Penny Dreadful: The Last Rites

Penny Dreadful Trilogy

That gnawingly immaculate show, clinical, gothic… surely it was intended as a joke for Lit grads? It shouldn’t have gone anywhere but it did until in its third year it was prematurely staked. Jokerside’s final look at Penny Dreadful this Halloween dwells on where the those otherwise immortal characters ended up.

*Spoilers for the complete run guaranteed.*

World Without a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

And so it ended with Wordsworth, the romantic poet so extricably linked to the Frankenstein myth that was just one of Penny Dreadful’s beating hearts. In 2014,the show provided one of the best Frankenstein adaptations during a first season that Jokerside couldn’t help but include in a review of the state of Mary Shelley’s legacy that year. The fall of the witches, a surprising turn that powered the show’s second season, its strongest, was also irresistible. Jokerside mashed it together with Hannibal’s final season in our 2015 update (the best things come in threes), as that show veered from the indulgence of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal to his early perfect thriller Red Dragon.

So, how could Jokerside resist a glimpse at the bitter-sweet end of Penny Dreadful, now the soil has landed on the coffin lid? Happy Halloween.

Certainties

Despite an emphatic if premature conclusion, it’s difficult to say anything about Penny Dreadful with absolute with certainty. After three seasons of curiously differing lengths the story was noticeably dramatically shortened. Some characters retreated from their potential in the rush while some premises faded away. Hastiness didn’t work well in the Penny Dreadful universe, and that was more apparent than ever when the motley crew entered the villain’s lair in the finale, the climax of three years of meticulous plotting and prophecy. It was the primary storyline revolving around the enigmatic Miss Vanessa Ives that showed the strain, despite the rich fabric that stretched across compelling supporting characters. Those sub-plots, many feeding into the primary story, had mixed success in concluding individual stories. Penny Dreadful was always particularly good at expanding minor and complementary themes, lifted from the great works of gothic horror, and using them to breathe new life into familiar characters. Many had already reached a satisfying end point at the end of the first or even second year only to be have new life breathed into them for the third. Take Caliban, the original creature of Frankenstein who ended the second season on an oh-so-fitting icebreaker his story thwarted in misery, only to return to London to have yet more heartache heaped upon him in the third year.

The finale began as it ended: with death. That was to be expected, but as much as it delivered more sumptuous horror from the pen of John Logan, who’s to say prolonging the pain of these characters was really the enjoyably right thing to do? Even the glimmers of hope were steeped in melancholy.

It’s a key question, as Penny Dreadful, a sometimes purposefully difficult mix of clinical stylisation and gothic romance was always a contrary beast.

Back to one

“The dead place”

Few shows matched Penny Dreadful’s first year success, when it simultaneously provided a compelling conclusion while enhancing and priming its central roster of characters ready for a heightened second year. Not every character made that first year of course, but Brona Croft’s demise not only allowed Ethan Chandler’s story to fulfil its supernatural promise, but through the creation of Lily, propel the good Doctor’s story onto the Bride of Frankenstein. Every character, except Sir Malcolm Murray’s manservant Sembene, was left in a stronger position come the close of that first season. And most tellingly of all, although a strong and unmistakable shadow had been cast, the show’s main nemesis not only failed to appear but wasn’t even named. Come the second season, the show’s longest at 10 episodes, there was an astonishing turn of events as the villain we all anticipated fell back, replaced by the revelation of two separate nemeses of unimaginable power and evil. Two brothers. Two fallen angels. Both of many names. Dracula assumed the physical side. And on the unphysical, the one most easily called Lucifer.

The second year, Lucifer’s time in the limelight, closed with a glorious pitched invasion of the witches lair, a beautifully realised coven enslaved to Lucifer. Her back story having once again taken mid-season prime position, there was no doubt as to the importance of Miss Ives as those dramatic events unfolded. By the end every character had lost something, but for Miss Ives it was the one constant she’d held on to for two years: her faith. That was a strange response to an infernal meeting and escaping the jaws of the devil, but it left her alone in London while the majority of other characters were scattered across the globe.

