The show's main plot is quite simple: Obliquely it's a Dracula adaptation, with psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) recruiting a band of literary archetypes to rescue Malcolm's daughter Mina from vampires. But then it throws in the experiments of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), a manipulative demon, the Grand Guignol theater, and a heavy dose of Egyptian mythology. The Dracula plot is still the anchor—and still closer to Bram Stoker's novel than NBC's recent, campy miniseries—but the overall story is quite new, and weaved together in such a way that even moments from the books surprise.
That story works because the show embraces its genre unapologetically. Instead of trying to change or downplay the tone or signal self-awareness about it, Penny Dreadful gives the audience actual dark and stormy nights, and makes them actually scary and foreboding.
Unlike the publications it’s named for, the show focuses not on the lurid but on existential ideas and atmosphere. More than anything, Penny Dreadful is a mediation on the naturalness of death. Stuffed animals, corpses, and run-down buildings fill the backgrounds and often the foregrounds of the show, with the living, breathing protagonists are the oddity, not the norm. Any attempt at cheating or manipulating death—reanimation, Egyptian blood curses, or deals with the devil in the form of portraits—has a malevolent nature and might ultimately be futile. In Penny Dreadful, death is the only answer. How intensely and delightfully gothic.
The gothic genre started as an offshoot of Romanticism, weaving stories rife with ancient horrors, dark passions, and doom. It was bloody, but the focus was never on the gore. Nor was it the seeping unease and otherworldly cosmic horror that defined HP Lovecraft’s work. Rather, it was about atmosphere—oppressive, lush settings where the drama and horror was intimate. Surprisingly, the Industrial Age didn't kill the genre, but gave it new life. Technological advances created even more dark shadows in urban areas, and in literature, the townhouses of the city replaced the haunted castles of the countryside.
The cultural norms and standards of the Victorian era added complexity to the genre. Immigrants brought new folklore into the English-speaking culture, and popular interest in Ancient Egypt and other realms of “the exotic” rose. Widespread disease came to symbolize some cultural malady, while vampires and other creatures were used as metaphors for everything from sexuality to greed. In the age of the expanding British empire and a prudish society, the gothic literature of the Victorian era offered great, if sometimes over-the-top, commentary. Even the cheaper penny dreadfuls got into the mix.
All of that comes through in the show. Vanessa has the facade of the prim and proper Victorian lady, but her dark desires underneath could attract very evil supernatural spirits. Although she isn't based on any specific character from Victorian literature—elements of Lucy Westenra and even Sherlock Holmes come to mind though—she has quickly become the standout of the cast. Eva Green is at her best when Vanessa gets to play host to a number of demons and ghosts at a séance.