25 June 2016
Is it better for a show to announce it’s ending as far in as advance as it can so fans have time to come to terms with their impending loss? Or should a show employ a rip-the-bandage-off kind of approach when it comes to series finales? Penny Dreadful decided to blindside viewers, not announcing the show was ending until the night it ended. The viewers were left going “wait, what” while showrunner John Logan and his team rode off cackling into the twilight. So how was the final episode of Showtime’s gorgeous Gothic masterpiece? The two final episodes “ Perpetual Night” and “The Blessed Dark” (which ran back to back) felt slightly rushed, and tried hard, but didn’t quite manage to tie up all the show’s loose ends. Note: since the episodes aired back to back, I’m reviewing them as one giant episode. Also note: major spoilers ahead.
I don’t have a problem with the showrunners not making a huge event out of the show ending. There’s a tendency to make a big deal out of any kind of finale – mid-season, season, and series. And while I would have liked a little warning, I can understand John Logan’s point that announcing the finale ahead of time could have tipped fans off about what might happen. I’m glad Logan was able to tell this story on his terms. That being said, I really do think Penny Dreadful should have been 4 seasons long. And it’s not because now I have to find a new favorite show. It’s because the entirety of Season 3 felt way too rushed. Sure, Logan got to his intended destination, but a lot of shortcuts were taken along the way.
Season 3 of Penny Dreadful started out with its main cast scattered. It broke up the dysfunctional family the characters had created for themselves, and pushed them out of their comfort zone. Then it started diving into their backstories. It introduced new characters. All good things in theory. The problem is there was so much going on, it felt like we barely tapped the surface of the majority of the storylines. And in the end, the show had to scramble to unite the main cast.
Ethan Chandler’s storyline took him, Sir Malcolm, Inspector Rusk and Hecate out to the Wild West, and introduced the mysterious Kaetenay. I’ve discussed in length before how Ethan’s backstory felt too rushed. It’s frustrating, because his character deserved better. As did Hecate and Rusk, who were both built up in Season 2 as major players in the game, only to be unceremoniously killed off mid-season 3. It felt like there was a huge Penny Dreadful checklist and the Western storyline was just trying to tick off boxes. Ethan’s backstory needs to be addressed. Check. Hecate and Rusk need to go. Check and check.
Not only was Ethan’s major storyline this season emotionally hollow, but it lessened the impact of his actions later on. Having Ethan sleep with Hecate, have a quick jaunt over to Team Evil, then declare he would stop at nothing to save Vanessa, the “love of his life” from the forces of darkness only an episode later was pretty weak. I was left wondering why Ethan was the one who had to save Vanessa, when she had made some strong bonds with new friends this season.
Vanessa’s new friends this season were amazing. Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone) and Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks) should have been brought in way sooner. They were both tough, intelligent, fiercely loyal characters who could match Vanessa punch for punch in their conversations. And it was so nice to see Vanessa with some female friends. But in retrospect, I almost wish they hadn’t introduced Catriona. We barely got to know her. Ferdinand Lyle served as a great research partner in the past. He could have stayed on, instead of being sent off to Egypt and bringing on board yet another mysterious badass whose surface we barely scratched.*
Other new characters this season included Justine and Jekyll. Justine was the young girl who Lily and Dorian rescued. She hero-worshipped Lily. Lily started out the season saying she wanted a revolution, and started actively recruiting fallen women to be her soldiers. It quickly became clear Lily had no plan and was getting drunk on power. She started out criticizing suffragettes, disdaining them for being too loud. She went on about how she was going to accomplish things by “craft” and “stealth”. Then a few episodes later, she hosted a dinner party with at least 30 women and instructed them to go out and cut off a “bad man’s hand” and bring it back to her.
Yeah. Okay. Stealth.
The revolution Lily promised gave way to madness and misandry. Justine personified this more than any other of Lily’s followers. She wanted to kill Dorian and Frankenstein, not because they’re bad people – which, let’s be clear, they are- but because they are men. Ultimately (but not surprisingly) the “revolution” didn’t go anywhere.
