Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Symbols & Analysis: Penny Dreadful 'The Day Tennyson Died,' Season 3, Episode 1

Two of the books we are going to be exploring in this series this season is Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hydewhich you can download for free from Amazon for your e-reader at this link.  We will also be getting a good deal out of Bram Stoker's Draculawhich you can download for free for your e-reader from Amazon at this link.At the time of the original posting of this post, I haven't finished everything I want to say, so it will be significantly updated next week, but you can at least begin thinking about some of these issues now. Dracula is incredibly good, and you might want to take a look at The Dead Travel Fast because we are all ready seeing elements in the series employed from the novel that we might not have time to cover later but is essential to understanding why Dracula is such an evil villain.
Why has Vanessa fallen so low? Why does the Devil and Dracula want Vanessa so badly? Why is The Creature (hereafter, John Clare) on a ship stuck in ice? Why does John Clare break the neck of the boy, killing him? Why does Dr. Frankenstein send for Dr. Jeckyll and why is Dr. Jeckyll an Indian? Why is Ethan being taken home to his father and why is Hecate following him? Why does Kaetenay insist that Sir Malcolm come with him to America? Why does the story begin on the day that the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson died? Why was Vanessa scratching her hand? Here is the full episode of Season 3, Episode 1:
The first shot of this episode is the staircase; why? Stairs mean that either we are going down, or going up. Isn't that nice? But no, really, either we are going to be called to ascend to a higher state of conscious--the narrative wants to draw our attention to something that is going to require our full mental cooperation and intellectual exploration--or else the narrative is going to descend into the region of the appetites, that which is forbidden and taboo. The next shot, of mail being stuffed through the postal slot, then falling onto a neglected pile of unopened correspondence isn't just an indicator to Vanessa Ives, but also to us, the viewer: the piled up mail are invitations to decode "the written word," the books, poetry and plays from which all these episodes draw their material. As Vanessa has been ignoring Dr. Lyle's cards, are we going to ignore the invitation to ascend to a higher, more engaging relationship with the artistry of the show, or just let it collect dust and webs, like the house on Grandage Street? So, what exactly are we meant to engage?
Literally, everything.
This image comes from a later episode, however, there are two important points we can consider now. First, the flesh and black color scheme mirrors that of the poster above, which is the main poster for the season. Secondly, when we first see Vanessa in this season, she has locked herself in the house at Grandage Place, as if she is trying to protect herself from the world. In this later image, it's as if the world has locked her out, and the world is trying to protect itself from her.
Now, during Season 2, the front door was menacing, because it was bolted and locked, potentially a means for the Nightcomers to enter and destroy Vanessa; now, it's abandoned and only the mail delivery is there, but the pile up denotes something sinister just the same. The white-draped furniture is like a herd of ghosts, We see the decanter, covered in webs, so we know Vanessa hasn't been drinking, but then, we go upstairs, and here we are meant to really engage the film makers: dirty dishes piled up, and a tray of cigarettes (please see caption below). The plates indicate that Vanessa hasn't been taking care of herself but, like the unopened mail, she also hasn't been eating as she should (again, please see caption below). When she goes downstairs, it's a sign that her appetites are calling her, but is it just the appetite for food?
Generally speaking, cigarettes, cigars, pipes and the like, tend to symbolize that a person is "taking something in," they are inhaling what there is to be meditated upon, then exhaling what they have pondered, releasing it back into the world: consider Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf in The Hobbit, and their smoking after the Battle of the Five Armies; they are taking in what has happened and trying to make sense of it (the smoke rings they blow give "structure" and meaning to that which can't really be structured, like the massive death they have just experienced). In the opening montage, we see a tray full of Vanessa's cigarette butts, so she has been smoking, which was strictly taboo for women at this time (this image above is from the opening credits of the series). The act of Vanessa smoking summarizes her faith quite well: she takes it then, then release it into the world (her faith is what Ethan, John Clare and Sir Malcolm tend to think of with Vanessa, even Dr. Frankenstein, so she's evangelizing in a way) EVEN WHILE, at the same time, Vanessa is attracted to the taboo and forbidden. She always comes back because she knows what the true Light is. How many times has Vanessa said/claimed she has lost her faith? Too many times to count, but that's okay: if she wasn't in a position to feel like she had lost her faith, then  she wouldn't have any (you can't lose what you never had to begin with). The truth is, and this is really important, Vanessa hasn't lost her faith at this point, the Lord is allowing her to rest from the trials of Evelyn Poole and the entourage of witches. Just as we saw Vanessa walking through the snow in the park at the start of Season 2, when she was in a state of grace (the frozen snow) even though it probably didn't feel like it to her, she was being given a rest to prepare her for the trial of the Poole women. At the start of Season 3, we find that Vanessa has also been resting again, because she needs it. One of the Desert Fathers, the earliest Christian ascetics and monks living in the desert,, told his disciples that they needed to rest in-between their spiritual battles or else, like a bow that has been over-used, they would become worthless. Vanessa can be angry with God, Vanessa can hate God, but she hasn't lost her faith; feelings of anger against God are just that: feelings. They are fleeting and important to us as humans, but systematic "loss of faith" is intellectual and employed by our free will, not a circumstance or situation that has left us with a bitter taste in our mouth. So, when we see Vanessa, in the house at Grandage Place, she has been at rest; it might not be a peaceful rest, because she is called to greater spiritual battles than she has heretofore fought, but it isn't the ennui which Ferdinand Lyle suggests she has and from which he himself had suffered. 'Boredom' is a discontent of the secular world, and a far cry from the exhaustion of the soul which Vanessa undergoes in the transition between Season 2 and 3. 
