Penny Dreadful is a British-American television series which aired in 2014. The show refers back to the small publications in 19th century Britain which were filled with highly sensational material and often favored by young boys whose heads were filled with adventure. Most of the characters are drawn from public domain British and Irish 19th century literature to create a feel that is reminiscent of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Those characters include: Mina Harker, Dr. Van Helsing, Sr. Seward, Renfield, and Dracula from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula; Sir Malcom Murray, a nod to Allan Quartermain of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines; Ethan Chandler, a nod to Lawrence Talbot of the 1941 film The Wolfman; Dr. Frankenstein and his creature from Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein; and Dorian Grey from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 Picture of Dorian Grey.
However, the main protagonist of the show is a new character, one Miss Vanessa Ives, who soon proves to be more than meets the eye. The first season follows Vanessa Ives and her companions Sir Malcom, Ethan, and Dr. Frankenstein as they try to rescue Sir Malcom’s daughter Mina from a much more visually horrifying version on Dracula. Throughout the season viewers learn that Vanessa has dark connections to possibly something that is the Devil himself, making her a powerful and volatile woman. Season two expands upon Vanessa herself as other witches, agents of the Master (Devil), seek to destroy her life and bring her into the fold of darkness.
Specifically, I want to add episode three of season two, “The Nightcomers”. This episode is a flashback and takes place before season one. Vanessa is newly aware of her powers and the darkness brought with them. In an attempt to understand what she is so that she can rescue Mina, Vanessa travels to Ballantree Moor, where Joan Clayton (known for most of the episode only as the “cut-wife”) resides. Joan is indeed a “cut-wife”, a woman who lives on the very outskirts of town, prescribing remedies and potions for things both normal and not. She also performs abortions for the young women of the town who have no one else to turn to. From her Vanessa learns how to use her powers, their origins, and the forces that pull on her.
This is perhaps one of the best episodes of the entire show in my opinion. (It is also highly rated in general by critics if you must know.) The entire episode is one big conversation about the dual nature of witches. It’s glorious. Joan is a textbook example of the outcast hedge-witch in Victorian England towns. She lives in a ramshackle cottage on the edge of the moor, unwanted, unloved, but needed by the people for her skills. As Joan remarks to Vanessa “The local people come here only when they got no place else. They hate me for what I do.” and later, “So it is always for those who do for women.” Joan also teaches Vanessa about the difference between what she calls “daywalkers” and “nightcomers”. Daywalkers are witches who are like Joan, they help and health those that need it. Nightcomers are those that have turned to the Master for extra power, youth, and beauty. Stuck in the middle is Vanessa, someone born with dark powers who wants to use them to help others.
The fact that there is a visual component to this narrative only adds to the episode in my opinion. Joan Clayton is styled as a small, grizzled, grey haired woman with sharp features. Her clothes are dark and rough, work clothes. She is tough, just like her job. On the other hand, the nightcomers are young and almost too pretty. They dress in fine clothes and their work is not nearly as wholesome as Joan’s. Again, there is Vanessa in the middle. She is also young and beautiful, but she dresses in the simple, rough way that Joan does.
All in all, I think this episode is a great one to add to the class. It is a wonderful discussion on more than front about the different myths surrounding women and how the women who filled those roles were treated. Additionally, even though it takes place in the second season, the events of the episode happen before the first season even begins. It is easy enough to give the students the context they need to watch the episode without needing them to watch everything in the show up to the episode. There is also the opportunity to talk about how the impact of this source could be different if it were a chapter in a book rather than a television episode.