Before I dive into why I thought this series finale was so disappointing, I have to begin by saying that Penny Dreadful was the first show in several years that I followed obsessively. For years prior, I had been uninterested in anything with an ongoing story and preferred to watch shows that didn’t require any real commitment. I was also studying clinical psychology and working with adults and children who had experienced various traumas, so any extra drama or stress was actively avoided. However, when I discovered Penny Dreadful, I was hooked by its supernatural forces, famous literary figures, brilliant actors, poetry, and powerful score, amidst the backdrop of Victorian London. I think that most of the first season is perfect, and although the second season did not have a strong start, it eventually found its footing and had a satisfying conclusion. The third season, however, often felt awkward and inconsistent, and was disappointing overall. However, Penny Dreadful’s abrupt and mostly unsatisfying ending did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of this series, which I still love to rewatch and revisit.
The Flaws of “The Blessed Dark”
The series finale is riddled with narrative flaws, cringeworthy dialogue, and heavy-handed sentimentality. The series’ penultimate episode (“Perpetual Night”) included one major flaw that carried over into the final episode. In “Perpetual Night,” Dracula (Christian Camargo) could have easily killed Ethan (Josh Hartnett) during their confrontation. But he doesn’t. After Dracula briefly chokes Ethan, he throws him into a wall and leaves. Ethan shapeshifts into his werewolf form, and—joined by Kaetenay (Wes Studi)—tears his way through a horde of vampires.
Dracula conveniently leaves before this battle occurs, so that in the beginning of the series finale, “The Blessed Dark,” a young vampire tells Dracula about the fight that took place after he departed. Dracula responds, “So he comes for me…”; he looks surprised, as if he is just discovering something. But this doesn’t quite make sense since Vanessa (Eva Green) told Dracula about Ethan already. Also, if Dracula was aware of the prophecy, why wasn’t he expecting Ethan? It would have made more sense to keep them separate from each other until the final episode, because now they’ve already had a confrontation, so this moment with Dracula feels like it’s a forced attempt to build toward something that has already happened. In short, this moment really has no emotional impact.
Then, we see all of the vampire children prostrate before Vanessa as she slowly walks the corridors of Dracula’s fortress. Dracula says, “He’s coming, your Mr. Chandler. I have reason to fear him. He’s foretold as my singular enemy.” Vanessa says, “Fear not all prophecies. We defy them. We make our own heaven and our own hell. Let him come. He and I shall write the ending in blood, as it was always going to be.” Again, if he was Dracula’s singular enemy, then why would he allow this potential interloper to live?
As Ethan awakens, he confronts Kaetenay about having turned him into a werewolf. Ethan rages about all of the people he has murdered and screams, “Their blood is on my soul!” I think I actually laughed the first time I saw this scene because the line feels so forced, and again, has no effect. Then, referring to the end of the plague and Dracula’s reign, Kaetenay says, “Only one man can stop this!” The story starts to feel more and more clichéd, and this comment also doesn’t make sense because there has never been a singular hero in this show. And further, if anyone were to be named as the main character, it would certainly be Vanessa Ives.
On the positive side, one of my favorite moments in this episode was when Dr. Seward (Patti Lupone) uses the rhythm of Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) cane to induce a state of hypnosis in Renfield (Samuel Barnett). The way this scene was written, as well as Lupone’s performance, are both stellar. Dr. Seward says, “You’re safe with me. Let’s walk there, shall we?” and they enter his mind. As Renfield is steadily hypnotized, he becomes receptive and responsive to Seward’s requests. We see Renfield and Seward walking together through his memories, and Renfield begins to confess to her. Renfield says, “You know, I wish we had been friends, you and I. If I had known a friend like you in my life, I mightn’t have ended this way. So pitiful and pale. No one ever believed in me, you see. No one cared.” Renfield, who had been Seward’s secretary, was more of sniveling creature than a man, but in this moment, he is human. I thought this scene was a beautiful depiction of two people moving outside of their established roles and into a clearer, more human way of relating. I also thought it was a much more artful way to depict an interrogation, rather than simply beating or torturing someone for information.
Underdeveloped Characters, Unclear Motives
Although I enjoyed Reeve Carney as Dorian Grey, after the first season Dorian did not really have a clear role. Dorian had no involvement in the witches’ plot in season two, and other than being a companion of Lily’s, he did not serve much of a purpose in season three. Dorian did provide housing for Lily and her army until she was eventually taken down by him and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), but once Lily is released by Frankenstein, she returns to Dorian’s mansion. I suppose it was for the sake of closure but I still felt it was not entirely necessary. However, I was relieved to see her survive and leave Dorian behind. Whether she was playing Brona Croft or Lily Frankenstein, Billie Piper had the most powerful monologues of any character in the entire series and her performances never ceased to move me.
