Warning: Spoilers Galore
The finale of season one of Showtime’s new Gothic horror thriller Penny Dreadful was both exciting and, I’m sorry to say, a bit disappointing. I was looking forward to the finale so much that I watched the Penny Dreadful Marathon the day before. And I’d already watched virtually every episode at least two or three times. I loved the dialogue, the characters, the ever-improving writing, the entire concept of the show itself. Despite the fantastic episodes “Séance” (2), “Closer than Sisters” (5), and “Possession” (7) — where the literary storylines and imaginary characters seemed, at last, to be meshing — the flaws that have plagued the show from its inception were still sadly present in the finale.
From the beginning of the show, I’ve admired the costumes, the atmospheric settings, the makeup, and the hairstyles. All of that placed Penny Dreadful‘s world firmly in the Demi-monde — the world between light and dark, between the living and the dead — of Victorian England. All of those wonderful things are present in the finale as it revisits some of its earlier sets: the theatre, most particularly, where Sir Malcolm and his crew once again encounter the vampires they’re hunting.
The cast, too, has been strong. Led by the powerful performances of Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives — father and childhood friend of the lost or kidnapped Mina Murray (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) — the remaining ensemble cast includes Josh Hartnett as American gun-for-hire Ethan Chandler with Billie Piper as his consumptive lover Brona Croft, Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein and Rory Kinnear as The Monster/The Creature (from Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley’s Frankenstein), Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray (from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), and Danny Sapani as Sir Malcolm’s servant Sembene. Guest appearances included David Warner as Dr. Van Helsing from Stoker’s Dracula.
Early in the season, the disparate stories were too disconnected. Some characters disappeared for episodes at a time. Others seemed to have no point even being in the series. In the finale, more of the stories came together. The writing was a bit stronger, and the performances more impressive.
The only literary character who simply never fit in well is Dorian Gray. His portrait was never shown the entire season — not even in the finale — and unless one is familiar with Wilde’s book, the portrait that Dorian sometimes looks at in private, and which heals his wounds from rough sexual encounters while he gazes upon it, could very well be a portrait of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. In reality, it is of Dorian himself, and should reflect all his moral ugliness and physical injuries, while he himself remains outwardly beautiful.
Unless the viewer is familiar with the book, however, Dorian Gray’s story in Penny Dreadful makes no sense whatsoever. His portrait should have been shown in the finale so that viewers not familiar with the book would know what he’s always looking at. I still don’t know why Dorian Gray was in the show, even after the finale.
The only character with less screen-time and less of a story than Dorian Gray is Sir Malcolm’s African servant Sembene. Even when Ethan Chandler asked, in “Possession” (episode 7) what Sembene’s story was, he replied, “I have no story.” Sadly, that is true.
I had hoped there would be a revelation concerning Sembene’s and Sir Malcolm’s connection. Alas, there was not. Sembene did get to help out killing more female vampires (who, for some unexplained reason, all look exactly alike) when he accompanied Sir Malcolm on a final hunting expedition for his daughter Mina. That might be Sembene’s entire story: killing female vampires, and answering the door when someone comes to Sir Malcolm’s big mansion.
For a long time — in fact, for the first 7 out of 8 episodes — Dr. Frankenstein could have been Dr. Fill-In-The-Blank, or Dr. I-Can-Check-Your-Pulse-And-Make-Up-Theories-About-Women’s-PsychoSexual-Disturbances-Too, or Dr. Anybody-Who-Happened-To-Have-Made-A-Sentient-Creature. He was rarely with his Creation, brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear — who lurked throughout the entire season rather than viciously menacing (except for murdering Van Helsing) while waiting for Frankenstein to make a Creature Bride.
It wasn’t till the finale that Frankenstein actually demonstrated some of the arrogant evil and selfish cruelty his character exhibits in the novel. So Frankenstein’s character was weak during most of the season, but finally reached its potential in the finale when he smothered Brona Croft, already dying of consumption, instead of mercifully letting her die of an overdose from his own stash of morphine (to which he is addicted).
Throughout the season, Frankenstein’s Creation and the male vampires who are mistaken for “The Master” are referred to as “Creatures.” In the finale, Rory Kinnear’s stunning performance demonstrates that The Creature, though he claims to be filled with malignancy and rage, which, he reasons aloud, explains his exterior ugliness, is actually more decent, faithful, empathetic, and affectionate than any of the other characters.
The humans in Penny Dreadful are the “creatures” in this drama: cruel, heartless, unfaithful, disloyal, unempathetic, violent, unkind. In short, they are the “monsters,” and Sir Malcolm, despite his elegant looks, dress, and language, is one of the most vicious of them all.
