Penny Dreadful, a look at our demons

Illustration by Zoa Studio inspired by Penny Dreadful
Illustration by Zoa Studio inspired by Penny Dreadful

In the past two weeks, we’ve been talking about a British director, Alfred Hitchcock, and an American, Orson Welles. Today, on the anniversary of its first airing on May 11, 2014, we tell you the story of a TV series straddling these two countries, Penny Dreadful.

Penny Dreadful is an American horror/thriller/drama TV series, created by John Logan. Logan and Sam Mendes are the executive producers. The latter is…. drum roll… the Oscar-winning director who directed American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and 1917, not bad as a start!

As mentioned a few lines ago, the concept of the series was originally launched on many American and British networks, but Showtime eventually won, with Sky Atlantic as co-producer.
The series premiered at South by Southwest and aired in the United States on May 11, 2014 through June 19, 2016, one season per year for a total of 3 seasons and 27 episodes.

But what does Penny Dreadful mean?

The Penny Dreadful was a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. Simply put, the economic, sensational and highly illustrated tales are extremely popular with the Victorian public.

In the 1830s, increasing literacy and improved technology marked a boom in economic fiction for the working classes.

At first they were called “Penny Bloods”, this was the original name of the pamphlets that, in 1860, were renamed Penny Dreadful. They told stories of adventure, initially of pirates and bandits, but later focused on crime and imprisonment. Released weekly, each “number”, or episode, consisted of eight (occasionally 16) pages, with a black-and-white illustration in the top half of the first page. Double columns of text filled the page, breaking at the bottom of the page, even though it was in the middle of a sentence.

Penny Dreadful was a surprising success, creating a large new audience that appreciated the Gothic novel. Between 1830 and 1850 there were up to 100 penny-fiction publishers, in addition to the numerous magazines that now embraced the genre.

The first Penny Dreadful was released in 1836, Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, etc., in 60 issues. The most successful was Mysteries of London, which first appeared in 1844, written by G W M Reynolds. If at first it was based on book French, he soon took a life of his own, with 12 years, 624 numbers and almost 4.5 million words. Instead of talking about bandits, this series was much closer to the lives of its readers, contrasting the terrible world of slums with the decadent lives of the neglected rich.

Penny Dreadful, the TV series


The series is based on many public figures in 19th-century British and Irish Gothic fiction, including Dorian Gray’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, John Seward, Renfield and Count Dracula of Bram Stoker, Victor Frankenstein and his monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. , Henry Jekyll of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The music was composed by Abel Korzeiowski, who accompanied the seasons with poignant melodies. 

Season 1

The first series features the protagonists of the story, starting with Vanessa Ives, an enigmatic heroine who proves to be a force to be reckoned with played by the beautiful Eva Green. Then we find Sir Malcolm Murray, an explorer from the African continent, involved in a search to find his kidnapped daughter Mina. The two form a deep bond in a group that also involves Ethan Chandler (an American man of action, charming, brash and daring, who loathes violence and is more complicated than he likes to admit) and Victor Frankenstein (an arrogant young man whose whole life revolves around his research.) Sembene (a longtime ally of Sir Malcolm) is also joining the group.

Things are so rarely what they seem – Vanessa Ives

The group joins forces to find Sir Malcolm Murray’s missing daughter and banish the evil forces that threaten to destroy them. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray (a charming but lonely man who can’t die), the Creature (a reanimated corpse brought to life and abandoned by Frankenstein) and Brona Croft (an Irish immigrant trying to escape her brutal past) hover around the main group.

You have not known horror until I have shown it to you -The Creature

Season 2

Penny Dreadful returns for a second season with a deeper and more disturbing look at the demons of the characters in the series, the same ones that plague us all.

The monster is not in my face, but in my soul – La Creatura

This season the undisputed protagonist is Vanessa Ives and her curse.

