit that these characters can never truly be autonomous- to lose your grip on them is not to let prisoners escape so much as it is letting your property fall into the hands of a stranger. The presence of the American cowboy suitor bottom lines this as well.
I know these sort of inferences could set people off and one common objection is that these conclusions rely on the implications of circumstance instead of openly stated intent. Again, with any art or anything created by someone, to put events and ideas close to each other in your work reveals that the author either thinks they’re connected or feels they’re connected. At a certain point, ignoring inference could lead to corrosive skepticism where you even interrogate sequential logic into nothingness. In other words, implied statements are still statements. In fact, I think any adult who has read Dracula would be hard-pressed not to pick up on this.
Anyway. The inversion: Vanessa, as a patient of Dr. Seward, is not something viewed from a distance- in fact, Seward furnishes an opportunity for explication and back story which further situates Vanessa as a protagonist. Renfield still retains his function in the basic story, as one of Dracula’s human thralls, but this time he’s Dr. Seward’s secretary. Even when Renfield is confronted and interrogated by Seward, his unlocked memories prove to be directly helpful to the search for Dracula. During Vanessa’s treatment, a moment of telepathic contact between the two women even establishes equality between doctor and patient.
Essentially, Penny Dreadful is attempting to reverse the portrayal of women in Bram Stoker’s novel while trying not to abandon the Christian framework altogether. While the role of Christianity in this story is handled with flexibility, the attitude of this fix-it fic isn’t altogether irreverent or dismissive of it. This could be that Christianity was simply too big a part of the Western imagination to completely leave out. Or maybe because the nineteenth century was a profound transitional moment in Western history, with evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis and the rest of modern science as we know it beginning to threaten religion’s cultural supremacy. In any case, Christianity isn’t just a force for evil in Penny Dreadful. It’s importance does fluctuate, though. At first the origin of Dracula and his disembodied brother are explained exclusively in the language of Christian mythology and then Kaetenay makes it clear that the Apaches are familiar with the same prophecy (is that true irl? I dunno, I’m a different kind of Native), suggesting that all religions, like all humans, exist in the same world and therefore no single one can be the one true cipher. The flexibility also remains in the foreground by Vanessa’s struggle with her faith: she is embattled and feels committed to God, but since her stated belief is the most consistent expression of Christianity throughout all three seasons, it seems that Christianity has a bigger role with Vanessa alone rather than shaping the cosmology.
The presentation of the demon brothers emphasizes this neatly. The one that claims to be Satan will jump from body to body, taking and leaving different identities according to opportunity and usefulness. It’s possible that a few of the instances of possession in the first and second season could have been Dracula astrally projecting himself into another body, but it’s still obvious that while Dracula might come and go from his body, his soul has a mortal anchor. The soul of the second brother does not. One brother has a non-physical form that changes with circumstance and necessity, the other one may attempt this or that psychic ruse, but still retains a discrete, permanent identity. If we trust Dracula during his talk with Vanessa about vampire bats and nocturnal animals and his reverence for nature, then it seems like he doesn’t have very much conceit about himself. In his own eyes, he simply is what he was “born” as, nothing more or less. The plague unleashed by the embrace of Vanessa is an unavoidable consequence but not desirable.
Even though Penny Dreadful distances itself from Christianity near the end of the third season, the fact that the demon brothers were introduced to us initially as fallen angels pairs with the apocalyptic prophecy about Vanessa to keep the Biblical timeline of the universe at the front of the story, with the Edenic fall and the return of the kingdom of God on earth bracketing all of history. The second bracket, however, is pushed out of the way by Vanessa’s desire to protect the object of her affection. And the last image of the story is The Creature hanging out around Vanessa’s grave, taking us back to the relationship between the creator and the created. The timeline of the world’s salvation, beginning with the fall from grace and ending with the return of God, is mandated by God, and this portrayal of it ends with humans standing up for their ability to both claim ownership of their lives and thereby achieve peace with death. The dignity of the mortal, tangible existence is affirmed over the immortal and intangible one, which Penny Dreadful talks about in terms of a creator learning reverence and love for the creation. Neither a divine timeline nor an unnatural and sadistic ideal for a mortal being can survive natural chaos, and even the meddling of self-appointed creators can be reconciled with nature when those that survive “creation” achieve the grace that comes with owning your history, feelings and unique truth.