The end of Penny Dreadful‘s third season unfurled beautifully in perfectly gothic pain and torture as the forces of good faced off against the forces of evil. So much is left unanswered tonight, but there was still a very big resolution, and a resolution that literally said that this was the end even though a lot of characters exit the stage in mid-action. Is Penny Dreadful coming back for more? Only the executives at Showcase and the show’s creative team can say for sure. But if this was the end, it was as emotional as it was inevitable and the melancholy it leaves you with is palpable.
If you’re reading this, I assume you already know that the two-hour finale ended with the untimely death of Vanessa Ives. It was an inevitable end, considering that since Vanessa hit the screen in the first episode of Penny Dreadful there was a feeling of doom around her. It was a persistent feeling of tragedy, like a character from a Brontë novel, which wouldn’t quite be in keeping with the time period of the show, or the authors that created the other characters, but it’s close enough. The idea that one is doomed to suffer and only find acceptance on the brick of death is utterly gothic indeed, and in that regard, Penny Dreadful stayed true to itself.
What was unusual though was that for an hour-and-a-half we watched as our supernatural friends traced every lead and every chance to find Vanessa, but the woman herself was strangely absent. Vanessa emerged briefly, looking like the walking dead, at the end of “Perpetual Night” and then was only really seen again when Ethan finds her in a candlelit dungeon after a fierce confrontation between Sir Malcolm, Catriona Hartdegen, Dr. Seward, Kaetenay, and Dr. Frankenstein against Dracula’s familiars. The action was top-notch in these two episodes, at once bloody and gruesome, yet showing what a strong force these characters have become after years of war with the supernatural.
As for Ethan and Vanessa, let’s just say that their reunion does not go as planned. Instead of hugs and kisses and promises and romance, Vanessa begs Ethan to end it (with a kiss) because she will never know peace as long as she lives. For years she’s been pursued as the “Mother of Evil,” and even though Dracula has phrased it all as making himself a servant to her, Vanessa knows that being a night creature is not what she wants to be. In the end, death is the only escape, and the only option left to take. The scene mirrors Sir Malcolm’s own acceptance at the end of season one that his daughter could not be saved, but others could.
There’s true emotional resonance in Vanessa’s tragic end that somehow manages to swim upstream against the suddenness of it. In the back of your mind there’s the idea that they didn’t set this up very well, but there’s a realization afterward that this whole season’s been set-up for Vanessa’s death. Her isolation and depression, her search for meaning and her self-examination have all been about her trying to understand herself and her place in the world. She knows this now and disregards it, and if she has no place in this world, than maybe it’s time for the next.
Finding one’s place in the world has been a theme through the season and extended in the finale. Lily thought her place was leading a bloody (though justified) feminist revolt, but as Dorian tells Justine, he’s seen women like Lily come along and burn so brightly that they burn out quickly, or are otherwise quelled. Like Vanessa, Justine decides that if she there’s no place for her in this world, on her own terms, she’d rather die that be an outcast, and Dorian grants her wish.
As for Lily, Frankenstein loses his nerve to convert her to a subservient woman after Lily tells him about Sarah, Brona’s daughter who died cold and alone as a baby while Brona was out one night trying to earn a living, only to get beaten and left unconscious by a violent john. In one simple, stunning monologue, expertly delivered by Billie Piper, you understand Lily’s fury at the abuse of her gender, the perceived weakness that, as Lily observed, allowed Brona to succumb to injuries rather than pick herself up off the brick and head home. Frankenstein insists that perhaps its time they both stop being monsters, and he lets her go.
Was that particularly tense and cathartic scene worth a season of watching Frankenstein and Jekyll putter in a lab calling each other “old man”? Nope, Jekyll proved less than useless, and the storyline might have easily been done without his involvement, which is a shame because I think the show’s initial take on the character was fascinating and compelling. In the end, Jekyll tells Frankenstein that his father has died, and he’ll get the title and the respect that comes with being called “Lord Hyde.” Yeah, we got it. As pointless as Jekyll ended up being, let it not be an excuse for one last Easter egg.
The Creature’s journey has been the much more poignant one, and it remained so to the very end. When his son finally succumbs to his illness, the Creature’s wife insists he take him to Frankenstein for resurrection, or don’t come back at all. The Creature though thinks it’s better the boy die human than live as a monster, and he buries the boy at sea in the Thames. Afterward, he heads to Sir Malcolm’s home to see Vanessa’s funeral precession, and as the others mourn at her graveside, the Creature mourns from afar as Rory Kinnear reads from Wordsworth in the voiceover. When everyone leaves, the Creature remains, Vanessa’s only true friend through all her trials whether he remembered or not. Kinnear was always the MVP of Penny Dreadful, doing quietly stunning work at every opportunity. Seeing his grief at Vanessa’s graveside, ever alone, was no exception.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but this truly was the end of Penny Dreadful. As I was writing this recap, Showtime and creator John Logan announced that this was the end of the show; there will be no more Penny Dreadful. Although we feel a bit like Dorian telling Lily she’ll be back after she rejects him to live life a little less monstrously, the sad fact of the matter is that this is the end. Logan himself seemed to run out of steam this season, handing over writing duties for half the episodes to others when normally he pens the whole thing alone. So perhaps seeing the stark white words on black background, “The End”, shouldn’t have caught us so much off guard.
Still, it feels like there’s so much left to say. Catriona Hartdegen, Dr. Seward, and Kaetenay were each such compelling new additions to the show, and Mr. Lyle’s off-handed reference to Egypt all felt like Penny Dreadful was stocking up for season four. From that point of view, it’s confounding, but such is life and as you busily make plans for tomorrow, all you have is today. Penny Dreadful was a richly rewarding experience from beginning to end, and it showed that there’s still a lot of life in these old characters even as creators fumble with them on the big screen. Penny Dreadful was a visual and visceral treat, and it was a pleasure to watch it unfold. The End.