The third season seized those reins, embracing the global diaspora after the claustrophobic events of the show’s second year. It was a tough act to follow and the multiple, parallel strands in the Arctic, London, America and Africa, unsurprisingly lost the momentum that had made the previous year the show’s strongest. Despite the show’s clear intent to forge powerful stories of its own around familiar characters and original creation Vanessa Ives, the third season couldn’t match the rhythm of its predecessor. That second year benefitted from storming set-pieces, a chilling and opaque foe in those powerful witches and their puppet overlord, a disembodied foe of mystery. That year undermined expectations, pulling characters further from their source works, and the third year consolidated it.

“A grisly, undead thing”

Having established the challenging threat of the two brothers, the third series expanded its interest in pairs. Gothic master of duality Henry Jekyll was a high profile addition, working with his old school friend Victor Frankenstein to control the latter’s second surviving creation. Unfortunately, although the news of the show’s cancellation came late into the run, the third year was forced to confront the imminent apocalypse with indecent haste. And it was a singular mission for the most part. As Vanessa Ives walked into the arms of her immortal lover, other characters were forced to battle their personal demons and almost entirely the consequences of their earlier actions before they could join her. Yes, Vanessa’s true love was the knockout twist of the third year, matching the powerful reveal of Dorian Gray’s painting the year before. This was the year we met Dracula. But anyone expecting the two diabolical brothers to be pitted against each other were to be disappointed. There was little point pitting evil against evil when their rivalry could simply fuel the terror and impossible odds stacked against our anti-heroes. For each one had shown their fair share of weakness and flaws since in the three years prior. One foe eventually had to rise above the other. As established in the year’s mandatory exploration of Vanessa’s background, this time in the claustrophobic confines of an asylum cell, Lucifer was on the descent, Dracula very much on the ascent.

That main strand fell into a truncated ending. It felt all the briefer as the core group, who had meshed so well (yet difficulty) in the previous two years were brought together in a fashion that seemed defiantly arbitrary by the standards previously set by the show. They came together for an implausible assault, the odds were stacked against them, and still lacking some recruits who seemed ready made to join forces in the defeat of evil. But no. Penny Dreadful was never the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So, this Halloween Jokerside thought it would be fitting to end the Penny Dreadful trilogy, posts on a show always so concerned with exploring the characters that developed across the literature of Gothicism, Victorian adventure and Grand Guignol rather than the stories themselves, by looking where each character found themselves come the dramatic conclusion.

There was a good sign, when on rewatching the finale, there was a feeling of loss that hadn’t quiet been there before. It appears that even absence from Penny Dreadful makes the heart grow stronger. For all of its cold, clinical and austere approach to familiar subjects and characters, for all the premature ending, Penny Dreadful unexpectedly pulled great feeling from its conclusion. Many of those tragic characters will be sorely missed.

The Characters of Penny Dreadful – Their Final Placements

Dorian Gray [painting a portrait]

“You have become a perfect, unchanging portrait of yourself”

It was difficult to feel much for the mysterious Mr Gray during the show’s second and third series, but apparently that was the point. His dalliance with Miss Ives in the first year had amounted to little, and Gray remained on the periphery from thereon – not the only character who, against expectation, never joined the grand fight. Along with Caliban, their secrets mostly hidden come the end, they would have been a massive boon. Gray’s story became an exploration of immortality without a tint of good or evil, but a lot of red herring. In the second season the killer reveal of the prophecy was cruelly intercut with the reveal of Gray’s painting. The figure, there constrained not unlike a de-winged angel flashed a suggestion that he could be the other brother. Chilling considering his dalliance with Miss Ives in the first year, but as intriguing as the opposition of Widean immortality pitched against the Stoker variety was, it hugely stretched the these and intention of Oscar Wilde’s original book. That was something Logan was generally wary of, and so it proved. Come the end his unique brand of immortality proved to be simply that. A dull curse he powerfully left wringing in the ears with a wry delusion in a long tracking shot that left him in a room of portraits. As perhaps the only woman who could ever leave him and mean it floated out of his grasp, she hit the phonograph.

