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Emmy FYC: The Actresses of "Penny Dreadful"

Our Emmy FYC series concludes with Nathaniel's final plea for Penny Dreadful...

When Penny Dreadful aired its surprise series, not season, finale a week ago, the event felt as dark to fans as Vanessa Ive's increasingly fatalistic worldview. In its 3 short seasons the series grew quickly from a gimmicky concept -- all your favorite monster myths thrown together! --  with rich visual panache (Season 1) to a complex, increasingly focused, and confidently disturbing drama (Season 2) to a rushed and scattershot but even more thematically daring and superbly acted grande finale (Season 3). By the Season 2 premiere it had become abundantly clear that the blood-pumping heart of this gothic universe, belonged to its haunted, dangerous, three-dimensional women...

Due to the structure of the Emmy calendar which runs June to May, and the fact that Penny Dreadful's seasons always crossed eligibility periods it's been a confusing show for awards even beyond the obstacle of genre biases. Even the "hanging episodes" rule, which places some episodes (if there are enough of them) into the previous eligibility period if the season was far enough under way, haven't made this show's awards prospects that much easier to understand. To make a long story short: Penny Dreadful was first eligible last year for its debut season two years ago (it received three nominations, two for music and one for makeup), and may or may not be eligible in 2017 for its third season (the Emmy ballot seems to suggest that only Season 2 is eligible this year -- or else Helen McRory and Patti LuPone would have to switch ballots as "Guest" rather than "Supporting" due to their numbers of episodes) . But eligibilty confusion aside,  with or without the promise or currency of new episodes, it will be a distant memory, an apparition even to those who loved it by this time next year.  

So this year's Emmy's are really its last chance and we're here to plea for longshot recognition to three women, available in three separate categories on the Emmy ballot, who are enormously deserving but could easily be shut out due to the triple obstacle of the Academy's genre bias, eligible episodes airing so long ago, and voter's stubborn embrace of past luminaries even after they dim at the expense of fresher marvels. Look, Claire Danes is marvelous on Homeland, but she already has three Emmys for it and if you think she's the best there ever was at psychotic breaks and playing a brilliant woman undone by her own demons than you haven't seen...

Best Actress Drama
EVA GREEN as "Vanessa Ives"
... who can do psychotic breaks and undone by her own demons just as well. On top of that showy Emmy-worthy scrumptuousness, she'll layer the frosting of complex stylization as befits her supernatural gothic show, and spike it all with television's most hypnotic vocal chords. You can get drunk with pleasure just listening to that strange mellifluous voice, as its slide up and down the scales of internal disturbances, poetic soul, and warm pleasantries... sometimes within single line readings! And if that weren't enough Green makes disparate plot threads and incongruous character beats like demonic possession, padded cel lunacy, agoraphobe depression, extroverted social graces, and devout Christianity all feel like they're coming from the same exact woman.

It's quite a fate of acting and, frankly, if all Emmy categories were combined into one this year, I'd still want to hand her the statue. 

Best Supporting Actress, Drama
HELEN MCCRORY as "Madame Kali"
While Eva Green's star turn was startling from episode 1 of Penny Dreadful I'd argue that she didn't truly ascend into undeniable "give-her-all-the-Emmys!" greatness until she had an acting partner grand enough to challenge her Best in Show status. That happened as soon as the first episode of the second season when the spiritualist Madame Kali, played by Helen McCrory, who appeared briefly in the first season, was revealed to be a powerful devil-worshipping witch who wanted Vanessa's soul. Genre acting this transcendent and confident while doing ridiculous things like bathing in blood, stealing babies, building voodoo dolls, and speaking in dead tongues is NOT easy, folks. When it's done so well that it never feels anything less than authentically possessed and truly dangerous even when it's so clearly larger than life, is the work of genius acting. Helen McCrory did the seemingly impossible with her Bride of Satan, proving a completely formidable rival for Eva Green's star turn. Watching them face off (oh, the disturbing things that happened to both faces in the process!) was when Penny Dreadful hit its delirious horror peak.

Helen McRory is still best known as Narcissa Malfoy but her show-elevating work on this series suggests that Harry Potter had no clue what to do with her powers. The entire House of Slytherin would tremble at the sight of Madame Kali.

