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Sunday, June 26, 2016

On the Disempowering Demise of Penny Dreadful

Showtime, written by John Logan, starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear
For nearly three seasons, Showtime’s lush, mesmerizing, and beautifully acted Penny Dreadful focused on a choice between submission and self-determination. The show’s female protagonists, Vanessa (Eva Green) and Lily (Billie Piper), were singular portraits of women struggling to take control of their destinies, standing up to their abusers and demanding to be treated as equals. But while the audience rooted for their heroines, finding empowerment in their struggle, the show’s finale demolished its female protagonists, leaving them on their knees at their abusers’ feet and invalidating all that came before.

Lily and Vanessa’s journeys often seem to parallel each other on two different plains. Vanessa is abused and sometimes subjugated by her divine tormentors, God and the Devil: the Devil assaults her flesh, toys with her, and attacks her loved ones, while God, at best, abandons her like a bored observer, and at worst, takes active part in her torture. The show spends many scenes questioning God’s intentions: why is he absent while so many suffer and die needlessly? Why does he torment the very people who seem most central to his plan? And how can he claim any moral high ground while sacrificing countless innocent lives for a game with no defined rules?

The show opens on a little girl and her mother gruesomely murdered, we later find out, by the Wolf of God, the man chosen by God to face the Devil. These are only two of many lives destroyed by God’s unwilling holy weapon. A deeply compassionate person, Ethan (Josh Hartnett) is tormented ceaselessly by guilt; and as he learns that the blood on his teeth and in his soul, as he puts it, is just collateral damage from God’s grand plan, his reaction is understandable fury. He is angry - and why wouldn’t he be? If God chose Ethan for the beauty of his soul only to turn him into a monster, then what does that make God?

Showtime's Penny Dreadful, written by John Logan. Also starring Billie Piper, Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett
Self-loathing and defeated by all the signs of God’s special love (which feels a lot like rape), Ethan seems ill equipped to fight against the forces that misuse and victimize him. But Vanessa is equal to the task. At the end of season 2, she spectacularly defeats the Devil, then turns her sights on God: again, her anger at his abandonment as her chosen family is ripped apart is perfectly understandable. The audience easily related to her rage; and as she burned her cross, which has been invariably ineffective and deaf to her pleas for help, many of us cheered her empowerment. She would no longer be anyone’s toy; she was a free woman now.

Penny Dreadful creator John Logan has often said that the first two seasons were Vanessa’s journey towards burning the cross. The implication, at the time, seemed to be that Vanessa’s liberation was the point; that her resolve to be a self-determined individual was at the core of the show. Whenever fans at various conventions would question Logan about the show’s portrayal of female sexuality as dangerous, his answer always boiled down to “Just wait and see.” And we did: we waited, and what we saw was a woman’s battle for empowerment and self-acceptance, and our own personal battles reflected in it. This was the show’s promise.

This promise holds true even into the start of season 3. In the season’s opening episode, Vanessa muses on her choice to turn away from the God who turned away from her: “...and if my immortal soul is lost to me, something yet remains. I remain.” I know I’m not the only fan who cheered at that line.

But as the show moves towards its end, all of Vanessa’s righteous rage comes to nothing. Close to the end, she announces “I accept myself” - and the problem is not only that in the end she pays for this self-acceptance with her death, but that she does so while rejecting her Self and turning back to the God who has been shown as nothing but monstrous. For all of Penny Dreadful’s bold questions, at the end Logan seems to expect the audience to take Vanessa’s choice of submission over self-determination at face value. Sure, God is a monster, the show seems to be saying in the end, but he is still our master, so we better bow our heads. No reason is given why this divine monster and not the other; no explanation why Vanessa must be reduced to choosing between two abusers instead of liberating herself from both, as she has shown herself capable of doing. The letdown of this gutless ending is made all the more stark by the awesomeness that came before it; Vanessa’s final debasement all the more heartbreaking by the power and uniqueness of her character.

Showtime's Penny Dreadful, written by John Logan, also starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear
Although Lily’s cruel creator and abuser is science rather than God, her journey largely mirrors Vanessa’s own, both in its empowerment and in its eventual debasing dead end. Vanessa is an ethereal creature caught in God’s and the Devil’s crosshairs, but Lily is a woman victimized by more mundane forces: hunger, domestic violence, industrialization, disease. Her life could well be drawn from history books; she is the everywoman of her time. As a fully relatable character, she grounds the show’s vision of liberation.

Lily’s brutal version of empowerment only matches the brutality she herself has experienced throughout her life, and her fury is, again, perfectly understandable. Her own would-be master, Victor (Harry Treadaway), is a cruel, narcissistic, uncaring mirror image of Vanessa’s cruel, narcissistic, uncaring God; and Lily’s growing power follows a similar trajectory to that of Vanessa; but unlike Vanessa and her singular struggle, Lily also uses her fury to empower other women. Truly a hero for the audience to cheer for.

In the end, however, Lily’s glorious struggle fizzles out. Strong enough to rip a man in half, she is reduced to groveling at Victor’s feet: a powerful woman begging her murderer, kidnapper, and arguably rapist for mercy. In a world of Brock Turner, Jian Ghomeshi, and other near-daily cases of men going unpunished for violence against women, it’s hard to imagine anything more disempowering. Even for this mighty warrior, who only yesterday was building an army of righteous avengers, the only recourse is to hope her abuser will take pity on her - and when he eventually does, it’s not because she is an individual with the right to her body and her mind, but because she is a mother.

Showtime's Penny Dreadful, written by John Logan, starring Billie Piper, Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear
For what it’s worth, Logan seems aware just how much he has let down his characters and his audience. One of the last lines he writes for Lily is “So my great enterprise comes to no more than this” (said to yet another abuser who is let completely off the hook for his violence against women). But no amount of lampshading can take the sting out of such profound disempowerment.

Showtime's Penny Dreadful, written by John Logan, starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear
It remains to be seen whether fans, old and new, can continue to enjoy Penny Dreadful despite its shameful end. The rest of the show remains a treasure trove of things to love: from careful staging that makes each shot look like a painting, to dialog filled with poetry that drips off characters’ tongues, to the achingly honest performances that hold the whole thing together. Can we take the empowerment it offers and shrug off the rest? Only time will tell.


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