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‘Penny Dreadful’ Creator Talks Season 3, Vanessa’s Demons and the American West

'Penny Dreadful' John Logan Interview: Season 3, Vanessa & More
Courtesy of Showtime

At the end of the second season of “Penny Dreadful,” the show’s characters were scattered to the four winds, having vanquished one formidable foe but at great personal cost. In the May 1 third-season premiere of the Showtime drama, the Victorian characters at the heart of the drama began to take their first steps out of self-imposed isolation.

But as creator John Logan explained in a recent interview, “Penny Dreadful’s” protagonists still have a long way to go before they’re reunited and able to take on the grave new challenges they’ll face this year. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) began the new season on separate continents, two of them far from their usual London haunts. The Creature (Rory Kinnear) was shivering in the Arctic, and his creator, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), was suffering the after-effects of yet another relationship gone wrong, but his descent into self-pity was interrupted by an old friend from medical school, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif).

Jekyll is just one of a number of new characters introduced this season; others include Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo), Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone) and Kaetenay (Wes Studi). LuPone’s return is particularly exciting, given that the season two episode featuring the actress was one of the drama’s most acclaimed high points. Without giving away too much, Logan hints at the challenges old and new characters will face this season, talks about what the new relationships and the presence of Dr. Seward will bring, and how the show’s central figure, Vanessa, will handle the devastating loss of faith she experienced at the end of last season. (Spoiler warning: Events in the season three premiere of “Penny Dreadful” are discussed below.)

What’s the idea animating this season and what’s different about what you’re doing this year?

As we look at our family, at the end of last last season, we scattered them. In the first episode, we’re in London, Africa, the New Mexico Territory and the Arctic. That’s all in the first hour. All the characters have to go on a very personal journey, and what they come to realize is that only by coming together in certain ways and in certain combinations can they find any kind of peace. This season is really about a reckoning for a lot of the characters. Some [reckonings] are very individual. The Creature goes on a very personal, individual journey. And there are characters like Vanessa and Ethan who realize they have to come together to find some peace.

In the first hour, that was a theme that I noticed — people wanted to isolate themselves, but they found they could not. They had to reach out for some kind of connection or help. You can’t go it alone.

That’s precisely right. In the first episode, Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) comes to Vanessa to say you need to rejoin the community. Essentially Kaetenay says the same thing to Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) — “We have to join together to embark on this very important quest.” A new character, Dr. Jekyll, goes to Dr. Frankenstein. There are a lot of characters who have to come together to figure things out. In the second episode, you’ll see Dorian and Lily also bonding together. How these individual stories eventually all lead to the group all coming together again in London is where much of the energy of the season comes from.

There are a lot of balls you’ve got in the air, a lot of storylines. Obviously you’ve had multiple story lines in other seasons, but this seemed like the most “Penny Dreadful” has ever had.

This is multiple stories on steroids. I think that’s fun. The series has gotten broader and broader every season and I think that’s correct. If it was still the same five people in a room in Victorian London, you’d want to kill yourself. I certainly didn’t want to write the same show year after year, with the central characters talking in the great room about evil. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to have bigger themes, bigger stories.

Part of what helped me do that this season was having a lot of new characters. We’ve got Patti LuPone, who plays Dr. Seward, Dr. Jekyll, Keatenay, and Dr. Sweet, who’s involved in Vanessa’s storyline — all those new characters start thickening the broth, if you will. And by season three, I think we want a thick broth.

The different characters add different shadings, different notes on the scale, if you will. As do the different actors. When you see Wes Studi and Tim Dalton are fantastic together and there’s a chemistry there, seeing where the chemistry connects between the actors and the characters, is really rewarding.

And the important thing to me, as I planned the first three seasons of the show, was weaving back into the Dracula story. We did that to some degree in season one, with Mina Harker, Sir Malcolm’s daughter, and then we get back into it big time in season three. It’s fun, and challenging.

That was an unexpected reveal at the end of the first episode, but it does draw on one of the show’s themes, that these things are constants. These dangers, these demons, the issue the characters face on their moral journeys — they don’t just go away. You don’t solve them, because they’re eternal.