“One more dead child”

As it was in the third year, for all the side-show riff on human nature and twist on the suffragette movement he orchestrated in league with Lily, his existence was one twist on immortality among many. His age and origin remained was unknown, but the effect of his dulling grief and the loss of all feeling was a satisfying conclusion to the hedonism and carelessness that the book tackled head on. It was true to form that Gray was left very much on the shelf. In the power and progress of fading Victoriana, he was the show’s definition of stability. Come the powerful, haunting end his presence wasn’t even required. But there’s no doubt that his cost is great and he’s still standing, untouched and even more unmoved to this day.

Dracula [in flight]

“And you’ve come freely into the dragon’s cave. All of you”

Having waited two and a half years, Dracula’s reveal was exemplary. He was classically portrayed, thanks to more exquisite casting, and his power was used sparingly , his supreme power mostly conveyed through charm and his legion feral followers. Classic traits of vampirism were left to other adaptations. His children could function in daylight and be killed by mortally conventional means, although longed for the apocalyptic fog of prophecy. While vampires were slashed and shot there’s no indication that the same couldn’t happen to Dracula, bar the impression that he was simply too strong and powerful. This was a fine and effective version of a crucial character, one that didn’t disappoint despite the long and convoluted build-up.

Hints of a too rapid denouement had fully emerged in the penultimate episode when Dracula all too easily overcame Miss Ives intent to resist him. But he was no one dimensional villain. He was as much a victim of destiny and fearful of the power unleashed by his prophesised mother of darkness as anyone. That formed as much of his screen time as did the promise of his menace. As his aggressors arrived with indecent haste, Dracula’s story actually closed without fulfilling any of the expectations. There was no murder of one of the anti-heroes, there no confrontation with his main love rival. Penny Dreadful subverted once again. But perhaps the most telling part shone through the male rivalry. Pride affects even the fallen and undead and it shone out in flashes of fury amid the overarching prophecies. “She’s not yours, she’s mine,” snarled a rather petulant prince of darkness.

An hour on from claiming his prize, his final scene was effective in its silent brevity. A quiet realisation that his love was gone, the jaw slackened, all the fight and purpose removed. He simply left with a swoosh. The eyes of his enemies all on Miss Ives’ body not their escaping foe.

Ferdinand Lyle [On tour]

“Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives. It belongs to no other.”

Sadly, there was little room for the charismatic Egyptologist in the third year after his increased role in the second. In one of the sadder exchanges, the euphemistic curator was packed off early, his lifestyle too much for his position in London. However, he didn’t leave before performing one final, crucial, poignant task. Rousing Miss Ives from self-destruction he set her on the path to her salvation and destruction. Apart from that there wasn’t even a chance for him to flirt with the werewolf. But we can hope Lyle found himself gleefully away from the darkness of London when the time came.

Ethan Chandler [Emigrating]

“You’re my family”

Perhaps the most complete character journey, the mysteries that dogged Chandler since his introduction unravelled in the wilds of America and the streets of London. Despite the considerable cost of his reunion with his father, it always stung of a detour. Other characters fell into his wake as his important role in conquering Dracula became clear, consolidated by confronting his past. When he returned to London, linking up with his group seemed all to simple. His mission apparently too direct. Loving behind Dracula’s fear of this Wolf of God, he didn’t even need to assume his other form to win. By the end, Penny Dreadful’s defiant Christianity (an absolute divinity that even converted Kaetenay, the Apache who sired Chandler s part of the grand plan), was stronger than ever. But despite hints that were markedly specific by Penny Dreadful’s standards, any specific implications for Chandler’s life remained as vague as his ability to exorcise Mss Ives in the first season.

It was a curious journey for a showman who originally seemed so much more akin to Bram Stoker’s Quincy Morris. Unlike that American, he fails to wound the greatest vampire in anything but love, and sacrifices everything to do so. His final confrontation with Miss Ives was as strangely rushed as Dracula’s the week before, but it nags that there wasn’t a finite ending for the Wolf of God or his foe. At the centre of many of the show’s themes, the rising sense of family didn’t escape him come the close. Chandler seems set to stay in London with Sir Malcolm Murray his only family. Many characters found truth but no salvation during the show’s run, but few matched Chandler’s journey.

