Penny Dreadful had to end the way it ended (but it should have been done better).
[*Massive spoilers* for the season 3/apparent series finale of Penny Dreadful. Proceed with caution.]
On Sunday night, I’d wager a bet that every fan of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was caught off-guard by the title card that flashed onscreen after the show’s somber finale: the end. Six white letters on a plain black backdrop. For a few precious moments, no one quite knew what to make of it. The end of a chapter? The end of an era? The end of just one incredibly important character? Or the end of it all?
When the rumor swirling around the internet ether was confirmed by show creator John Logan and a heartbreakingly emotional Eva Green, my heart broke. I was late to the Dreadful party, but I’ve devoted thoughts, dreams, time, effort, and real emotions to this show, this story, and this cast. I’ve followed them to places that come about as close to Hell on Earth as is possible in Victorian London. I followed them into a room full of creepy porcelain voodoo dolls, for Christ’s sake. John Logan owed me more!
I’ll discuss the basic plot of the finale now, as it’s necessary for me to make my (hopefully coherent) arguments as to why the finale wasn’t what it should have been. Be warned once more that here be spoilers. If you need someone to rant to, read on. If you don’t want to know the fate of our family, come back when you need a shoulder to cry on.
In the oddly short two-part “season” finale, the swirling epic of Dracula vs. Wolf of God vs. Mother of Evil came to head — except that it…didn’t. For three seasons, the show has been building up a battle sure to satisfy. Lucifer wants a bride; so does Dracula. They’re brothers, fallen from Heaven, who both set their eyes on a woman named Vanessa Ives, supposedly destined to choose one or the other and take her place as the Mother of Evil.
But there’s a wrench in the Big Bads’ plans in the form of Ethan Chandler, a sharpshooting American who also just so happens to be a werewolf. He also just so happens to be the Wolf of God, or Lupus Dei, a creature meant to protect Vanessa from the perils of the underworld, and to aid her on her quest to 1) survive and 2) save the world.
In a perfect world, these last three seasons would have culminated in this ultimate battle between Heaven and Hell. Vanessa may have been on the supposed dark side, but I think she would have eventually realized her family — the people who have loved her and helped her stand strong and have never lost their faith in her — was in desperate trouble, and she would have known what had to be done: end Dracula; end the Devil; end herself, so that the cycle would be broken once and for all.
But for the last half of the season, the men in Vanessa’s life have only said, “She’s in danger, we have to save her!” Ethan turned himself in for the numerous murders he committed as the American Werewolf in London; Sir Malcolm went looking for him; Dorian is more or less not a part of the main story anymore; and Frankenstein was dealing with his own angst and introducing what should have been an incredibly complex new relationship with his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll.
But no, assholes, Vanessa does not need to be saved. That is her beauty. She needs help from those who love her, to back her up and give her strength. She needed people to deal with the witches last season while she took on the literal Satan doll. She needed them to shoot some vampires while she confronted Mina in season one. She is her own strength and her own courage. Their love lifts her up, but it has never, ever been about Vanessa as damsel in distress. The Wolf of God may exist to protect her, but not to save her.
This show had to end with Vanessa’s death. That is a fact that some have long known and others (like me) are now coming to understand and accept. It’s the only way she would at last find peace from the ongoing torment that has made up her adult life, and the only way the world can settle into something like calm. It’s the way that she died that is unacceptable.
The family was separated for the entirety of the season. What feels so ultimately unfulfilling is that they never got to come together again. Some say that weddings and funerals are all that bring people together, but this group deserved to go down fighting — together. Vanessa never got to see Sir Malcolm, the man who loathed and loved her in equal measure for so long, who ultimately was willing to die if it meant helping her win. She never saw Victor, who has been so lost in his own demons, and who never judged her for hers. She never saw Dorian again, who was inexplicably cut off from the rest of the group for basically two years, but who so obviously cared for her. He would mourn her death. Ferdinand Lyle left, never to be seen again — and Vanessa never danced, so did she really get to think of him at all?
And what about the new characters, the friends who might have become family? Jekyll was fascinating, but his storyline was turned into a dialogue gag (“Lord Hyde”? Honestly?). Catriona was basically the Selene of Penny Dreadful, and smarter than basically anyone else on the show. And Patti LuPone’s Dr. Seward was an exciting addition to the canon, introducing a character from Dracula in an entirely original way.
The separation of the characters and their stories was an interesting angle for this season. What failed was the execution. The addition of so many new characters should have immediately been a red flag that the show was going to need at least two full seasons in which to explore each of their stories and how they all fit into the bigger Dreadful puzzle. And with not one but two huge villains to face — and eventually defeat — we were owed at least that. Dracula was a nice addition to the character roster, but would Satan really give up on his main lady so easily? She may have crushed your creepy talking doll last season, buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can just let the bloodsucker win, sheesh.
Focusing on the original characters, I think Ethan and Vanessa were set up on very similar and incredibly interesting parallel arcs this season. They both faced temptation from the darkness; they both confronted their pasts; they should have come together again to find redemption. And they should have had longer than three and a half minutes in which to reconnect. Then, Vanessa’s ultimate sacrifice would have been so much more poignant, so much stronger, and so much more worthy of her.
In the face of too many failed character introductions and new plot points, I feel that the creators lost sight of who Vanessa Ives really was from the start. They’ve been right in all the post-finale interviews to say that she was the heart and soul of the show, that continuing would have been “difficult,” and that Eva Green is a powerhouse of talent. But there are so. many. characters. who were left unexplored: Ethan doesn’t know Brona was brought back to life; Lily might still want her revolution; Dorian was half-returned to the fold by awkwardly handing Lily to Victor on a silver platter; Jekyll never got to be Hyde; Dracula is still running free around London. Everyone was being rearranged into a place that could have given rise to some really fantastic TV, even without Vanessa.
Instead, we got Sunday night’s show.
Stretching the show another season and cutting back some of the slower parts that exist (enough with the roaming the desert on the horse with no name, amirite?) would have allowed for a deeper exploration of each facet and could have eventually led up to a satisfactory ending. It would have allowed for a wider diversity in the cast. It would have allowed the fans the time to say their goodbyes and face the series finale with the brave face Vanessa would want us to wear.
I will never understand what the thought process was behind billing a series finale as just another season finale. That does such a disservice to the fans. It may sound ridiculous, but we really do need the time to prepare and to mourn these stories, these places, and these characters. I, for one, was totally unprepared to say goodbye to Penny Dreadful on Sunday night. And thinking on it now, I don’t believe the show is over. Penny dreadfuls were serialized stories, after all. They told one awful, gruesome, tragic tale, and then they moved onto the next. There is so much more night work to be done, and even if Vanessa is gone, those she died to save deserve a chance to live.
TL; DR: I love this show. I will miss this show. We all deserved better.
Any Dreadfuls out there? Talk to me — no, seriously, talk to me. PLEASE. I’m not handling this well.