That’s exactly right. You look at Vanessa, who is obviously for me the beating heart of the series — the woman is tormented from without and within. From within, it’s part of a journey of faith, and losing her faith and that leaving her in a wasteland of an existence, until she tries to drag herself out of it. But also, from without, she was tormented by Satan last season, Dracula in the first season, and those things don’t go away. Your inner demons and outer demons are still there until you find finally face them in some way. I always wanted this season to be about Vanessa and Ethan facing their most difficult challenges. Ethan goes back home into the crucible of his past, his father, what made him a werewolf, why is the way he is. With Vanessa, it’s [an exploration of] the darkness around her.

Tell me if you think this is too pat, but to me, Vanessa has lost her faith in God, but some part of her journey seems to be about gaining faith in herself. And those two things don’t necessarily have to be in opposition to each other.

That’s right. [At one point in the first episode, she talks about] finding hope, hope for all the demons that are out there. She had a very significant line — I can’t remember the actual words, but she said something like, “I’ve lost a lot, I’ve lost Ethan, I’ve lost my faith, but something yet remains. I remain.” That is very important.

And when we get to episode four this season, which is a very huge episode that I’m incredibly proud of, that becomes the all-important theme for Vanessa. And that is, you may have loved God, you may have lost your faith, but you still have yourself, and can you empower yourself? That really is part of her journey this season. And if you have an actress like Eva, you can really go to these dense, philosophical, complicated, emotional places, and she’ll go there happily with you.

With Helen McCrory, you brought her on for a short time in season one, knowing she’d come back and have much more to do in season two as Evelyn Poole. Was it a similar thing with the Cut Wife, Joan Clayton, in season two? Did you know that you’d be bringing Patti LuPone back?

I wish I were that clever. I’ve known Patti forever, and I love her to pieces. We were working on “The Cut Wife” episode, and I saw the chemistry she had with Eva, the chemistry those characters had together. I knew that this season, Vanessa was going to need to have a very strong ally in Dr. Seward. And I thought, look at the connection that was established [in “The Cut Wife”]. The idea of making Patti LuPone Dr. Seward and [to hint at the idea that she had a connection to] Joan Clayton seemed like a great way to do it. It was partly about having an actress I really love in Dublin for six months, but also it was about giving Vanessa a strong ally this season, especially when she doesn’t have Ethan or Dr. Frankenstein at her side.

Dr. Seward said that Clayton is her family name. Are we to understand that she’s the same person, or from the same family line? Do you want to keeping that somewhat vague?

I’m deliberately dancing around that question. Whether they acknowledge this is an actual reincarnation of that character or not, Vanessa and Dr. Seward quickly fall into a relationship of trust and love, exactly as Vanessa and Joan Clayton did. There’s parallel emotionally in the relationship, even if they might define it differently.

It’s all about strong women, for me, this show, in spite of all the incredible male characters there are. The core is always going to be a woman, and to have another strong female character in the show — [it goes to] why I started writing it in the first place.

I think “The Cut Wife” episode is the best episode the show has ever done. The intensity of it was so powerful, and the focus on the two of them in this remote place made it so memorable. Will you do anything like that again this season?

It’s episode four. “The Cut Wife” is my favorite episode of the series so far. If I had to be judged by a single episode of the first two seasons of “Penny Dreadful,” that’s the one I would pick. It’s very emotional, very true and there’s barely a jot of the supernatural in it. In episode four this season, it’s very similar, but perhaps even more so. You’ll be very surprised by it, and I hope delighted. It is a Vanessa-centric episode.

Ferdinand Lyle has become so central to the narrative, which is great. I wanted to ask you about that in general — are there characters and themes that became more important than you thought they would? Less important?

Yes. Without a doubt. This is my first TV series, so it was all very new to me. One of the things [Showtime president] David Nevins first talked to me about and really taught me was, let the show be an active verb. Let it be an active organism. Don’t look at it like a movie or a play. Respond to what you see, to what inspires you. Not only who the audience responds to, but what I respond to, as actors or characters. I find Ferdinand Lyle endlessly fascinating and dazzling character, so any chance to get back to that story is important to me. I certainly write toward what I find emotional and meaningful.

