I can’t tell you how ridiculously excited I was when I found out about Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful. I saw the first episode this past weekend and was immediately hooked. After the massive letdown that was NBC’s Dracula this past fall, Penny Dreadful is a breath of, well, foul, soupy London fog. The show is named for penny dreadfuls, stories that contained lurid, melodramatic plots that were relatively inexpensive and meant for general public consumption. The series hearkens back to the familiar horror stories we all grew up with, like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and if you squint, The Woman in White and The Mummy. I’ve heard of it being compared to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I like to think of it as a sort of cross between Ripper Street and Supernatural.
This episode opens in a lodging house in a London slum, where a mother and her little girl are sleeping. The mother gets up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and she is attacked by an unknown creature. The sounds from the attack wake up her daughter, who wanders down the hall calling for her. When the little girl reaches the bathroom, she screams. It’s clear that she has come upon the creature feeding upon her mother.
After the opening sequence, we see a young woman dressed in black fervently praying the rosary. This is Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a clairvoyant and spiritualist. She stops in the middle of a prayer and stares at the wall. A spider emerges from behind the crucifix and crawls into her hand. It is clear Vanessa is going into a trance and seeing a vision of some kind.
The scene cuts to the next one, and we see a performance at a Wild West show where Vanessa is in the audience. The performer, a sharpshooter (Josh Hartnett), is recounting the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, of which he claims he is the sole survivor. After hooking up with one of the other ladies in the audience, the performer, Ethan Chandler, is alone in a tavern, staring longingly down at an old pocket watch from his father. Vanessa approaches him and joins him for a drink, letting on that she knows the truth: he was never at that battle. She is impressed with the performer’s skill with a gun, and she reveals the real reason for her presence there: she needs a gentleman for some “night work.” As our performer laughs and attempts to flirt with her, Vanessa gets straight to the point: “I have a need for a gentleman who is comfortable with firearms and not hesitant to engage in dangerous endeavors.” Ethan is reluctant to take her offer seriously, but is floored when she offers up a summary of what she has deduced about him, much as Sherlock Holmes would. She gives Ethan an address and advises him to meet her there if interested.
Later that night, Ethan meets Vanessa at what is revealed to be an opium den. Here we meet Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Vanessa’s partner and Ethan’s employer, who seems to be looking for someone and who warns Chandler: “Do not be amazed at anything you see, and do not hesitate.” When Ethan asks who they’re looking for, Malcolm replies, “Someone very dear to me who has been taken.” The trio proceeds to the bowels of the opium den, where they are met by a group of strange men. Though Malcolm, Ethan, and Vanessa try to parley with them, the men attack. It soon becomes clear that they are an army of the undead and that they have been feasting upon the piles of bodies deeper in the passages below the opium den. Malcolm tries desperately to find “her,” but is unable to get an answer out of the newly turned vampires. He, Ethan, and Vanessa spend the rest of the night slaying the creatures, but they are sure to take one of the bodies with them.
They are able to locate a young doctor in the East End (Harry Treadaway) who may be willing to do an autopsy on the body, but who claims that he is engaged in research. He excitedly asks Ethan about the strides Americans have made in use of electricity. He is persuaded to help them, and when he cuts the creature open, they discover that it has an inner shell within its body, and upon the shell, someone has carved Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ethan, curious about what has just occurred, asks Vanessa and Malcolm just who exactly they are, and Malcolm gives Ethan his address so that he might find out.
We then proceed to the crime scene in the lodging house, and it is clear that a bloodbath has taken place. The police inspector in charge of the investigation demands that photographs be taken of the scene, even as his men are getting sick at the sight behind him.
Ethan visits Sir Ethan’s house, which is in a very well-to-do area of London, and it’s here that we meet Sir Malcolm’s butler, Sembene (Danny Sapani), to whom there is clearly more than meets the eye. He leads Ethan to the library, where Vanessa meets him. Ethan asks Vanessa just what exactly is going on, and she warns him that he might not want to know. “Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler, a half-world between what we know and what we fear, a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt?” she asks him… because that was exactly where they were. Vanessa reveals that Malcolm’s daughter was taken by one of the undead, and she tells Ethan that he can simply take his payment for the night before and leave. She challenges him to draw a card from her Tarot deck, and he draws The Lovers.
The next scene opens in front of one of the many museums in London, and there are hawkers trying to sell newspapers featuring the latest coverage of the murders in the Spitalfields lodging house. One of the headlines reads: Is Jack Back? Malcolm and Vanessa seek to learn more about what the hieroglyphics mean, and they seek out the assistance of Dr. Ferdinand Lyle, an Egyptologist. He recognizes the hieroglyphics as being from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and believes them to be some kind of blood curse. He promises to help with the translation, but only if he might become more acquainted with Malcolm and Vanessa, perhaps so he can find out what exactly their motives are.
Later that day, Ethan returns to the lodging house in Spitalfields where the murder investigation is still ongoing. He hears two of the local housewives gossiping about the victim and her daughter, and they believe that Jack the Ripper was the perpetrator. “Damn him straight to hell!” one of the housewives declares as her eyes meet Ethan’s. Ethan glances away with a hint of remorse in his face. Just what is he hiding?
Sembene takes a cab to the young doctor’s lodging house with a package in his hand. Inside, there is a tuxedo for our young doctor and an invitation to dinner at the Explorers’ Club with Sir Malcolm. Quite predictably, our young doctor clean up quite well, and he meets Sir Malcolm for dinner. The club is full of well-to-do intellectuals discussing different subjects in science. The doctor scoffs at this during a conversation with Sir Malcolm, declaring that they are looking for knowledge for knowledge’s sake while he is looking for some kind of truth—how to find the connection between life and death. Sir Malcolm entreats the doctor to join him in finding a cure for a terrible disease, for there is much for the young doctor to learn, and he will be able to seek out that place where science and superstition walk hand in hand.
The doctor and Sir Malcolm part ways, and Sir Malcolm returns home. Unbeknownst to him, Ethan has been hiding across the street, watching the house. Someone—presumably Vanessa—peeks out one of the upstairs windows. Fearful that he has been seen, Ethan hurries away.
While getting ready for bed, Sir Malcolm hears someone in the house. He rises from his bed and it is revealed to be his daughter Mina, who is standing before him, weeping. Then Mina’s face changes into something horrible, and she disappears as the window closes. Malcolm and Vanessa discuss what occurred, and they believe that there is still hope for Mina and that they will find her, though it is clear that she and the creature who kidnapped her might be after them.
Vanessa, at prayer again, is troubled by another vision and feeling of trepidation. Her candles sputter out, and she shrieks in terror as we see the crucifix on the wall has somehow turned upside down and that there are ants crawling out from underneath it.
The young doctor returns to his lodging house and enters his flat. There is another room within it, where he has been doing his work, and strapped to a gurney is a dead body. The doctor has rigged up a machine that harnesses the electricity from lightning, and there are several electrodes hooked up to the body from the machine. Lightning strikes, and the power goes out. The doctor lights a gas lamp, and he hears creaking from the gurney. He gasps in delight to see that the corpse has come alive, and he introduces himself to his new creation as Victor Frankenstein.
I was very impressed with the series and the overall execution of everything. This episode was meant to set up the major storylines of the series and it is off to a very promising start. The costumes, the set design, and even the sound add to the production and make the setting of London in 1891 even more realistic. I will definitely be watching more of this series and am very excited for the next episode!