In its third season, Penny Dreadful is already suffering from the same malady that has grown rampant in Game of Thrones, the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” and other sprawling multi-plot serial fictions — narrative bloat. While there is a core narrative blossoming, the number of characters with their own plotlines, each waiting for their big turn, offers episode after episode of attention-draining exposition. While there’s a still a lot to love there, the difference between its best scenes and its worst are like night and day.
In its first few episodes, the new season has been what a sports writer might call a “rebuilding year.” After the second season finalé, each member of the show’s demon-hunting cohort has scattered, retreating to the far corners of the globe, to each nurse his or her own emotional wounds. Ethan “The Wolfman” Chandler (Josh Hartnett) has confessed to murder and has been deported to the US. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) has returned to Africa to bury his recently killed friend/butler/bodyguard, Sembene. John Clare (Rory Kinnear), Frankenstein’s monster, gets on a ship sailing away from civilization. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) remain in London, but she’s become a depressed agoraphobe, and he’s gotten really into heroin after being rejected by his other creation, Lily (Billie Piper), who has left him for a fellow immortal, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney).
After the first few episodes, the new season is well on its way towards telling a very long-winded version of how the group gets back together. While that happens, though, each character has to support his or her own individual storyline, most of which introduce a new character or two. Where Penny Dreadful once broke into three or four distinct plots, there are now seven or eight threads to follow. It’s just too much.
This problem is not unique to Penny Dreadful; it’s endemic across genre fiction on screens big and small. There are too many gears in the transparent clockwork that pushes these stories forward, and the time it takes to move each one comes at the expense of the plot devices that justify spending this much time on telling a single story; the small character moments, novel detours, and the time necessary to let ideas “play out.”
Sir Malcolm, for example, travels to New Mexico with Kaeteney (Wes Studi), Ethan Chandler’s Apache former mentor, to hunt him for a mysterious purpose. Not-quite-dads Malcolm and Kaeteny have an uneasy relationship, which is initially intriguing — but it turns out that two scenes per episode is not quite enough time to explore how two tenuous allies might grow to like or respect each other, while also remaining wary of the other’s intentions.
Ethan, meanwhile, has a plot of his own. I’ll avoid spoiling it too much, but let’s just say he doesn’t stay put. His scenes will presumably, in time, provide insight into one of the show’s key characters — on Penny Dreadful, the werewolf is not merely a monster, but an instrument of prophecy — but initially they feel like mostly hollow means of filling a pay-cable gore quota, which could be managed through more compelling and efficient means.
As in past seasons, the show has the capacity for nuance, when it budgets its characters enough time to show it. After two seasons of sad stories and horrific encounters, Vanessa seeks the counsel of Dr. Seward, an alienist (that’s an old-timey word for therapist), who just happens to be the descendent of her mentor in witchcraft (allowing for the return of Patti LuPone). In addition to advancing the overarching plot of getting stalked by a new monster, much of her story is spent in therapy.
After two seasons, the show’s mysteries no longer feel elusive, but there’s something revealing and almost gratifying about seeing how haunted she is. There’s a tense back-and-forth between the two of them. Vanessa wants to connect, and make the doctor believe in her. The doctor, on the other hand, is more interested in forcing Vanessa to logically confront her current self-loathing. The therapy sessions do, at times, connect to the plot, but they, at least for now, drive the show forward: in the age of CG-everything, it’s much easier to believe in her fear than it is to be frightened ourselves.
So why does every character need to get a status update every episode or two? Not all characters are created equal. There are protagonists and there are supporting characters. They do not need to receive the same amount of airtime. That may seem obvious, but as the scope of the TV series has spread out, and creators rely less on individual episodes to carry less of a narrative unto themselves, shows create their chronology by cycling through their many plots. There’s an implicit pressure to make sure no one gets “left behind.”
Since there’s no indication that large binge-friendly dramas are going to shrink, it’s time for showrunners to start “exploring the space” of plotting out show arc as a series of 10-episode seasons, rather a season of 10, 15, or 22 episodes. Do I think it’s a wise decision to put a central protagonist like Ethan on the back burner for a season? Not necessarily. But I know that watching a mess of rotating plots every two episodes doesn’t work unless all of them are absolutely thrilling. It’s better to leave some fans hanging by giving their favorite character half a season off, than it is to leave all everyone scratching their heads, wondering when your show got so dull.