In the finale, one of Sir Malcolm’s nastiest secrets is revealed, in a show where everyone has secrets. He bluntly tells Vanessa, who has been helping him search for his daughter Mina, that, given the choice, he will (a) choose Mina over Vanessa, (b) that he would kill Vanessa if it would save Mina, and (c) that, in fact, he’s hoping he will get the chance to kill Vanessa.
Yes, there be many monsters here, indeed.
Imagine, then, Vanessa’s — and probably every viewer’s — surprise when, at the crucial moment, having found Mina, who is attempting to harm Vanessa in order to subdue her and take her to The Master, Sir Malcolm shoots his own daughter Mina dead. I was so happily surprised that I cheered. Perhaps Sir Malcolm himself was astonished by his “choice” of Vanessa over Mina in the finale.
Throughout the season, various characters have stated that “each has his secrets,” “each has sinned,” and, despite regrets, none can “unmake the past.” After a while, it got tiresome hearing so many people saying the same thing so many times. Then Frankenstein said something amazing: that each person was morally bound forever to those he had hurt. Very intriguing philosophical commentary. One that fit the show and the finale well.
Though Penny Dreadful is set in the Victorian era and was influenced by the literature of the period, the characters constantly quote Romantic poetry. In the Romantic period, which took place earlier in England than in America, artists of all genres and media believed that man could commune directly with the Divinity — however it was perceived — through nature.
Thus, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were extremely popular poets, and their work has often been recited in Penny Dreadful. Keats, who was dying of consumption, had some of the darkest yet most erotic poems, while Wordsworth had some of the most optimistic ones, despite their expressing regret for lost childhood or unrealized dreams. The Romantic poetry quoted and beloved by these monstrous, constrained, secretive, deceptive, yet ultimately fascinating characters — who constantly question each other about their faith in God as well as the meaning of life — was a wonderful irony couched in beautiful and famous poetry.
In the finale, Frankenstein’s Creation recited some lines himself — not from a Romantic poet — but from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was very effective.
I’m not going to pretend that there were no weaknesses in the finale. There were, and, unfortunately, they were major ones.
In one of the earlier episodes, the group is drawn to the London Zoo in the middle of the night, where they expect to find Mina and the (vampire) Creatures. Instead, they find a pack of wolves. Ethan orders everyone to stay still. Then he lowers his body and holds out his hand. One of the male wolves, snarling, approaches and tentatively takes Ethan’s hand gently into its mouth, acknowledging Ethan as the Alpha male.
The Alpha male wolf.
From that episode on, bloggers and reviewers of the show began predicting that Ethan’s secret was that he was the Wolf-Man, though there is no literary piece of the period dealing with such a creature. There is a Penny Dreadful which features a Wolf-Man — Wagner the Werewolf — but no literature. Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris was the first literary exploration of the Wolf-Man. I assumed that the bloggers, critics, and reviewers who were proclaiming that Ethan was the Wolf-Man had to be mistaken since creator & writer John Logan has repeatedly stated that Penny Dreadful mixed Victorian literary characters, re-imagined, with his fictional characters.
I was convinced that Logan would introduce one of the most famous novels of the period which explores the nature of good and evil, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Wolf-Man simply does not fit into the entire scheme of Penny Dreadful, where the characters choose to do good or evil. The Wolf-Man is cursed or bitten or somehow turned into a violent and dangerous creature against his will. He doesn’t consciously decide to go around tearing people apart and eating some of their internal organs.
In Stevenson’s novel, however, Dr. Jekyll makes a conscious choice to explore the evil aspects of his personality by concocting a formula which will allow his personality to separate into two parts: one entirely good, the other completely evil. Mr. Hyde is the evil, immoral part of Dr. Jekyll.
The importance of Jekyll and Hyde versus the Wolf-Man to Penny Dreadful and Ethan Chandler’s secret is choice. Choosing to do evil, choosing to harm others for selfish reasons, intentionally hurting others to achieve personal satisfaction or pleasure at the others’ expense — these are all themes of Penny Dreadful, and all of the characters make these choices repeatedly (though Dorian’s evil or cruel choices are not shown: I know this from the novel itself). Even Ethan’s consumptive lover, Brona Croft, tells him how she went out and intentionally had sexual relations with a stranger for money after her fiancé in Ireland physically hurt her.
Just as the characters in Penny Dreadful consciously choose to do evil and to hurt others to satisfy their own selfish desires or to exact revenge, Dr. Jekyll chooses to allow his evil side to come out. As Edward Hyde, he seriously hurts children, dismembers women, and murders famous politicians. Hyde enjoys it.
