Warning: This contains spoilers.
“It is too easy being monsters. Let us try to be human.”
The creatures of the night. What music they make. And what music they have made for three seasons during the course of Penny Dreadful – all the way up to the end of its third and final season. John Logan’s show has always been in love with monsters, embracing the outsiders on the fringes of the mortal realm. And what better place to find them than Victorian horror, a world of theatricality, fierce social constraints and faith?
At the heart of that world has always been Vanessa Ives. Over 27 episodes, Eva Green’s performance has run the gamut from sumptuous and shocking to sensual, a masterclass in flexibility, both emotional and, frequently, physical. It’s no surprise that the role was effectively written for her by Logan – she’s perfectly at home in the Gothic realm – and equally unsurprising that the sheer force of her presence has shaped the series’ overall narrative.
In Season 1, Penny Dreadful uncovered and celebrated The Other, as Vanessa found herself pursued by darkness, clinging to God, but able to admit that being different, special, marked out, was part of what made her her. Season 2 saw her resolve tested by witches, further drawing out the parallels between her Catholic rituals and her Satanic rituals – if you want layers from your telly, Penny Dreadful has never once disappointed. Season 3, though, saw her faith break entirely, as she turned to her inner strength to save her from both Lucifer and Dracula – A Blade of Grass was a superb depiction of that battle as it continued, both in the past and present, haunted by the echo of The Cut-Wife (so brutally murdered in the second season) in the form of therapist Dr. Seward. By the time the finale arrives, Miss Ives has gone out the other side and embraced the darkness as Dracula’s bride – until the consequences of that decision become apparent to her and, more importantly, her mates show up to bring her back from the brink.
Her ultimate death, at the hands of Ethan, who races to London to play the role of manly protector, may come as something of a shock – a disappointment, even, for a show in which the patriarchy has so often been put in its place. Vanessa’s apparent rejection of the light has been as striking as Lily shrugging off her conventional position in society – the image of Miss Ives embracing Dracula, her gown billowed around her, is as memorable as Billie Piper’s radical leader stirring up the troops on the dining room table.
When we catch up with her, of course, she is held prisoner by Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll in Bedlam, who hope to inject her with a serum to “cure” her and make her a proper woman once more. But – and it’s credit to the strength and importance of Penny Dreadful’s entire ensemble of characters – what happens to Lily is as key to the programme’s conclusion as anything involving Vanessa. Piper’s slinky rebel wastes no time in trying to seduce her maker into freeing her, a trick that he’s prepared for, even after asking Dr. Jekyll to leave them alone – the barbs they swap only emphasises Jekyll’s position in society, unlikely to win any respect or welcome, no matter how incredible his medical achievements are.
There’s a determination to Jekyll’s work that is mirrored by Lily’s struggle, but it’s the shared tragedy of both that really hits home – and that’s what undoes Frankenstein. Harry Treadaway’s wonderfully simpering doctor has always represented the worst of society: the supposedly benevolent man who really wants to force women to fit his ideals anyway. But he’s finally made to understand what Lily’s been through in one of the best monologues of the entire show – after enjoying the chance to spout fiery rhetoric, Piper is even better at being quiet and tearful.
“You created life. Let it live,” she urges, before revealing that she does remember her life as Brona, her lost daughter, Sarah, and her years of being subservient to men’s pleasure just to feed them both. “There are scars that make us who we are,” she declares. “Without them, we don’t exist.”
It’s the most rounded, mature and moving thing Lily’s ever done: a plea to Frankenstein to accept her for who she is, rather than who he wants her to be. And Frankenstein, for once, does. It’s a cathartic development for each of them that takes us right back to the first season of Penny Dreadful, when these people were wrestling with what it means it be a monster and what it means to be human. (Dorian, on his own, after snapping the neck of his and Lily’s protege, is still no closer to resolving that dilemma.)
John Clare is just as big a part of that debate, as his return to his family is ruined by his son dying from illness. His response? Grieve. His wife’s response: why not bring him back? It’s a superbly written climax, which sees her slide towards the inhumanity of Frankenstein, as Frankenstein’s creature slides ever more towards the human.
“You see a grisly monster,” he insists to her. “Only because you believe it so,” she replies, But she sees him as hope for resurrecting her boy, which is no better.
Sir Malcolm, meanwhile, is still coming to terms with the loss of his daughter, Mina, whom Dracula confesses was only ever a way to get to Vanessa. (“Her flesh was sweet,” smirks Christian Camargo’s horribly charismatic museum curator.) It’s a coming-to-terms that has mostly involved surrounding himself with surrogates: Vanessa has become his pseudo-daughter, while Ethan has become his de facto son.
Ethan increasingly embraces Murray as his father in these final episodes – a glorious fight sequence in which he and Kaetenay go full apache werewolf on the undead’s asses is a wonderful moment of letting their real selves go, but it’s the exchanges between Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton that really ring true.
Their quest to “save” Vanessa (“She is saved,” retorts Dracula, calmly) sees the show once more tackling sexism head on, but to think of it in only these terms reduces the other part of makes Penny Dreadful what it is: a study of religion, damnation and salvation. Do not forget, after all, that among the group’s number fighting Dracula’s hordes (upstairs, downstairs over banisters – it’s one heck of a set piece) are both Dr. Seward and Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks). It’s not men riding to rescue the damsel, but women too. And they more than hold their own, particularly Miss Hartdegan (we love the way she calls Malcolm “Sir M”).
The group reinforce the show’s message that together is stronger than apart, that family and friendship are what define individual identities, even more than their private demons. (“I must find my life without her,” observes Sir Malcolm. “She was the last link to who I was. I must find out who I am yet going to be.”) And that goodness is attainable for anyone, not just those in candlelit rooms.
Vanessa’s death is a shame, but also an act of agency – a request for Ethan to shoot her and end her yo-yo-ing between each half of her personality. It’s only with the help of another monster that Vanessa can escape the pull of the night she has fanatically fallen for and fought against for years of her life – ever since we first saw her spread her tarot cards and charge Ethan with picking up his gun to help her hunt vamps, there was no question that her journey had only one outcome.
Her acceptance of that fate has a knock-on effect for the others, as they find themselves, for the first time, having to grapple with mortality. These creatures have been at odds with normal, finite life all this time, but that conflict carries with it a corrupting, warping influence (hello to Clare’s wife). “Never have I wanted to run away more,” adds Murray, but he resolves to stay, as does Ethan, to be a family to each other.
The result is a natural, moving conclusion to a ambitious, poetic piece of television. This is a show about monsters, driven to horrible ends by anger, arrogance, isolation and abnormal power. But as Clare learns, wading meekly into the water with his son’s body, there is redemption to be found in embracing mortality rather than immortality. After three stunning seasons of moral, theological and societal questions, to make peace with death? Perhaps that is the most human thing of all.
Season 1 to 3 of Penny Dreadful are available on Sky On Demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £6.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.
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