This post contains spoilers for “Penny Dreadful” Season 3, Episode 9, a season finale titled “The Blessed Dark.”
Update June 20: Check out this Variety story for an explanation of why “Penny Dreadful” is ending.
Those words flashed on the screen just after John Clare/The Creature finished reciting a poem (Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”) at the freshly dug grave of Vanessa Ives, who died near the end of “The Blessed Dark.” Is this the end of Vanessa, or the end of the show? Because it certainly seems as though you can’t have one without the other.
Either way, those two words and the elegiac nature of the poem served a very useful purpose: They communicated the idea that Vanessa is really most sincerely dead. That is a necessary thing in this era of fake-out deaths and revivals that sometimes diminish the very idea of death. Returns from death can be dramatically effective, but sometimes it’s best for a dead character to stay dead, and though “Penny Dreadful” has of course revived characters in the past, the drama seemed pretty intent on underlining Vanessa’s exit and making it seem very final.
It wasn’t the only notable change, though it was certainly the biggest. In the last couple of episodes, various characters have demonstrated that they’ve learned something through all their travails. Clare rejected the idea of a revival for his son, at the cost of his relationship with his wife. Like Frankenstein, Clare/the Creature finally demonstrated that he was determined not to make an old mistake again. The melancholy man said goodbye to his son, and broke free of a painful old pattern. It was a a poignant scene that also made me realize that nobody drinks water on this show because there are dead bodies floating around in the Thames.
In all seriousness, “Penny Dreadful” takes death seriously. Lily rightly called out Dr. Frankenstein for reviving her for his own selfish purposes, and brilliantly dissected the ways in which he uses science to control and shape others into the people he wants them to be. Death and madness were, for him, just obstacles to bulldoze through, with heedless cruelty. The whole message of the finale was that some kinds of suffering are better than others; Frankenstein would have to work through his resentments, not take them out on yet more helpless bodies. Clare chose not to put the kid through more suffering, even if that meant that he had to continue on alone. He would endure more pain if it meant causing less for someone else, and for a man who has been pretty petulant since he came back from the dead, this was progress.
Characters made momentous decisions that stuck as season three wound down. Ethan embraced his nature, even if it meant that his role as Vanessa’s champion forced him to kill her. Ethan also accepted his new role as Malcolm’s adoptive son.
And after fighting the dark forces for her whole life, Vanessa chose to die in the arms of someone who cared about her. She’d cause Ethan pain, but her suffering would end and the rivers of blood in the street would dry up. If she’d done all that, only to be revived and have her life drawn out, that would be the kind of emotional dodge that “Penny Dreadful” has gently castigated for three seasons. It’s a high Gothic/Victorian melodrama, and yet it’s a story in which choices have consequences, and that seriousness of intent has grounded the show’s wilder forays and flashier moments.
Vanessa believed in the Christian God, and that has a bearing on this moment of finality as well. Much of the imagery and the language of all three seasons came from various Christian traditions; there were other cultures and spiritual practices (some incorporated better than others), but to Vanessa, dying and going to Heaven and facing a real God was not an abstraction. It was a goal she lived her life around, and losing her faith was the most serious thing that ever happened to her. It would go against what Vanessa deeply believed to be brought back to life somehow in order to march through Victorian London again, clad in a truly impressive array of beaded dresses and capelets.
So Vanessa is dead, and I have no problem with that, though of course I’ll miss her presence on the TV scene, if she is gone for good. But sometimes that’s the way you pay tribute to a character — not by dragging out his or her quest, but by letting the individual find a way to achieve a core goal and exit stage left. But what about how the show arrived at this final showdown, and what about how everything shook out in the finale? That’s where I had some problems.
I have to admit, Vanessa’s death felt oddly anti-climactic; this show has made me cry in the past, but I was mostly dry-eyed during the finale. Vanessa largely exited the narrative once she gave in to Dracula; it caused me a good deal of anguish that there seemed to be more screen time devoted to Renfield, of all people, than to Vanessa in the episode that contained her death. To have her offstage for so much of the season’s conclusion seemed off. (Though I have to add that, thanks to Renfield, we got to feast our eyes on the following gloriously Victorian tableau this season.)
I’ll also admit, I wish she’d gone down swinging against Dracula, who just wafted away once he realized the jig was up. What if she had died fighting him, instead of asking Ethan to kill her? That said, the somber, bittersweet death scene was wonderfully acted by Josh Hartnett and Eva Green.
Then there’s the image of a woman sacrificing herself so that the men at her graveside could learn something. I continue to wrestle with that, but overall, I do understand that she wanted her death to serve a purpose — she chose to end her own pain, in a way that would deny Dracula his prize and end his reign of terror in London. Even though she chose it, there was something a bit passive about her death, but I find it hard to convince myself that she should have stuck around for more torment.
