June 19th saw not only the conclusion of the third season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, but the surprising end of the series as a whole.
That sound you hear is my heartbreaking, for more reasons than one, and not the reason you think.
There will be spoilers for all three seasons, including the finale, as this is truly a dissection.
When I first discovered Penny Dreadful three years ago, I felt as if The Powers That Be looked into Little Meghan’s head, scooped out everything she’d ever dreamed of, and poured it into the gloriously gothic mold that shaped Vanessa Ives’s world. Penny Dreadful is set in London, 1891, and features a dazzling cast of new character amongst some of gothic literature’s finest. As we all know, I’m 100% here for Victor Frankenstein.
What I loved most about this show was its unfailing action in subverting (almost) every gothic trope: there was a strong female heroine with power in her own right; the men were followers, but worked well as a team; the supporting women were deeply characterized, not replaceable sexy lamps.
Here, at last, was a show that somehow failed to disappoint me. Don’t get me wrong, I kept waiting for it. I expected the upset, the long-suffering sigh.
I held that breath for two remarkable seasons.
Each season had its own Big Bad, starting with the vampires. The pilot season’s backbone was Sir Malcolm Murray (Sir Timothy Dalton) and his quest to rescue his daughter, Mina (Olivia Llewellyn). He collects a band of anti-heroes to aid him: American sharp shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), Spiritualist Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).
Season One had some of the best, most beautifully written and portrayed episodes of any series I’ve seen. A stand-out for me was episode five, “Closer than Sisters,” in which Vanessa’s backstory is detailed along with her friendship and betrayal of Mina. Every character has his or her own demon to face, whether metaphysical, metaphorical, or horrific reality. Our misfits form a family, drawn together by their own inner darkness and quest for the light. By the end of Season One, we know it’s all about Vanessa and the things hunting her.
Witches and Lucifer are the villains of the second season. Madame Kali — aka Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), the medium from Season One — is the lead witch attempting to gain Vanessa’s soul for the devil. The plot was cohesive, pulling in the Bride mythos which I talked about last year, idealized love, the role of women in the Victorian Era, and the great and desperate struggle for the power of self-acceptance. Vanessa continues to fight her dark urges, and we’re treated to a spectacular origin story wherein she meets Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone). Clayton teaches Vanessa the importance of being what she is, which she carries into her battle for her soul. In the end, she embraces herself, dark power and all, with the consequence that our heroine has turned her back on God, believing He’s turned His back on her.
Season Two had some equally fine moments, including Vanessa’s revelation of Ethan’s nature (he’s a werewolf) and the terrible things he’s been trying to hide from her. Victor makes an impassioned speech about the roles men force women to play in society, from demure and delicate wives confined to corsets to destitute women forced to whore themselves, and his wish never to impose such painful ideals upon her, and Lily (Billie Piper), his newest creation, embarks upon collecting that strength for herself.
Sadly, our happy family is shattered. Ethan is arrested and extradited to America, Victor is lovelorn and heartsick over Lily, Sir Malcolm sails off to Africa to bury Sembene (who was murdered by werewolf Ethan), and Vanessa is left alone.
Sadly, our happy family is shattered.Everyone had come together to defeat the great evil only to be left facing their own inner demons.
This is where the problems began.
Once again, the writing and cinematography were exquisite, but they tripped into “the person of color is only there to serve as a guide before being needlessly sacrificed.” Sembene got not backstory, no development. He was there as Malcolm’s protector (Why? We’ll never know), then served as a voice of reason, confidant, and friend to Ethan. Why wasn’t he more panicked about the werewolf thing? What was Sembene’s debt to Malcolm?
Of course, Season Three brought us Kaetenay (Wes Studi), an Apache man with connections to Ethan, who allies himself with Sir Malcolm.
The Creature, aka, John Clare, sets off for the Arctic.
Strap in, my baby bats. This is where I release that long-held breath of disappointment.
