Is “Penny Dreadful” the Summer’s Gayest Show?

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Before we get into it, let me answer my own question: Yes. Yes it is.

(Major spoilers follow. For earlier recappage, check out our piece on the first two episodes.)

When word was first announced of Showtime’s period “psychosexual horror” series Penny Dreadful, no one was sure what to expect. The best guess was that it would be a handsomely-shot mashup of a handful of big-name genre icons… with copious close-ups of boobies. But I don’t think anyone expected the full-on monster mash that we have seen in the season’s first four episodes: Dr. Frankenstein is canoodling with Ludwig Van Helsing in an attempt to stop Dracula; Frankenstein’s Monster is playing Phantom of the Opera at the Grand Guignol Theatre, and the Wolf Man just banged Dorian Gray.

Yes, you read that right: at the end of last Sunday’s episode, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) – an otherwise hetero American sharpshooter and suspected werewolf – took a night off from having extremely loud sex with his consumptive prostitute girlfriend, Brona (Billie Piper), to sip absinthe and make out with eternal prettyboy Dorian (Reeve Carney).

This “Mad Monster Party” just turned into a Mad Monster Orgy.

When it was announced that Oscar Wilde‘s notorious Dorian Gray would be rubbing shoulders with the rest of Dreadful‘s rogue’s gallery, many of us shrugged. For decades, the task of bringing literature’s most notorious twink to life on screen has suffered more demons than Da Vinci. At the start of Episode 4, Gray was seen lounging shirtless on a divan with another shirtless man, seemingly bored with the listless orgy going on around him – and that was honestly all the gay action I was expecting to get out of this show. Dorian is an equal-opportunity hedonist, having already bedded Brona (delighting when she coughed blood in his pretty, immortal face), but at this point we have been led to believe that his eye is on Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), whom the murky mythology of the show seems to suggest might carry some secret that only he can unlock.

But in the episode’s swooning, climactic gay kiss (set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde), it became clear that Dorian had been seducing Ethan all along. In the Victorian answer to the tried-and-true “a pizza, a game and a six-pack” method of fratboy entrapment, Dorian took a lovelorn Ethan to an underground sporting ring where a dog murdered 97 rats in a minute (romantic schemer!), showed off his impressive selection of colognes, and then gave him mind-altering absinthe.

Ethan didn’t stand a chance.

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There are many, many things to unpack here, even if we don’t touch on the fact that Ethan is probably a wolf man who is rather inefficiently slaughtering London at the rate of a few people per month. First and foremost, this is a straight romantic lead who just threw caution to the wind and himself onto another man. To say that this was unexpected is to put it mildly – I was absolutely gobsmacked. I don’t think Ethan is gay, or even that he ever entertained the idea of being with another man before this moment. I think he really loves Brona and that after this romp with Dorian and the Green Fairy, he’ll go right back to living a predominantly hetero lifestyle.

On the one hand, this is pretty progressive. True, we’re living in an age where young men are less likely to panic at male intimacy and less likely to label themselves and what they do in bed with whom. But the fact that this millennial brand of pansexual freedom has popped up on a show set at the turn of the last century (rather than, you know, any number of hundreds of shows set in the here and now) is a bit ironic.

Additionally, it raises a larger question about fluid male sexuality on television. Many times, when a male character has his first same-sex encounter or relationship, he becomes gay by default – in the audience’s eyes, if not the narrative itself. (Examples include Nolan from Revenge and Jack Harkness from Torchwood.) These characters are bisexual, but there seems to be a “gay taint” that lingers after their first same-sex coupling, making it very difficult to put the genie back into the bottle if the character decides to continue having hetero relationships. (This is markedly different from the usual handling of female bisexuality in entertainment, a tried-and-true plot device that almost always ends up with the lady settling down with a nice fella.)

Dreadful may present a new spin on things. I don’t expect Ethan to be picking out china patterns with Dorian anytime soon and fully expect him to return to his relationship with Brona (who, incidentally, has bedded both men at this point – why doesn’t everyone just throw their shoes in the corner and hop into bed together?). If I didn’t also suspect that Ethan is devouring little girls in their own homes, I’d commend him for grabbing life – and Dorian – by the balls.

But let’s also remember that Dorian Gray is supernaturally endowed (no pun intended) with eternal youth and sublime androgynous beauty – no man or woman is supposedly able to resist him. And of course if Ethan is in fact a werewolf, any expression of repressed sexuality could easily be wrapped up in a broader metaphorical “closeted” narrative. At this point, how strongly are Ethan’s appetites dictated by forces beyond his control?

In the end, if Ethan can survive a lupine curse and remain immune to his lover’s tuberculosis, “gay taint” may run off him like water off a wolf’s back.

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Happily, this unexpected hookup is just the tip of the show’s gay iceberg. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) has installed a veritable build-a-boyfriend workshop in his attic, but cannot seem to keep his cobbled-together creations’ eyes from wandering to the fairer sex. The Creature (Rory Kinnear) has an eye for ladies, but himself seems to disregard gender norms in dress and styling. And Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa are in cahoots with a fussy little Egyptologist (Simon Russell Beale) whose high society marriage seems to be held together entirely by fabulous seances and regular servings of gin liberally delivered to his offscreen wife.

At this point anything could happen, as evidenced by the fact that two of the show’s male love interests decided to have a go at it with little or no warning. Maybe the show will continue to explore nontraditional sexuality as it subverts our greatest horror myths. Maybe the narrative will revert to a more traditional hetero love story now that Ethan and Dorian have given the show its most buzzworthy moment yet. And maybe it will be revealed that, in addition to sunlight, silver, and a stake to the heart, vampires can be killed by Eva Green’s side-eye. Whatever direction the show chooses, I have drunk the absinthe and am all in.

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