A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The last two episodes of Penny Dreadful are exquisitely crafted, as to that there is no denying. From its inception, the drama so unfortunately trapped within the labels of being a “genre drama” and little more was far better than anyone expected it to be, the first foray of Gladiator and Skyfall scribe John Logan into television proving to be utterly exquisite. The pilot was hauntingly careful, but it was the second installment that sent the entire Internet into a dizzy. Eva Green’s performance seemingly went beyond the confines of human physicality and a legendary television character was born. It was a performance that ptorved what would be true of Logan’s creation until the very end, that Green embodied the very best of what the series was. That is in no sense meant to discredit other characters, who were just as good as Vanessa, if not better in certain parts (Billie Piper’s performance as Lily was absolutely astounding, for example). Vanessa Ives was, however, the heart and soul of the series and Eva Green was Vanessa Ives. The push and pull between Lucifer and Dracula leading to the death of a woman who had within her the power of Amunet makes perfect sense, even if the audience perhaps had understandably desired an ending that didn’t involve the death of the series’s titular character. It ends the power struggle between the forces of Satan and it delivers at last something resembling some sort of peace. But here it feels incredibly short-sighted, as if Logan was faced with the possibility of going beyond three seasons to tell his story properly and he chose not to do so. It was even Logan’s decision to trim season three down to nine episodes, which was a creative decision that was seemingly working until this double hour. Vanessa’s story, arguably the chief story of Penny Dreadful, feels especially shortchanged and it’s incredible disappointing that that is the case at all.
When Ethan pulls the trigger and shoots Vanessa, it’s jarring and not in the poetic tragedy way Logan had expected. “Is that it?” is the first question that arises and that is tremendously unfortunate. The push and pull between Ethan and Vanessa was exquisitely crafted and rarely did it ever feel forced. Here it simply doesn’t make sense and primarily because there was little of Vanessa at the ending to a story that was assuredly at its center about her. The penultimate episode, which was fairly short for Penny standards, had no Vanessa at all and her appearances in the last episode of the series were truncated to the point where one felt another episode at least would have been able to fill in the gaps of those character development beats that were simply missing. In one moment, Vanessa succumbs to Dracula and in another she begs Ethan to kill him. I’m missing that thoroughfare. It is known, as Dr. Seward pointed out, that Vanessa is split between three directions but where was that internal struggle for Vanessa? Where was that push and pull between the light and the dark within her? Logan knows how to write such internal conflicts and there simply isn’t any material that Green can’t act the hell out of. Resolving it within ten minutes points to Logan’s primary weakness as a scribe (see the dispatching of the witches in the season two finale) and it isn’t difficult to fathom a scenario where there was more story and Logan simply didn’t want to go that far. The dialogue is good between the two and Green and Josh Hartnett are sublime in their final scene together, but the illogical nature of the scene outweighs the artistic goodwill it brings to the table.
That goodwill is also partially lost by the two words appearing at the end of the screen: “The End.” It’s jarring in a way that it simply shouldn’t be, especially in a day and age where networks are far more prescient to the wants and desires of an audience. That doesn’t mean that networks must bend over to appease their audiences, but there is something of a monumental cheat where the show markets its third season without announcing that it is the final pair of episodes the show will ever air. The president of Showtime, David Nevins, noted in a recent interview with John Logan that the decision to not market the show’s third season as its last was his because he didn’t feel that to be in the spirit of Penny Dreadful to not announce the end before it came. I’m not quite sure what that means to be perfectly honest, because there simply isn’t anything wrong with letting an audience know when an artistic endeavor they have placed so much of their time and dedication in is coming to an end. It feels like a cheat and I honestly am not sure why Nevins thought this was a good idea. It’s extremely disrespectful to the audience to say that it was simply the end when the credits roll. Storytellers may not owe their audience much, but they owe them the courtesy of providing a proper notice. Logan and Nevins had their decision to end the show when they did, but leaving the audience bemused at the end as to whether a story they love so much is coming back or not is simply unprofessional behavior and the network ought to know better.
As the episode unspooled, however, it became obvious that the stories for certain characters were coming to an end in some fashion or another, made all the more obvious in hindsight. Some of those were definitely better executed than others. To begin with John Clare, the series ends him as alone as he almost always was. The scene with him and his family was, as expected, far too good to be true. Perhaps because of the plague, his son’s black lung was rendering his health worse and worse and even in the postmodern era, coughing up blood is rarely an indicator of recoverable health. His wife Marjorie, however, is taking the news much better than anyone would expect and it’s tragically predicated upon a belief that since her husband was able to “recover” from death at the hands of Victor, that her son could come back, too. Marjorie’s belief is an understandable one, the pain of bearing, raising, and then losing a child only cushioned by evidence that he could, no matter the cost, come back. John’s insistence that bringing him back was far too great of a cost rings deaf to Marjorie’s ears and she gives him a simple ultimatum. If he doesn’t bring her son back from the dead, he could never come back to her. She couldn’t live with that pain and so John’s story ends with him burying his child in the river and walking off into the city alone. Rory Kinnear’s performance has always been extremely underrated and he makes the most of this plot line, even if its fairly truncated in its writing and subsequent emotional punch.
