8:00pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Penny Dreadful' Finale — Does 'The End' Mean The End?
[This story contains spoilers for the entirety of the Sunday, June 19 two-hour finale of Showtime's Penny Dreadful.]
Those were certainly ominous words that concluded Sunday's Penny Dreadful finale, eh?
Not a teasing, "The End ... For Now" or "The End... Or Is It?" and not, in keeping with creator John Logan's love of literary conceits, "The End of Chapter III."
Those aren't words that fans of a show still awaiting a fourth season renewal like to read, especially since Showtime execs did a recent phone call with reporters and checked in on nearly every current drama without offering a prognosis for Logan's high-toned Victorian hodgepodge of horror, poetry, sensuality and spirituality.
Let's just pretend for now, though, that the finale's "The End" referred only to this part of the show's life, specifically the 27-episode arc focused on Eva Green's Vanessa Ives, a centrality that proved to be both the best and worst thing to happen to Penny Dreadful.
That's counter-intuitive and for a great many Penny Dreadful fans, the second half of that statement is close to an abomination. Hear me out.
Although she's had a fine movie career and given great big screen performances, Green has proven to be the revelation of Penny Dreadful. Few performances on TV are as reliably, consistently and exhaustively committed as Green's work here, which has been in a frequent state of witchery and demonic possession. Crazed of eye, varied of vocal timbre, relentlessly unconcerned with the seeming safety of her body, Green has been a marvel for three seasons and the show has peaked when she has peaked. Take this season's bottle episode "A Blade of Grass," essentially a two-hander with Rory Kinnear, filling in key story gaps for both characters and providing a devastating acting showcase for both actors. I bow to few in my appreciation for Eva Green and her work on Penny Dreadful.
But the show takes its title from a heavily serialized, narrative-churning genre and, to me, the chronicle of Vanessa Ives felt like it was the journey of the first season, which ought to have built to her tragic, heroic, doomed demise. I'm assuming Logan couldn't stand to see Green go and so Vanessa survived and even as she was given different entanglements and relationships and fresh opportunities for possession, I sometimes felt Vanessa was caught in a loop. I never stopped enjoying Green performance, but at times in the third season, I lost interest in the portentous prophesies of her destiny, since she had been doomed before and skirted the death she was earmarked for. Giving her two extra seasons of life, or at least the second season, allowed for the idea that Vanessa and Josh Hartnett's Ethan were conjoined in their fates, but what it ultimately built to in the third season finale was the two tortured souls reciting The Lord's Prayer and professing love and Ethan sacrificing Vanessa to clear out the toxic fog in London or something. The show's theological bent has always been there, but I don't know that I bought it needing to be so much in the forefront in this situation or that I bought this being the demise most appropriate for Vanessa. And as great as Green has been throughout, I was disappointed to have her end with two episodes where she was little more than hollow-eyed and gravel-voiced. Your results may vary.
Logan and the show's (and the audience's) fascination with Green shifted the balance of the ensemble and I'd question if certain characters have evolved the way they might have if they'd gotten to take the spotlight for an extended period of time, a spotlight pulled into Vanessa's gravity. Probably Harry Treadaway's Victor Frankenstein was the biggest victim, because we reached this finale and he was an "Oh sure, come with us" throw-in for the grand assault on Dracula and his minions, rather than having had anything organic to do with that thread all season. Nobody even attempted to invite Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray along for action and while The Creature had been important earlier in the season, he spent the finale mourning his son and only caught up with Vanessa's death at the end. All of these characters were denied focal arcs because Vanessa had to be doomed again and again and her doomedness (this is not a word) was linked to the End of Days, while everybody else just had petty immortality to deal with, so they couldn't be priorities.
Penny Dreadful is (or was) a show capable of doing subtle things, but Logan was every bit as happy to bash you on the head with a finale driven by characters discussing the perils of immortality culminating in The Creature reciting Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality." Logan wanted audiences to swoon, but I suspect he's just as happy to get a smile, a nod and a "I see what you did there."
I'd actually love to see Penny Dreadful try to become a series about somebody and something other than Vanessa. I'd also, honestly, like to see it become a series about somebody other than Ethan, which doesn't take away from the Zane Grey meets The Wolfman convention-twisting fun of his trip through Ye Olde West this season.
If this is the end for Penny Dreadful, a show that never drew huge numbers for Showtime, it's ironic that Logan waited until the very end to introduce a character who could have been its most commercial and marketable character yet. Perdita Weeks' Catriona Hartdegan was a Victorian Lara Croft, a 19th Century Buffy. Catriona was a butt-kicking, feminism-quipping action heroine probably from a different show, but maybe from a different show that could have been a huge hit. I feel like Catriona would have had a great time smacking Victor and The Creature and some of the mopier Penny Dreadful elements around. I was slightly surprised the finale didn't find a way to pivot Catriona into an established public domain property of some sort, if only with a toss-off about, "You remember my grandfather Abraham? Abraham Van Helsing?" something heavy-handed, but still in keeping with the Penny Dreadful ethos, something like Dr. Jekyll's out-of-nowhere commentary on the death of his father and the acquisition of a new title, "Lord Hyde." Speaking of bashing you over the head.
As the season came to a close, Logan actually ceded lots of the writing responsibilities to other scribes for the first time in the series' run, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns writing the very good, oddly short, penultimate episode. Logan wrote the finale, though, so if you thought that the crazed, not always coherent vampire versus heroes pile-on didn't exactly feel like the rest of the series, well that was still Logan. I found that fight scene entertaining mostly because of Catriona, but there was a lot of blasting away at the undead with regular firearms, an inelegant solution for such an elegant show. There was still ample elegance in the Paco Cabezas-directed finale, particularly anything related to that London fog and the haunting last shot of Dorian.
A few other thoughts on both episodes of the Penny Dreadful finale:
*** I thought Carney's Dorian was the show's weak link throughout, but I loved the story with Lily and the army of empowered former prostitutes, seeing Dorian's growing horror at the progressive movement he'd become involved with, a movement that would have been the death of him were he capable of death. For Dorian this was just another misstep in a life without end, not a disaster or anything to invest in, just another mess to clean up. For Lily, though, this was the end of a briefly realized dream and a collapsed tower she had no desire to build up again and no interest in becoming to desensitized to care. I was able to understand what brought Dorian and Lily together and I bought what tore them apart. And Jessica Barden was a total discovery as Justine and I look forward to seeing her pop up on TV more frequently.
*** Lily's story about the daughter she had to leave alone to work the streets was the best Billie Piper has ever been.
*** I was not a fan of Christian Camargo's Dracula or the show's depiction of Dracula in general. I'm not sure if they were trying to make Dracula as unremarkable as possible, but that's what they succeeded at doing and if Dracula ended up being a key piece of the show's series-concluding endgame, that will go down as a big disappointment. The worst part? Dracula quoting himself with his "What music they make" line. Dracula doesn't need to reference his own catchphrases. He's Dracula. Lame.
*** I may not have loved the action free-for-all, but it did give us Patti LuPone stabbing vampires and blasting at vampires with a gun. This is what all of those Tonys and Grammys were building toward!
If this is the end of Penny Dreadful, I'll miss its luxurious visuals, kinky eroticism, cultivated ensemble and an Eva Green performance that deserved Emmy love.
If this is not the end of Penny Dreadful, I'll happily watch more. The ratings aren't there, but Showtime has stuck by much worse shows for much longer.