Jekyll – Frankenstein’s old friend Dr. Jekyll- also didn’t really go anywhere. He had clear rage issues – a lot of it stemming from a lifetime of facing discrimination as a result of his mixed race. In his very last scene, Jekyll informed Frankenstein his father died, and he inherited his father’s estate. Frankenstein called Jekyll by his new title – Lord Hyde. And that was it. That was it. I’m sorry, but what is the point of introducing Dr. Jekyll if you just wink the Jekyll/Hyde thing? There was so much potential there. Jekyll was such a creep (He was actively encouraging Frankenstein to alter Lily’s brain to “domesticate her”. I cannot emphasize enough how gross he is). It would have been so cool to explore the Jekyll/Hyde story and have a more charming, less gross Jekyll, then a monstrous Hyde. More than that, there was a lot to do with duality this season. The most prominent example of course being the main villain – Dr. Sweet/Dracula. To bring in one of the most famous characters in fiction who exemplifies duality and not utilize that felt like such a waste.
Not to mention that exploring this version of Jekyll and the accompanying social issues, as well as the social issues of Lily’s revolution could have been so interesting. Because you understand where they’re coming from. Jekyll had known a lifetime of rejection because of the color of his skin. Lily revealed more horrific details from her past, and every woman in her revolution has suffered extensive abuse. But the way they channeled their anger is wrong. Jekyll thought making dubious contributions to science would earn him respect, when his experiments violated his subjects’ brains, and (knowing the original story) would lead to his ruin. And Lily’s campaign devolved into terrible violence and showed how “an eye for an eye” mentality can spiral out of control. Both had a lot of potential, but were hastily wrapped up, when there was still so much to explore.
I felt the same way about Dorian – they ended the show just when he was getting interesting. Reeve Carney did fine as Dorian in the first two seasons, but his sexcapades always felt like a distraction from the main event. But finally, in the last three episodes, Dorian was given something to do other than seduce people and pout. And Carney killed it. In “Ebb Tide”, when he said to Justine, “You think you know sin? You’re still learning the language. I wrote the bloody book,” I had to pause and go “daaaaamn”. Because that was the Dorian I had been waiting two and a half seasons to appear. Suddenly, he wasn’t a spoiled, rich playboy, he was a savage immortal. He showed rage, cruelty, pettiness, his own twisted brand of compassion, and affected apathy. I wish we had spent more time with this complicated Dorian, but all too soon, he was gone.
There were two characters who I thought great three-season long arcs. Sir Malcolm and John Clare. Which surprised me, because in Season 1, I hated Sir Malcolm and John Clare. In Season 1, Vanessa and Ethan were just tools for Malcolm to use to find his daughter, but by the end of the show, he loved them both as his own children. Malcolm started out as a ruthless explorer who left a trail of destruction all over Africa, and in Season 3, he vocally opposed the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of Americans. Hypocritical? Perhaps. It certainly doesn’t absolve him of his sins, but his criticism of the abuse Native Americans faced and his regret about his relationship with his son show how he evolved. He went from being a hard, brutal man, to a man rediscovering his humanity and having to face a bloody past.
John Clare also changed a lot. He was introduced when he literally ripped one of Frankenstein’s other “children” in half. He murdered Van Helsing. He demanded Frankenstein give him a bride, never mind that it meant a woman had to die so Frankenstein had a corpse to work with. Making John sympathetic was a slow process, helped along by the fact that Rory Kinnear is just fantastic. When John was with Frankenstein, he was at his most monstrous. He was an angry child, throwing a temper tantrum at his father figure for neglecting him. When away from Frankenstein, John Clare was able to be much softer. We saw his desperation for acceptance, his loneliness, and his remorse. This season, he was finally reunited with his wife and child from his first life. His son died from a long sickness, and John’s wife demanded he either take his son to Frankenstein to be resurrected, or leave forever. John decided to give up his family, rather than subject his son to a life as an immortal outcast. This is a far cry from the man who just a season earlier, demanded an unwilling bride so he wouldn’t be alone. His interactions with Vanessa also did a lot to show that despite all the torment and confusion he experienced, deep down, he had a kind, poetic heart.