Season Three is sadly a jumble of plot—too rushed, too convenient, and too cheap. If you read my premiere post, you know I had such high hopes. The inclusion of Dr. Jekyll was top on my list of wonderful things, as was the return of Patti LuPone as Dr. Seward, a truly fresh spin on an old character and a wonderful take on the beginnings of psychological study and therapy.
And in Season Three, we finally got Dracula, the biggest of the gothic Big Bads.
The first episode was a delight. The rest weren’t. While the writing in most of the episodes was still up to snuff, the content dragged for all our heroes except Vanessa. I guess it is her show, though.
Season Three is sadly a jumble of plot—too rushed, too convenient, and too cheap.Vanessa seeks Dr. Seward to help ease her anxieties, but finds herself trying to decode the mystery of Dracula. Renfield (Samuel Barnett), Dr. Seward’s secretary, is turned into Dracula’s minion. Vanessa finds companionship in zoologist Dr. Alexander Sweet, who is quiet, charming, and, oh yeah, actually Dracula. I enjoyed this storyline the most as it pulls in the tragedy of Dracula from Bram Stoker’s novel. He is unloved, reviled, but feels deeply. It’s not a romantic story, but Dracula first brought out the notion of a seductive vampire in mass publication. He might love Vanessa, but he still hates humanity and wants to eat them, so win/win.
But shockingly, Vanessa surrenders. She discovers his betrayal, goes in (literally) guns blazing, and then bends her neck to him.
I’m upset with her for this, but in a way I find it understandable. She’s fought so long, so hard, and there are only so many times you can hit the wall before you give in. I’d hoped that even with her choice to answer Dracula’s kiss, she’d still come out on top.
Unfortunately, Ethan was conveniently removed to America for the express purpose of being unable to help Vanessa when she needed him most. His backstory came far too late in the season after too many episodes of him wandering through the desert with Hecate (Sarah Greene), the witch from Season Two. I will give them points for giving her a compelling background, complete with a rather surprising love for animals.
However, after all the bloodshed and battle of Season Two, Hecate is taken out by a regular bullet.
Seriously, she survives werewolves, fire, nearly dying of thirst in a desert, and a bullet is what undoes her?
Sir Malcolm seems to just go along for the “let’s get Ethan back” ride, until he realizes Vanessa might be in danger. Again. We really don’t see a lot of him this season and that’s a shame. He does get a few wonderful moments of being a progressive white man (i.e., standing up for Kaetenay in the midst of racists), but he doesn’t really shine until the end. If there’s one thing Penny Dreadful does right, it’s fight sequences.
[Hecate] survives werewolves, fire, nearly dying of thirst in a desert, and a bullet is what undoes her?Dorian… well, Dorian and Lily are my least favorite aspect. After all the praise I sang for their inversion of Lily’s Bride role, the two of them fell flat. I’ve never been a fan of Dorian’s, but the two seasons sucked him dry of all potential. We get it, he’s a bored immortal. He’s lost the ability to feel. The addition of Justine (Jessica Barden) was an absolute train wreck. Their cultish trio lacked finesse, and worst of all, came off as trite. For all Lily’s determination to command her destiny, she missed the mark.
Her one redeeming quality comes at the beginning of episode seven, and midway through episode eight. We’re finally given a glimpse into Brona’s (Lily’s past life) by way of lost child. Lily visits the grave of Sarah Croft, Brona’s doomed infant daughter. Sarah dies after Brona fails to return home after meeting a john. This loss is the pain she used to create herself as Lily, which is a far more compelling argument than “I hate all men.” She can certainly hate them, but the death of her daughter is why she hates them.
Again, too little, too late, but Bille Piper remains one of my favorite actors on this show.
For me, the biggest disappointment of all was the underutilization of the addition of Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif). In the entire season, we get maybe ten minutes of screen time between him and Frankenstein, and most of that in the first episode. For the amount of time they spent building Jekyll’s lab, it’s a shame we see so little of it and his involvement in curing Bedlam’s patients of their madness. There’s no development of their friendship or working relationship other than Jekyll’s jealousy and the plot to turn Lily into a “proper woman.”
