Penny Dreadful ended its three season run this past weekend…wait for it…dreadfully. After much gnashing of teeth, I decided the only way to exorcise my despair was to hash it out in a blog post. Spoilers ahead.
Let’s start at the beginning. When I first heard about a new show which was to bring together Victorian monsters and actors like Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, and Josh Hartnett, I fist pumped my joy. Green played Vanessa Ives, a tormented woman living with her surrogate father, Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Dalton. They were joined by Hartnett as Ethan Chandler, a mysterious gun toting man from the wilds of the American West, Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein, and Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s monster. Later Dorian Gray and the bride of Frankenstein would join the crew, but the story was always about Vanessa and her struggle with darkness.
In Season One, the gang came together to fight vampires that abducted and turned Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina. Vanessa felt responsible for her best friend’s fate as she, in a moment of weakness, allowed her “demons” to take control, and she seduced Mina’s fiancé. Through the battle with evil, each character had moments to demonstrate how they battled their own inner monsters, literally (Ethan was a werewolf) and figuratively against a sometimes lurid, gorgeous, gothic backdrop of Victorian London.
Season Two delved deeper into each character and brought us truly sublime episodes like when we glimpsed Vanessa’s time spent with a witch (Patti LuPone) years back. In this episode, we learned, as did Vanessa, more about her power and oh how awesome it was. She displayed her strength which came into play when she defeated Satan himself in the season finale. We also learned more about how Ethan was “Lupus Dei” or God’s wolf and much was made of his role in defeating the forces of evil. And the show finally succumbed to the awesome chemistry between Eva Green and Josh Hartnett in the wonderful episode where Ethan traveled with Vanessa to the witch hut and they walked the moors, Ethan wore chunky sweaters, and they fell in love. The show gave us so many wonderful moments: Vanessa and Ethan, Vanessa and Frankenstein’s monster, the mournful Victor, and weird, sexy if pointless Dorian Gray. The show’s strength lay in the moments in which the characters interacted so what did they do in Season Three? Give us more sexy Vanessa and Ethan? Explain Dorian’s purpose to the story? Explain what exactly was Vanessa’s power? No! Instead they kept our monstrous heroes separated until the…wait…not season finale, but series finale.
But I’m jumping ahead in my condemnation. Vanessa, our strong, sometimes fearsome heroine who defeated the Prince of Darkness using mad demonic rapping skills, who successfully fought off the dark forces inside her, and after finding out via Native American instant messaging, that her family was on their way to help her defeat Dracula himself, she gave in to Dracula. After two seasons of epic battle, she just gave in to Dracula. Series creator John Logan stripped away all the agency she fought for and gained and we only see Vanessa again when Ethan finds her and kills her. We got more screen time in the final two episodes with secondary characters and while I loved Renfield, for crissake, we get meandering with secondary characters and no satisfying Vanessa/Ethan or Vanessa/Malcolm.
But okay, let’s go there. Vanessa goes all evil because surely we’ll get an epic showdown between Vanessa and Dracula or Ethan, God’s wolf, and Dracula, right? No! Instead we get the Scooby gang facing off against the vampire hordes with guns. Since when did guns work against vampires and what was the point of Ethan’s wolfman? Even Twilight used their wolves better! And not only was there no epic battle with Dracula, he didn’t chase after Ethan when Ethan went after Vanessa, and when Ethan showed up carrying our dead heroine, Dracula simply shadowed away. Gone. Poof. Completely ineffectual and anti-climactic and speaking of… Season Three introduced some intriguing new characters in Cat and Dr. Jekyll but alas we got no idea what Cat’s purpose was and no Mr. Hyde.
It’s possible Showtime pulled the rug out from under the show mid season, but John Logan said the series ended as he had planned. If that’s the case, then he did the show’s fans and his characters a great injustice. One of my biggest gripes about shows is when the writers build up a conflict without resolving it. Dexter did it. Dexter’s colleagues in the Miami police should have discovered he was the killer. Victor’s friends should have discovered he revived the dead especially given the connection between Vanessa and his monster. But no. We are left with a heroine who did not go down fighting, flailing loose ends, massively under developed secondary characters, and no sex between Ethan and Vanessa. Sigh. Adios, Penny Dreadful. We barely knew you.