By David Goldberg
In the first season of Showtime’s high-taste monster mash Penny Dreadful, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), immortal and disarming as ever, speaks about the difference with the series’ witchy protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). When Dorian praises the glory of uniqueness, Vanessa has to object: “To be alien, to be disenfranchised from those around you: is that not a dreadful curse?” Without batting an eye, he strikes back: “To be different, to be powerful: is that not a divine gift?”
Created by Skyfall screenwriter John Logan, who is gay, Penny Dreadful mixes up everyone’s favorite Victorian horror characters (Frankenstein and his creations, the Wolfman, and many more) so that they can fight evil and, occasionally, get it on with one another. But beyond the yummy splattering of blood and fabulously lavish costumes, Penny Dreadful is a mesmerizing, frustrating meditation on living with difference, deviance, and queerness.
No matter who steps into the role of big bad—the vampiric beast of season one, last year’s satanic sorceress Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), or this season’s smoking-hot Dracula (Christian Camargo)—they always want the same thing: Vanessa Ives. Chosen to be Lucifer’s bride and possessing an unknown power that could trigger the End of Days, Vanessa must reconcile with her dark side and affirm her individuality, even to the most seductive of evil mates. Devout to her Catholic God, yet intrinsically bound to Satan, she constantly vacillates between abnegation and indulgence, restraint and rapture.
Season one saw Ives through séances, exorcisms, and asylums; last year, she faced off against the devil in her dummy doll form (just go with it); and this season she initiates therapy with a stern doctor (Patti LuPone) while attempting to avoid Dracula’s advances. Thanks to fearless Eva Green, Vanessa’s battles with her inner oblivion are so dangerous that you fear she’ll rip out of her skin and crawl through the screen: she scratches sanatorium walls, effortlessly bellows demonic languages, and prays to her God with bone-deep resolve. That Green’s only accolade for her hair-raising performance is a Fangoria Chainsaw Award puts the Emmys—and the entire industry—to shame.
Vanessa’s gifts threaten to burn her alive from within, but they also make her the most valuable woman alive. (Who else has Dracula and the devil fighting over her like teenage boys?) But even when her immortal suitors literally offer her the world, or even the bliss of a normal life, Vanessa won’t compromise her identity or her agency; she may be cursed, but she’d rather die as herself than try to pass as normal.
Ives isn’t the only one dealing with her difference: season three finds Josh Hartnett’s strapping Ethan Chandler—who moonlights as the Wolfman—on the run in the Wild West, unable to accept his inner savagery, while Billie Piper’s recently liberated Bride of Frankenstein plans to raise an army of victimized women to bring an end to the world of men, and Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif) attempts to bury the “alien, ugly things” that fester within him by using potions and injections. That’ll end well.
All metaphors aside, is Penny Dreadful actually gay? Judging by the Wolfman-Dorian Gray make-out session in season one, or the blood-drenched three-way in season three, this is definitely not your library’s standard gothic horror story. Though they operate as an adoptive family, the freaks and beasts of Victorian London have no issue when it comes to hooking up, and no hang-ups when it comes to the gender of their mate.
Last season, Dorian Gray became enamored with a trans courtesan named Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp). Though the writers made a nice effort to depict the real-life horror that trans women faced in the 19th century (and today), it felt like material for another show. In a world of closeted ghouls and monsters, what purpose does a mortal cipher serve?
Every season builds up to an apocalyptic showdown, which leads to a reckoning of existential angst for the main cast. Can Vanessa and her pals reconcile with the difference that saves them, defines them, and may inevitably destroy them? Penny Dreadful powerfully affirms that embracing yourself is a life-long process. Apparently, coming out as a wolfman, witch, or outsider is just the beginning. No matter their destinies, the Dreadful players will continue to tread through the dualities of their own existences: good and evil, normal and extraordinary, victim and monster, forever in transition, never fixed, and never boring.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.