The House of Dread is Closed, Long Live Penny Dreadful
The following article covers the end of the television series Penny Dreadful, and while it does not go into any great detail, it does contain spoilers concerning the series finale. Readers are encouraged to proceed with caution.
After three seasons, Showtime and Sky’s production of the series Penny Dreadful has come to an end. The lead character, Vanessa Ives, finds final closure through the ultimate sacrifice; Dr. Frankenstein discovers his own compassion for others; Sir Malcolm Murray faces rediscovering himself; and Ethan Chandler finds his true family. With the other players, Lily has taken control of her life; Dorian Grey continues his search for life beyond the droll and mundane, and Frankenstein’s creation John Clare realizes that sometimes dead is better, no pun intended.
What made Penny Dreadful so special was a winning combination of cast, story, production, a fine attention to detail, and a confidence of taking established iconic horror characters in new and fresh directions. Previously, I called Penny Dreadful a Monster Squad for adults, and while the adage still applies in a general sense, now, especially after this exceptional final season, that comparison is practically insulting. You would never find the powerhouse acting provided by Eva Green and Rory Kinnear in episode three of the final season, in which the two actors almost single-handedly carry the entire episode, in any version of Monster Squad. The writing and acting are so solid the entire series transcends genre, covering universal themes head on in ways you would never expect from a genre/period piece. The fact that the show unabashedly maintained its genre roots while breaking into issues such as painful loss, find one’s true identity, compassion for one another, and the never-ending search for love, proves why it was such a popular show.
Monsters are only as scary as their threats. Of course, we relish the Act III reveal of the monster, especially its face, but that’s not really what scares us. The real fear when dealing with monsters is how our loved ones will prevail when they inevitably face the monster. The more we care about these characters in the story, the scarier the encounter. But what of those monsters with human faces? What happens when the mask is finally pulled away and we see ourselves staring back? And what of those creatures we’ve learned to fear over the years? When they bare their fangs, or when they step out in the sunlight with their scars out in the open for the world to see, do we not see ourselves in their faces as well? The monsters in Penny Dreadful played with our expectations, and did so without compromising the threat of danger. Even in her last scene, we see Billie Piper’s Lily/Brona Croft still capable of tremendous power. Immortal, more powerful than any man, we also see her capacity for forgiveness even as Dr. Frankenstein realizes the error of his ways and finally understands the true horrors he’s unleashed to the world.
After the final two episodes aired on Showtime, news spread rapidly concerning John Logan’s decision to end the show after three seasons. According to many sources, Logan made this decision during the production of season two. The news that the show had been cancelled doesn’t really cover the truth of the matter, which was that Vanessa’s story arc was over, and there is really no desire to continue the show without her. As much as most of us like to think of the show as an ensemble piece, it was Vanessa’s show all along. Her character had the most to lose, and had to fight the hardest to claim her victory. So powerful was her choice, the main villain of the entire series simply vanished before our very eyes. Yes, her death was a victory, and when a beloved character faces so much turmoil and pain, such a death is necessary to fulfill the truths of the story.
So many television series have ended on bad terms, or just ended—Deadwood for example—that it stands to reason Penny Dreadful should end on such good terms. Many will chalk it up to budget concerns, actors and production staff wanting or needing to move on to other projects, ratings, whatever. And all of those may have been factors. What ultimately matters is that the show-runners made a decision to see Vanessa’s story arc until the very end, and were willing to put everything on the line to stay true to their vision. By never deviating from their choices, we are presented with an ending that delivers the promise of being unpredictable yet completely logical.
You certainly can’t always get what you want, but you can, if you try, get exactly what you need.
We don’t need another season of Penny Dreadful. Surely, we’d all love to see the further adventures of Sir Malcolm and Ethan, and who wouldn’t want to see what the future would bring for Victor and Lily, and even the doctor’s creation John Clare. A series devoted to completely to Catriona Hartdegan would make for some excellent television. But as much as we’d like to see those stories continue, there’s really no reason they should outside of our own imaginations, where the boundaries are stripped away and the possibilities are limitless. To continue the series would only dilute the power of these characters, which is the last thing anyone could ever want. Perhaps it is best that we cherish the hours of entertainment given to us by this wonderful cast and production, and know that Horror is alive and well, and sometimes we can find it the least likely of places.
Besides, Ray Donovan cranks back up next week.