Penny Dreadful: No really, what is Dorian Grey even doing here?

Penny Dreadful finished its first season this past Sunday, and it left me with a myriad of thoughts. Not the least of which is, “What the hell is Dorian Grey even doing in this show?” There will, of course, be spoilers in this post as I try to figure out why I like this show so much.

According to the wikipedia article, this show is entirely written by John Logan, who previously wrote the most recent James Bond flick, Skyfall. Though it seems like having only one writer should give the show a structural coherence that other shows might lack, I don’t actually think this is the case. If we were to look at all the episodes as one long piece, maybe the structure would look more like a movie. In particular, the flashback that almost entirely makes up episode five, seems like it’s approximately in the right place—just much longer than anyone really expected. Everything seems extremely stretched out to fit into eight episodes of almost an hour each, rather than fitting a whole story into 3 hours or less.

All of the component parts of this show make it essentially tailor-made for me: Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, and wonderful newcomers Harry Treadaway and Reeve Carney are all delightful to watch on screen, if only because of their beautiful faces. But the addition of vampires, werewolves, demons, Frankenstein and his monster, and Dorian Grey make this show everything I wanted The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to be. As you all know from my previous post, I’m likely to watch just about anything that Eva Green signs on to, but this particular show hit all the right notes for me.

Or at least, it should. All the right instruments are there—to carry on the metaphor. The main plot of this first season is compelling enough for me to watch; Timothy Dalton plays a convincing father in search of his daughter, and given that her name is Mina Murray, I was intrigued enough to follow along. But it’s all the side plots this show had going at the same time that made season one feel like the first half of a really excellent potential first season.

  1. Frankenstein, Caliban, and Brona. We all knew where this was heading since Caliban first made his demand of his creator. Everyone thought Brona would perish when she fell down in the street coughing and the camera faded to black while passers-by were thoroughly ignoring her, and I’m not entirely sure what difference it made that she wasn’t swept up for use as Frankenstein’s Bride (see what I did there?) until the last episode. It felt less like a “Vindication!” moment and more like John Logan thinks the viewers are a whole lot stupider than we are.
  2. Ethan Chandler: werewolf. Same goes for this. This didn’t feel like a payoff by the time we got to it, just a giant let down that I had to wait until the end for it. It was that whole sequence in the zoo in episode 3 that made me suddenly suspect that maybe there was more to Ethan Chandler than just being a sharpshooter with a dark past, and that absolutely would have been a better reveal than what actually went down.
  3. Dorian Grey. As far as I can tell, Dorian is just there to have sex with all the attractive people on this show. If this is actually the case, I look forward to his scene with Dr. Frankenstein, as well as the one with him and Malcolm Murray. But on the assumption that isn’t his only purpose on the show, I’m not entirely clear on why Logan felt the need to keep this purpose out of the first season entirely. Did he think no one would return if the show revealed too much at once? Who knows. I’ll obviously be returning for season two, but I will continue to bemoan the fact that John Logan doesn’t seem to think his audience is very bright.
  4. The demon inside Vanessa. I can’t possibly be the only one thinking that somehow it doesn’t really—yet?—seem like the demon that possesses Miss Ives is entirely relevant to the vampire plot. I can think of all sorts of ways for that connection to be made (okay, three ways off the top of my head) but as yet, none seems more or less likely than the others. I think that the two have to be related for the plot to make much sense, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite there yet.

One thing I thought the show did very well—in terms of foreshadowing, setting up future plots, and leaving the audience hungry for season two—is Malcolm’s encounter with Madame Kali in the gun shop. The viewers now know that she is tangentially involved with… something, and that we can expect to see more of her. Which I for one was not at all expecting.

Given the issues I have with this show, it surprises me that I tuned in every week, eager for the next installment. I think it has a lot to do with the actors giving stunning performances, and of course those aforementioned component parts. I’m really looking forward to Penny Dreadful‘s second season—not because I think this show is amazing, but because I want some of my questions answered. On the other hand, I have a feeling that this show will answer those questions only after giving me more questions to ask. In general, that method of keeping an audience works, but I hope the pacing picks up a bit next time, and I hope that some of the loose ends can at least be somehow connected to the rest of the plot even if they aren’t entirely woven in.

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About Sky

I'm a: 20-something, fantasy writer, deep thought thinker, sometime knitter, bookstore browser, amateur cook, journaler, cat owner, cheap wine connoisseur, ancient and medieval history lover, occasional philosopher, avid reader, museum wanderer.
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3 Responses to Penny Dreadful: No really, what is Dorian Grey even doing here?

  1. Gav says:

    Stumbled across this blog while looking up Dorian Gray on Penny Dreadful.

    I feel his character is there for mainly:

    –He’s part of the Penny Dreadful genre, unlike Dr. Frankenstein (incidentally my favorite character).
    –Like any “minor” character, his role is to bring out aspects of “main” characters, which he has done with Vanessa and Ethan (oddly).

    Having coincidentally read The Picture of Dorian Gray a week before the season started, I feel Reeve’s portrayal was fantastic. His words often make one stop and think, and his optimism and smiles are a welcome change of pace in this generally dark show.

    Just my two cents!

    • Sky says:

      Part of my problem with how he was used in the show is that the writing and the set up makes me think he’s not supposed to be a minor character. There’s no need to have a well-known literary character in the role of “cheer people up,” or even to use as a foil for the rest of the cast. As far as I can tell, Vanessa Ives, Malcolm Murray, and Ethan Chandler are all original characters. Of the main and recurring characters, only Mina Murray, Victor Frankenstein, and Dorian Grey are characters from literature.

      So far, all of the literary characters are related to the main plot of the story, and are sort of “main characters” by virtue of that. (Even if we don’t see Mina Murray all that often, the show literally is propelled forward by Malcolm and Vanessa’s drive to find her.) I think Dorian Grey is supposed to be part of that, but that it just didn’t come across in the first season, which is part of why I think the show’s pacing is weird. I’d be willing to bet that he will have a much larger role in the second season, and will become involved in the main plot somehow.

      It just would have been nice to see that in the first season, even a little bit.

      • Gav says:

        You said: So far, all of the literary characters are related to the main plot of the story, and are sort of “main characters” by virtue of that.

        Val Helsing would be an obvious exception. I consider Dorian like Val, he just got more screen time. I loved Dorian’s character and too hope to see him a lot in season 2, time will tell…

        To your defense, a coworker of mine who watches the show had very similar sentiments as you feeling his character was jammed in and didn’t seem to have much purpose to the main plot line.

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