Dr. Henry Jekyll enjoys it, too, because it allows him to do whatever evil he wishes — as Hyde — while maintaining his good reputation and respected standing in society as Dr. Jekyll. Unfortunately for Jekyll, Hyde also has free will, and he chooses to take over Jekyll’s life to the point where Hyde can gain control of their shared body at will, without any potion, and Jekyll is unable to get it back. Jekyll commits suicide when he realizes that the good part of himself is being subsumed by the evil part of himself.
Therefore, if the bloggers and reviewers who predicted that Ethan’s secret was that he was a Wolf-Man, it took away Ethan’s choice to do evil, which goes against the very premise of the show. It also eliminates the literary basis for his story since no Wolf-Man literature existed till 1933, and the show takes place in 1891. I just couldn’t believe that Ethan’s secret would be that he was a Hollywood-Lon-Chaney-style Wolf-Man.
Imagine my dismay when, in the penultimate scene of the finale, Ethan did transform into a Wolf-Man and murder the Pinkertons his father had sent from America to forcibly bring Ethan home, as well as everyone else in the restaurant-bar-hotel where Ethan was staying.
It wasn’t just a disappointment because Ethan’s being a Wolf-Man didn’t fit with the rest of the show: it was a disappointment because so many people had predicted it weeks beforehand, and they were correct. That’s just bad writing.
(Note to creator and writer John Logan: my boyfriend was really annoyed that, after viewing the “unimpressive vampire Creatures” all season, he didn’t get a sufficient look at a “really cool Wolf-Man with good makeup and everything,” and he “didn’t get to see Ethan as the Wolf-Man tear all those people apart” after “sitting through countless vampire killings.” In fact, my boyfriend didn’t even realize Ethan was turning into a Wolf-Man. He had to ask me what was happening because he couldn’t tell. And I wasn’t absolutely sure myself until the full moon was displayed above the building where the killings were taking place.)
Another constantly circulating prediction that, unfortunately, turned out to be right was that Brona would die of consumption and become Frankenstein’s Monster’s bride. Actually, the consumption didn’t quite finish her off: Frankenstein himself did, for the express purpose of getting the “subject” to accede to his Creature’s demand for a bride just like himself.
Again, the pundits were correct early on in the season. That makes it bad writing, not good guesswork since there were no clues that Brona would be his bride. After all, the Creature had a crush on a young woman from the theatre, not on Brona.
The last disappointment in the finale of Penny Dreadful was Vanessa’s going to a priest who actually asked her if she really wanted to get rid of the evil inside her. I almost laughed out loud. Since when has a Catholic priest, fictional or real, ever asked someone if he wanted to keep the devil inside him or have the devil exorcised?
Though Vanessa didn’t answer the priest, it was a disappointing “cliff-hanger.” Throughout the season, she has chosen to remain as she is, with her knowledge of the dark side of human nature, even if it does cause her to have fits, seizures, and to be possessed. Whether she is possessed by the Devil, the Master, or Amunra — who wants her to be the Mother of Evil — is not clear.
With the death of Mina, the relationship between Vanessa and Sir Malcolm changed, as if Vanessa’s decision to hurt Mina when they were younger was the only reason Sir Malcolm and Vanessa chafed at each other. Their animosity seemed to have suddenly and miraculously disappeared. They even hugged as Sir Malcolm wept and Vanessa comforted him (though she actually held him, while, with his arms around her, his hands were in fists). Sir Malcolm even talked about their getting a Christmas tree. Vanessa responded by suggesting they “invite the boys over to decorate it.” If that conversation had made any sense, I might have laughed. As it was, I began to fear for season two of Penny Dreadful.
Mina is dead, so no more searching for her. What is Sir Malcolm’s purpose in life going to be? Brona is going to be Frankenstein’s Creature’s re-animated bride. Ethan has been revealed to be, not Jack the Ripper, not Edward Hyde, but the Wolf-Man who ravaged the mother and child in the beginning of episode 1, and the prostitute at the beginning of episode 2.
If Vanessa chooses to have the evil inside her exorcised, then she basically has no part in the show. If she chooses to remain as she is, then there will be more episodes where she’s possessed. Those episodes were some of the best of season 1, but three of them were plenty, thank you very much.
Suddenly, the gaslights dim, the candles flicker, the wind howls, the full moon comes out from behind the clouds, the glass table cracks, the windows shatter, Vanessa’s head turns 360°, Sir Malcolm faints, Sembene does not answer the door, and I have a terrible vision of season 2 of Penny Dreadful.
It’s going to be nothing but The Exorcist, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Wolf-Man.
Unfortunately, I’ve already seen all those films.