That said, you have a lot of different story threads and characters, and this is a horror-inspired show, so I would imagine there’s going to be some culling this season.

Yes, absolutely. If you keep having the same characters on the same chessboard, it’s not going to be that interesting after a while, for me or the audience. This season, we’re doing some radical things, and some people will hate what we do, and some people will admire the dramatic [nature of it].

It’s obvious that Ethan and Vanessa have a real connection and the characters have chemistry on screen, but is it not in your nature to have characters on the show find lasting love?

I don’t know if characters can necessarily find lasting love on a show called “Penny Dreadful.” The relationship between Vanessa and Ethan is obviously incredibly profound and profoundly important in the series. They have to grapple with their own demons first [before potentially getting together]. The structural plan I always had for the first three seasons was to [reveal the characters’ backstories]. In seasons one and two, we learned a lot about Vanessa, in season three, I was always going to go into Ethan’s background. His relationship with his father, with the West, with werewolves, with Native American history. This season, he really grapples with his demons, as does Vanessa. They both go through a challenging period which leaves them in a different place, in relation to the world around them and to each other.

I understand that you shot part of the new season in Spain, standing in for the American West. Was it a little bit of a relief to get away from Victorian London for part of the season?

Yes. I love my Victorian London, but, my God, I was happy to go outside when the sun was shining. It gives verve and panache to the series to be able to get away from those cobblestone streets and go somewhere very different. And we used the West in great opposition to other places, so we can go from wide open vistas of the New Mexico Territory to the dank, sweaty cages of Bedlam, for example. You get power in the juxtaposition.

Victor Frankenstein keeps trying to bring people back from the dead and create these people, and it always goes wrong, and yet he’s trying that again this year. Is thinking, this time I’ll figure it out and get it right? Is the the most deluded of your characters? He tends to make the same mistakes over and over again.

I think he’s the most obsessive of the characters, he’s the most single-minded. There’s always something about Victor Frankenstein that dramatically doesn’t fit into the world. That’s what Harry Treadaway captures about him so well — how uncomfortable he is in the world. This season he’s allied with another character, Dr. Jekyll, who has the same experience but for social reasons, because [he’s of South Asian descent]. This season for Frankenstein, it’s not about re-animation, it’s actually very much a love story with Lily. It’s something very different this season, actually. Being able to write Lily’s arc last season and this season was a real pleasure, and what we’re doing this season is actually a very domestic, social journey. It’s about female empowerment, and there are some real surprises in store for the character and the audience. Along with Vanessa, Lily’s story is my favorite this season.

The show has always had such a striking look, right from the start, and very rich in terms of the symbology and the way the aesthetics reflect the core themes. When you’re thinking about where you want the story to go, is it about wanting to get the characters to emotional places or wanting to get to a particular visual? Or both?

With me, it’s never visual. It’s always about the truth of the characters and the emotional [experience]. It’s always about trying to put the characters in the most interesting and the most emotional situation. From when I wrote my first play when I was 18 until today, I’ve always said I have one job, which is writing scenes for actors. My goal is always to write great scenes for actors. Everything else is secondary. 

But I think one thing that sets “Penny Dreadful” apart is that it will rely on wordless moments, looks between characters, the mood, the atmosphere, in situations where other shows might be wordy and dialogue-driven.

I think that comes from my history of writing movies. In cinema, you can so much with a look or a visual image. The last fallback position for a screenplay is long dialogue scenes. That’s just in my DNA from movies — [asking] what’s the visual storytelling component that can make this elegant cinematically?

Last season you had Helen McCrory’s character as the major antagonist. Is it another situation this year where everyone has to come together to fight a common foe, or are there multiple threats to the group or individuals?

Happily, this season, it’s both. There are individual demons, both psychological and real, and then they do all have to come together. The joy of it is having all the characters across the world is [finding out] what’s the compulsion that brings them back together. At the end of the day, I don’t want to see the Enterprise without Kirk, Spock and McCoy on the bridge, you know?