Major spoilers for Penny Dreadful, obviously.
For the past two years I have been quietly enjoying Penny Dreadful or, as my pal Ádhamh calls it, Eva Green’s Weekly Hour of Scenery Chewing. It’s a slick little series about classic horror characters getting into scrapes with vampires against the delightful backdrop of Gothic Victorian London. The production is polished, the cast is stellar, the costumes are stunning and there are pleasing twists on familiar literary figures. It also has a complex and intriguing lady character as its main protagonist and I am not above admitting that I could watch Eva Green chew the scenery all day long. Truly, all was going well, until last week when a shock series finale killed off Vanessa Ives and the whole series ground to screeching and profoundly unsatisfying halt.
John Logan claims that this surprise ending was nothing to do with ratings and everything to do with serving the story, a claim on which I call hefty amounts of BULLSHIT because no writer could honestly claim that this rushed and truncated excuse for an ending was part of his vision all along. On the most basic level, so much of it made no narrative sense. Here are eight reasons why:
1. The gang’s all back together but… why?
Victor Frankenstein has had zero contact with Malcolm or Ethan for an entire season, but when they run into him by pure chance in the hallway in Bedlam they’re like, “Oh hey, we’re about to go on suicide mission to save Vanessa who you also have not seen in an entire season, want in?” and he’s like YES OK NICE TO SEE YOU WHY NOT! This contrivance seems to be purely for the sake of getting the old gang back together for the big finale, which is… why? I mean, Victor is cute and all, but he also spent the entire season trying to violently brainwash Lily into dating him again, which puts him squarely on TEAM VILLAIN. Victor Frankenstein is a bad person and he’s also fairly useless in a fight and also HE’S BEEN IN A DIFFERENT STORYLINE FOR THE WHOLE SEASON so why on earth did he have to be there?
2. Lily and the Very Bad Day
I have to admit that I, like Dorian, got pretty bored of Lily this season. There was nothing particularly shocking about her bloody brand of faux-feminism and her stirring speeches about female liberation were too vague and repetitive . It was one of those things where the writing was clearly trying to make some kind of Point with her character, but utterly failed to articulate what that point might be. That said, it was hugely anti-climactic when her revolution fizzled out simply because Dorian decided he’d had enough and the final act of her story reduced her to the pleading captive of Victor Nice Guy™ Frankenstein.
Now, what would have been good is if Ethan had run into Lily in the halls of Bedlam and he was like OH MY GOD BRÓNA and she (immortal, impervious to pain, supernaturally strong) had come to help him fight Dracula. Then afterwards, Victor’s whole sick betrayal would come to light and he’d get his comeuppance, then Lily would destroy Dorian and his stupid portrait before riding off into the sunset with Ethan forever and ever, the end.
Honestly, I think I’m just pissed off that this show destroyed its two morally-ambiguous lead female characters while letting unambiguous garbage human Victor off the hook completely. They even tries to wrangle up some sympathy for him in the closing act. Like, he gets a bro hug with Ethan? After everything he’s done? Fuck you, Victor Frankenstein, you’re the worst.
3. Were you enjoying this new kickass lady character? OH WELL.
Catriona Hartigan was introduced six episodes into a nine episode season, mainly so Vanessa would have a sounding board for figuring out Dracula’s identity. Because they only had four episodes to establish that Catriona is INDEPENDENT and BADASS, they overdid it a bit. When we first meet her, she’s in a fencing mask schooling an arrogant gentleman type with her wicked swordplay and then she does the classic HA-I-WAS-A-GIRL-THE-WHOLE-TIME reveal. After that, she’s all about strutting around Victorian London in close-fitting leather pants and dramatically cauterizing wounds while drinking whiskey. She wins Vanessa’s trust almost immediately (because tick-tock, no time to add any nuance to this relationship!) and accepts that Dracula is real and hanging out in London without so much as an eyebrow twitch. Then there’s quite a bit of sexual tension with Sir Malcolm and oh, I’m sorry, were you getting interested in this lady? TOO BAD SERIES IS OVER FOREVER THE END. Like, what was the point? Why not just keep Mr. Lyle around? We know Mr. Lyle. We like Mr. Lyle. We give a shit about what happens to Mr. Lyle.
(Sidenote: Wouldn’t it have been great if Vanessa had decided that Catriona was Dracula? Or if Catriona had been Dracula? I honestly thought that’s where things might be going before the show threw itself off a cliff.)
4. On that note, were you curious to meet Mr. Hyde?
This season introduced us to Dr. Henry Jekyll, a brilliant and ambitious young Indian doctor and an old friend of Victor’s. Though he starts out relatively mellow and level-headed, as the season progresses, it becomes clear that Jekyll is in a constant battle with the suppressed rage that often comes with being a brown person in a severely racist society. He does a lot of chat about the duality of human nature and taming the beast within, and it’s strongly implied that he’s using his own personality-altering serum to keep his twisted alter-ego at bay. As his outbursts become more frequent and his relationship with Victor more fraught, it seems like only a matter of time before we meet “the other man”.
TOO BAD WE NEVER WILL BECAUSE THE SERIES IS OVER NOW. After so much suspense, masterfully layered over the course of the season, all we get is a throwaway nod to “Lord Hyde” before Dr. Jekyll walks off our screens forever.
