The directorial duties on the eight episodes of Showtime’s Victorian-era horror series Penny Dreadful were split up among four directors, each of them taking the helm for two episodes. After handling the pilot and the second episode, and thus establishing the overall look and tone of the series, The Orphanage/The Impossible director J.A. Bayona passed the baton to veteran television director Dearbhla Walsh.
For her first episode, Walsh was given the task of bringing to life a script by John Logan that delves further into the character of Victor Frankenstein, beginning with his first experiences with death at a young age. His first look at death was when he found the carcass of his beloved dog lying in a field with maggots crawling in its eye sockets. Just as Victor was dealing with that loss, his mother fell ill with a terrible terminal disease. Clearly the roots of his obsession with overcoming death are in these childhood moments.
As the previous episodes showed us, Victor has found a way to create new life from a body once dead. He reanimated the corpse of a man, who chose the name Proteus for himself from the collected works of Shakespeare. Victor and his sweet, docile creation bonded. Proteus was learning about the world and wanting to make friends… It was a version of the story of Frankenstein and his monster that had never been told before. And it ended tragically, when it was revealed that Proteus was not Victor’s first try at raising the dead and his firstborn made its presence known by tearing his new son apart.
Enter Rory Kinnear, who played Bill Tanner in the James Bond film Skyfall, which was also written by Penny Dreadful creator John Logan and directed by executive producer Sam Mendes. Here, Kinnear plays a Frankenstein’s Monster much more in line with the creature full of hate and rage for its master that the audience is familiar with.
Through flashbacks, Walsh shows us what the monster has experienced up to this point. A scared, agonized creature abandoned by its terrified creator as soon as life was breathed into it. Forced to learn about the world and survive on its own. Rejected by the people it came across. Until the monster met a lively, drunken actor wonderfully portrayed by Alun Armstrong, who introduced the monster to a world where it could fit in.
During the monster’s story, it’s clear that Logan and Mendes are of the theatre, because that’s exactly where Frankenstein’s creation – who coincidentally was also given a name from Shakespeare; Caliban, after the “subhuman son of a malevolent witch” in the bard’s The Tempest – finds acceptance. In the theatre, “a place where the malformed find grace, where the hideous can be beautiful, where strangeness is not shunned, but celebrated”. And so Caliban found work, and a home, backstage at a theatre that put on bloody “grand guignol” versions of popular plays.
The show might have gotten a little ahead of its 1891 time period with the inclusion of grand guignol, the famous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol didn’t open in Paris until 1898… But as far as I know, vampires and Frankenstein’s monsters didn’t really exist in Victorian London either, so just let any anachronisms you notice slide.
While other storylines were advanced over the course of the episode, with Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray and his companion Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) continuing down the path of finding Sir Malcolm’s missing daughter Mina and rescuing her from a powerful vampire, with Josh Hartnett’s American gunslinger Ethan Chandler rejoining them with new purpose – to earn money so his love interest Brona (Billie Piper) can afford medication to treat her tuberculosis, which may be the same disease that killed Mrs. Frankenstein – ‘Resurrection’ was primarily the story of Frankenstein and his monster, with the strength of Rory Kinnear’s performance as Caliban capably carrying the episode for much of its running time.
Caliban has a request for his creator that reflects more of the popular Frankenstein story, and as the show plays out it will be very interesting to see how John Logan handles this particular plot element.
And surely Dracula is lurking out there somewhere in this world Logan has put together. I’m fascinated to see what the Penny Dreadful version of the character would be like. I need to see Dracula delivering Logan’s great, intelligently written dialogue.