I am not a Godly man. At least not in the traditional sense. We seek answers to the unyielding questions of life and happiness through many wayward avenues. Whether it be through prayer, ritual or creative impulse, we as humans continue to navigate our paths to an understanding of the meaning of being that exact thing: human. Living in each our individual skins is irreplaceable and the experience is uniquely our own. The very nature of this sort of existence is inherently a lonely place. But for all our personality and our misdeeds and our monstrous creations and bedevilments, we are not as truly alone as it may seem. My purpose for religion, a belief, is to bring light to the path that allows me to travel it closer to others who are also stumbling in the dark. John Logan’s ode to our most human moments, Penny Dreadful, was my ember in the blackness. Watching this tale (among a very small handful of others) unfold was my way of experiencing God.
For a show whose details include demonic seances, a man who turns into a wolf-like creature, no less than three reanimated corpses and a central character whose choices in lovers are literally hellish, it may seem ridiculous to be able to gather so much poignant meaning from this pulp. John Logan and his superb team of writers and directors draw upon these classic literary horrors and tropes to make clear that the most horrendous of tales are nothing more than obstacles during moments where we choose to be human.
The heightened circumstance of Dr. Victor Frankenstein creating a reanimated life and his realization that life isn’t as simple or innocent as he hoped isn’t unlike a version of parentage. His Creature deals with a world he didn’t ask for and a Creator who can give him nothing more. Sir Malcolm Murray is a lost parent who has desecrated all ground behind him and is searching for his redemption amongst the monsters. A bloody past hangs around the neck of Ethan Chandler as he battles with a curse that leaves him fearful of hurting those around him. Vanessa Ives is a cursed woman, destined for doom but unwilling to give in completely to the demons. Like any good fiction, there are relatable qualities to all levels of circumstance. Even those including bloodthirsty beasts and an immortal man who owns a living portrait of himself.
Where Penny Dreadful surpasses many other works is in its heart and unwavering humanity. In a television landscape where we tune in each week and place bets on which character will die next, Penny Dreadful doesn’t give us any such simple tool on which to base excitement. The show reinforced the fact that living and trudging on especially when you don’t want to is the harsher reality to face. Death is the means by which people get let off the hook of life. Our destinies and fears aren’t pretty but they are our own. They’re our creations just as much as Lily was Victor’s. It’s our duty to not run from what haunts us. There is a time for life and a time for death. When Ethan doesn’t provide Vanessa her mercy in season one and when he does in the finale, it’s because their paths weren’t clear at one point and then clearer at another. The destination was more horrific than anyone hoped, but it was the correct one required to continue another journey.
At the point where Penny Dreadful comes to its logical end, it leaves you with just as many of the pained questions you came in with. Vanessa Ives led a life unenviable to most and her choices and those results were just as painful. But it was a life lived around people who loved her. At each and every turn Vanessa had the opportunity to shun the world and step off the cliff of darkness. Even when she had her moments of weakness and took the ugly dive, others who loved her were there to dig her back out of the abyss. Penny Dreadful painted a portrait of many tortured and cursed souls who understood each other and cared deeply for one another because of it.
Life is lonely. We are all Frankenstein’s Creature walking icy shores searching for anyone who might accept us. Life is a sad thing. I see myself in Victor Frankenstein trying desperately trying against hope to find love in the one thing that can never love him.
Life is also a beautiful thing. We can all be Vanessa and Ethan, accepting each other as damaged things but ones who can fix each other if we let them. We can all find our places, even if it is rigging blood spatter at the Grand Guignol.
Penny Dreadful is artful storytelling at its absolute pinnacle. From each stunning performance to every intricate set and gorgeous piece of music, it’s the culmination of people who really believe in the stories they’re telling and bringing them to the world. To say that I wish the world would have caught on and given it more timely recognition would be an understatement but also a self-serving one. It’s almost more special to discover something like Penny Dreadful amidst a calm sea instead of the torrents of hype. It doesn’t operate under any terms other than its own. Like going into a church and demanding answers, Penny Dreadful will leave anyone with an unopen mind and expectation of Glory cold at the door.
I came to Penny Dreadful an ordinary man who likes tales in the dark and blood and monsters. I left still this person but with a renewed optimism that there are others like me. I recognized myself and my world in that foggy Victorian London setting and felt alongside the characters John Logan has created and adapted. Penny Dreadful let me into its heart and there I found the smallest guidance in my continued path to God-Knows-Where.
Thank you, John, and every other soul who brought Penny Dreadful into being. Truthfully, “I believe in this world and those creatures that fill it. That’s always been enough for me.”