A Look Back at the Third and Final Season of “Penny Dreadful”
Season one was, while being more of a compelling drama than just a straight-forward horror series, still had brilliant moments of horror with great performances, a strong mythology (the pursuit of a master vampire in order to save Mina Murray) as well as some wonderful shocks (such as the reveal of Ethan Chandler being a werewolf and the use of Brona Croft as a mate to The Creature). The second season was even more filled with bloody and sexy and extremely dramatic delights. The inclusion of the divine Patti Lupone as The Cut-Wife for the episode “The Nightcomers” was the highlight of performance for the second season, and the main arc of a coven led by Evelyn Poole (or Madame Kali) coming for Vanessa Ives to make her the bride of Lucifer was even more disturbing and terrifying than the vampires that were coming for her in the first season, particularly in their use of psychological warfare against all of them, as well as the reanimated Brona, now the seemingly more genteel (and English) Lily, having a much darker side emerge as the season moved forward and fall further away from Victor Frankenstein and The Creature and directly into the thrall of fellow immortal Dorian Grey. And as with all tragic love stories, the monster inside Ethan was something he believed to be too strong and dangerous for Vanessa, so he confessed his monstrous crimes to Inspector Rusk, who was having him extradited to America to face similar justice there. With Frankenstein lost in heartbreak, The Creature headed to frozen wastes away from human contact, Sembene dead, Sir Malcolm Murray looking to get back to Africa and Ethan (whose actual last name is Talbot… another great classic monster throwback) being taken back to his home, despite their victory over Evelyn, Vanessa was left alone in London.
And this is where the third and final season of “Penny Dreadful” picks up, with Vanessa lost in her oppressive loneliness and despair in Sir Malcolm’s London home. Barely eating and not cleaning, it’s clear she is lost. Thankfully, she receives a visit from the wonderful Ferdinand Lyle who, at practically his first glance of Vanessa, recommends she sees an alienist. He recommends Dr. Seward (another Bram Stoker throwback), the same person who helped him deal with his homosexuality. She goes to see Seward (Lupone, playing an entirely different character) only to find that she’s a dead ringer for the Cut-Wife, Joan Clayton. She explains that the resemblance is due to Clayton being an ancestor, but they’re both clearly teachers for Vanessa, and like the Cut-Wife, Seward is something of a taskmaster. She tells Vanessa to do something she’s never done before, no matter how small it is, as long as it involves being around people. She finds herself in the Natural History museum in London and sparks a friendship with the reserved and shy zoologist Dr. Alexander Sweet (Christian Carmargo).
Meanwhile, across the pond, Ethan is on a west-bound train guarded by Rusk, his partner and a compliment of US marshals. We see the familiar face of Hecate on the train as well, when suddenly, killers hired by Ethan’s father kill several of the people on the train as well as many of the marshals and abscond with Ethan telling him that they’re taking him home. Hecate, still wanting to control or at the very least corrupt the lupus dei, follows at a discreet distance. In a completely different part of the world, the Creature is on a ship in a frozen wasteland trying to increase his distance to humanity, but is beset suddenly by memories of his past and his family before he died and was reanimated. But wait… there’s more. Sir Malcolm, still drowning his sorrows in Zanzibar from the forceful confrontation of his past sins involving his family but is beset by would-be thieves and killers. He gets an unexpected hand from Kaetenay (Wes Studi), a Native American who has been trying to find Sir Malcolm because of his relationship with Ethan, claiming that Ethan is the key to saving the world from the oncoming darkness that will envelop the world. And back in merry olde England, Victor, also filled with sorrow, is called to action by his old schoolmate Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif), a half-white half-Indian who, like Victor, operates with one foot over the edge of acceptable medical practices.
He works in an asylum where he claims he has a cure that can turn the maddest of men into the gentlest of souls, but needs Victor’s help to advance his work. Victor sees this as his opportunity to remove the darkness and violence from Lily and eventually force her back to him. Speaking of Lily, she’s living in Dorian’s mansion and they’re on a mission to save “unfortunate women” from the brutalizing hands of men that would take pleasure in their dehumanization, abuse and death. They save one of these women, the young Justine (Jessica Barden), from what appears to be a live underground snuff show. And with the Suffrage movement taking place at that time, Lily sees only futility in their actions; the only way she sees for women to take back their power is through seemingly the only thing men understand: force.
That’s a lot of A and B plots for a final nine-episode season.
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. The evil looking to consume all life? It goes by a very familiar name:
It has to be addressed before we get too heavily into breaking down the season that series creator John Logan might say that he intended to end the show with this season, but I don’t believe it for a second. While there are stellar moments and episodes that rank amongst the best that television has had to offer this year, the finale and the fates of certain characters seem either counter-intuitive to the arcs they’ve had, or seems like they just plain ran out of room (or money) and rushed everything full steam ahead to get to the end. The reason I say “money” is because this was probably a pretty intensive and costly shoot, with them shooting on two continents.
I hate to skip to the parts that don’t work so well first and then work backwards, but when it comes to doing a proper breakdown of this season, we have to start with how it went wrong in order to get to the parts where it works better than just about anything else. And to get to the worst part of this final season, we have to go to the story that’s built since the first season that just doesn’t pay off, and that’s the story of Vanessa. Eva Green has been a powerhouse performer since I first saw her in “The Dreamers”, and her work on this show was something resembling miraculous. And the character of Vanessa was the lynchpin of the show. It’s a male-dominated cast, and it’s Victorian era, so naturally many of the characters seem protective of Vanessa, but as opposed to so many damsels-in-distress of that era of fiction, “Penny Dreadful” has always strayed away from making their female characters mere objects of desire or women in danger, such as the introduction of Catriona “Cat” Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), a badass, self-sufficient thanatologist who could have the key to defeating Dracula.
