PENNY DREADFUL Comic-Con 2014 Panel Report
By Eric Diaz on July 31, 2014
Hosted in Ballroom 20 on Friday afternoon, Archer’s Aisha Tyler, herself a super fan of the show, moderated the panel for Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful at Comic-Con, and gave the panel an incredible introduction: “Penny Dreadful is on its face a bold and ambitious Victorian horror mash-up… but it’s so much more than that. Through these classic themes — re-imagined-melancholy, depravity, humanity and transcendence — we get a meditation on the primal nature of good and evil, sex and love, and the monstrousness that resides in all of us. The word ‘Demimonde’ means ‘Half World’, but in this show it refers to a world transcendent, at once hidden and rolling in shadows, and also floating above us all, transcendent and radiating divine light. Elegant, literate, sexy and haunting, Penny Dreadful is truly wonderful.”
After that introduction, the first to arrive on stage for the panel was the show’s creator John Logan, followed by Reeve Carney (Dorian Gray), Harry Treadaway (Victor Frankenstein), and finally Josh Hartnett (Ethan Chandler). Before getting any other questions out of the way, Aisha Tyler wanted to address the elephant in the room — or in this case, the wolf, and the season finale’s reveal that Hartnett’s character Ethan Chandler is, in fact, a werewolf. John Logan addressed this and the origins of the show itself, saying, “I spent ten years of my life thinking about this show, and developing in this show, and I was taking it very seriously, because every time I’ve ever been to Comic-Con, it’s been from the other side, the audience, and it’s very emotional to be sitting on this side. And I have such respect for the genre, because for me, horror isn’t about death, it’s about exultation, and transference, and transformation.”
“So I’ve been thinking about these characters for a really long time,” he continued, “especially the fictional ones like Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray and the Creature. [They] inspired me to take these characters and evolve them. New characters like Ethan, Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, and Brona had to fit into what I thought this show was about, and what I think this show is about is the monster in all of us — the thing we must embrace, the thing that frightens us, and the thing that makes us who we are. So when I conceived of this one character [Ethan Chandler] who is American, I went hiking, and being out in the west, as I’m a native Californian… and I would see coyotes. And I thought, well there you have it… Ethan is a werewolf. And I remember my first meeting with Josh I sort of lead with that, the fact that he was a werewolf. And he didn’t run away, he was intrigued.”
Tyler then asked John Logan if there was a moment where the whole world came together for him, when he crystalized all of these myths into one. Logan said, “I started to read a lot of romantic poetry about ten years ago, during a period of time when I was frankly depressed, and those poets also led me back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time in many years. And I read it, and I wept, because I was so moved by that story of those two monstrous creations who were both partly devil and partly angel so equally, and I thought that it was such a fascinating world… and it has to do with how I grew up as a gay man, in a time when it wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now, and I knew what it was like to feel like alienated from my family and my community, and I realized that the very thing that made me different made me who I am.”
“I decided to write about that, and that’s where Penny Dreadful really came from. And I wanted a female protagonist,” he went on, “so I created Vanessa Ives, a woman from a time when they were literally and figuratively corseted, and I thought that was interesting for characters with demons that wanted to get out but couldn’t. The other inspiration were the second generation Universal Horror films, when all of a sudden all these characters started mixing and forming a new cosmology, and that’s what I wanted to do.” Josh Hartnett then made a wisecrack, “So Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the inspiration?”
When Aisha Tyler asked if John was bitten or comes from a long family line of wolves, John Logan simply teased that that was “to be decided.” This led to John Logan talking about developing the backstories for all the characters, and how one of the great joys was developing all the character’s origins, and we’d see more next season, including Ethan’s. “One of our best episodes the first season was episode five, which was the back story of Vanessa Ives.” (This got a loud response from the audience.) After which point Logan said, “All hail Eva Green, one of the most fearless actors I’ve ever worked with.” This too got a huge round of applause. Although absent, it’s clear that Eva Green is the heart and soul of Penny Dreadful.
