I would make out with almost every protagonist featured in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. There, I’ve said it! Each and every one of them has their own delightfully unique appeal, once you’ve seen past their (usually numerous) faults. With the third season having premiered in Canada on May 3rd, I figured that it was a good time to review how the show has dealt with queer relationships up until now.
First, it’s necessary to say: this article will contain minor spoilers. With a cast as numerous as Penny Dreadful’s, there’s no way for me to explain any of these relationships without naming names. I’m going to do my utmost not to reveal any of the biggest twists of the series, but you’ve been warned! Spoiler-y content below.
Penny Dreadful is a shadowy, writhing mass of folklore and intrigue, steeped in the seductive grandeur of Victorian London. At the heart of the series sits Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green), a brooding but charismatic woman with more than one sin to atone for. Through story lines so expertly interwoven that they rival Game of Thrones, Vanessa partners herself with an unlikely group of misfits to take on each season’s Big Bad – usually a supernatural entity with a desire to get Vanessa into their clutches.
Vanessa’s band of merry men includes: the father of her childhood best friend who initially hates Vanessa for her past digressions; said father’s enigmatic African servant who only speaks when he has wisdom to divulge; a passionate American sharpshooter with an affinity for wolves; the fabulously opulent and delightfully unhinged Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); an overtly gay expert in occult history; an anxiety-ridden Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway); the third season addition of a racially ostracized Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif); and three of Frankenstein’s monsters, only two of whom have managed to stick around for any length of time.
Almost all of these characters have had queer interactions of some kind, whether they be subtle undertone or (more frequently) blatant, on-screen romance. One of the many delights of the queer content in Penny Dreadful is that it’s not just brief blips of LGBT+ side characters who are killed off within two episodes: it’s important, plot-heavy interactions featuring the main cast.
Of course, there have been memorable queer side characters too, most significantly Dorian Gray’s lover from the second season. Dorian has always been openly pansexual, so this wasn’t exactly a surprise. Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp) was a trans woman who demonstrated both fierce bravery and heartbreaking vulnerability when faced with abuse for her identity. While it seemed sadly obvious to me that she would die from the minute we met her, she offered a meaningful and poignant portrait of gender diversity among a sea of cisgender characters.
Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), aforementioned expert in the occult, started as what seemed to be a throw away queer character. By the second season, he became important enough to live with the rest of the crew for a time, in Sir Murray’s mansion. Beyond his nature as a curious, generous, and unfailingly kind man, the way he embraces his sexuality has been a breath of fresh air among the tense and self-loathing airs put on by other cast members.
While he doesn’t shy away from admitting to having hated himself in the past, Lyle does nothing to hide his identity in the present. There’s a slight lisp to his German accent (although, in my opinion, not enough of one to become an offensive caricature), and he may be even more of a dandy than Dorian Gray, but his unabashed comfort with his identity is most obvious in his consistent romantic pursuit of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett). Chandler’s that passionate, gun-slinging American I mentioned. Sounds like a recipe for homophobia in 2016, let alone 1891, right? Thankfully, blissfully, Ethan plays along with Ferdinand’s advances, often flirting right back and offering a coy wink that sends Lyle into giggle fits. Their flirtationship is incredibly entertaining, despite both seeming to acknowledge (without words) that nothing will come of it.
Of course, that’s not the only queer interaction Ethan Chandler has experienced. In season one, he was part of the show’s first queer sex scene, partnered with Dorian Gray. Although I’ve personally never much understood actor Reeve Carney’s appeal, no one in the Penny Dreadful universe seems able to resist him. Chandler and Gray enjoy a brief but passionate encounter, and the American continues to subvert stereotypes by experiencing absolutely no self-doubt afterwards. Despite having been romantically involved with a few different female characters on the show, Ethan’s easy acceptance of this gay tryst and shameless flirting with Lyle has led many fans to believe that the American is bi or pansexual.
There are less obvious examples, as well. Vanessa Ives’ obsession with her childhood best friend, Mina Harker nee Murray (Olivia Llewellyn), often rang of some sort of suppressed attraction, and even included a kiss at one point. Recently, within the first and second episodes of season three, Dr. Jekyll has thrown off some major vibes for Dr. Frankenstein: longing stares, physical touch, even speaking about “the things we do for love” while intently looking an oblivious Victor right in the eyes. Needless to say, I’m hopeful they’ll pursue this relationship further as the season progresses.
Another promising hint at a great bisexual character sits with Lily (Billie Piper). Frankenstein’s third monster passionately kisses a young woman in the second episode of this season. Although there are plenty of potential narrative explanations behind Lily’s choices – I could rant for hours about her status as a Feminist Wet Dream – it would be thrilling to see Lily continue to establish her new identity by being the first female character to have gay sex on the show.
If it’s not already clear, I’m a huge fan of Penny Dreadful. I have been deeply impressed by the way series creator John Logan has handled all of the queer relationships featured thus far, and by the integrity with which the actors have portrayed their varying identities. If you can handle a bit of horror with your rainbows, I can firmly recommend this as an excellent show to add to your queer media library.