From the grocery delivery box, Vanessa takes the bottle of milk and drinks it--symbolic of "mother's milk" (a foreshadowing of her meeting with Dr. Seward and her being an adoptive "mother figure") and the "milk of human kindness" which she will drink up from Dr. Lyle and his concern for her in the next scene--and the "bread of life," the symbol of the Eucharist, Vanessa's Catholic faith. When Christ had been in the Wilderness for 40 days, He was hungry, hungry to do His Father's Will, and so, too, is Vanessa (Vanessa, like Ethan in New Mexico Territory, is in the Wilderness just as Ethan is, but her's is of the mind and soul). She might push it away at times ("I find it hard to believe that I am the object of an eternal Satanic quest") but fighting this fight is the Father's Will for her and she does fight it. What about the ringing of the bells?
The Day Tennyson Died. The entire episode is dedicated to this event, this real world event. When a work of art--especially one working with the supernatural, as Penny Dreadful does--incorporates something from reality, like the real death date of a real poet, it wants to remind you that just because the narrative gives us vampires and witches, doesn't mean that they don't exist in reality. I think, that, as the season progresses, we will find that the theme is, "Tis better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all," because having loved someone makes us a better, bigger person. Even though we empty ourselves and give love to someone else, we become a bigger person when we do so. For example, Sir Malcolm's love for Mina and Peter makes him capable of giving love to Vanessa and Ethan. Vanessa's love for Ethan makes her capable of not thinking about the witches hunting her, but only concerned for Ethan and what he's going through. Ethan's love for Vanessa makes him willing to sacrifice himself to face the devil and try to kill him to free Vanessa once and for all, even if it's going to mean Ethan's eternal damnation (and I think Ethan will be willing to use Hecate for this purpose). 
When Dr. Lyle stands at the door knocking, it is like Christ who said in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door knocking. Anyone who hears my voice and open the door, I will come in," and this is exactly what happens with Dr. Lyle threatening Vanessa that he isn't going to leave, so she lets him in; this is a sign that Vanessa's spiritual exercises are about to begin again, because Christ has, once again, entered her heart and means to prepare a place for Himself, again. Church bells are tolling, and because church bells are blessed, they drive away demons (I have had too many personal experiences with this to ever doubt this be true, for I know it in the deepest abyss of my heart, always) and so, the next chapter begins of Vanessa's Dark Night Of the Soul, but not alone. "And so we walk alone," we see her saying at the recap from last season, but we are never alone, even when we want to be: there is always at least two others with us: the devil, and God, and both are desperately working, trying to get us to admit them into our company, which leads us to Sir Malcolm.
The first shot we are provided of Ethan's journey in this season mirrors the poster for last season: just as Vanessa walked through the snow on a trail of blood, so the train steams through the desert on its track. What do we know of Ethan's father? That he is an industrialist and, like Ethan himself, chooses to leave no one alive at the scene of the crime. The brutality of the men sent by Ethan's father, is comparable only to the brutality of Ethan when he has turned into a wolf and kills everyone in sight; this is something we will have to keep in mind as the story progresses. The image at the top isn't from Episode 1, however, it is the best I could find for comparing the wilderness in which Ethan is travelling to that in which Vanessa has been living. Why is "the Wilderness" a spiritual symbol (like the 40 years of wandering of the Children of Israel and Christ in the desert for 40 days)? It is impossible for the demons to hide themselves in the nothingness. It's possible that, when Ethan  sees his father, he's going to be a symbol for God the Father; why? Recall that in an earlier episode, Ethan received a telegram from his dad telling him that the marshalls had been paid off and for him to come home. This is basically what Jesus tells us: I have paid the debt for justice on your behalf, come home to me. The story may take a very different turn, but this is at least a possibility.
