Most Dreadfully Dreadful
We knew it would end some time, that deliciously dark and dreadful exploration into faith, into good and evil, and into mankind’s choice to do moral or immoral acts. The end came last night when Penny Dreadful completed its three-season run with a two-part finale, including episodes 8 and 9: “Perpetual Night” and “Blessed Dark.” John Logan’s thrilling horror story Penny Dreadful did not end because of low ratings, series cancellation, or unavailability of the actors. Instead, like Soderbergh’s and Cinemax’s 2-year series The Knick, the series Penny Dreadful ended because its creator and writer ended it, because he had always intended ending it at the conclusion of the third season, because it was the logical and reasonable end to the stories of its characters.
There is much grief among viewers over the loss of Vanessa (Eva Green), one of the belovèd characters of fictional drama. There is grief and mourning over the fact that the star-crossed lovers, Ethan (Josh Hartnett) and Vanessa did not, in fact, end up together, despite their great love for each other. There is some disbelief, and outrage, about Vanessa’s choosing the darkness, in the form of Dracula (Christian Camargo), because she is such a good person.
Those “outraged” viewers are ignoring or forgetting the evil in Vanessa herself. They’re also forgetting Vanessa’s previous choices to consciously do evil. Vanessa seduced her best friend’s fiancé on the eve of their wedding, knowing full well that the infidelity would betray her friend Mina and pollute the marriage, even if the act itself were never discovered. When Vanessa confronted the fetish of herself in the basement of Night-Walker Evelyn Poole’s mansion, she told it to “meet [its] Master” just before she destroyed it, proving pretty well that she could take care of herself when confronted with evil. When Vanessa intentionally said the Verbis Diablo in a spell that set Sir Geoffrey’s hounds on him, she embraced the evil within her, knowing that she could never go back from that act. It was, fact, this evil act that turned Ethan away from her morally. Vanessa has consistently proven that she can consciously choose to do evil, especially when it benefits her. Even if those benefits are short-term.
Of course, the Apocalypse is not supposed to be short-term: it’s supposed to be the End of everything. Once again, in “Blessed Dark,” Vanessa displayed her moral ambivalence about the evil inside her by using her own death to subvert her previously conscious choices.
Like all the characters in Logan’s Penny Dreadful, Vanessa is both good and evil, and she made a choice, earlier, to abandon her faith, to abandon God, and to embrace her dark destiny as well as her evil nature. For three seasons, we have seen Vanessa struggle against the two Dark Masters who have been hunting her as their Bride. The “fallen angel brothers,” Dracula and Lucifer have been sparring over her soul and her body for the entire run of Penny Dreadful.
It wasn’t really such a surprise that she eventually gave in to Dracula, who promised her eternal love, devotion, and companionship. However heart-wrenching it was for viewers who knew that Vanessa’s surrender to Dracula meant the End of Days for everyone else, it seemed a logical emotional choice for Vanessa.
How long can one person be expected to hold out against the eternal forces of Darkness, especially when said forced are continually presented as physically and emotionally attractive, as unwavering and articulate lovers, as devoted companions, as eternal and never-ending love?
Vanessa tried to bind her destiny to that of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), but at the conclusion of season 2, Ethan left her and turned himself in for his crimes, ostensibly because he expected to be executed immediately, not extradited back to America to face his crimes there, or to face his father. It doesn’t matter to Vanessa why Ethan left her: only that he left her, and that she felt abandoned. That is one of the things that clearly shaped her decision to give in to her fate, her destiny, her tragic and ominous union with the Dark Master.
Dracula knew all about the Lupus Dei, the Hound of God who protects Vanessa and who threatens Dracula himself. He knew that Ethan is the Hound of God, though he often called him the “Wolf of God” instead. Dracula knew, furthermore, that Ethan was no longer there to protect Vanessa. When Dracula asked her about her former love, she said he had abandoned her. Dracula knew exactly what to say to the damaged and vulnerable Vanessa.
Dracula won the Vanessa-prize because everyone else abandoned Vanessa: Ethan, Sir Malcolm, Lyle. There was no one to whom she could turn except Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone), who unwittingly advised her to seek out Dr. Alexander Sweet, who was Dracula in his human form.
That doesn’t mean Vanessa was entirely happy with Dracula. After all, she embraced him saying that she was “accepting herself,” rather than “accepting him,” as he’d asked. I suppose he took her words to mean what he wanted them to mean, not a surprising thing given the Victorian setting of the drama, and the way men often treated women they desire. The Dark Master got what Vanessa gave him: it may have been only her body, it may have been the Apocalypse, it may have been her soul, albeit briefly (he claimed in The White Room that he had no need for her soul, and that, furthermore, his brother Lucifer was “welcome to it”).
We got a brief glimpse of something less than accord between Vanessa and Dracula when one of the Lost Boys reported on the Wolf-induced carnage outside the abandoned slaughterhouse. With her hand on his shoulder, Vanessa told Dracula that she could smell “the fear” on him. When he moved his hand to take hers, she moved away, while he looked vaguely surprised and distressed. It seems that all was not well in Apocalypto-Land, despite Dracula’s having the woman he’d searched for since the beginning of time.
