The rise, rise and decline of Penny Dreadful.
“I think they’ll be emotional. And maybe even devastated. But I hope, when they get past that, they’re going to feel satisfied. I think John has done a brilliant job of creating closure. Nobody can say he didn’t end the story on his terms.” – David Nevins, Showtime President.
I fell in love with Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s critically claimed and underwatched Gothic psycho-sexual drama, during season 2 after hearing my parents, of all people, froth and foam at the mouth as to how good it was.
I ignored them at first. Seeing classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein being butchered wasn’t top of my viewing list but one school holiday, when it was greyer outside than a Victorian slum, I succumbed to the lyrical script, elegant prose and sublime acting that Penny Dreadful presented, becoming engulfed in the battles of characters whose many dimensions reflected the rainbow of greys between black and white.
And then, it ended.
Dear reader, our creator destroyed, with one fell swoop of his pen, all our hopes and dreams, leaving us with the grief and grim future of only fanfiction.
Season 3 – much awaited. Predictions of how, not if, Ethan and Vanessa would finally protect each other from their inner demons and find the light together. Like most series, there was the blending of names, the will they/won’t they that keeps the viewer glued, the suspense at the undoing of a complex weave of intertwined individual narratives presented with costumes and sets that should have been in the theatre.
Maybe I was naive. Maybe I should’ve known better than to give my trusting heart to a creator who acknowledge long before that he had drafted the story arcs of the first three seasons. Maybe I should’ve recalled my Shakespearean tragedies and Victorian poetry a little more clearly from my three year toil through an English Literature degree. As I went to sleep on Sunday evening, knowing that when I awoke I would discover the fates of Ethan and Vanessa, hopefully Ethanessa, and Showtime’s renewal for the next two seasons, a nagging doubt entered my mind: the ratings weren’t stellar; Victorian literature is not obligated to make an ending happy and well, maybe it was just going to be one of those Mondays.
I reassured myself in the knowledge that the public like a happy ending and that is what is usually provided in works of popular television fiction. After all, real life is generally unpredictable enough with plenty of its own dark shadows to warrant writers shedding a little light. Surely John Logan would create a little happiness for his characters and the #Dreadfuls that followed the show so passionately.
I don’t like Mondays, especially that first gaining of consciousness when you recognise the working week has begun and your body hasn’t quite got the strength to embrace it. I should’ve been upbeat, looking forward to Tuesday’s double episode after soaking up the reviews that would leave me hanging on for season 4 and celebrating the reunion of Ethan and Vanessa, with a cliffhanger or two around whether they would ever actually be a couple. I had plans for Ferdinand Lyle’s character to reemerge next May, full of tales of legend and superstition from Cairo, Amunet and Amunra forefront in our minds after foretelling from season 1. I was hopeful of a glimpse of Ethan recognising Lily, seeing Brona through undead yet well-nourished skin. I wondered how close the monologue in my head, spoken by Ethan to Victor when he learned of Brona’s resurrection, would be to what Logan would script.
It was not to be.
Vanessa died. Ethan killed her. You knew this would happen. She had to return to God. It was all about her religion. The end. You’ll get over it.
What a pile of bollocks.
First, kudos to Logan. Penny Dreadful was brave and beautiful. It took concepts and notions and stereotypes to their boundaries and broke them. Eva Green’s acting; the exploration of Victorian England through science, perceptions of religion and the occult; the role of women (the portrayal of whom took an odd turn in season 3, but that’s one to explore later); our duality and the shades of grey that exist between the definitions of good and evil. And love.
As much as Logan now states that the whole show was Vanessa Ives’ loss and reclamation of her religion and there was no other way for it to end other than her death taking her to God I reserve the right, under the argument of ‘The Death of the Author’, to differ.
It was about love. And not Vanessa’s love for her deity, but a human love. Malcolm and his daughter, son, wife; his changing family; John Clare’s seeking of acceptance and a partner to share the hideous reality Frankenstein had created; Frankenstein’s own battle to deal with his mother’s death by defeating death itself and his own ability to love a woman (the whole Frankenstein/Jekyll chemistry needed a season of its own); and of course, Ethan and Vanessa. He was her guardian, the ‘Lupus Dei’ sent to protect her and in the course making the still teenage hearts of a variety of men and women flutter in the hope that the chemistry between them would come to bear fruit in an artfully dramatic and somewhat erotic way.
So much was promised, so many beautifully ugly cans of worms were unleashed on the viewers like tantalising spells, luring us in with lyrical prose and scrumptious sets.
For me, things started turning bleak around season 3, episode 2 – feel free to differ, dear Dreadfuls – with the exception of A Blade of Grass. The script wasn’t up to standard; some of the dialogue and monologues felt repetitive and on the verge of cliche. Yes, Logan was a master of the refrain which gave the script its poetic appeal, but my desperate willing suspension of disbelief was left dehydrated. Penny Dreadful is an unbelievable tale, as it is meant to be, but it had been delivered in such a way to allow me, as with a fairytale, to relinquish reality and enjoy the resemblances to my life in the context of safety. I could explore such emotions as the program would elicit safe in the knowledge that it would be put right – that’s why we love horror movies and novels. We can be scared because the monster under the bed isn’t really there. We learn, as children, to deal with these ‘false’ emotions in a place of safety. Penny Dreadful was that. It was my moors.
