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.
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. Continue reading “Penny Dreadful: The Last Rites”