Showtime’s Brit-horror series Penny Dreadful returns on May 1st to the joy of faithful viewers not-nearly-everywhere. For such a smart and well-acted show, the horror soap opera featuring fictional heavy-hitters Victor Frankenstein, his monster, Dorian Gray, and the Wolfman doesn’t get quite the expected amount of buzz it deserves. It probably doesn’t help that the show airs the same night as HBO’s powerhouse Game of Thrones. Watch Thrones live if you hate getting spoiled on Twitter, but save some room on your DVR for a show that’s bloodier, spookier, and steeped in much more literal—and literary—sexual politics.
Here’s a taste of what you’re missing. (With a few unavoidable spoilers ahead.)
1. Eva Green as series lynchpin Vanessa Ives
One of the few characters in Penny Dreadful not based on a novel character, Vanessa Ives was the childhood best friend of Dracula‘s Mina Harker and maintains a close relationship to Mina’s father, Sir Malcom, when Mina was abducted and turned into a vampire prior to season one’s premiere. Independent and sharp-witted, Vanessa would already be seen as an odd duck in Victorian society but add to that a little case of nothing less than being desired by the Devil, and Vanessa becomes a woman of extraordinary depth. Green, perhaps most memorable as a Bond girl in Casino Royale, has also starred as the fierce warrior Artemis in the otherwise entirely execrable 300: Rise of an Empire. Penny Dreadful is Green’s chance to really show off her range and, wow, does she ever. The internal battle Vanessa wages for her soul is brought to life by Green with stunning, visceral physicality and a heartbreaking vulnerability—depending on which side of her is in control: the devoted Christian, the supremely powerful witch, or the woman ensnared by demonic possession. Eva Green is positively riveting and she alone would make Penny Dreadful worth watching.
2. Almost everyone else in the cast, even Josh Hartnett
I know, right? It’s not like I had anything against Josh Hartnett, but I didn’t think I’d like him so much as the sole American—and a cowboy to boot—in a cast of Brits. And yet he brings a refreshing charm to Ethan Chandler, whose dark side and bloody past can rival Vanessa’s. Billie Piper is doing her best work since Doctor Who as a consumptive prostitute turned into a post-modern and post-mortem queen of London’s underworld. Timothy Dalton brings great gravitas to Sir Malcom’s fatherly grief. Broadway nuts will appreciate that Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone has two stellar guest roles: in season 2, she played a witch mentor to Vanessa. In season three, LuPone steps into a gender-swapped Dr. Seward, post-Dracula and employed as Vanessa’s therapist. (Satan help her.)
3. Dorian Gray seduces The Wolfman and other Gothic mash-ups
Well, Dorian Gray is sleeping his way through the entire cast, really. Would you expect anything less from him? So much tension arises from watching and waiting for all of these seemingly disparate characters crossing paths, and drawing blood, together. Where else can Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and Dorian Gray and the Wolfman bump up against each other? Okay, maybe The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula before that, but Penny Dreadful uses these public domain characters in a wickedly inventive way, weaving a tapestry of Gothic desire, secrets, and alienation. And more desire.
4. The Bride of Frankenstein gives a searing monologue on female agency
I’ll just let Lily Frankenstein speak for herself, as she tells Penny Dreadful’s most entitled, most pathetic creature what she thinks of the men who brought her back to a life of their choosing:
5. New adventures in the New World
Brought back to America to stand trial for a very brutal crime, Ethan Chandler’s Wild West escapades will certainly bring a totally new feel to the show. But don’t expect the show to grow less dark for the sunnier clime. Sir Malcom joins Ethan across the pond, as does series newcomer Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans.) Left to fend for herself, Vanessa is at her most vulnerable and must struggle with her newfound powers while fighting a fresh wave of vampiric minions. And possibly starting a romance with a certain infamous doctor with a split personality. Is it any wonder she checks herself into a mental asylum? Meanwhile, Lily Frankenstein and Dorian Grey continue to be the It Couple of London’s miscreants as the Creature… I dunno, remains emo as fuck in Antarctica?
Have a taste for more? Check out the new season three trailer below:
Penny Dreadful returns Sunday, May 1st at 10PM E/PT.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com covering TV, book reviews and sometimes games. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about television for Boing Boing and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Send her a raven through Twitter.