Penny Dreadful: Part 1

While there is plenty of internal and interpersonal conflict in Penny Dreadful, the plot is driven by the clash of mortal values and supernatural desires. The group of characters that I refer to as generally “Pro-Human” (Sir Malcolm, Vanessa, Ethan, Victor, and Sembene, and Dorian Gray) have personal goals that vary widely but are not incompatible. They are united in the search for Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina, who has been kidnapped by mysterious creatures.  This is an example of a classic super-ordinate goal: mortals vs. evil non-humans, but this is only one layer of conflict woven throughout Penny Dreadful’s story. (Warning: there are more spoilers in this post than there are pale people in British period pieces).

Often, elements of the Supernatural are meant to induce fear because of their Otherness.  When you don’t know what a creature is, and therefore don’t know what it wants -and if what it wants will be something you really DON’T want- it is natural to feel fear.  It is the essence of xenophobia; this assumption that because you can’t identify the other’s desires, they must desire something that will be against your self-interest.

Penny Dreadful, like many modern supernatural stories, goes well beyond this simple play of human vs. Otherness to create tension and suspense.  Instead of allowing the mystery of the vampires’ ultimate goal to consume the entire season’s action, we find out relatively quickly what they are after (although I have only watched the 8-episode season once, and could use a second viewing to fully appreciate their goal), and the plot is then driven by the personal conflicts of each character, which threaten to destroy Sir Malcolm’s chance at saving his daughter (not to mention the characters themselves).

Conflicts over water shortages can cause increase tension, and certainly put a strain on institutional policies and resource management, but the historical records shows greater instances of cooperation to resolve scarcity of water than international conflicts over resources (I know, this is counter-intuitive, and it does not mean we will never see international conflicts over resources, particularly if there are other factors involved -but historically speaking, the historical evidence suggests it is just as likely that cooperation will prevail).

In the same way, the interpersonal conflicts within the Pro-Humans team, and their personal conflicts with the Anti-Human characters (*I’m grouping The Creature with the Anti-Humans since he, you know, murdered a guy out of spite… but unlike the vampires, there is obviously more to his sense of conscious, particularly when he had that moment of self-awareness and guilt at the end of the season) threaten to leave them all vulnerable to, well, general death and dismemberment.

A lot of stories involve the creation of a team or community who persevere against shared hardship, but what makes the characters of Penny Dreadful so compelling is the fact that their personal stories and conflicts are so intense and consuming individually (of course, this is partly because their individual stories were inspired by other stories that stood alone), that there were many times throughout the show that I wondered “why are they bothering to hang out with each other? Shouldn’t he/she be dealing with their own crap and not worrying about anyone else?” But they are committed to their shared goal, even if they have no personal stake in the rescue of Mina.

After all, even though they keep their personal conflicts to themselves and do not share their struggles with the other characters, they’ve realized that the superordinate goal they are facing is bigger than just the vampires who kidnapped Mina.  Their shared knowledge that the world is not as mundane as most society thinks gives them a reason to overcome their differences and work together.  Again, it is a common idea in many stories, but it is one that I always enjoy, especially when it is done in as interesting and entertaining a manner as Penny Dreadful.


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