Kaetenay [Hair-raising]

“You can’t die until you’ve served your purpose”

Less a quick addition to the third year than a walking catalyst. Kaetenay, played by the ever-watchable Wes Studi, was the McGuffin that pulled Murray and Chandler back together, brought the plight of Miss Ives to the scattered masses and gave Chandler some form of redemption. His hairy and gnarled reveal was the second most satisfying twist of the series. Quite what lies ahead for him as he so easily passed the mantle of difficult fatherhood over to Murray is difficult to say. Perhaps a spot of progressive psychoanalysis.

Sir Malcolm Murray [Rebuilding]

“My daughter’s life meant no more than that?”

There is, as ever, surprisingly little to be done with an Alan Quatermain character. While Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen took a battered, older, cynical version of the explorer and revelled in his lapsed prime, John Logan dragged him grimly through loss after loss until he found a new family. And it was very costly indeed, but there was a pure quest for unfettered vengeance and justice that ran through Murray’s story. Intent on finding his missing daughter in the first year, tricked and battered in the second, Murray enabled his enemies seize everything from him. While Chandler had a purpose as a divine weapon, Murray was a distraction, one who against all expectation couldn’t meet an adventurer’s end. Although Dracula might have reason to regret baiting him about his daughter, the name and that of his daughter had attached the explorer to the immortal since the first episode. His and Chandler’s may not ever be a happy household. As the American said, he’ll be alright.

Henry Jekyll [to the House of Lords]

“I create my own world, I create my own self”

One of the great subversive jokes that Penny Dreadful played so well and so straight-faced. Many facets of Robert Louis Stevenson’s very short novella were present in part: from hope to science to a horrific transformation of a patient from a Hyde to a Jekyll. But this wasn’t a simple reversal. The aspiring experimentation of the two reunited and unabashedly flawed scientists was great to behold, but how perfect that the real monster in the room lay in genetic privilege. Another exploration of suppressed human character and the assertion of nature over nurture, Jekyll had great potential. There was a hint of the menace that could have been when he told Frankenstein, “Monstrous you may call it, but I’ll continue my work until I cure every inmate in this wretched place”. Upon hearing Jekyll deliver the news he had always longed for through gritted teeth, Frankenstein’s response was forced but powerful: “Good day then, Lord Hyde”. Underused, but a fascinating take that made some small progress in repairing the reputation of a character who’s been sorely mistreated in recent Hollywood and ITV adaptations.

Victor Frankenstein [Anti-galvanised]

“I’m sorry Henry, it’s a dark road ahead for you I fear”

Left with even less regard for life than he had before he discovered how to create it, there wasn’t even the promise of death for the young Doctor. Walking away from Miss Ives’ grave in the second spot come the close, his was the awkward middle character. Alone like so many others, yet unlike the others in a hell almost completely of his own making. Despite Jekyll’s strong and slightly unexpected words of encouragement that science would always be a home for him, Frankenstein’s future is the most uncertain. Suicidally if not gleefully stepping into the breach for the one cause he could believe in, it’s doubtful that his survival would be stopped by something as simple as giving into his addiction. The release of Lily the week before, the first break from a life of addiction and obsession, was a huge step. A shame that his work in Bedlam led him so coincidentally into the path of Sir Malcolm and with a new-found inner-strength. As to be expected, the show’s great creator was definitely its worst fighter. Arguably the greatest character in the gothic tradition, Frankenstein may be battered and bruised, but as always he endures.

Lily / Brona Croft [The spirit of the 20th century]

“I don’t want to live like that”

Another doomed creation, never quite shaking off her shackles but always more perfect than Frankenstein’s previous attempts. Too perfect. All men who fell in her path fell in her wake, with the exception of the consumed Jekyll. Frankenstein’s greatest triumph came in finally realising she was forever lost, while she quickly developed beyond the pitfalls of immortality that Gray had fallen into. Given the choice, her future was far away. Another tantalising miss, that her reanimated secret was never revealed to Chandler, that Frankenstein kept his major obsession in the shadows was one of the series most electric devices. Blessed with a strange immortality of her own, quite probably like Caliban but not Frankenstein’s second creation, Lily unexpectedly became the force for change in the coming century. Her story and direction may be vague but it remained one of the most satisfactory. And as for hope, she’s quite probably unrivalled. She was the first character to bid adieu to the finale and possibly not quickly enough.