Best Guest Actress, Drama
PATTI LUPONE as "The Cut Wife/Joan Clayton"
And finally we come to Broadway's musical superstar diva, who wanted to prove she could deliver DRAMA even without those ear-blasting pipes. Prove it she did with her impressive work as Vanessa's damned defiant mentor "The Cut Wife". In perfect contrast to Helen McRory and Eva Green's theatrical largesse and as a surprising rug pull to her own fans, LuPone is rivetingly subdued as this sharp tongued witch and abortionist who had escaped Satan's claws and her sisters in his evil service (Helen McCroy's Kali). LuPone was so terrific in her guest work that she earned the highest praise you can get from a TV show -- they wrote her a whole new character just to have her as a regular. She plays "Joan Clayton" a psychiatrist in Season 3 who happens to be related to the Cut Wife and her acting rapport with Eva Green grows even stronger in one of the series all time best episodes "A Blade of Grass"

Would these three make your ballot?

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Reader Comments (11)

Billie Piper's monologue this season had me gasping. It was a tour-de-force.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterIan

I'm seriously not shitting you, I was just about to look at your website a minute ago to check if have written something about Helen McCrory in Penny Dreadful. My God, is she amazing as Madame Kali. I mean, when who someone overshines Eva Green's Miss Ives doesn't get nominated for an Emmy, it's time to reevaluate that f-ing system.

My favorite new dream couple is Helen McCrory and Damian Lewis for sure!

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdinasztie

Eva Green does deserve all the Emmys!

I wish Vanessa Ives was the narrator of all my audiobooks.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMario

Josh Hartnett is looking more delicious than ever. Sorry, it had to be said.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLizzy

To my mind, the series peaked in the second season. This season was disappointingly diffuse, and came to an unexpectedly dark, sudden ending. But through it all, Eva Green gave an award-worthy performance that covered such a wide range of shades and moods that she nearly totally overwhelmed the other excellent performances/characters. She absolutely deserves an Emmy nom!

Vanessa Ives was a TOWERING performance, even in this age of outstanding TV work everywhere you look.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Eva Green for ALL THE EMMYS indeed. Helen McCrory was also wonderful, and LuPone a freaking revelation. But if there's one performance other that Eva's I want recognized from Penny Dreadful's second season (absolutely its peak), it's Billie Piper's. Her monologue in Episode 8 was the most riveting thing on TV last year, and brilliantly, BRILLIANTLY delivered. Everything that one can say about Eva Green in every episode applies to Piper in JUST ONE SCENE. It's fucking stunning, show-elevating work that both revels in and transcends its genre.

I can only hope the show gets the kind of nomination that True Blood got in its second season, but the show never had quite that level of cultural cachet, so it's a really uphill battle for ANY nominations.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I agree with denny: Billie Piper was just superb on Penny Dreadful. Her final scene (with Dorian Grey) was wonderfully wrought.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Miss Green is, as I've written elsewhere, the Isabelle Adjani of her generation. And this role and performance make that abundantly clear.

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Love this show - and I really don't understand why Logan chose to ended after only three seasons?!

June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Agree on all points, Green is phenomenal, McRory is magnificent (the scene with Simon Russel Beale, where she is looking into the fire reflecting on "her reward", is exquisite), and LuPone is excellent both in her season 2 guest spot and her season 3 supporting role (some of the best line readings in season 3). Billie Piper was also excellent - that monologue is the pinnacle of believable stylised melodrama. The range traversed was breath-taking.

Season 3 felt sadly bloated and rushed, and the finale, though beautiful, left me feeling quite betrayed. But I will point out (although I know this post is celebrating the women) that the MVP of season 3 surely had to be Rory Kinnear. To go from a character that in season 1 was frankly annoying, through the beautiful exchanges he had with Eva Green throughout season 2, to becoming the poetic soul of the show in season 3. And his work in A Blade of Grass, charting the beautiful arc of his character's past and then playing both Lucifer and Dracula to glorious perfection -- unbelievable. Such a surprising actor.

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Co-sign Andrew on Kinnear. And while we're doling out praise, let's not forget stupendous season 3 guest stars Brian Cox, Wes Studi, Sarah Greene (uncanny resemblance to McCrory), Christian Camargo, Samuel Barnett, Jessica Barden and DOUGLAS HODGE.

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

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