And Vanessa. Oh Vanessa. Obviously we have to talk about Vanessa. So, in “Ebb Tide”, she finally gave in, and allowed Dracula to drink her blood. And while she said she didn’t accept him, she accepted herself, apparently it didn’t matter, since the apocalypse still came on.
After Vanessa’s choice, she was missing for an entire episode. I liked that she wasn’t in “Perpetual Night”. As much as I love Eva Green in this role, we had a very Vanessa-centric episode earlier in the season, and having all the characters search for her was a good way to the core team back together. Side note, probably the funniest moment of the finale took place in the dungeons of Bedlam. Dr. Seward, Malcolm, and Catriona just got done interrogating Dr. Seward’s former assistant and Dracula henchman, Renfield. As soon as they stepped into the hallway, who should they run into but Frankenstein, who was leaving Jekyll’s shady lab. The underbelly of Bedlam is one of the most awkward places to run into an old friend, but Malcolm was pretty much like, “Hey, buddy! Good to see you. Vanessa’s being held by the forces of darkness. Wanna come rescue her?” (And to his credit, Frankenstein was ready to rock and roll.)
Vanessa wasn’t being held by the forces of darkness though. She was there “willingly”. It became clear she regretted her decision, but it had been her decision. What struck me as strange was how Vanessa realized she made a mistake and then did nothing to try and fix it. By the end of the episode, it became apparent she did have a plan: wait for Ethan to come, and ask him to kill her. This isn’t so out of character for Vanessa- we’ve seen her rendered catatonic with guilt and depression before. But on the other hand, when her loved ones, or innocent people are at stake, she has in the past been able to rally to protect them. So I found it disappointing that in this, Vanessa’s last battle, her plan was pretty much wait for Ethan, then convince him to kill her. Which he did.
This was another big problem for me: why was Vanessa’s death, and Ethan being the one to shoot her presented as inevitable? Vanessa had walked away from God, so it’s not like her Catholicism was stopping her from killing herself. It’s not that I wanted Vanessa to kill herself, but if she was guilt-ridden over all the deaths she was causing, and to her, death was a forgone conclusion, I’m surprised she didn’t take matters into her own hands, which is something she had done in the past if it meant she could stop other people from suffering.
But why did Vanessa have to die at all? She’s a powerful witch, but that didn’t come into play at all. Vanessa gave the reason that while she lived, she would be hunted. But we know Dracula can be killed in his human form – surely Lucifer could be stopped too. I kind of understand where John Logan is coming from. Penny Dreadful is an ensemble drama, but Vanessa and her story really is the heart of it. Her death brings grim closure to a macabre story. If Vanessa had to die, I wish it had happened in a way that was more true to the fighter we got to know over three seasons.
Regardless of how it happened, Vanessa’s death signaled the end of the show. There are still some unanswered questions, or things I was hoping to see, but that we will now never get to know more about, such as:
Finding out who caused the apocalypse? I had always assumed when the show said if Vanessa accepted Lucifer or Dracula they would cause an apocalypse that this meant they would cause the end of days by having their followers attack people, maybe use some dark magic, etc., etc. But the pestilence fog appeared sort of on its own as soon as Vanessa let Dracula bite her neck. It almost implies there’s another force at work. I wish they would have explained how this particular bit of the show’s mythology worked. Who was behind the prophecy, and were they the same forces that enacted it?
What happened to Dracula? He had been waiting for hundreds, even thousands of years for Vanessa, and the chance to take over the world. When he saw Vanessa dead, both those dreams were suddenly gone, and he barely reacted. He had one of his followers brutally killed for just talking to Vanessa, but then when she’s dead, he turns into black smoke and disappears? I guess this ties back to his line, “After all, without her, what do we have left?” Christian Camargo did such a good job all season of bringing Dr. Sweet/Dracula to life, and I wish we saw some kind of response before he vanished. Where did he go? Is he going to go back to being a zoologist? Can he please be stuck giving boring academic lectures for the rest of his endless life?
