I like to deconstruct hour-long television dramas as a method for identifying ways to improve plot, structure and character in my own writing. Because writing helps me clarify my thoughts and make connections, I decided to post my musings here. I’ll be using the TV show Penny Dreadful as my case study. If you’re not familiar with Penny Dreadful, it is a Showtime drama set in London in 1891 that features fictional characters from a variety of late 18th and 19th century literature.
Since “Night Work” is the pilot episode of Penny Dreadful, it’s primarily involved in achieving two goals: introducing the central characters and the overarching main plot. Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
We meet Vanessa Ives, the female protagonist, when she approaches Ethan Chandler after one of his performances. Ethan is an American actor (of sorts) putting on a Wild-West style stage show. Vanessa offers Ethan a job involving a bit of night work, where he can utilize his expertise with firearms and shooting skills in a real-world way. At first, Ethan resists her offer, saying he isn’t interested and that the show will soon be leaving for Paris. Vanessa challenges his resistance by making a detailed assessment of Ethan (in a way that is Sherlockian, but I’ll get to that later). In response, Ethan asks her a series of questions that she doesn’t answer, the most intriguing of which is whether or not she is hiring him to commit murder. Vanessa answers, “Does it matter?”. Ethan says nothing, but he tacitly agrees to take the job.
Ethan meets Vanessa outside of an opium den, and another major character, Sir Malcolm, is introduced. Sir Malcolm cautions Ethan against being shocked by anything he sees, and urges him against all hesitation to act. Ethan asks why they are there and learns the goal is to find someone–though who this someone is remains a mystery. The trio proceeds through the opium den, but soon they encounter resistance, which Ethan handily dispatches. They continue through the building and arrive in a sort of basement where the severed remains of multiple bodies are laying like so much discarded trash. Vanessa and Sir Malcolm search through the remains, and it becomes clear they are looking for a woman but conclude that she isn’t there. Upon making this determination, they realize they are not alone. Ethan destroys their would be assailant, and they take the dead body to a surgery for examination. When the surgeon examining the body pulls away the skin, he finds an exoskeleton beneath that is stamped with hieroglyphics. As it turns out, the surgeon who examines the body is Dr. Frankenstein. In the aftermath, Sir Malcolm invites Ethan to visit him at his home on the following day. At the end of Act One, the unanswered story questions propel the plot forward: Who are Vanessa and Malcolm? Who are they looking for? What do the markings on the body’s exoskeleton mean?
Ethan arrives at Sir Malcolm’s house, but it is Vanessa who meets him. Vanessa offers Ethan a choice: continue to work with them or walk away, to return to his normal world and forget what he saw the previous night. Vanessa describes what he saw last night as the “demi-monde”. She tells Ethan that if he chooses to walk away and ever finds himself in the demi-monde again and seeks to escape it, that he knows her address. Once again, Vanessa and Ethan play a game of question and answer that results in more questions and no answers. Ethan asks Vanessa what she seeks to escape. She answers, “We all have our curses.” Ethan doesn’t commit to staying and helping or leaving and forgetting.
Next, we see a gruesome depiction of a family torn apart in their own home. The police are there, and they fear that Jack the Ripper has returned due to the level of carnage. Ethan stands within a crowd of curious onlookers outside the tenement where the family lived, but once he draws the attention of two women in the crowd, he walks away, and we are left wondering about his decision to stay or go. I call attention to this scene because it parallels the carnage in the basement of the opium den and promises to be of importance as the story continues to unfold.
The scene that follows finds Dr. Frankenstein in his home answering a knock on his door. It is Sir Malcolm’s servant, and he hands him a large box which contains formal attire and an invitation to join Sir Malcolm at his club, significantly named The Explorer’s Club. Frankenstein accepts the invitation, and Sir Malcolm explains that he is searching for his daughter who has been taken and requests Frankenstein’s help. Frankenstein asks Sir Malcolm how far he is willing to go to find his daughter. Sir Malcolm says, “To save her, I would murder the world.” Sir Malcolm assesses Frankenstein, much in the same way Vanessa assessed Ethan at the beginning of the episode, and concludes that Frankenstein is a man who has to know how things work. Frankenstein corrects him and explains that what he desires is to pierce “the tissue that separates life from death”. This, he says, is the only worthy pursuit of knowledge. Frankenstein asks how many people they would have to murder, and Sir Malcolm counters by asking Frankenstein if he cares. Frankenstein avoids the question. Ultimately, the viewer is left wondering if Frankenstein will eventually accept Sir Malcolm’s offer or reject it. This scene in particular is critical to the structure of the episode because it mirrors the scene where Vanessa offers a job of night work to Ethan. Vanessa is recruiting Ethan; Sir Malcolm is recruiting Frankenstein. Both men are asked to consider whether or not they are willing to commit murder, and both men deflect the question. Furthermore, this scene establishes a dichotomy between Sir Malcolm and Frankenstein–both men are seekers who are willing to go to great lengths to obtain that which they pursue. At the end of Act Two, the identity of the woman the trio was searching for in the opium den has been revealed, and we also know what motivates Sir Malcolm and Frankenstein and what each man wants most.
Sir Malcolm returns to his home and upon entering his bedroom he hears a woman crying. He sees the apparition of a young woman, and we discover it is the image of his lost daughter, Mina. The scene transitions to Sir Malcolm and Vanessa discussing what he saw. Vanessa takes the blame for Mina’s loss, saying that if it hadn’t been for her “transgression” it wouldn’t have happened. Malcolm attempts to assuage her guilt and reveals that seeing Mina’s apparition makes him feel no longer like the hunter, but like prey. Just as there is the sense that Vanessa is a kind of Sherlock Holmes, Malcolm is drawn as a kind of Van Helsing character.
The final scene shows Frankenstein entering the secret lab within in his apartment. A storm rages outside, and his unanimated Creature sits in a tub of ice. A dysfunctional piece of machinery preoccupies Frankenstein, and while he tries to fix it, lightning strikes and the lamps illuminating the lab go out. When Frankenstein turns around, the Creature is gone. He looks through the darkness and finds him standing in a corner. The two share a look intended to invoke the moment between a parent meeting their child for the first time after birth, and the episode ends leaving viewers to wonder what Frankenstein—and the Creature—will do next.
Notes on Character
- Ethan Chandler is not only the “uninitiated” within the world that Vanessa and Sir Malcolm inhabit, but also the viewer’s proxy.
- Vanessa is a riddle. The only indication we have of what motivates her is her guilt over Mina’s loss; and yet it is clear that this only scratches the surface. The episode is bookended with two scenes showing Vanessa on her knees fervently praying. She is in an empty room and on one wall there is a cross. In the first scene, she finds a spider crawling on her, and the cross is right-side up. In the last scene, the cross is upside down and spiders are crawling out of the center of it.
- As the new recruits, Ethan and Frankenstein are setup to be foils for each other.
Open Story Questions
Several questions linger at the end of the first episode, keeping me engaged in the story, invested in the characters, and anticipating the second episode.
- What is the meaning of Vanessa’s fervent praying, the upside-down cross, and the spiders?
- What happened to Vanessa’s mother, who vanishes under mysterious circumstances in the opening teaser scene of the episode?
- What did Vanessa mean when she said it was because of her “transgression” that Mina was lost?
- What has happened to Mina and can she be rescued?
- What is the significance of the exoskeleton and the hieroglyphics?