Sir Malcolm certainly thought he was alone, but alas, there is a devil (the robbers ready to take his life for his money) and a representative of God, Kaetenay, who saves his life, both from the robbers and from a lack of direction. It's important to note that, whereas Sir Malcolm couldn't save his own children, Mina and Peter, or Gladys his wife, he was able to save Vanessa (twice, from Mina and from the Nightcomers) his adopted daughter, and now he's being called to save Ethan, his adopted son (and when Kaetenay mentions to Malcolm that he needs to go save his son Ethan, Ethan does indeed become Malcolm's son by right of bond and shared experience). Perhaps Sir Malcom all ready knows this, even before Kaetenay introduces himself and his proposal, and that's why Sir Malcolm didn't bother to retrieve the body of his son Peter, who died when they were in Africa exploring (and which Malcolm had asked Ethan during Season 1 to accompany him). Now, what about The Creature, John Clare?
Why is Dr. Jeckyll an Indian in this series? Just as Dr. Jeckyll had an "alter ego" in the story, so, too, the British Empire: the white citizens in the United Kingdom, and the Indian citizens in its Indian Empire. This duality caused problems which the Crown was unwilling to admit for a long time, but this is at least one way of understanding it. Knowing that Dr. Jeckyll is a "half-breed," (his father would be English and his mother Indian, since "Jeckyll" isn't an Indian name) contributes to his Mr. Hyde alter-ego but also his driving concern for unity and harmony. We should also remember that Dr. Jeckyll, as an Indian from India, will mirror Kaetenay, a Native American Indian from America.
When we find John Clare, he's on a ship, frozen in ice, with three different kinds of passengers on board: two men who want to resort to their animal instincts and eat human flesh, a doctor who refuses to do so, and a young boy who is sick and dying. What happens in this bizarre scene? We know that in the novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelly's "Wretch" goes to the North Pole, so audience members weren't surprised to see this happening at the end of Season 2; however, what has really happened is a metaphor of the soul, The Creature's soul, and that is why this scene is so remarkable.
"Slaves, in all but name," as Sir Malcolm mentions to Vanessa in his letter. This image is a close-up of the portrait of Dorian Gray; why put it here? Because everyone in the episode has a slavery which they are fighting.
Speaking of Dorian, even though he hasn't appeared yet formally in the series, we do see a young girl go down the stairs of his mansion and meet Lilly; we know the girl's name is Justine, and from a sneak peek of the next episode, it appears that she is the same heroine of Justine by the Marquis de Sade, for whom "sado-masochism" derives its "sado."
Just as Vanessa is lost in a wilderness of dust, dishes and darkness, Ethan in a wilderness of sand, snakes and wolves, Malcolm in a wilderness of jungle, robbers and slaves, Victor in a wilderness of work, love and narcotics, so, too, John Clare is lost in a wilderness of cannibalism, paralysis and an icy hell (yes, Dante's devil in Inferno is frozen, just like the ship the passengers are on). We can take the first passengers we see on the ship, the dead ones above deck, to be all the people John Clare has killed, his sins laid bare for all the world to see.
Obviously John Clare can't just get off the boat and hope to swim back to England; when something "absurd" or utterly improbable like this happens in a work of art, it's usually an indication that some literary device has been introduced, and you are being asked to consider the situation, not as reason would examine it, rather, in more metaphysical and symbolic terms. We don't have to worry about John Clare swimming through the arctic ocean because he's only in this frozen hell within himself and with his own thoughts and emotions.
The two passengers who are willing to commit cannibalism symbolize John Clare's own animal instincts--the same instinct causing him to kill Proteus, Van Helsing and the Putneys (John Clare was so significantly stronger than they, he didn't have to kill them to escape, but he killed them in revenge and anger, not to save himself from being caged), along with his willingness to kill Victor and Brona (so he could have a bride). The doctor, on the other hand, is that part of John Clare he has cultivated from the books he has read, the part of him he hopes will "heal" his soul (hence why he appears as a doctor), the refined part of him that is humanity at its best.
What about the boy?
When, in his memory, he looks up and sees himself in the mirror, this is John Clare seeing himself as he really is: a kind, gentle, loving and compassionate person full of concern and good will towards others, married to the human race, not at war with it like Lilly and Dorian.