If you know the story of “Hamilton,” it’s possible to view Vanessa as doing what a character in that musical does — she’s “taking herself out of the narrative.” That was how it was for many women in Victorian times (and before then, and now) — their choices were limited. Even so, Vanessa’s death is happening in a wider context — a lot of women are dying or otherwise being sacrificed so that various TV shows can meet their narrative goals. Vanessa’s exit could well become more fodder for that ongoing debate, and in any case, I acknowledge there are a lot of complex ideas to wrestle with here.
One thing I know for sure: I was so not ready for Ethan and Vanessa to be done. Anyone with a pulse who saw “Little Scorpion,” the season two episode in which they snuck off to her cottage on the moor to wear chunky knits and trade Significant Glances, had to want a lot more to happen between those two before Vanessa’s exit from this earthly realm. The show really began to drive home the connection between Ethan and Vanessa in season two, and then in season three, he crossed a continent and and ocean to be with her — and they shared too little time together in “The Blessed Dark.” For most of the season, they were apart, and throughout the history of the show, they never had sex. [Long pause for me to shake my fist at the sky and scream inarticulately.]
And what about Dr. Seward? Of course there was the spectacular episode, “A Blade of Grass,” earlier this season; we got some of the off-the-charts Patti LuPone-Eva Green chemistry in that episode. But given that the duo’s season two origin story, “The Nightcomers,” was the show’s best-ever episode, there was not nearly enough of those two in this season, especially in the finale.
Though I have a huge amount of affection for the show, “Penny Dreadful” has always had a habit of keeping around more characters than it could adequately service, and not always following through on pairings and storylines that worked well until the show lost interest in them. It’s telling that “The Nightcomers” and “A Blade of Grass” were episodes that focused tightly on a small number of characters and worked incredibly well as a result. This is a show that lives to create emotional intensity, and those episodes allowed “Penny Dreadful” to go to the tough, beautiful psychological places that, at its best, it explored with spectacular results.
My third-favorite episode of the show so far, season one’s “Possession,” was more of an ensemble piece, but after that, the focus on Vanessa grew. And that was certainly understandable; the pairing of John Logan’s writing and Eva Green’s incredibly committed and versatile performance was one of the things that kept me tuning in. When both were on fire, the results were highly entertaining and sometimes quite moving.
But what if the show had cut down on the extraneous characters and focused as deeply on the core crew a little bit more in recent seasons? The quests, attitudes and problems of Frankenstein and the Creature/Clare were very similar to each other, and both storylines were often very repetitive. And the phrase that I’ve repeated more than any other as I’ve watched this show is, “Why is Dorian Gray still around?” He hasn’t had any real connection to the main narrative for a long time, he rarely actually mattered to anything that was going on, and a pose of studied indifference gets old quick. I always wanted more of Sir Malcolm and Ethan, and maybe it makes me greedy to say that this season didn’t give me quite enough of either.
That said, “Penny Dreadful” wasn’t about linearity or logic or things like that: It was about creating moments — speeches, confrontations, cathartic scenes and visuals that just went for it. My guess is that Dorian was largely kept around in season two just so he and Lily could create that macabre and memorably bloody dance at the end of the season.
In any event, the show’s tendency to keep various narrative threads pretty separate and disconnected intensified this season: There was the Clare family drama, the Western narrative with Malcolm and Ethan, the Dorian-Lily storyline and the Frankenstein-Jekyll lab plot. They weren’t very connected, for the most part, until the end of the season, and even then, they weren’t really all joined up for long, at least not in ways that wrung the most resonance out of the key relationships.
But again, this is a show about moments, and thanks to Lily, we got a very powerful one in the season three finale.
The men in Lily’s life, Dorian and Frankenstein, were threatened by the fact that she not only no longer needed them, they were entirely superfluous to her. Once she achieved true independence, they reacted with rage, petulance, mansplaining and other displays of entitled frustration.
“Penny Dreadful” has some sketchy politics (characters of color are quite often treated as exotic Others who exist to help white characters save the day; see also Sembene). But the themes of feminist anger in Lily’s story were entertaining, even though that storyline had all the subtlety of a knife slicing through a carotid artery.
No character was more resistant to true moral knowledge than Dr. Frankenstein, but Lily finally got through to him with the story of the life and death of her daughter. That sad tale conveyed the core messages of “Penny Dreadful,” which kept me watching for all three seasons because of the humane compassion at the heart of the story.
Lily talked about how our pain is often what defines us, but there can beauty even in our most difficult memories. Regret and grief don’t destroy the joy we’ve experienced thanks to love and sacrifice. Pain and self-hatred are real, but so are connection and delight and sweetness, and it’s not possible to neatly separate any of those things from each other. Life, real life, is about how all of those things are often mixed up together in one chaotic, unpredictable ride.
That’s not a bad description of “Penny Dreadful.” I’ll miss Vanessa, but, like a Romantic poet, she lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse. RIP.