Victor, what did we just talk about last season?
Luckily, Victor finds his moment of clarity after Lily pleads for him not to steal her pain. “It is too easy being monsters. Let us try to be human,” he says, and lets her go. This, of course, makes Dr. Jekyll rather displeased.
Jekyll did exhibit a remarkable temper, and at the end, when his father dies, gains the family title, “Lord Hyde.” But he, too, merely walks away. While I like that his “other side” is all this pent up rage rather than a self-imposed split personality, they didn’t develope him beyond the expected. I wish they would have followed through with this.
There are many things I wish they’d followed through with.
The Creature regains his memory of a family, but don’t we get any screen time with him/them until the end. What a waste.
The addition of Catriona Hartdegan (Perdita Weeks) was brilliant: a lady in trousers! Catriona shows up to help Vanessa discover Dracula’s identity. She’s smart, self-possessed, witty as hell, and again, supremely underused. Between her and Dr. Seward, a collection of kick ass ladies would have been more than welcome. Sadly, they’ll never see their full potential.
Despite the ragtag, haphazard plot, I still held out hope for what I would later learn was the “grand” finale.
Part one felt more like the show I’d loved, but part two left me hollow and sad, and not because I was saying an unexpected goodbye. There was no real resolution. The main plot (Vanessa’s fight) was tied up, but the rest felt… lacking. Cheap.
And Vanessa became the one ill-fated trope she’d spent so long subverting: she became the sacrifice.
Vanessa became the one ill-fated trope she’d spent so long subverting.While she’s rewarded with her God at the end, all Vanessa’s pain and suffering amounts to basically nothing. She forfeits her life where she could have fought back, where we expected her to fight back. She’s been our leader, our figurehead, for two seasons. Season Three Vanessa is not the Vanessa we’ve loved, respected, and cheered for. We learned in Season One that killing the vampire that bit you reverses the affect, but I guess they forgot for the sake of unrequited love between her and Ethan and the need to make her a martyr. Perhaps she was doomed from the start, but she didn’t put up a fight. Her one moment was weakness unraveled everything she’d sacrificed for.
I was here for vampire Vanessa. I was here for a showdown between her and Ethan. “He and I shall write the ending in blood” is statement that far overshadows the actuality of the “shoot me” we were delivered.
The reality is I’m displeased. Dorian, still useless and my least favorite incarnation of the character, will wither in his beautiful home, alone. Lily, who knows. She walks away, hopefully to continue trying to be human. The Creature loses his son to consumption and his wife to delusion, and mourns Vanessa. Frankenstein departs to things unknown. Ethan and Malcolm are left alone in the house, Malcolm resolving to discover who he is now that both his daughters are dead. Ethan resolves to stay because Malcolm is his family.
While yes, I guess everything is concluded, it feels hollow. There are always lost battles in the gothic, no promises of happy endings, rainbows, or sunshine, but I still feel like this was an injustice on so many levels, for me as well as the characters I’d championed for the last three years.
I wish we’d been told this would be the last season. To say I was blindsided is an understatement. For a show that has been so good to us Dreadfuls, it felt like a betrayal. The disappointment came when I wasn’t looking.
I will always love Penny Dreadful for what it’s done: it opened the gothic to a new audience, it made my existence as a writer more meaningful because there is an audience for the dark and the grotesque. It’s made me strive to be better.
But I don’t know that I’ll ever accept what’s happened. What didn’t happen. What could have been. I’m hoping to find peace in the comic arc Titan is producing, but I’m wary of another heartbreak.
Meghan Harker is a Horror writer for Girls in Capes. She’s currently working on her own Gothic novel and hosts the Courting Casualties podcast. When not writing, she’s either drawing, reading, hunting antiques, or lamenting that she wasn’t born in the 1800s. If you follow her on Twitter (@ExquisitelyOdd), you might get the chance to play Guess Who’s Dead!, her favorite post-mortem photography game (no one else likes to play.)