Of course, one of the most controversial scenes from the series came up next: the same sex encounter between Dorian Gray and Ethan Chandler in episode four. Did both actors know that was going to happen going in? Reeve Carney said he got the script for that episode shortly after he got the part, and all he told John Logan was, “You better cast a hot guy as Ethan.” Logan then added, “As a gay man I thought it would be corrupt and inorganic to not deal with all forms of sexuality in the show. Because I believe the show should deal with all aspects of what it means to be human, from the romantic to the sexual to the psychosexual to the horrific, and I wanted to explore it in every conceivable way I could. So when people ask ‘is he gay or bi’ or whatever, the question is almost irrelevant, because I believe human beings act in the moment in the way that is true for them.”
According to Logan, we will continue to see more combinations of characters on the show, not just sexual ones but familial ones. “To me, all television is about family. To me, that is the bridge crew of the Enterprise from Star Trek. And so I structured the eight hours to build a family and bring them together. So for me, season one is like an overture, where we bring all the pieces on the board and bring them together. And the joy of the second season is now playing with the characters and mixing the relationships in different patterns.”
When asked next why he killed off the character of Van Helsing, played by David Warner, Logan said “I did that as a provocation, fan to fan, to say yes, I cherish the sacred texts (the classic novels) but we are not recreating that text. There are places where we ally comfortably with the mythology, and then there are places, like by killing off such a pivotal character as Van Helsing, where we break completely. To me it was a joyous act to do, because it tells the audience, we are liberated. Anything can happen.”
Inevitably the question of the nature of Vanessa’s possession came up, and whether it was something she was taken by, or something that she welcomed. On the subject of Vanessa, Logan said, “To me, the great uber question of Penny Dreadful really is, ‘Who is Vanessa Ives?’ and that’s something we will explore more in season two.” More than a couple of fans addressed the subtext of Vanessa’s demon only appearing after sexual encounters, displaying a Victorian and antiquated vision of female sexuality. “I hope there will be lots of combinations of sexuality that will be both joyous and terrifying in equal measure… just like sex. I would never hide behind Victorian mores because I’m writing a modern show for a modern audience. In no way is sexuality in my world a bad thing, nor is unlocking a demon a bad thing necessarily. There is no good or bad, it is simply a way for the characters to evolve to the truest version of themselves. And Vanessa cannot evolve until she faces things, and if sex with Dorian unlocks something in her that allows that to happen, then that’s what I need to do for her as a writer.”
Where there any classic monsters that got left off for the first season? Logan replied that there were still characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula he hasn’t introduced, and also that he hopes to introduce characters from The Island of Dr. Moreau into future seasons. “Next season is very different. The cosmology and the theology of the show is much larger, and the next season they are thrown into a much more threatening supernatural show. And next year Madame Calli, who appeared in episode two and briefly in the last episode, and her supernatural world will become the big threat in the second season.” They then showed a deleted scene from season one that John Logan said is a taste of where they are going in season two, featuring Madame Calli threatening Vanessa Ives.
The use of language is a large draw for many of the fans, and in speaking about Frankenstein’s creature, much more eloquent than he is usually portrayed Logan said that both Frankenstein and his creature grew up reading too much poetry, and it allowed both of those characters to explode in language not really appropriate for other characters like Ethan Chandler or Vanessa Ives, because that wasn’t their education. Turning to Oscar Wilde’s creation from The Picture of Dorian Gray, the inevitable question arose as to whether or not we will ever see Dorian Gray’s infamous portrait. “Eventually… we will see the portrait,” said John Logan. But they decided to hold off on the portrait for future seasons and tease it out even more.
Tyler asked Josh Hartnett to address the themes of power and shame the show brings up, especially for his character, now officially revealed to be a werewolf. “I think Ethan’s middle name is ‘Shame,'” he said. I think he lives in a shame spiral, even if he doesn’t really know what it is he does. He doesn’t really understand the extent of what he becomes.”
One of the last questions for the panelists is whether or not the characters believe in God. Harry Treadway answered first “Victor doesn’t believe in God.” Reeve Carney’s answer was, “I’d say Dorian is an agnostic,” which seemed very appropriate for that character. Finally, Ethan said plainly “Ethan believes in God.” According to Logan, next season will “deeply grapple with theology, because the question of whether or not there is an world beyond in central to season two.”
Penny Dreadful returns to Showtime in 2015 for a second season order of then episodes, and season one is available on DVD and Blu-ray in October.