I confess to binge-watching the show Penny Dreadful, all three seasons on Netflix. Good God! What was I thinking? It is everything that I cringe about in movies. Blood and gore. Gratuitous sex and debauchery. I almost gave up and stopped watching when the Creature came bursting through the chest of Dr. Frankenstein’s latest creation. And yet for a monster to be introduced to the series in such a way, and then to become the one character that strives hardest for redemption… I was hooked.
Sin and redemption is the major theme of the whole series. And each character strives so painfully for redemption that you cannot help but love them… even though they are monsters.
You see, I, like all other people, am aware that one day, sooner than I would like, I will die and live no more. And life, though filled with heartache and suffering and regret, is a priceless treasure to be guarded for as long as I can hold onto it. There is poetry in that condition. The greatest beauty that can be beheld is soon to pass away into ugliness. The candle flame lights the darkness briefly and then is gone.
The story is built from Victorian era literature and includes Mary Shelly’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a couple of werewolves, numerous witches, demons, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, and a character named Lord Malcom Murray who is obviously based on the African explorer Allan Quartermain from King Solomon’s Mines by H.Rider Haggard.
The characters all do a lot of suffering and striving. Friendships are formed and made blood-and-family deep by shared adventures and brushes with pure evil and death. The main character, Vanessa Ives, is variously possessed by a demon, courted by Lucifer, hunted by witches, and then seduced by Dracula. She uses her deep faith in God, which wavers continually, to defeat every enemy but the last. She is also aided by a cowboy werewolf and sharp-shooter who is her destined lover, protector, and killer. It all swiftly becomes ridiculous-sounding when you try to summarize the convoluted Gothic-style plot. But as it slowly unfolds and reveals new terrors with every episode, it mesmerizes. The sets, the cinematography, the costumes, and the horrifyingly sweet-sad orchestral background music puts a spell on you that, when you awaken from it, you realize you want more than is available. Three seasons was simply not enough.
As I believe I indicated previously, the character that almost made me give up on the series, Frankenstein’s Creature, became the most compelling character of all to me. He began as such a violent, repellent, selfish thing… and in the end became the most self-sacrificing and tragic character in the entire drama. He took the name of the English poet John Clare for himself, and became a tragically beautiful person.
Do I recommend that you watch this thing? This poetic and sometimes deeply disturbing depiction of what it means to be human and be alive? I cannot. It was a moving personal experience for me, one that made me weep for beauty and horror at almost every episode. No one can find that sort of thing through a mere recommendation. It is entirely between you and your God.
Heroes of Yesteryear (Cowboy Movies)
When I was a boy, the Western reigned supreme on both television and in the movie theaters. Part of the benefit of that was being indoctrinated with “the Cowboy Way” which was a system of high ideals and morality that no longer exists, and in fact, never did exist outside of the imaginations of little boys in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We learned that good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black. You only won the shootout if you shot the bad guy and you didn’t draw your gun first.
Of course, the cowboys who were the “White Knights of the Great Plains” we worshiped as six-year-olds and the singing cowboys on TV were not the same ones we watched when we were more mature young men of ten to twelve. John Wayne starring in Hondo (after the book by Louis L’Amour) was more complicated than that, and we learned new things about the compromises you make in the name of survival and trying to do things the best way you can. From Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence we began to see that sometimes you shot the villain in the back from down the street to save your simple friend from the gunfight in the street when he was too naive and green to win.
Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral was the white hat we wanted desperately to be when we grew up. And then I saw on PBS in the late 60’s a documentary about the real shootout and the real compromises and consequences of the thing we once thought was so clearly good versus evil.
Wyatt went from the TV hero,
To the mostly moral man fighting what seemed like lawlessness,
To a morally ambiguous angel of death, winning on luck and guts rather than righteousness, and paying evil with vengeance while suffering the same himself from those dirty amoral cowboys, sometimes good, but mostly not.
And then along came Clint and “the Man with No Name”. More ambiguous and hard to fathom still…
Who really was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? What made any one of them worse than the other two? You need to listen to the music before you decide. We are all of us good, bad, and ugly at times. And all of it can be made beautiful at the end with the right theme music behind it. Did we ever learn anything of real value from cowboy movies? Of course we did. They made us who we are today. They gave us the underpinnings of our person-hood. So, why do they not make them anymore? The video essay at the end of my wordiness has answers. But basically, we grew up and didn’t need them anymore. And children and youths of today have different heroes. Heroes who are heroic without shootouts and letting the bad guy draw his gun first. Ideally, heroes who are us.
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