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'Penny Dreadful': Breaking down the clues to Ethan Chandler's (werewolf?) identity

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Pat Redmond/Showtime

Penny Dreadful’s Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is a werewolf. An American werewolf in London. Right?

The gunslinger, who traveled from the Old West to late 19th-century London, confirmed his supernatural classification in the season 1 finale of Showtime’s gothic horror series when he morphed into a familiar-looking furry creature that tore apart a pub, leaving a vicious bloodbath in his wake. It left no doubt in my mind about what he was.

Until EW’s Kelly Connolly did an interview with showrunner John Logan that gave me pause.

“He always knew that there was a darkness around him, a potential for violence, something he didn’t understand,” Logan says of Ethan. “And this season he’s able to put a name to exactly what it is. And he has to grapple with that, which is pretty devastating.” 

So does that mean that as of last year’s finale Ethan may not have known he was a werewolf, or at least not wanted to accept that was what he was? Or does it mean that “what it is” might not be a werewolf at all?

There are (many, many) signs from season 1 that do seem to point toward Ethan being a werewolf, the main one being this video. Ethan also has a very bad temper and an almost animal-like violence at times. He tries to avoid being around people during the full moon. He had a great deal of sympathy toward the undead boy the team captured and attempted to torture for information, implying a connection to other dark creatures. He also refused to give blood for a transfusion to “detox” the boy (Out of being…undead?) implying that maybe he believed he could pass something on through his blood. 

Ethan also had a serious Dr. Dolittle-like ability to ward off that angry pack of wolves in the zoo. He randomly woke up on the waterfront with bloody marks on his hands from digging his nails (or claws) into his palms and told Brona (R.I.P., kinda) the injury was “a long story,” implying he knew he had changed and most likely knew what he changed into. He’s not afraid of getting consumption from Brona, possibly because animals can’t catch human illnesses and maybe that applies to werewolves as well?

He freaked out at the illegal dog fight that Dorian Grey took him to, which led to a bar brawl and an implication he didn’t like seeing an animal abused. He is extremely polite and gentle with women, ex. Brona and Vanessa, but he’s always the focus of the scenes that come right after we see the continuing brutal murders of women in London. So does that imply he’s the murderer? 

​And then there is the whole set of clues tied to the two bounty hunters—one of whom is an Apache—who came to bring him back to his dad. They said that Ethan “left tears and a whole lot of blood behind him,” and came packing some serious-looking chains (to hold something that must be seriously strong), saying they would drag him back “like a monkey” if he wouldn’t come willingly. They also referred to “tracking him” as their “prey.” All of this happened before Ethan finally transformed in front of them into the biggest clue of all, his werewolf-looking self, and massacred an entire pub.

But there are other clues throughout the season indicating that Ethan may be something far deeper and spiritual than a werewolf: his story about his love for Anasazi wall paintings that depict animals, the sun, and the moon, and how much he knows about Native American culture in general. How Vanessa hallucinates that he’s the devil when she is possessed, but he ends up being the one with the power to exorcize her. These all suggest his connection to spiritual forces and that he has powers beyond what a “normal” werewolf would. And I think we can expect a twist on the traditional werewolf for Ethan’s character because of a comment Logan made regarding season 2’s big bad: witches. 

“One of the great challenges to us, and to all the departments, was in trying to find a way to present our witches, because we didn’t want old crones with tall black hats,” Logan says. “So we tried to find a Penny Dreadful version of witches, which is on one hand both terribly attractive and also terribly frightening. Because I think that’s the sweet spot of this show, that things can be beautiful and horrifying simultaneously—like all the characters.”

My current theory on the genus and species of Ethan’s character weighs heavily on his ties with the Native American community and their lore. In the Native American community, a culture that Ethan was all too familiar with back in the States, a wendigo is a demonic half-beast, half-man creature that appears in legends. The creature typically transforms into a monster from a person, as we saw Ethan do. And Ethan being a wendigo would be so much more Penny Dreadful than a regular old run-of-the-mill werewolf. What makes that route even more interesting is how the Native Americans believe one becomes a wendigo: eating human flesh.

Ethan spent a great deal of time with the Native Americans in the U.S. “on the trail,” as he has put it, and we don’t know exactly what went on during that time. But we know he left a “whole lot of blood,” behind him and if he did consume human flesh for whatever reason, and became a wendigo, it would explain all of his werewolflike behaviors as well as a few (but not all) of the spiritual and mystical clues we’ve seen. 

So much to ponder. All so very interesting. All so very dreadful.

Season 2 of Penny Dreadful premieres Sunday, May 3 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. 

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