A sequence that works to a significantly higher degree is Lily’s confession to Victor, the highlight of these two episodes and another showcase for why Billie Piper deserves an Emmy nomination for her efforts here. The dialogue of Penny Dreadful has always been its reigning champ, just barely eclipsing the production design and acting on display. It’s beautiful poetry rolls off the tongue and into passion the actors feel for their characters and it rarely feels jarring. Victor continues his unabashedly misogynistic assurances to Lily that they would be truly happy together if she was just tamed. Lily is exhausted from explaining the same thing over and over again to a man that refuses to see reason, refuses to understand the profound nature of the simple statement she puts forth in front of him. Lily then tries to appeal to a basic understanding of her humanity, even if he sees her as nothing but a monster that must be placed upon a leash. She recalls the story of how she lost her daughter Sarah, a being she loved far more than she thought it was possible to love another being, perished at the age of one. She had to whore herself out so she could feed her child, but she had to leave her daughter by the coal embers for warmth. Every time she left Sarah behind, she cried, her heart broke but she went. One night it was so cold that there were no other prostitutes out in the street but she went because she had no money to feed her daughter. A john beat her after he refused to pay her, leaving her bleeding in the street. She rushes home to go to her daughter, but in spite of the extra coal she had dumped to keep her daughter warm, she died of hypothermia.
It’s a human tragedy so profound that anyone with a heart could feel the pain being displayed through Lily’s trembling eloquence. It certainly unlocks Victor’s seeming inability to feel any sympathy for her and he lets her go. Lily goes straight to Dorian Gray’s manor, seeing lying upon the floor Justine, who refused to leave into the world to live on her knees. Lily gives Dorian one kiss good-bye, leaving her fellow immortal behind to venture out into the cruel word. It’s a proper good-bye for those two characters, even if there’s a nagging feel that there was definitely more story to explore for those two characters, even if their intertwined journey had come to an end. Less successful is Ethan’s narrative, whose figure arrives with Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay into a dense fog that has enveloped London. He has a singular face-off with Dracula before he meets Vanessa in a gorgeous, beautifully lit chamber and that was the ribbon on his struggle with his inner darkness. It’s disappointing, the ending of his character and narrative development. It’s a disappointment shared with Sir Malcolm, Victor, Catriona, Kaetenay, and Dr. Seward (it is magnified by the characters who have been with us the longest). With all of its faults at its end, however, Penny Dreadful leaves behind a fantastic Gothic horror narrative that transcended the trapping of its genre to deliver a beautiful set of stories brimming with some of the most sublime executions in television history. I applaud Logan for his creation even as the sight of Vanessa’s grave reminds me of all the storytelling possibilities that will no longer come to light.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above (Perpetual Night):
+“And then all light will end and the world will live in the darkness. The very air will be pestilence to mankind. Our brethren, the Night Creatures will emerge and feed. Such is power, such is our kingdom, such is my kiss.”
+“You should have listened to more of the recordings.”
+Cauterizing the wound
+“It is a plague.”
+“You have glimpsed liberty, and that is more than most will ever know.”
+“I would rather die here on my feet than live a lifetime on my knees.”
+“That great demon is more human than you.”
+“We don’t exist without the scars that make us.”
+“They were cries of loneliness. I cannot forget them.”
+Kaetenay had turned Ethan into a werewolf
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above (The Blessed Dark):
+The lullaby transitioning into the opening credits
+“All your life you have run from this pain. Tonight, you stop running. Tonight, you accept the destiny God has granted.”
+“He’ll give you to me as my reward.” Catriona’s amused half-smile is fantastic
+“…yellow devils and hotels…”
+“You would have been proud of her.”
+“One more dead child.”
+“The wicked secret of the immortal…A perfect, unchaining portrait of yourself…”
+“An eternity without passion? Without affection? Caring for nothing?”
+The phonograph exit was a beautiful little touch.
+“It’s a dark road ahead for you, I fear.”
“There is no road ahead for me.”
+“The dignity he was denied in life will be his in death.”
+“My daughter’s life meant no more than that?”
+Vanessa glowing amidst the candlelights
+“My battle must end.”
+“A dazzling and exhausting panorama of life.”
Episode Title: Perpetual Night
Written by: Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Directed by: Damon Thomas
Episode Title: The Blessed Dark
Written by: John Logan
Directed by: Paco Cabezas
Image Courtesy: Carter Matt