Maybe now we know why Showtime has yet to renew Penny Dreadful for a fourth season. Before seeing how it all unfolded tonight, I had planned to speculate on the show’s chances of coming back. Although the network has a reputation for prolonging many a series past its creative prime, Penny Dreadful is an expensive show that has never drawn the ratings it deserved. Before tonight’s creature double-feature, I would have put its odds at 50/50 of coming back. By the time the final shot faded to black and the words “The End” appeared, however, those odds had already dropped precipitously. Even if it hasn’t been officially cancelled, is a version of Penny Dreadful without Vanessa Ives even worth continuing?
Let’s back up to the penultimate episode “Perpetual Night,” the second one this season with no Eva Green at all, aside from an opening recitation of her words about the darkness and the pestilence and the night creatures loose on the world. That has indeed happened: London is shrouded in permanent night and fog, rats fill the streets, and frogs bubble up through the sink. (That latter image was particularly queasy-making, topped only by Renfield biting into a live frog.) By the time Sir Malcolm, Ethan, and Kaetenay make their return, thousands have already died of the plague in the air.
Their homecoming to Sir M’s estate is commemorated with a dead wolf hanging in Vanessa’s bedroom followed by a vampire attack. Vanessa’s new pals Cat and Dr. Seward both arrive to catch the gang up on the whole “End of Days” thing, and since Seward has learned her former assistant is in league with Dracula, the plan is to get him to tell what he knows about Vanessa’s location. Ethan sets out on his own to find Frankenstein, but instead finds himself in the middle of another big vampire attack. One fortuitous full moon later, Ethan wolfs out and gets to work severing necks. He gets some help in the form of Kaetanay, who (as many commenters had speculated) is himself a werewolf. In fact, as we later learn, he’s the one who turned Ethan in hopes that he would save the world one day.
Over at Dorian Gray’s manse, the party is winding down. With Lily now Frankenstein’s captive, Gray orders the army of sex workers out of his house. Only Justine remains, preferring to die on her feet than live on her knees. In the end, that’s all Lily’s grand scheme amounts to—a fleeting moment for one downtrodden woman to seize control of her own fate. For her part, Lily manages to talk her way out of Frankenstein’s plan to make her his docile bride, and in doing so gives Billie Piper another great showcase. The mystery of Brona Croft’s dead daughter is revealed, and it’s as heartbreaking as you would expect: the baby froze to death while Brona was unconscious in an alley, having been beaten by a john.
Vanessa returns in the finale proper, “The Blessed Dark,” but there’s still not nearly enough of her considering what happens. “He and I shall write the ending in blood,” she tells Dracula when he informs her that the Wolf of God is on his way. Seward discovers the location of the vampire’s hideout by hypnotizing Renfield, and the gang heads there to kick a whole lot of vampire ass. They’re ridiculously outnumbered, but their attackers are even more ridiculously easy to defeat. That leaves it to the Wolf of God to rescue Vanessa as prophesied. Or, failing that, to shoot her.
I don’t want to shortchange Vanessa’s death scene, because it was beautifully performed by both Green and Hartnett. I do feel, however, that Vanessa’s character was shortchanged in these last couple of episodes. We barely saw Dark Vanessa at all; her turn from “I’m going to shoot Dracula” to “I’m going to rule the End Times with Dracula” last week was way too schematic at the time, but it could have been redeemed by being fleshed out in these two hours. That never happened, though. We just had to accept that she could not be saved from the darkness, and that Ethan’s role as the Wolf of God was to recite the Lord’s Prayer with her before killing her. Maybe the character of Vanessa Ives had gone as far as she could, maybe there was no way to continue her story from here, but as affecting as her final moments are, her death still feels abrupt and less than adequately prepared for.
It’s probably pointless to speculate about where Penny Dreadful might go from here if it were to return. (Alas, the adventures of Sir Lyle and the Mummy may exist only as fan fiction.) Instead, I’ll simply tip my hat to John Logan, and to three seasons of a television show that was almost always better than it had to be, one that reimagined familiar characters in ways that honored the original creations without treading the same old ground. Penny Dreadful was rich and atmospheric, dark and mysterious, and one of a kind. Now give Eva Green that Emmy already.
- In the end, Jekyll never uses his formula on himself, but he does tell Frankenstein that his father has died, leaving him the heir to his title. Victor addresses him as “Lord Hyde,” so I guess the idea is that he is both Jekyll and Hyde in one man, and Victor was right all along that “good and evil braided be.”
- John Clare’s happiness was indeed too good to be true. His boy Jack dies of his illness, and Clare is aghast at his wife’s demand that he bring their son to Frankenstein to be reanimated. Instead, Clare walks into the sea and releases his boy into the water before visiting Vanessa’s grave. (Note that Clare was only ever addressed as “Husband” and “Father,” so we still don’t know his real name. I wonder if he ever asked?)
- Dorian Gray will “always be here” in his portrait gallery, waiting for Lily to return. Or not.
- And I’ll be here, waiting for the show to return. Or, most likely, not. I’d be glad to get the chance to continue these reviews, but I have a feeling this time slot will be occupied by Twin Peaks next year. If this is indeed the end (and “The End” sure had the ring of finality), it’s been a pleasure.