5. Why is Ethan a werewolf again?
So Ethan’s whole thing is like I AM THE WOLF OF GOD SENT TO PROTECT VANESSA AND/OR PROTECT THE WORLD FROM VANESSA WHICHEVER, which is… look, it’s complicated and not particularly well-defined, but we’ll run with it. But in the big finale, his role is to shoot a compliant Vanessa in the chest and then have a bit of a cry about it. In fact, he doesn’t even wolf-out once when he’s breaking into Dracula’s lair or fighting the final wave of vampires. It’s implied that he’s supposed to have some kind of big showdown with Dracula himself, but this never manifests. So again, why does Ethan need to be a werewolf to fulfill his destiny? Why has he spent three seasons trying to reconcile himself with his inner beast and why did hundreds of innocent people have to die pointless bloody deaths at his hands while he was figuring his shit out?
I mean, werewolfs are cool and everything, I am 100% pro-werewolf, but don’t tell me there is a very important God-mandated reason that this specific dude must be a werefwolf and then have him end the series as a human with a shotgun. That, Mr. Logan, is nonsense.
6. Vanessa is the most disappointing Queen of Darkness ever
Vanessa is more evil than Dracula. Vanessa is more evil than Lucifer. Vanessa is so evil that both these dudes have been trying to date her since the dawn of time. Three seasons of Penny Dreadful have lead us to believe that Vanessa Ives is literally the most evil being in all of existence and the only thing keeping the world from being swallowed by her evilness is that she’s doing her best to hold that shit in check.
BUT after one round of doing the frick-frack with Dracula, she’s eventually ready to give in to her true nature and we’re all OH SHIT HELL IS LITERALLY ABOUT TO BREAK LOOSE FUUUUUUCK. Except, once she decides to be evil and lets Dracula make her a vampire, all she does is stand around in a hallway in a big gown until Ethan comes to finish her off. (And let’s face it, if he hadn’t, those candles would have.) Seriously, John Logan? SERIOUSLY.
Vanessa’s battle with her own evil nature has been the central conflict of the show from the very first episode. When she eventually gives in, it’s supposed to be cataclysmic. We assumed that Vanessa is destined to become a force of darkness the likes of which her former friends had ever faced before. We assumed that she might, at the very least, start enjoying herself a bit now that she’s not crushed by the weight of trying not to be evil. But no, when she inevitably succumbs, she’s just an (ever so) slightly more gothy version of herself, subdued, defeated, accepting of her demise at Ethan’s hand.
Logan insists that Vanessa’s death was actually empowering because… LOOK IT JUST WAS, ALRIGHT!? Apparently, it’s empowering because she chose it, which only makes sense if you believe that every choice is automatically empowering by virtue of the fact that it was a choice, which is some weapon-grade circular logic right there. (Also, why the fuck did she need to wait for Ethan to show up if she was owning her own death?) To be clear, I don’t object to Vanessa dying; it always seemed like the most logical conclusion for Penny Dreadful and obviously the show can’t go on without her. But I reject the idea that a woman of such demonstrable bravery and tenacity would choose to die moping about in a room by herself while her friends fight for her. I object to the fact that Vanessa sacrifices herself so that the men in her life – who have committed many acts of unspeakable evil themselves – can go on to find redemption. And most of all, I reject that idea this sad mess is somehow “empowering” and that Vanessa’s story was always supposed to end with a whimper and not a howl. Fuck that forever.
7. Where the fuck did Dracula go?
Like, he literally just exits, not even pursued by bear. One minute, he’s choking the life out of Sir Malcolm and then he obviously senses that Vanessa is dead and then he just… flies away? Where did he go? Why didn’t he finish off Sir Malcolm? Why didn’t he wreak bloody vengeance on the people who deprived him of the woman he has been stalking for literal millennia? Why did this complex and powerful character just flap off into the ether with zero ceremony or explanation? Is he still out there? Is no one worried? I guess we’ll never know because THE END.
Also, real talk, I would have dated Dracula. A+ boyfriend, even with the whole blood and death and ushering in the end times thing.
8. Ugh, John Clare, no… just stop
John Clare – a.k.a Victor Frankenstein’s first successful attempt at resurrection – has always been my least favourite character on this show, largely because he tends to just flop around being sad and useless, and his poetic nature is not charming, nor is it tempered with any of the righteous rage of the Creature of Shelley’s seminal work. However, this season, they did a good job of fleshing him out a bit and explicitly connected him to Vanessa in his pre-dead life and, based on this, I was expecting the writers to finally integrate him into the main plot. Like, how good would it have been if John Clare had regained his memories of Vanessa and – with his supernatural strength and inability to die – been recruited for the final showdown against Dracula? THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN GREAT.
But no. No, John Clare is too busy having a brief glimpse of the happiness of his former life before his son dies of tuberculosis and it’s all ripped away from him again. The final shot of the show is him kneeling by Vanessa’s grave, presumably with no idea of how she died or why and like, I get it, I know John Clare is supposed to be a symbol, the Everyman Whose Life Is Irrevocably Fucked By The Supernatural Meddling Of Those Who Should Know Better, (again, fuck you Victor Frankenstein) but he is not the note on which I would have ended this show, because his note is “everything is unrelenting misery forever”, his note is despair and disappointment and ultimately, that is what the end of Vanessa Ives and Penny Dreadful felt like.