Penny Dreadful’s season 3 finale, which turned out to be the series finale, disappointed many, as did the announcement of it being the final episode of the series. It is incredible (and almost unprecedented) to end a TV show at such high ratings and universal acclaim. Usually, creators like to milk successful film and TV franchises or characters to make money, and I’m not sure if we might not see a Penny Dreadful spinoff yet – based on potential adventures of the remaining charaters. What I am sure is that the story of Vanessa Ives, the “spine of the show”, is over for good. Sadly.
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful fascinated me from the beginning. I generally read up a lot before choosing to invest time on a TV series, and I liked most of what I read about Penny Dreadful. Victorian-era London, some of the best characters in classic fiction cobbled together, and some familiar actors (Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton and Harry Treadaway).
Penny Dreadful has a varied ensemble cast but it is mostly centred around a haunted (literally and metaphorically) woman called Vanessa Ives – played to perfection by Eva Green. It is clear why the creator John Logan called Vanessa the “spine” of Penny Dreadful. She is the soul of the show, and the story is basically made up of her struggles against the forces of the dark. Everybody else just assists her in her quest.
Over the course of the show, Vanessa Ives fights two of the most popular villains in horror: Lucifer and Dracula. I’ve always imagined how these two powerful ‘Dark Lords’ would fit in a single story. And who would be more powerful? Surely Dracula as the Alpha Vampire is a match for the Fallen Angel? Penny Dreadful provides interesting answers. Turns out, God cast out not just Lucifer as per the Bible, but his brother too: Dracula. Lucifer and Dracula are two equal and opposite entities who have the same goal: to make Vanessa their bride.
In the first season, Vanessa seeks for her friend that she wronged and also fights against possession by Lucifer. Eva Green is absolutely sublime and driven in portraying the anguish of a vulnerable woman clinging desperately to her God to save herself from the Devil.
Vanessa’s is the main plotline, but there are other minor threads which while together do not form a totally coherent whole, but the resulting mixture is not at all chaotic, and is enjoyable throughout. There is Brona, a bitter prostitute tired of men using her body, who almost lost her faith in men and love and humanity before she found a man she could love, and who loved her back. But sadly, their relationship was not to last. There is the familiar hedonist Dorian Gray, doomed to immortality, who does not feel any emotion – every person according to him, including himself, is to be used to gratify the senses.
Then there is Dr. Frankenstein, a man bent on giving life to dead people as a passion, who does not realise what monstrosities he is giving birth to. His past ‘creation’ comes back to haunt his life, and kills the only good thing Dr. Frankenstein ever created. The viewer is shattered, but one also can’t help but sympathise with the ‘Creature’, a man who does not remember his past but knows that his terrible appearance is because his torn body was put together again crudely as a mere experiment by Dr. Frankenstein – the man who he reasonably loathes.
That is the thing with Penny Dreadful. The characters and their actions are influenced by their dark pasts. Vanessa Ives decides to take on the Devil because of the terrible things she did to her friend. Her most trusted companion Sir Malcolm likewise wallows in guilt for being neither a good father nor a good husband. The American gunslinger hired by Vanessa and Sir Malcolm, Ethan Chandler, has his own demons that he keeps to himself. His ‘demon’, only one of many, is the big reveal of the finale of the first season. There is also a mysterious African Sembene – a solid and silent presence.
When direct possession does not work, Lucifer turns to his witches to try to force Vanessa. There is a great contrast here. Vanessa may be weak physically, and she might require the firepower and muscular strength of the men around her, but it is her will of steel and incredible equanimity in adverse situations that really count when facing Lucifer. Although Penny Dreadful is brilliant almost throughout, it is the second season which really made me a lifelong Penny Dreadful fan. It was more focused, engrossing and darker than the other two.
The Dracula arrives in the third season. While Lucifer was all spirit – trying to get hold of Vanessa’s soul, Dracula wants the body, as he himself is a material entity. There is an interesting premise in the third season. Everyone associated with Vanessa has left – Malcolm out to bury his old friend Sembene, Ethan finally fed up of his other self surrenders before the police officer who’s been following his bloody trail and leaves with him for his homeland: the Wild West. Stripped of her companions and protectors, Vanessa seeks new friends. She finds one, but it is not probably not the one she would have preferred ideally.
The third season adds a few more supporting characters. There are two worth mentioning: a Native American called Kaetenay, who knows more about Ethan and his ‘demon’ than Ethan himself, and Catriona Hartdegen, a badass who is not only skilled with sword, but is also aware of the forces of the dark. They both are welcome additions. Alas, the same thing cannot be said about Dr. Henry Jekyll, introduced as a old college friend of Dr. Frankestein. The character is not really utilised, and we never really see him turning into Edwar Hyde. One can’t help but wonder: what was the point?
Not just Dr. Henry, a lot of things in the third season feel underutilised. The last few episodes feel like the directors were in a real hurry to wrap up the season (and the show, as it turned out). In comparison, the second season is far more satisfying and its finale grander and more explosive. Vanessa destroying the Devil by sheer force of her will, even as Ethan rips apart her other enemies is delightful to watch. I’m by no means saying that Penny Dreadful’s third season was bad, but it certainly could have been much better.
In my impressions of the first season, I remarked that Penny Dreadful was a visual delight. I’m pleased to report that it stays that way throughout. Even when there is nothing else going right in the show, the incredible visual touches stay. The theme of light vs dark is subtly evinced. In third season, bright red lamps contrast against the foggy, gloomy landscpae. The deep blacks and greys of Victorian London are juxtaposed against the vibrant oranges and whites of America. Somehow even gory and bloody scenes look pleasing to the eye, thanks to some fantastic camerawork and art design.
That’s it. I’m sad to see it go, even sadder that it had to fizzle out in this fashion towards the end, but I find comfort in the fact that Penny Dreadful did not go down the way many other TV shows have gone. You could hate John Logan for giving an unsatisfactory finale, but at least he is respectful of what he created and did not try to milk it to earn some more dough.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5