by Lee Hazell
The following contains major spoilers for episode three.
My favourite thing about the second episode of Penny Dreadful was the character of Proteus. The creation of Victor Frankenstein, Proteus provided us with a fresh new take on the old Mary Shelley creation. He was young and naieve, a child trapped within the body of a man. He was eager to learn, grow and to find his place in society; to re-educate himself on social etiquette, and once again be a member of a civilised community. He was taking his second chance at life and using it become the kind of human being his childish mind would find respectful and gentlemanly.
Yes, of course I expected him to become a monster, or, at least, be perceived as one. Perhaps the public would reject him, perhaps his intriguing back story would hold some dark, murderous, secret, or perhaps it would drive him insane to remember what he had lost. He could have even become a hero. The possibilities for such a character were endless. Proteus, the man who could be anything.
Why did I not mention this in the last review? The episode did not deserve it. The praise I had hoped to heap upon the instalment was cancelled out by the decisions of the writers. Such potential for young Proteus was cruelly wiped out at the end of the previous episode. He is ripped apart by a figure lurking in the shadows. Hands appear through his fragile torso, and he is pulled to pieces by a monster, who greets a terrified Frankenstein with “Your first born has returned. Father.”
Father? Really? Never mind the inelegant expression (if you’re his first born, then of course he’s your father. He’s hardly going to be your mother); we’ve got enough daddy issues with Josh Hartnett’s character. The problem is that this isn’t Game of Thrones. There if they make you care about one character, then kill tehm, you know there are a dozen characters left for you to care about. In this show there have been two who have peaked my interest. Character’s whose purpose wasn’t to kill or screw the other characters; or to come up with depraved ways of getting morbid reblogs on Tumblr. They had an arc, were interesting, were original, everything all the other characters in the series lack.
Yes Proteus’s demise was heartbreaking. But heartbreak, like shock, is fleeting. It’s an emotional reaction giving you a temporary high. It leaves as quickly as it comes. The problem isn’t that they have killed him. The problem is that they haven’t replaced him with anyone anywhere near as good. The new creature wants a mate. Just like every incarnation of Frankenstein since the 1930’s. With him we don’t get to see him become the monster. He’s conveniently turned up as one. No character arc, just the back end.
His origin is told in an unceremonial dumping of exposition, right at the beginning of the episode. Not just his, but the good doctors too. Yes, that’s right, the episode is top-loaded with not one, but two backstory’s. Not to say there was nothing of merit in them. Victor’s story was filled with disillusionment, as he finds death to be less serene than the romantic poets he admires would have him believe. The creature comes in to his own when he interrogates him on the subject; when he confronts the doctor’s idealism towards Blake’s poems of Innocence, with the cold reality that the man he has created reflects his poems of Experience. But if he has been so betrayed by the works of Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, then why does he still hold them dear? The trait is totally at odds with the no-nonsense, practical, method obsessed surgeon he is at all other times.
The Creature finding refuge in theatre was a nice touch, even if it made him an amalgamation of the traditional monster and the Phantom of the Opera. The characters of this story were well drawn and made some cleaver uses of the surroundings, but ultimately I’d have liked them to spend more time on this, than the tides of gore they regularly wash over the viewer’s eyes (for the second episode in a row, someone coughs up blood over another character). But, no matter how engaging his initial conversations with Victor are, he, like with all the characters in this series, becomes far less interesting when he becomes a slave to a hackneyed plot.
Elsewhere in the series, the characters are doing the busy work and pushing the plot forward. We find that the monsters of the night are really after Vanessa Ives, and are using Mina Harker as bait. Ethan becomes a permanent member of Sir. Malcom’s company in order to pay for Brona’s consumption medicine. Much of their time on screen is used telling us things, that as literate viewers, we should probably know. But, just in case some of us out there are not well read on the subjects of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, it is still necessary, no matter how redundant it feels to us.
But there is a new development worth mentioning. In their hunt for the monster that has made Mina its slave, the company have found, and captured, a boy who appears to be under the monsters influence. He seems very much the same as young Proteus. He is technically a monster, but one we can put out sympathy behind. He is chained up and experimented on by the show’s so-called heroes, he has been given a curse. Not one he has asked for, but one he has had forced upon him. He is now a slave. He is hungry and despairing at the awfulness of his situation. Young Olly Alexander, who plays the wraith called Fenton, gives an outstanding performance and steals the few scenes he is in. But alas, I fear that someone this interesting isn’t long for the world of Penny Dreadful. He will most likely be sacrificed to the gods of gore and the grotesque, so that we may have more room for their awful mischief.