Those in the service of the demon are irrevocably marked -Vanessa Ives

Vanessa and her allies find themselves locked in an epic battle against a fiendish Evil. This Evil will arouse every forbidden instinct, reveal every secret, and unleash every sin of their past against them. At the end of the season, Vanessa remains alone in the house of Grandage Place in London, resigned to continuing her strenuous struggle on her own. 

Cornered animals are the most dangerous – Ethan Chandler

But how do you fight the most evil enemy, when the price of victory could be damnation?

Season 3

With Ethan, Sir Malcolm and Dr. Frankenstein now scattered around the world in the face of her own demons, Vanessa is alone and discouraged. He then seeks the help of psychologist Florence Seward to fight a new evil. The sessions with the doctor make Vanessa understand many things about her past that are reflected in her present.

Fear not old prophecies. We defy them. We make our own heaven and our own hell -Vanessa Ives

Meanwhile, in Zanzibar, Sir Malcolm continues his journey by meeting the enigmatic Kaetenay, who claims to be Ethan’s Apache father.  These three manage to survive a firefight and together they travel to London to help Vanessa.

Vanessa began dating a charming man, Alexander Sweet, curator of a London museum. And it is in this city that the end of the world happens, first with an apocalyptic pestilence, then with some of the characters that turn out to be ruthless killers and finally with the discovery that Dr. Sweet is none other than Dracula, who seduced Vanessa.

You will never be alone again. I will love you till time has lost all meaning -Dracula

Vanessa asks Ethan (clearly in love with her) to shoot her to free her from evil, and the man fulfills his wish. The characters finally mourn in a procession the various deaths that occurred in this season finale, which ends with the Creature bursting into tears, kneeling on Vanessa’s grave. The ending, in addition, bears the words of a poem by William Wordsworth and gives body to this heartbreaking farewell:

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The verses are taken from Ode:Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, a touching funeral eulogy for a woman who found peace only in the afterlife, but who would have deserved it in mortality.

Before and after the Penny Dreadful series

It’s pretty normal that TV series have prequels, sequels and spin-offs, and Penny Dreadful follows this standard. Although the series has never achieved record success, it has acquired a very passionate fan base.

The prequel

In early 2016, to coincide with the start of the third season of the series, Titan Comics began publishing a comic book miniseries inspired by Penny Dreadful. Titan Comics’ interest in the series distributed by Showtime is part of a publishing house plan to license comics inspired by successful television series.

Penny Dreadful story of the comic goes step by step with the television series and represents, for all intents and purposes, the official prequel. The plot tells events before the first season and explains how Vanessa Ives decided to look for childhood friend Mina Harker, while the first comic book volume is released on May 5, 2016 and features 4 alternative covers.

The spin-off

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels was created again by John Logan, creator of the first three seasons, for Showtime.

The series is a full-time penny dreadful spin-off, which premiered a few days ago, on April 26, 2020 on the same television channel.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is set nearly 50 years after the original series, during the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s. It takes place in 1938 in Los Angeles, once a place deeply imbued with Mexican-American folklore and social tension.

The characters are connected to each other in a conflict between the deity of Mexican folklore. First of all, the Santa Muerte, guardian of the dead and driving to the afterlife. And then we find her spiritual sister, the demodified Magda, who believes that humanity is inherently evil. Detective Tiago Vega and his partner, Lewis Michener, are tasked with investigating a gruesome murder case. Soon they are involved in the conflicts of the past in Los Angeles but also in those present, such as racial tensions, the looming threat of war and the Nazi conspiracies that threaten them episode after episode.

So, by squeegging, we’ve seen a series, read the prequel-comic and we’re evaluating the spin-off… when the actual sequel? That it’s possible after Vanessa Ives died?

Perhaps yes, because, beyond the lack of one or more relevant characters, what remains of this TV series, as well as other artistic works, are some universal themes. The eternal conflict between good and evil, love suffered, the race to immortality, the loss of affections… I Game of ThronesThrones taught us anything… above all, not to get too attached to one or more protagonists!

#penny… Penny… penny (about TV series, this is for connoisseurs)


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