We know children symbolize the future, and as such, they can also symbolize hope. In other words, John Clare's own hope in his future is sick and dying (the sick and dying boy), and his vindictive, animal instincts (the two passengers who want to eat the boy) are ready to devour what hope John Clare still has and take out their misery on the entire world. In standing up to his own animal instincts (when he doesn't let them kill the boy), John Clare experiences a miracle, and we know it's a miracle because the song he hums begins with the words, "Guardian angels," even though he doesn't believe in God, and he receives a blessing in the form of a part of his memory. What is in the memory? A different boy, his boy, and so, to break the neck of the sick and dying boy is actually good for John Clare to do because we know the neck symbolizes that which leads us on, so John has broken his bond to a sick and dying hope for the future (a mate who will share his accursed misery with him in the shadows and darkness) and embraced the living and viable hope for his own family and home where he belongs. As John Clare walks away from the ship, we can see the lines in the snow of the ice, and they look like the stitch marks on John Clare's own body, so that's how we know--by the markings on the bleak landscape--that this ice ship scene has been a metaphor.
The "familiar" from Season 1, "Fenton," was very much a Renfield figure from the Dracula novel. Why is Renfield important? We see him take the shillings from patients who have paid him for Dr Seward's services (embezzlement) and seek out a woman to pay for sex; Renfield prostituting this woman is essentially what he will be doing to Vanessa, but it also makes a clear and dramatic statement that there is no such thing as a "private sin," whatever vice we have that we think we can control in private, is going to come back to get us. Had Renfield not been in a state of committing mortal sin with that woman (who mirrors the woman from the beginning of the episode who told Sir Malcolm she needed money for her baby and he could "f*ck" her) this woman becomes an instrument of sin rather than of grace. Whereas Sir Malcolm refused the "invitation" from the woman and was saved by Kaetenay, Renfield acts on the sin and is condemned to serving Dracula. 
When Vanessa goes to meet Dr. Seward, Seward--who is a a character in the novel Dracula--tells her that she is unhappy because she is eating her own tail, and offers that Vanessa can either pay her ten shillings or go and have her teeth fixed. The truth is, Dr. Seward is going to fix Vanessa's teeth herself: we know that the teeth/mouth symbolize the appetites, and describing Vanessa as a "snake eating its own tail" is to identify that Vanessa has self-destructive appetites, so they are going to work on correcting Vanessa's desires and what she wants from life. How does Dr. Seward come up with her diagnosis of Vanessa so quickly? Vanessa is a typical Scorpio female (Scorpio as in the Zodiac sign), attracted to the taboo and sex, the darkness, resurrection, death and mysticism; this is the reason why Vanessa draws a scorpion in her own blood in Season 2. So this wasn't difficult for Dr. Seward (who was the Cut-Wife in Season 2 and an occultist) to pick out. The bigger question is, why was Vanessa scratching her hand?
Some are all ready suggesting that Dr. Alexander Sweet is Dracula. I would point out, however, that doesn't seem likely given that Dracula can't go out into daylight (which is why he has the familiars, like that strange pale man and pale boy who do errands for him, and Renfield). There is, however, another villain that Dr. Sweet could very well be: Charles Darwin. The author of Origin of the Species had published his work and it's possible that originator of the theory of evolution will try and steal Vanessa away from God with science. 
As Vanessa correctly points out, it is a phobia. Either Vanessa is trying to relieve the irritation of something she "took"--like her seduction of Mina's fiancee--or Vanessa is "itching" to do something (like clean the house) but doesn't know what. Vanessa isn't used to being idle, and we have seen that she's done nothing since Sir Malcolm left, however, it's probably the "stealing" of Mina's fiancee that Vanessa is still plagued by, and it's possible--not probable, but possible--that Jonathan Hawker will turn up one of these episodes.
Vanessa cleaning the house is, like John Clare being on the ship in ice, a metaphor of her soul. It's not just that she's cleaning the house, or cleaning her soul. "Work, love. These are the basics, without one, there is neurosis," Carl Jung wrote, and Vanessa has had neither work nor love in her life since Sir Malcolm left. She received a good dose of love when Dr. Lyle came by and directed her to Dr. Seward, and then, when Dr. Seward took her case and told her to come every other day at 10, that provided Vanessa with sufficient structure in her life again, a purpose and an outlet, that she could feel her life pointed in the right direction and she has embraced that. That doesn't mean it's going to last. 
In the meantime, there are still nine more episodes, and we are being promised with the story of how Ethan Chandler/Talbot became a werewolf, and we will discuss his story in greater depth then; hopefully, we will also discover what role Ferdinand Lyle will be playing this season.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner