Penny Dreadful Finale Recap: The Finale Countdown

By
Jessica Barden as Justine. Photo: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME
Penny Dreadful
Episode Title
Perpetual Night/The Blessed Dark
Season
3
Episode
8, 9
Editor’s Rating
5/5

I always thought Vanessa deserves to go to the light. She’s been in too much pain and, deep down, her faith is too strong. It was great to have those three years to explore the character in so many dimensions. I gave so much of my heart, my guts to this character. Yeah, I feel quite sad. I don’t know what to say.

Folks, that’s not me conveying an interior monologue in italics. That’s a quote from Eva Green discussing the demise of her martyred heroine in a video that was quietly slipped onto Penny Dreadful’s official YouTube channel (and has mysteriously now been set to private *plot thickens*) following Showtime’s broadcast of what we’d been led to believe was the season finale.

Spoiler alert: That video (and another featuring a mini-interview with series creator, John Logan, now also private) apparently confirms that what we’ve just seen is, in fact, the series finale of Penny Dreadful. Literally, both videos’ titles contained the phrase “series finale” — but come on, it’s not like we weren’t already given the biggest hint in the world when “The Blessed Dark” ended with the screen reading “THE END.”

The spent adrenaline curdling in my veins right now, the result of a never-not-tense two hours of bloodshed and badassery, has rendered a dreadful feeling in the pit of my stomach — yet my heart is Dread-full. (That’s an overwrought turn of phrase, but it feels apropos.) I’ve enjoyed every episode of Penny Dreadful this season, and some I’ve even loved so much that I dare say I’ve lurrrved them, but none has made me feel as I do right now: wistful, crestfallen, oddly happy, exhausted, thrilled, beside myself. And yeah, I feel quite sad.

I know I’m only allowed to rate any one episode as high as five stars, so considering this finale was a two-parter, I feel totally justified in unofficially giving this sendoff a ten. That’s not to say it was perfect. In fact, if the series really is over, then that retrofits various bits of this season’s story line into noticeable shortcomings. But let’s start with the good stuff.

“Perpetual Night” begins with what has become this season’s refrain, once again delivered in voice-over: “And then all light will end and the world will live in darkness ... The very air will be pestilence to mankind and our brethren the night creatures will emerge and feed.” On cue, Seward walks through the smoky, pestilent air (which apparently nobody bothers to wear masks to protect against, despite death-expert Cat warning Ethan that everyone really should be). She then walks in on Renfield, clutching a frog and listening to her Vanessa cylinders. “Her old love returns. The master wants me to know everything she said of him,” Renfield explains, outing himself as a servant of Dracula before quipping, “I think we can consider this my resignation.” Seward returns his sass when he surmises she’s not a killer, and she snaps, “You should’ve listened to more of the recordings.”

In retrospect, does it seem the only reason Seward revealed just the other week that she’d murdered her husband in New York was to set up this punch line? Kinda, but who cares? This finale was laden with attitude and got a lot of mileage from it, as proven by my still-elevated pulse. Both episodes employed a unique hybrid of popcorn-style, genre entertainment (there were whiffs of The Matrix and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, among others) and literary conceit — including, as per usual, the Bible. Hence, after pestilence in the street, Renfield and Seward’s duel ends with frogs in her sink.

I’ve really enjoyed every scene set in Seward’s office this season, so it was great to see it in play once more. Using her confrontation with Renfield to kick off the episode was a clever and surprising choice, and thank goodness it propelled her toward Vanessa’s house to become part of the motley crew of vampire slayers who assemble there; Ethan, Malcolm, and Kaetenay have indeed just finished a round of night-creature killing, with key assists from Cat (who’s just been house-sitting Vanessa’s crib?), when Seward arrives. And whatever nifty wordplay and knife-play Seward and Renfield exhibited in the first scene, it was easily one-upped by the mass attack of Dracula disciples at Vanessa’s mansion, as well as the Bogart-Bacall rapport between Cat and Malcolm:

Cat: Do I look like an undertaker?
Malcolm
: No, you look like … I really couldn’t say.
Cat
: Let’s say I look like a friend then.

Is it too late to ask for a MalCat spinoff??

What a pleasure Cat has been as a last-minute addition to this freak family. She and Seward fit in seamlessly among Dreadful’s OG’ers last night, their steely wills and quick wits whipping up instant rapport. (Seward, to Malcolm and then Cat: “You must be Sir Malcolm Murray. You? I don’t know.” BWAHAHAHA!) Even as the odds against this band of heroes grew increasingly ridiculous (and funny how they possessed a seemingly infinite number of bullets to ward off what turned out to be a very finite number of night creatures) I never stopped buying into their derring-do. In fact, so much of what I enjoyed about the finale was the purely physical act of watching it; I lost track of how many times I covered my eyes with my hands and held my breath. It was a true horror-show experience.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, Victor’s season-long quest to make Lily his “proper woman” is thwarted not by guns or knives, but by the blistering performance of one Billie Piper as Lily, delivering a monologue that I’ll remember until my own end of days. After she makes a few feeble attempts at last-minute liberation by trying to emotionally manipulate the two men in her life — asking Dorian for a last kiss, requesting a glass of water from Victor — all Lily’s left with are her shackles and herself, the self Victor wants to erase. And so she ultimately earns her freedom from her shackles by giving him herself. Not physically, as she once did to men on the streets of London. Instead, she finally reveals her soul to him (and us) by telling the story behind her dead daughter, who froze to death in their hovel after Lily was beaten by a john and left (or chose to stay, as she intimates) in the street. And she reveals how Sarah Croft’s death has demonstrated to her how she aches to live: “There are some wounds that can never heal. There are scars that make us who we are, but without them we don’t exist. Love is too small a word for what I felt for my little girl. Holding her was like feeling the sun from both sides … Please don’t take her from me.”