After we say goodbye to Dorian, we observe a conversation between Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif) and Victor Frankenstein. Unfortunately, Dr. Jekyll never had an opportunity to shine in this series. He, like Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), was added in the third season, but due to the limited number of episodes, his character never has the chance to develop or transform into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. There is a reference to his impending transformation when he says, “One day, you will all understand that of which I am capable,” but his statement doesn’t really land anywhere because we know we will never see it. This is the final episode of the series, so threats like this simply fall flat. It was nice to see Frankenstein spar with a colleague for a change, instead of the undead Lily or John Clare (Rory Kinnear), but other than that, the last-minute inclusion of Dr. Jekyll felt like a dead end.
There was also so much forced sentimentality in this episode that I probably strained my shoulders and neck from cringing so much. At one point, Kaetenay says to Sir Malcolm, “You would have made a mighty Apache!” I cringe every time I hear this line—it has to be one of the cheesiest pieces of dialogue in the entire series. There is also a notable special effects blunder. In one scene, Sir Malcolm and company enter a room filled with dead bodies and rats. The bodies are supposed to be dead and fully drained of blood, yet their skin looks quite healthy. The bodies are all also young and very fit. This whole setup deprives the moment of any shock or horror and adds to the feeling that this episode (and season) were carelessly thrown together.
The Final Battle
When Catriona, Sir Malcolm, Dr. Seward, and Frankenstein enter Dracula’s lair searching for Vanessa, Dracula gives them a chance to leave because Vanessa desires their survival. This does not make sense to me, because if this is the “End of Days,” why would Dracula spare anyone’s life? And if Vanessa has truly given herself over to darkness, why would it matter to her if they survived or not?
Before the battle begins, Sir Malcolm asks Dracula about his deceased daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn). This exchange felt like an attempt to tie the Dracula storyline to season one’s storyline about Mina, but it has been so long since the Mina narrative has even been referenced that the question feels forced and basically irrelevant, as the story is and has been largely centered on Vanessa. Once the battle begins, it is initially quite entertaining, particularly watching Catriona slash her way through hordes of vampires. Penny Dreadful has always done well with action sequences, especially when they feature lead characters fighting through legions of enemies. Then, Ethan and Kaetenay emerge and begin shooting their way through the masses of vampires. Ethan confronts Dracula, who begins throwing him around the room. The others distract Dracula so that Ethan can run and find Vanessa. Now, I assume that Dracula doesn’t just murder everyone because Vanessa requested that they live, but for a monstrous vampiric demon whose minions have taken over the whole of London, it just felt unbelievable. Further, this moment always reminds me of turn-based fighting systems in video games, in which the enemy or villain patiently waits their turn to attack. As a kid, this battle system was a blast, but in live action, it is laughable.
Similar to the issue of Sir Malcolm bringing up Mina’s death, I think Ethan and Vanessa’s final encounter would have had more weight had they not been distanced from one another for so long, especially considering they never fully expressed their love for one another. After Ethan left for America at the end of season two, it became apparent that he and Vanessa would probably never be in each other’s lives again. As a result, this final reunion lost much of the power it could have had.
At the end, Vanessa begs Ethan, “Please, Ethan. Let it end.” She grabs his pistol, puts it in his hand, and says, “With a kiss.” He responds, “With a kiss. With love.” Vanessa says, “With love.” They finally kiss, and Ethan begins to recite the Our Father prayer, and eventually she joins in. The frustrating thing about this moment—and about Vanessa in general—is her litany of the ways in which God has left her or abandoned her, yet on several occasions she chose to act destructively, engaged in murderous black magic, and even had a spiritual and sexual affair with Lucifer. Regardless, Ethan pulls the trigger, she says, “I see our Lord,” and dies.
Outside, Dracula is choking Sir Malcolm, and somehow the rest of the cast, though incapacitated, is still alive. Once Dracula sees that Vanessa is dead, his shadow flies across the room and disappears. The cast gathers together and looks up at Ethan holding Vanessa’s body. The sun’s rays pierce the clouds for the first time in ages, and regardless of previous blunders in this episode and the third season, this is indeed a powerful moment. The poisonous smoke begins to disperse and fades from the skies of London, and its citizens breathe freely once again.
Although I have my complaints about this episode and the third season, I do think the final moments of “The Blessed Dark” are lovely. A score of lush violins and cellos fill the air as Ethan enters Vanessa’s empty bedroom. He leans against the wall and sits alone for hours, until Sir Malcolm walks in and says, “And what now? Never have I so wanted to run away.” I find it quite satisfying to sit with these characters as they examine who they are now and imagine who they might become now that Vanessa is gone and the war is over. John Clare (aka Frankenstein’s monster) takes his son’s corpse to the water and lets him go, denying his crazed wife’s wishes to have the child resurrected by Frankenstein. John Clare again acts with more humanity than most of the human characters in the series, and I thought this was a beautiful way to end his story.
Eventually, we see Vanessa’s casket being loaded into a carriage as John Clare recites an excerpt of the William Wordsworth poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Frankenstein, Sir Malcolm, Ethan, Catriona, Kaetenay, and Seward attend the funeral, and gradually leave one by one. Once they disperse, a solitary John Clare kneels at Vanessa’s grave and places his hand on the bare earth, finally able to honor her. Although the Wordsworth poem that John Clare recites does not end with the line, “Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” it stands as a fitting end to a series that was dreamlike, glorious, and deeply poetic.