Despite Vanessa’s being the Mother of all Evil, despite her being worshiped by all Dracula’s minions and Lost Boys, despite her being with the companion of her choice, Vanessa is not entirely happy.
This is one of the common themes in literature of the Victorian era, no matter the country of the author’s origin, and no matter the gender of the author. No matter what a fictional Victorian woman chooses, she will not be completely happy. No matter what a woman does, she will be “punished.” No matter a woman’s choices, her life is, in fact, severely constricted by her society. A woman must pay for whatever freedom and happiness she manages to attain.
Consider Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, where Emma’s adulterous affairs and self-indulgent debt lead to her husband’s ruin financial ruin. None of Emma’s lovers care for anything but their own self-satisfaction. Once they have Emma sexually, she loses attraction for them. Eventually, in despair, she commits suicide.
In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s adulterous affair with the love of her life, Vronsky, leads to Anna’s loss of her son as well as to the loss of her status in Russian society. Eventually, it leads to her drug use, jealous rages that alienate her lover, and to her eventual suicide.
In Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urdervilles, the young and naïve Tess falls in love with her “cousin,” gives in to him sexually, and bears a child that dies shortly after; later, after marrying and revealing to her husband her initial sexual relationship, she is abandoned by her husband because of her “immorality;” Tess kills her first lover in the hopes that it will bring her husband back to her. Instead, she is executed for her crimes.
In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane must first “pay penance” for loving a married man, despite the fact that she did not know he was married when she fell in love with and agreed to marry him herself. She “punishes” herself for her “sins” by leaving him and by being unhappy. Even after she returns to Mr. Rochester, he is blind, and needs her as much as a caregiver as a companion. Jane’s ultimate “happiness” is purchased at a great price.
In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff never do find happiness; instead, Catherine dies giving birth to (their?) child, cursing Heathcliff for having abandoned her, though he insists that it was Catherine who initially abandoned him by claiming she could never marry Heathcliff. She haunts Heathcliff after her death: the two are never together in life.
Even in American literature, women of the literary era are punished for sexual alliances and for love. Hawthorne’s heroine Hester, in The Scarlet Letter, bears her lover’s child after the older husband of her arranged marriage is pronounced dead. Because Hester will not reveal the name of her illicit lover, and because he never comes forward to claim her and the child, Hester is forced to endure the public scorn and repudiation of her society. Her lover dies without ever claiming the two of them. Hester’s “reward” for her loyalty and her love is a lifetime alone.
One could argue that, in making Vanessa Ives choose death as the logical conclusion of her moral choices, creator-writer Logan was merely creating yet another doomed Victorian heroine. Furthermore, by having Vanessa request that the love-of-her-life Ethan kill her, to release her from her own moral choices, Logan is showing that Vanessa must have a man help her “atone” for her life choices and actions, as though she is unable to do so on her own.
I realize that death seemed the sole, logical conclusion for Vanessa’s moral choices, according to Penny Dreadful’s male creator. I realize that having the Apocalypse and the death of all mankind on one’s conscience would be an extremely heavy burden. But what happened to the Vanessa who “accepted [herself]”? Where was the woman who consciously embraced her dark side?
She defined herself, again, by a man, and by a man’s actions.
Ethan may be considered her “saviour,” but, in the end of Vanessa’s story, he was simply the man who decided her fate: it was Ethan who ultimately pulled the trigger and killed her. One could argue that Vanessa decided her own fate by asking Ethan to kill her, but other Victorian heroines have chosen to end their own lives, and not asked that a man do it for them.
What was Vanessa but another Victorian heroine who had to suffer for being different? A Victorian heroine who could not fit in to society’s definition of a “proper woman.” A heroine of Victorian-era literature who was not “allowed” to be happy, who was not permitted to be either sexually or emotionally content.
Ah, well… we could wonder all we want at what Logan was attempting to do. I would argue that Logan, while re-inventing some of the characters from the literature of the Victorian era, fell into the same constricted societal judgements of all persons, but especially of women, who are different from that which society expects.
A woman without a man is incomplete.
A woman who chooses sexual independence is morally repugnant.
A woman who chooses sexual or moral freedom must be punished.
Logan and Penny Dreadful gave us yet another doomed Victorian woman who must die, or otherwise by “punished,” for her sexual and moral choices.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love Vanessa Ives and Penny Dreadful. I think she is one of the finest characters ever created, and the series is one of the best ever written. I’m devastated to see it end. It simply means that, as a woman, I’m saddened to see yet another fictional heroine forced to “choose” death as the “punishment” or as the ultimate end of her moral and sexual choices.
Still, Vanessa’s fate was, no doubt, decided long beforehand, and with her constant pleas to others, and especially to Ethan, to end her “suffering,” her death shouldn’t have been a surprise to any viewers.
Vanessa died. By Ethan’s hand. At her request.
Then, to appease anyone who was too tremendously upset about Vanessa’s having chosen Dracula and the Darkness instead of waiting for Ethan to return (though mating with him would have also been a morally dubious choice, given that he’s a WolfMan), Vanessa began to pray again, half-way through Ethan’s recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, while he remained silent, just before he shot her.