This season, I didn’t buy in. The whole America plot with Ethan was drawn out, although I did enjoy the dinner scene. We were meant to see him find his dark side, to explore and rationalise that darkness within himself so he himself could return to the light and Vanessa an unbroken man. And he did, just a little too quickly given the depths to where he’d sunk the previous season. He was clearly too late to rescue her, obviously men can’t battle their inner muppets without the girl being seduced by Drac, although this may be due to Logan’s decision for 9 episodes and there not being enough time to bring realism to this arc – if you recall, he said that Showtime had told him he could have as many episodes as he needed.
Sembene – was his name mentioned? Malcolm returned to Africa and John Logan missed a bloody big boat. How did Sembene know of Ethan’s fate as ‘Wolf of God’ apart from the obvious of seeing him howl at the moon? There was so much there to explore and I felt it was skated passed, just as one of my young students creates a beautiful story and then gets bored, sticking a quick ‘they all lived happily ever after. The end’ at the bottom of the page.
I was a little lost with the Lily sidestory. I’m not sure exactly how incompetent the police were back in 1892, but I’m almost certain they’d have caught a few of Lily’s alternative Suffragettes hacking off the odd hand. They’d be a certain amount of strength and skills to chop through bones as neatly as the pile of bloody fists suggested. As brilliant as Billie Piper has been, the lines where she asked her gang of girls to commit said deed ran flat: I’m not convinced the actor believed in those words herself: I definitely didn’t.
Why was Lyle binned off part way through the season? Yes, I see he might have had a happy end in Cairo, where the were more accepting of ‘his type’, but then the viewer was deprived of one of the few characters to bring genuine comedic lightness to the show. Surely, if this was always planned to be the final season, there was no reason to part him from his beloved Miss Ives, and the viewer from the ‘queen with lovely hair’?
And we never felt the full force of Ethan’s fury at discovering what Victor Frankenstein meant when he said regarding Brona: “don’t worry, I’ll take care of her”. Nor did we experience the potential love triangle between Lily/Brona, Ethan and Vanessa – in fact, add Dorian (you could pop in Victor) into that mix and you’ve potentially got a pentagram inside a pentagon! Maybe not very Victorian… hang on, I forget – Shelley, Byron, Keats – their love lives were hardly uncomplicated.
At the end of season 2 I had so much faith in Logan’s story telling. I knew I’d get back story, legend, folklore. I was positive I’d discover more about Lupus Dei and where it was foretold. I was sure we’d have another devil versus Vanessa battle so Ethan could save her. Even at the end of Ebb Tide where Vanessa presents her neck in much the same way as my cat presents hers to be stroked, I expected some twist of fate, some plot cooked up between Vanessa the superb Catriona, to entrap Dracula, end him to some extent then have Malcolm and the boys return with the next Big Bad for season 4.
Instead, after all of Vanessa’s fight and passion and acceptance of her difference from the norm, she gives it all up for a rebound shag in a museum (so Ross and Rachel.) which, despite the great pressure applied to her mental health, seems rather out of character. And, even after becoming a ‘great fertile bitch of evil’ and bringing endless night to London, she, very, very quickly, rediscovers her religion as soon as she lays eyes upon Ethan and enters heaven’s pearly gates. Her god clearly does forgive all, or maybe ‘our Lord’, as she said to Ethan, is not the lord we assumed. Granted, Josh Hartnett and Eva Green, as with the rest of the cast, are such superb actors this was carried off to near-perfection, it was Logan’s plot that provided the piss for the candlelit parade.
It was all foretold, Logan told us in the eulogy. Yes ‘claws will slash and tooth will rend’ certainly suggests Wolf versus Vampire but we didn’t really get that. Yes, season 1 had Vanessa calling Ethan cruel for not ending her suffering and I suppose the last episode shows Ethan’s selfless love in ending that and in theory returning her to god. I can see that, but that was a lot of foreshadowing, and more blatant than any was the whole ‘Lupus Dei’ premise. I’m still unmelting from Ethan’s, “You will not die while I’m here. You will not surrender while I live. If I have one goddamn purpose in my cursed life, it’s that.” And that’s what gave me hope, John Logan! Faith! That was my comprehended foreshadowing and if I got it wrong, it was your responsibility to ensure I didn’t!
So, like many Dreadfuls, I am broken. It’s just but a story, albeit two seasons and a bit of wonderfully crafted art. But it was more than that. This was my grown up Buffy, my go to comfort food, my visual Ben and Jerry’s-with-chocolate-mixed-with-a-dozen-wonderfully-crafted-G-and-T’s-without-the-hangover. I really wasn’t ready for it to end, especially in such a disappointing way. There is going to be no Ethan and Vanessa victory and however much John Logan may say it was the only possible ending, to fulfil Vanessa’s faith he broke mine. That can of beautifully ugly worms was clearly too much for Logan and Showtime to untangle. There is no satisfaction, too much still rides on the ebb of an intricately beautiful tide, whose gifts will never be presented in a neat and tidy proper final season.
Mr Logan, I thank you for two gloriously groundbreaking seasons that will forever have a cult following, several stand out episodes and reintroducing me to an era of history that is so compellingly intricate as well as reminding me what great writing is about.
You ended this series on your own terms: they just weren’t the same as mine.