glitter_n_gore: (eric draven)
[personal profile] glitter_n_gore
I've been rewatching the first season of Penny Dreadful in preparation for this blog series, and wow, how did I not know Josh Hartnett's "Ethan Chandler" (actually Larry Talbot) was a werewolf from the word Go? Sometimes I'm slow on the uptake. In this case though, I know why I didn't figure it out right away: all the other characters in Penny Dreadful are pulled from classic Gothic literature. The Wolf-Man, however, entered the horror lexicon through cinema.

GIF of full moon rising over the desert as Ethan turns to see it, looking very worried.

The closest thing we have to a werewolf book is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and that character is represented elsewhere in the series. So Ethan might technically be the Wolf-Man, and yes his real name is the same as Lon Chaney, Jr.’s character in the Universal film, and good for you if you figured that out before I did. But I've only seen the original Wolf-Man one time, and Josh Hartnett's take on the character is remarkably different from the classic monster in many ways.

The first thing you need to understand about Ethan is that he is one of the good guys. The show's narrative focus and framing makes that clear, not immediately, but quickly enough. One of the things I appreciate about Penny Dreadful is enlightening me to the fact that Hartnett can actually, y'know, act. I was aware of him during his '90s heartthrob phase, and of course I've seen The Faculty and 30 Days of Night, but this was the first time he played a character I really loved. The entire series is impeccably cast, from Millennial Queen of the Goths, Eva Green, who seems like she was genetically engineered to play Vanessa Ives; to Harry Treadaway as a pretentious, aloof, but strangely vulnerable Victor Frankenstein; everyone here is throwing all their weight into their performances.

Hartnett is one of the more subtle and mysterious entities here, partly because it took me slightly longer to figure out who he was, but also because his stage persona--the first version of him we meet--is so grating and unlikeable. As a result, it took me a few tries to get into the show. If memory serves, this was around the same time we found out Hannibal was getting cancelled, and I needed something to fill the Murder Husband-shaped hole in my life. This wasn’t it. They’re both highly stylized horror shows, but tonally could not be more different. What I ultimately wound up latching onto was Ethan’s constant fight to do good. Malcolm Murray is out for revenge against the creature who took his daughter. Vanessa is seeking redemption from a past wrongdoing that leads a dark spirit to attach itself to her psyche. Dorian is a sensual hedonist who wants to taste/touch/smell/see ALL THE THINGS. Frankenstein is, well, Frankenstein, pulling scraps of other people together to make himself feel important. Ethan, though. He’s running from his past, yes, but he’s also just trying to start over and be a good person. Like Lupin in my last entry, he is the most decent character in the lineup, and serves as the show’s moral center.

So imagine how thrilled I was when this happened:

GIF of Ethan and Dorian Gray kissing

At this point, Ethan has had only one substantial relationship, with the ill-fated Brona. It’s strongly hinted that he’s going to get together with Vanessa at some point, but that’s not important right now because this episode is when I finally figured out that Ethan was, in fact, a werewolf. That revelation hitting right on the heels of this love scene meant I couldn’t help but tie the two things together. Ethan’s lupine nature is a source of shame, something he keeps secret because he thinks it makes him evil. It’s depressingly common for people all across the LGBT spectrum to feel this way, either through cultural osmosis or direct bullying and violence.

Ethan believes he’s a monster. But he’s wrong. We’re shown over and over that Ethan’s inner wolf is a force for good. He’s called “Lupus Dei,” the Wolf of God, a monster by some definitions but one destined to save the world. This scene isn’t treated any differently than Vanessa’s love scene with Dorian earlier in the season. Dorian fixates on them, they get close enough for him to uncover some hidden truth about them, they have sex one time, and then they part ways. The only one of Ethan’s sexual partners treated as an evil influence is the witch Hecate in Season Three, who was bent on exploiting his brutal instincts for her own reasons. That’s not what’s happening here. It’s one of the more tender moments in a show heavy on extremely graphic, sometimes violent, sex scenes.

The other thing going on here is this phenomenon called “queerbaiting”--that irritating practice where a show, movie, comic series, etc. will inject a lot of ambiguous subtext into the interactions between characters of the same gender, without ever following through. I noticed right away that the buildup to Ethan and Dorian’s moment is styled after Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The huge ballroom, the candles everywhere, the absinthe; it’s a classic Victorian Gothic seduction scene. I just assumed it was some kind of metaphorical seduction. Never for a moment did I believe the show would actually GO THERE. But then they did, and it was both a pivotal character moment, and didn’t become a big deal that somehow altered Ethan’s personality or values. Ethan remained Penny Dreadful’s moral center, and eventually learned to confront and channel his inner wolf in a positive way.

Now, obviously my final post is going to spill over into July, because I suck at pacing myself, but I will be talking about Ruby the Red-Riding Werewolf from Once Upon a Time. See you then!
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