With the situation she finds herself in during this season, irresistibly called to the darkness that is Dracula (aka Dr. Sweet, and that was a particularly fun reveal) that brings about a plague of sorts on London in which several innocent people die. That concept seems very antithetical to Vanessa’s character, but I can kind of see where Logan was going with this. Vanessa’s journey has been one of persistent tragedy, whether it’s the loss of her best friend Mina or the loss of her love Ethan or the loss of virtually her entire support system or the loss of her mind. And all of that is topped with the looming threat of her being the bride of The Devil.
It seems to make sense that she would want to give in, but Vanessa has always been the rock of the show. She may have not always had control of all her senses, but she’s always resisted the siren call of surrender. She’s fully ready to kill Dracula before he makes her the offer she eventually accepts, but you can sense her exhaustion. Vanessa has been fighting with the forces of darkness for so long that the adage of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” probably seems like a good enough idea.
And then there’s Ethan, being forced along the brutal American Southwest back to his father, and then after escaping them, he joins up with Hecate who is only too happy to show him his darkest self. Kaetanay constantly has cryptic warnings about how Ethan’s fate is tied to the fate of the world, and Hecate seems intent on having Ethan turn to the dark side and allow the beast inside him to have his day. It’s a season of temptation for both Ethan and Vanessa, but where Vanessa does give in, Ethan doesn’t. Even when confronted with the sins of his own past in the personage of both Kaetenay and his father Jared (the always-awesome Brian Cox), he seems to have gone past the point of no return, and when he finally has the chance to kill his father (after a massacre where both poor Rusk and the potentially redeemable Hecate die), which he’s sworn to do for so long, he refuses. That dirty job is taken by Sir Malcolm, who after taking Vanessa as his “daughter” in the first season, takes Ethan as a “son”.
Although if there’s a weak link the arcs of this season, it’s Dorian. Aside from his bloody threesome with Lily and Justine, he’s just bored with everything going on around him. He’s bored with the dozens of prostitutes that have taken up residence in his mansion. He’s bored with Lily’s tirades. He’s bored with everything. He’s so bored, he sets Lily up to be taken by Victor for his and Jekyll’s “cure”. In fact, Doran is so bored with everything, he becomes boring. That’s not to cast aspersions on Reeve Carney’s performance, but the character doesn’t really have a lot of teeth after the first few episodes of the season.
Although, it makes Lily a much more fascinating character by contrast. She’s filled with passion and fire and anger. We get more of her “living” past as we see the grave of Brona’s child, and later she gives an explanation as to how the child’s death was a result of when a brutal beating she took when she was a prostitute herself. It is Piper’s highlight moment during the season and possibly the show when she gives an impassioned argument as to why Victor and Henry’s “cure” will essentially erase everything about her that makes her who she is. You take away the darkness, you take away her essence. In those moments, she’s far more human than Victor has perhaps ever been and more importantly, he realizes this and decides to release her.
Although not everything is darkness in this final season. The sole character with any real hope is “John Clare” aka The Creature. It’s been an absolute treat to watch Rory Kinnear’s work with The Creature evolve from vengeful monstrosity to shunned freak to loving, kind man. With the memories of his life before death coming back, he goes back to his wife and sickly young son, first just trying to provide them with a better life and watching over them literally from above as he makes his home initially in the rafters above his family’s hovel. He watches his son suffer from an endless cough, likely brought on by the docks they found their home in after John’s death and he suffers as well. He eventually reveals his existence to his family, overjoyed to have him back and his wife is both appalled and fascinated at the methods of his resurrection. Sadly, this happy homecoming is cut short when the son dies. John’s wife believes that Frankenstein can bring him back in the same way he was brought back, but knowing everything he’s been through and every moment of suffering is trapped within his memory, John is very much against the idea. She gives him an ultimatum: help bring their son back to life, or get out of their lives altogether.
As each of the seasons have had a single episode dedicated to an amazing display of acting prowess, with Season One having “Possession”, and Season Two having “The Nightcomers”, easily the strongest episode of the show is “A Blade of Grass”, which Dr. Seward uses hypnosis to have Vanessa go back to the place she cannot remember: the sanitarium where she was held years before at the height of her hysteria where she first encountered the two forces vying for control of her. This episode is so loaded with twists and turns and shocks and fear that it may be the best episode of the show. First we have the shock of her nurse being The Creature when he still lived, so not only to we get treated to another showcase for how awesome Eva Green is or how awesome Patti Lupone is, but we’re also treated to more awesomeness from Rory Kinnear. The episode revolves around so many different themes, one of them being the Madonna/Whore complex that Vanessa can have, but also introduces Lucifer’s “brother”, which is the being we know as Dracula, who both only speak via their dueling possessions of Kinnear. It’s an endlessly intense, haunting and at moments beautiful episode that features these three performers putting on a master class in performance.
But back to the finale, I won’t get too much into what I wanted to happen, which would be fan-fiction, but it still feels incomplete, despite being a nine-episode season. It was too over-stuffed, and with how this show has never been a let-down in really any department, the final fate of everyone seemed like they were told the plug was being pulled and were in a rush to wrap everything up so that the show had a definite ending. I can forgive that. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. I just don’t feel like Logan was being sincere about his knowledge from the start that this was the final season.
I do have to admit that having the whole team of Malcolm, Victor, Ethan, Kaetanay (he’s a werewolf too!!), Cat, and Seward facing off against scores of vampires in the finale was extra awesome.
It’s always a heartbreak when a great show gets the axe before it’s had its chance to fulfill everything it could. But in so many ways, “Penny Dreadful” was a miracle to have at all, let alone lasting three seasons. So no matter what happens, we got three seasons of what is arguably the best adult-oriented horror program in decades.