As if her being able to pray again weren’t clear enough for viewers, Vanessa claimed to see “our Lord” as she was dying.
In case anyone thought that Lucifer might scoop her up as she attempted to avoid the consequences of her having chosen, in life, his earthly brother of Darkness, Dracula.
It was sad to lose her.
But, somehow, it was not a surprise.
The Remaining Stories
Dorian (Reeve Carney), having given Lily to the love-lorn Victor Frankenstein so that Victor and his colleague Henry Jekyll could “make her into a proper woman,” returned to his mansion, threw out all the whores, and killed Justine (Jessica Barden), who didn’t want to live in a world without Lily. When Lily returned, she viewed Justine as another “dead child,” having related earlier, to Victor, her loss of her natural born child, Sarah. Despite Dorian’s assurance that life without emotional engagement was the only way to survive immortality, and that he was the only partner suited for her, Lily left Dorian alone.
Dorian’s story has never been as integrally woven with the story of Vanessa and the others, and this end was no different. Despite Dorian’s being sexually involved with Vanessa in season one, Dorian is ultimately alone. An outsider in the world of Penny Dreadful.
Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, above L) gave up trying to mold Lily (Billie Piper) into a “perfect woman,” by which he meant a woman who loved him but had no independent thoughts, life, or impulses. After Lily begged him not to take away the memory of her dead child Sarah, Victor finally saw her as a human being with desires and a life separate from his own.
Despite Jekyll’s (Shazad Latif, above R) insistence that Lily could have been changed, and Jekyll’s lament that he never should have left Victor alone with Lily, Victor won the moral high ground in this “battle” over good and evil. Though Jekyll gloated that he, at last, had inherited his father’s estate and title, and would thereby achieve societal acceptance as “Lord Hyde,” viewers probably guessed that Jekyll-Hyde would never be part of the society as he wished, even if they’ve never read the book on which his character was based.
Frankenstein’s first Creature (Rory Kinnear, above, center), also sometimes known as John Clare, was reunited with his family only to be confronted with the death of his young son. After his wife insisted that he take the boy’s body to Dr. Frankenstein so that the boy could be re-animated as was the Creature himself, Clare was faced with a moral decision. He had to choose life with the woman who claimed to love him and accept him totally, but who insisted that he have their son “re-animated” so that she could love him again, “better this time,” or Clare had to choose life alone. He chose to “bury” his son in the ocean rather than to have him re-animated and to suffer as the Creature himself had.
Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone) was not revealed as the re-incarnated Joan Clayton, which LuPone played in Season 2, but she did come to Vanessa’s aid. She acquitted herself admirably alongside Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), Ethan, Catriona (Perdita Weeks, below), Frankenstein, and Kaetenay as they fought Dracula’s minions, the Lost Boys.
After Vanessa’s death, Sir Malcolm, who was wounded by a vampire but had his wound cauterized by thanatologist Cat, bonded with Ethan. Each affirmed that they had to find a new life now that Vanessa was no longer alive, but that they considered each other family. Malcolm and Ethan have become the ideal father and son that neither had in reality.
After finding a dead wolf hanging in Vanessa’s room at Sir Malcolm’s mansion, but before finding Vanessa herself, Ethan learned that it was his spiritual father Kaetenay (Wes Studi) who turned Ethan into a WolfMan. Though Ethan’s hostility toward Kaetaney has been present from the beginning of the season, if only in visions, Ethan did not know that Kaetenay intentionally turned (and cursed) him until last night.
(I’m actually not sure what happened to Kaetenay, which could mean I was too absorbed in the group’s search for Vanessa to notice. On the other hand, it could mean that Kaetanay’s fate was not remarkable enough for me to notice. I’ll update the post after I watch the episode again.)
Dracula (Christian Camargo) vanished tout de suite after Ethan appeared, bearing Vanessa’s body. Everyone else seemed to be paying too much attention to Ethan to notice that Dracula had escaped. He was never mentioned again.
The Creature appeared at the cemetery during Vanessa’s funeral, and his poignant Voice-Over of Wordsworth’s famous “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” was a lovely tribute to the entire show.
Were there loose ends? Unfortunately. We never got to see how Amunet or Amun-ra were related to either Dracula, Vanessa, or Lucifer, the other Prince of Darkness. As I wrote earlier in this post, Dorian’s story was never as integrally tied into the remaining tales, but we know that he’s alone. We don’t know what happened to Lily, but if she’s like Frankenstein’s other Creature, she’s going to be roaming the world an an immortal being, always alone. Frankenstein himself, after pining after and plotting over Lily all season, seemed relatively quickly resigned to life without her. Jekyll’s story didn’t have near the moral consequences that it does in the novel, when its protagonist tries to separate his evil impulses from the good ones, failing when the evil side cannot be conquered unless the physical body is destroyed. Renfield ended up in a cell in Bedlam. What happened to Dr. Seward and Catriona, the other two strong women in the show? They helped save Vanessa. That seems to be their sole purpose. What happened to Dracula? We’ll never know.
It’s over, my fellow Dreadfuls.
It’s been quite a tumultuous ride.