We never saw Ethan or Lily/Brona find each other again. They had such a strong bond in Season 1, I thought for sure their paths would cross again. But alas.
Similarly, none of Frankenstein’s friends found out about his extra-curricular science projects. He never really got any comeuppance for the horrible things he did to John Clare or Lily. He should have had to work harder for redemption.
Where will Kaetenay go? Will he stay in London with Ethan, or return to America. And okay, seriously, how did Ethan not know Kaetenay was a) also a werewolf and b) the one who bit him?
John Clare never remembered his time with Vanessa when they were at the Banning Clinic, which seems such a shame. I was glad when Vanessa remembered, but having both of them remember and be able to talk about it would have been even better.
Sembene. Okay. I know he died in Season 2, but I was really hoping that they might bring him back from the dead at some point, or talk about him (even a little bit!) in Season 3. But nope. Three seasons, and we never got to find out about his and Sir Malcolm’s backstory. And it’s the season finale, so I’m taking my last chance to go on record as being bitter about this.
And that is why I wish Penny Dreadful had been given four seasons. The root of most of my above complaints is that there just wasn’t enough time to do the majority of the storylines justice. Whether storylines were hastily wrapped up or just quietly left to fade away, Penny Dreadful could have done better. It has an amazing ensemble cast, which has proven that it can deliver on difficult material. They just need the opportunity. And for that opportunity, there needed to be more episodes.
I realize this review has so far been pretty negative. Please don’t mistake this as me not liking the show. This is me holding Penny Dreadful to the high standard that I know it’s capable of meeting. The finale was overall a good mix of action, strong dialogue, those beautiful artistic shots the show has gotten so good at, and drama. It wasn’t as good as the Season 2 finale, and I wish it had ended on a stronger note. But, to end my final review of one of my favorite shows on a positive note, here were some of the best parts of the final two episodes:
Patti LuPone. I loved her as Dr. Seward. So many good moments from her in the finale, from the moment Renfield underestimated her and she took him down, to what if I remember correctly was her final line as she dismissed Dracula: “F*ck him.”
Catriona Hartdegen making an entrance at Sir Malcolm’s house, saving the men from Dracula’s servants, then telling Sir Malcolm he’s being dramatic as she cauterized his wound and stared him down.
When Dorian calmly removed the knife Justine plunged into his chest and the reaction from his house guests that followed. (And Dorian in general. See above).
Pretty cool fight sequences.
The last scene. I think I’ve been pretty clear that my favorite relationship in this series in Vanessa and John’s. The larger group at the funeral did a good job silently conveying their grief and what Vanessa meant to them. But I was still pretty conflicted over how Vanessa’s death went down, so I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Then I saw John’s face as saw Vanessa’s casket being carried out, and I went “Oh. Sad. I feel very sad about this.” Vanessa meant something else to everyone than she did to John. She was their friend, yes, but she was also a cause for them to rally around. To John, she was one of the only people who cared about him with no conditions. Vanessa’s other loved ones knew she died a hero’s death, and had finally rid herself of the demons that plagued her for her entire life. Seeing Vanessa’s death through John’s eyes stripped her of the mythology that surrounded her. She wasn’t the Mother of Evil. She wasn’t a witch who defied an ancient prophecy to stop an apocalypse. She was a kind woman who died, and suddenly it was that much more tragic.
There are worse ways to end a show than having Rory Kinnear quietly reciting poetry to a grave. It was a bold, but ultimately beautiful choice for a show seeped in so much darkness and evil to end on a note of quiet humanity. RIP, Penny Dreadful. Another show gone too soon.
* It’s funny that Lyle was the one to introduce Vanessa to both of those women. Honestly, I was secretly hoping for future episodes of Vanessa, Dr. Seward, Catriona, and Lyle just hanging, drinking brandy, smoking, and solving supernatural mysteries. But instead, Lyle was criminally underused (farewell to that magnificent son-of-a-gun) and Vanessa is dead. If John Logan ever wanted to bring Lyle back from Egypt and Vanessa back from death, I’m just saying, I would watch the hell out of a spin-off featuring those four.