Victor relents. “It is too easy being monsters,” he finally admits. “Let us try to be human.” Frankly, after Lily’s devastating speech, I’m ready to be made a monster for a while, because I’m not sure I can handle the all-too-human flood of emotions that came with that scene. I’m also not usually one for monologues on TV; I’m a stickler that they’re for the stage, and that when a medium allows for editing, close-ups, voice-over and all the other modern storytelling tools, a straightforward monologue just to fill in backstory almost always comes off as lazy. This, however, was astounding and breathtaking. Coupled with the inevitable death of The Creature’s son, it made me want to have a second child immediately.

I’m quoting my recap from last week when I say … and that leaves Vanessa. Because once again, her big moment/meaty scene doesn’t arrive until the end, when Ethan finally locates her in a candlelit, abandoned subway tunnel (I mean, that’s what it looked like, right?) done up all Bride of Dracula-esque.

As rapidly as Dracula convinced Vanessa last week to give herself over to the dark side, so does Vanessa convince Ethan to off her in a startlingly efficient bit of dialogue: “They will hunt me ‘til the end of days ... This is what I am and this is what I’ve done, brought this terrible darkness into the world ... My battle must end. You know that or there will never be peace on Earth. Let it end ... Please Ethan, let it end.”

Yes, it is a shame that Green received so little screen time in the two-part finale, and that her biggest moment— her statements to Ethan explaining why he must kill her — didn’t reach the height of her best work during the season. But I actually loved how she wasn’t needed for the first episode last night, that she could be unseen yet a driving factor in others’ actions and the plot itself. We may not have spent much time with Vanessa in “Perpetual Night,” but you could feel her everywhere.

Ethan unloads one bullet into Vanessa’s stomach. He carries out her limp body to show the others. Funeral procession. Burial. THE END.

Of course, it didn’t feel like the end, and until I caught those aforementioned YouTube clips, I believed it possible that it wasn’t. Maybe Penny Dreadful would just revert to its roots as a televised version of serialized novellas, and next year we’d pick up with a new protagonist. Or maybe Vanessa would somehow be resurrected in season four — a totally doable plot twist given the Christlike motifs that have been baked into her story line from the get-go.

For me (and the purposes of this recap), it’s also not the end because I still have a slew of questions I’m left pondering and weak spots I can’t help harping on. Despite the thrills-a-minute experience of watching it, this two-parter was not without its eye-rolling moments. Ending “Perpetual Night” with a shot of two werewolves (Ethan and — hey, whaddaya know! — Kaetenay) growling at one another was a straight-up LOL, and I would’ve hoped that Vanessa’s last words were been something more elegant than “Oh Ethan, I see our Lord.” I also wish that everything I said above about Cat and Seward could also be said for Jekyll, whose potential as Penny’s next Gothic-inspired character went straight to pot. Despite Jekyll’s season-long insistence otherwise, his insignificant role really was sidekick/assistant to Frankenstein, and working in a lone Hyde reference at the very end required an excruciating amount of narrative back-bending. “Oh, one other thing. My hateful father died so you can call me by my proper title,” Jekyll says. “Good day then, Lord Hyde,” Victor replies. Good day indeed, wasted character!

There’s so much more to go into here, so many larger themes to ruminate on and smaller flaws to dissect. Some feel like one and the same. The Creature winds up alone, just as he’d feared during his chat with Vanessa last week. On the plus side, at least it’s a chosen solitude that comes with the comforting knowledge that he spared his son the awfulness of immortality when he rejected his wife’s ultimatum that he take the boy to Frankenstein for resurrection. On the downside, that ultimatum counts as another beat that felt forced, like it was invented just to hasten The Creature’s fate. Another: Victor walks out of Jekyll’s lab, bumps into Malcolm and — voila! — he’s back in the fold. As great as it was to see Victor do something other than mope about Lily, that’s quite the change-up to accept. Also, how did Ethan never find out about what Victor did to Lily? And what happened to dear Mister Lyle and his expedition? What about the three distinct personalities Seward said last week that Vanessa possesses? (My Grand Unifying Theory in progress: I still think Vanessa is somehow a stand-in for Jesus — the Daughter of God, if you will — which is one reason why I thought she’d somehow rise from her grave at the very end.)

I’m not going to dwell on all of that right now because I’m in mourning — for Vanessa, and all of us.