Guest Author: Cayla McNally
Both seasons of Penny Dreadful have similar themes: guilt, repression, creation, monstrosity, and the confluence of the sacred and the profane. A huge part of the thematic narrative is duality, a secret self that is harbored away, repressed. As monstrosity is repressed, as the secret self is repressed, the power the characters have over themselves weakens. Ethan represses his lupine nature, which causes him to erupt violently when he does transform. Vanessa represses her natural sexuality, which then leaves her vulnerable to possession. Victor represses Lily’s history, which helps her realize she is immortal.
Monstrosity exists in all of the characters, in two different categories:
-Dorian, Lily, John/Caliban, and Ethan are monstrous in a supernatural way. Control and consent become overarching themes as well, existing at the crossroad of creation and monstrosity. The creatures who see themselves as monsters (Ethan, John/Caliban, Lily) had no control in their creation; rather, they can only control what they choose to do with their monstrosity.
-Sir Malcolm, Sembene, and Victor, on the other hand, are monstrous in a way that is fully rooted in their humanity. Sir Malcolm was a violent explorer, Sembene sold his countrymen into slavery, and Victor created three creatures to satisfy his own ego and curiosity. All three are examples of men trying to play God and becoming tainted in the process.
-Vanessa perhaps exists in the space between these two groups. She has done monstrous things, such as betray Mina (as shown in a flashback episode in which Vanessa seduces Mina’s fiancé), but she is also vulnerable to possession, to letting supernatural monsters inhabit her.
While most of the characters believe that their monstrosity is a curse, or the result of a moral weakness, Lily sees her monstrosity as proof of her superiority over humankind. She and Dorian believe that their monstrosity makes them the master race. While their existence is decidedly unnatural, they see themselves as a natural evolutionary progression. Lily may be created by a human, but she believes herself to be above them.
Fathers and children are often present through their absence throughout the show. Sir Malcolm’s children are both dead, which drives a wedge between him and his wife, before her untimely blood-magic related death. He is constantly haunted by the regret of failing them. Ethan’s father is an intangible presence looming in the distance, threatening his stability in London. John/Caliban hunts Victor down and destroys Proteus because of Victor’s abandonment. When Victor realizes that he cannot control Lily’s body or desires, he shoots her. Unfortunately for him, that which is already dead cannot be killed. Or, as Lily tells him, “Please, Creator, you made me too well for that.” Though Victor has realized the gravity of his actions, he is not able to undo his creations. Unlike Sir Malcolm, Victor’s guilt is not in the loss of his “children” but in the perpetuity of them.
I think the most interesting Creator and child relationship is that of God and Vanessa. Vanessa is a devout worshipper, but ultimately abandons God by opening the Cut Wife’s cursed book, and again by throwing her cross into the fire at the end of Season 2. God’s language doesn’t help her as she struggles to fight off the Devil in season two; she is hunted so thoroughly that not even her prayers can make her feel safe. When she finally defeats Lucifer, she overpowers him using his own language, the Verbis Diablo. Though she has beat back the Devil for the meantime, she can no longer be saved. She is now, in effect, a true orphan, alone in the world.
The show makes space for complex, proto-feminist women who question- and as a result pose a threat to- societal norms. Vanessa is not treated as weak, and she moves throughout society with a fair amount of fluidity. She is, however, desired by both men and demons. It seems to be a both-and scenario; she cannot let men in without demons being close behind. When she confronts Lucifer, he tries to appeal to her desire for normalcy, promising her a happy life and family with Ethan. Part of the reason why Vanessa can defeat him so soundly, though, is that her desires defy his expectations (even Lucifer is patriarchal); she is aware that she cannot have a normal life, and she does not want one. Her rejection of normality is what simultaneously saves and alienates her.
Victor treats Lily with fear of damaging her delicate sensibilities, but ultimately she sheds the role of gracious, simpering female and embraces the power that she has, both over men and over herself. To Victor, this is perhaps the true monstrosity of Lily’s character. Lily is the creation of a man, who molds her into his- and society’s- ideal woman. She is of course unnatural due to her manner of creation, but this pumped-up artifice serves to mirror the ways in which women are already forced to render themselves unnatural. This is perhaps a reflection on society’s fear of unmarried woman, who are seen as a danger to both themselves and others. And Lily is indeed a danger to others. In her more innocent state, her lack of social understanding allows her to critique the conventions that affect women (corsets, heels). As she becomes savvier, she uses the desire men feel for her as a way to manipulate them. Her life as Lily, and the power she is afforded, makes up for the grave indignities she suffered as Brona. As she tells John Clare in one of best speeches of the show so far, “Never again will I kneel to any man. Now they shall kneel to me.”
I’m eager to see how these themes will continue to play out in Season 3. Hopefully the presence of Native actor Wes Studi will help contextualize Ethan’s curse and the “Indian wars” he fought in. Patti LuPone will be returning as a different character (Vanessa’s therapist), but I’m curious if her new character will actually relate to the Cut Wife in some way. Mostly, I’m just ready to soak up some of the best set pieces and acting in television. Wherever John Logan wants to take me as an audience, I’ll go.
Cayla McNally is a Philadelphia-based Afrofuturist examining the intersection of academia, social justice, and pop culture. She is particularly interested in cyborgs, contamination, and monstrosity. You can find her here: https://twitter.com/caylamonster; https://www.instagram.com/cayla_monster