Sembene [Deceased, but not forgotten]

Astonishingly, Murray’s manservant remained dead and missed throughout the third year. Quiet, reliable, his death may not have heralded further dark arts but was a crucial catalyst for both Chandler and Murray.

Catriona Hartdegen [Fatally under-used]

“I’m not most people”

Another well cast, late addition, all of whose secrets Penny Dreadful has taken with it. Could there be a clue in her name, shared as it is with the HG Well’s titular time traveller? In the final confrontation she’s a powerful force, and the crew’s most effective fighter. In the final scene she leaves Miss Ives’ graveside in the first group, denoting her lesser role. Her skills as a thanatologist represented the growing threat as Lyle’s skills became less relevant but remained rather unexploited. As the show retreated from the progressive, female focus of its second year, particularly as Vanessa fell into a love story of sorts, Catriona joined Lily and Florence in pushing the broader feminist agenda. While not as powerful as the previous year’s coven, their presence was more interesting.

Hecate Poole [the waste witch]

The witch that escaped. Following Chandler to America her entire purpose was as the devil in the dessert, tempting Chandler and indirectly aiding her mother’s crusade. Taken down in the conclusion of the Chandler family’s storyline, she indirectly helped fulfil the prophecy that broke Dracula’s plan.

Florence Seward [A New York woman in London]

“I’m a New Yorker Sir Malcolm, we know our way around random gunplay”

Another mystery never to be explained, Florence was a barbed and welcome returning face. Even if the reason for her strong bloodline was never revealed (we never progressed beyond a blood link to Miss Ives’ mentor Joan Clayton who had memorably appeared the year before) she was clearly compelled by the prophetic master plan. While the male scientists floundered in their obsessions in the heart of Bedlam, Seward achieved far more through quiet and progressive therapy. The core group could never have won without her. And she saved money on her poorly employed clerk Renfield.

Vanessa Ives [the dead undead]

“Oh Ethan, I see our Lord”

The heart of the story. And how astonishing Eva Green was in the role. Ives’ volte-face to become the mother of evil with little hope of redemption came unexpectedly in the penultimate episode, but hers had always been a character as able to fight destiny as to fall into its arms. Embellished by the gothic and general vampires of literature it’s easy to be dwarfed by the ritual, but Penny Dreadful underplayed that. Her power was kept hidden, but in this reading she achieved her true position as the mother of evil. The undead were vermin kept distinct from their master, but he feared her as much as they.

More pressure fell on Miss Ives as the show stepped back from the strong female-led second series but could she ever be anything other than a damsel in distress? Her heartbreak was mostly caused by her own poor decision making. At various points in her life we saw her reflect the flaws of every other player. But this again could all be part of that overriding irrefusable divine master plan. There was no doubt that she was the powerful secret to the world’s salvation or damnation, but it was always more likely she would perish before her secrets were revealed. In a show of tragic characters, Miss Ives was the enigmatic heart, even when rather oddly standing in what looked like a public toilet come the end. She was the mother of evil and an absolutely standard mortal. One can only hope that she found some peace in death, the hope lying in the rediscovery of her faith in death. But doesn’t that seem all too simple?

Caliban [Eternally cursed]

“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream..”

The monster who touched every theme in the show. It was no coincidence that the finale began with the death of his rediscovered son and closed with his loss of Miss Ives, the one person who’d meant the most to him, and again a secret that was kept from him. It was all the more painful that the chronology of the series allowed he and Miss Ives merely one short scene in the current day during the third year, but it was as powerful as expected. That the two had spent so much time together and formed some kind of friendship before, when both had different lives, only underlined that loss further. He was robbed of everything, especially memories. It’s loss and the general despair of the human condition haunts this superman. Unlike Lily, he would never be able to walk away. A truly tragic conclusion. He could be at that grave to this day. And what makes it worse, his wife had a point. So much of it was in his head. The show had to reach ‘the End’ with him kneeling beside Miss Ives grave. This gentle monster was Penny Dreadful’s great innovation.

“Where is it now the glory and the dream?”

-THE END –

Well… Maybe. read more about Penny Dreadful Season One and Penny Dreadful Season Two

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