‘Penny Dreadful’ and ‘Hannibal’
by David Goldberg
With The Avengers gathering on-screen once again in May, and the Justice League holding its first film roundtable in 2017, it seems that big-budget team-ups of big-bodied men are the new norm. But these high-stakes sausage fests always fail when they don’t progress to their natural conclusion: when will Captain America and Iron Man just make out already?
While we pray for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to give in to the tension, the good news is that our favorite Victorian literary icons are getting it on just fine. On Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s gothic camp masterpiece, the likes of Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, and even the Wolfman get to join forces—with benefits, and without limits.
The basic plot may sound a bit Universal Studios: in 19th-century London, a wealthy explorer (Timothy Dalton) gathers a loose cabal to help him find his daughter Mina, who was recently taken by a mysterious beast. And while the ensuing chase certainly thrills, Penny Dreadful, like American Horror Story: Asylum before it, really shines in the interweaving relationships among its ensemble of outsiders. There’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a sensitive mess whose creations are more like bad boyfriends than monsters; Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), traditionally dashing yet deviantly savage; Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney), fully embracing the role of androgynous lothario; and as the radiant center of this orbit, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a doomed, disturbed seer.
Every character and every viewer is in love with Green. Though she’s resplendent in gothic garb, her Vanessa is far more than her looks, far more than “the girl.” She’s been given the role of her life, and clearly chooses to challenge herself—especially in a riveting séance sequence I’ll never forget. Her character may be prone to possession, but as an actress, she fully commands her powers.
While convention would dictate that Ives participates in some sort of love triangle between two of her handsome counterparts, she’s really more of a binding agent in a cast of polyamorous loners—or “seekers,” as Dorian Grey would call them. Indeed, just halfway through the first season, two of the Dreadful men toast Vanessa, then go to town on each other.
Penny Dreadful is not just progressive for the 19th century. It has joined a rising TV vanguard that represents sexual experimentation and deviation as natural, easy, and not really worth discussing on-screen. And while Broad City and Orange Is the New Black have given full carte blanche to their bisexual women, Dreadful crosses new territory with the boys.
If Penny Dreadful has set out to find beauty in deviance, then it has certainly succeeded with Showtime’s staggering budget. John Logan’s tart, saturated dialogue has found the lush canvas it deserves, replete with smoky alleyways and sun-drenched tearooms. In this light, even the most grotesque of monsters gets to kiss a lady—or a gentleman. Whatever they’re into.
While the Bride of Frankenstein and the Wolfman enjoy the boundless possibilities that Showtime offers them, another horror icon has made an art of dancing on the standards and practices of network television. On the surface, NBC’s Hannibal may seem like a cat-and-mouse murder game with nearly asexual protagonists, but there are stickier queer implications in its subtext.
Hannibal centers on the psychosexual duel between criminal profiler Will Graham (the perky Hugh Dancy) and the man-eater himself, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (the decadent Mads Mikkelsen). It’s the Notes on a Scandal of television: a kind of Phantom of the Opera for killers. Will and Hannibal don’t exhibit the leading-man qualities we’ve come to expect from a network like NBC; Will is neurotically obsessive and admits to being on the spectrum within the first episode, and Hannibal trades in brawny masculinity for a grand sense of style and panache, throwing outrageous dinner parties and enjoying nights alone at the symphony.
Viewers of Pushing Daisies won’t be disappointed by the visual banquet that showrunner Bryan Fuller offers, perfectly in line with Hannibal’s splendid tables: exquisite meals, sharply tailored suits, and murder canvases that read as art. Hannibal originated as a semi-procedural, but I doubt anyone believed this was another CSI rip-off. In a delicious act last season, a Speedo-clad psychopath (Jonathan Tucker) strings up Hannibal in a pool sauna. There’s no way Fuller staged this scene for anything resembling a straight audience. As one shirtless killer takes his time interrogating another, we have to ask: what are we watching here?
But Hannibal’s magnificent queer nature is in its blood, first and foremost: the writing, especially in the relationship between Will and Hannibal, is thick and saturated. For Hannibal, killing is an act of religious catharsis, and in deepening his connection with Will—whether as doctor and patient, nemeses, or partners—he seems to have found a soul mate in a sexless union. With every fantastically gruesome crime scene, Will descends further into madness, and into Hannibal’s hands. And from there, it’s all subtext. The series could be titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Murder.
HANNIBAL: Did you kill him with your hands?
WILL: It was…intimate.
And from another therapy session:
HANNIBAL: When you sent the man to kill me, were you imagining killing me yourself? Living vicariously through him as if your hands tightened the noose around my neck?
All this tension does have a breaking point, in what can only be described as a psychic orgy—the most beautiful sex scene I’ve ever seen filmed. The men may not touch, or even be in the same room, but through their respective paramours they keep returning to each other. Unfortunately, the women of Hannibal often serve as proxy pieces between Hannibal and Will. Hopefully that will change as Gillian Anderson’s Bedelia Du Morier becomes a series regular and draws up a game of her own for Hannibal.
Unlike its fully exposed pay-cable competition, Hannibal thrives on the unseen and unspoken. It’s a choice between tastefully implicit and exploitatively explicit. You’d be surprised what he can get away with.
David Goldberg also writes about Transfigure8 in this issue of OutSmart magazine.