I happen to like Edwardian fiction. I like horror. I like old school monsters. The pilot of Penny Dreadful does a magnificent job of introducing our heroes before putting them in mortal danger. It's gorgeous to look at, delicious to listen to, and chills the blood nicely. I think I'm going to love Penny Dreadful. [Spoilers below.]
It begins simply enough, with a splash of horror to grab your attention, before introducing our heroes. We find Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) locked in fervent prayer, before a spider crawls out from behind the crucifix on the wall, down onto her shoulder. This rates a 2.4 on my Nope-o-meter, which is pretty good for a show's first five minutes.
She appears to have some kind of fit, as we cut to an outdoor display of Wild West marksmanship. Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) delights his audience with a tall tale, while shooting various targets with pinpoint accuracy. He even shoots the feather off a woman's hat, while she's wearing it. From 50 feet away. He's good, but he doesn't enjoy pandering to crowds.
Still, his aim is unassailable, which is why Vanessa meets him for a drink, to offer him a job. Details are vague, save that it might involve a murder. He agrees, she begins to leave. The scene is punctuated beautifully with the following exchange: "Do you have a name?" "Yes."
Said scene does some interesting footwork making exposition a little fun: Vanessa measures him up at the table, just as Eva Green did in Casino Royale to James Bond. (The writer and creator, John Logan, also wrote Skyfall.) As delightful as this show is, some respect must be paid to its crafting. The acting is delivered with balance and poise. The dialogue is prose. The costumes are gorgeous. The pacing is quick, but not rushed. The scenery swallows up your eyeballs, it's so cozy to look at.
Speaking of scenery, they meet at the appointed time and place— an opium den. Here they meet Sir Malcolm, a sober man of grim intent. They travel below, searching for someone. Sir Malcolm delivers a warning up front: "Do not be amazed at anything you see. And do not hesitate." Yikes.
They go below in search of "someone dear" to Sir Malcolm. They encounter three men who are stronger than they look, and get up after being shot. Here above all, the pacing is masterful— three horrible men attack our Sir Malcolm and Ethan— Vanessa simply walks carefully through the room, ignoring them... following screams. This friggin' show.
The trio find a greater monster— he rises up from a pile of human remains and throws Ethan across the room. We don't get a good look at it. Vanessa keeps it distracted, somehow, long enough for Sir Malcolm to lance it through the heart. The woman they seek isn't here... a dead end.
At a medical facility where corpses are studied to research human anatomy, our heroes recruit an arrogant young man (played by Harry Treadaway) to study a corpse. So begins the anatomy lesson on a vampire. You have to watch this thing. It's magnificent. The creature's dermis has layers. Its skin is tattooed with hieroglyphics. Ethan sums up his overwhelm nicely: "Who the f*** are you people?"
In her parlor, Vanessa makes Ethan an offer: stick around and see "the demi-monde", or move on and keep shooting clay targets. He accepts. Their interactions have a slow flirtation to them. He only took the first night's job if she would smile for him. She has him pull a tarot card from the array on the table, it's revealed to be 'The Lovers'. There's nothing rushed about it.
And then there's this guy. Ferdinand Lyle's the head of the Museum of Egyptian History, and recognizes enough of the hieroglyphics to identify the script as a blood curse... from the Book of the Dead. Played by Simon Russell Beale, this personification of Edwardian foppery is grandiose, pretentious, makes catty remarks, and generally grates on your nerves. I could watch him for hours.
Sir Malcolm Murray (revealed on an invitation) invites our arrogant young friend to dinner, to discuss his prospects in demi-monde medicine. They discuss exploration as a theme. Sir Malcolm's an explorer, and they're both consumed with a hunger to seek. Sir Malcolm seeks his daughter (cough named Mina cough), while his young counterpart seeks to pierce the veil separating life and death. The episode concludes with a resurrection, and a revelation. The arrogant young man? Victor Frankenstein.
This show... this friggin' show. It's managing a tricky feat— to weave together different horror stories with success. One need look no further than Van Helsing to know that piling different classic horror stories on top of each other can be disastrous. PD is walking a fine line... and doing so beautifully.
Of these characters, no two motivations are alike. Ethan seeks work with meaning. Vanessa wants to quiet her mind and find peace. Sir Malcolm "would murder the world" to rescue his daughter. Victor is stoked by egotism and a hunger to play god. And here they all are, together. Well. Not yet. But it seems they've agreed to collaborate, and will begin in earnest, soon.
I can't wait to see what happens next.
~ For more, visit www.caseyjonescaseyjones.com!