Creator John Logan and Showtime’s David Nevins on the Decision to End ‘Penny Dreadful’

Why Penny Dreadful is Ending after 3 Seasons: Creator John Logan Q & A
Courtesy Showtime

This post contains spoilers about the season three finale of “Penny Dreadful.”

Two words appeared on the screen at the end of “The Blessed Dark,” the season three finale of the Victorian horror series “Penny Dreadful”: “The End.” As it turns out, the season finale of the Showtime drama (which was recapped here) was also its series finale. Vanessa Ives died in the last episode of season three, and the show will not return.

Variety spoke to Showtime president David Nevins and “Penny Dreadful” creator John Logan about why they made the decision to end the show after making a grand total of 27 episodes.

“That’s where television is now,” Nevins said. “We don’t have to make seven seasons for the sake of making seven seasons. Some shows are built for that, and some shows aren’t.”

I was just joking that Flaubert said ‘Bovary, c’est moi.’ And I say, “Vanessa Ives, c’est moi,'” noted Logan, whom Variety interviewed at the start of season three. Logan said he saw the character’s endgame approaching during the making of season two, and the writer, who is adapting Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” for Showtime, said wrapping things up at the end of season three just felt like the right decision. 

Why is “Penny Dreadful” ending?

Nevins: My short answer is, because John convinced me that this was the right end, and the right time to end. It gives closure to Vanessa Ives, and without Vanessa Ives, the show shouldn’t go on.

Logan: This is a show about Vanessa Ives and her struggle with faith — how one woman grapples with God and the devil. Midway through the second season, when we were filming it —so about two years ago— I realized where we were heading. A woman who loses her faith in the second season, she has to grasp her way back. What that would take? To me, that was an apotheosis — she would find peace finally with God. I realized that’s where the show was heading, and so I talked to Eva about it and then I talked to David.

There was no doubt in your mind that it had to end?

Logan: No doubt in my mind. Eva Green really is my muse, and I set out to write a story about a very complicated character that I love deeply. She represents so much of what I am, what I hope to be, what I fear I am. I’m deeply invested in that character. Then I met an artist, Eva Green, who inspired me more than any actor I’ve ever worked with before, and that became the show for me. To continue it past Vanessa’s death would be, for me, an act of bad faith.

Obviously the show has a passionate audience. But if the buzz and the ratings had been much greater, would there have been much more of an impetus to keep it going?

Nevins: I didn’t need more impetus to keep it going. This show was very effective and meaningful to us. I have a little bit of heartbreak over it. But ultimately every show I think has the right trajectory, and John convinced me that this was the right way to handle this show. It’s painful to me, but after a little bit of kicking and screaming, in a relatively short amount of time, I got it.

Logan: Some poems are meant to be haikus, some are meant to be sonnets and some are meant to be tone poems. And this was meant to be a sonnet. It just feels right to me. And I have to say it’s not just [working with Eva I’ll miss]. To get the chance to work with Josh Hartnett and Tim Dalton and Rory Kinnear day after day has been an absolute joy. Their commitment to the show is without equal. It was a tough decision for everyone. There was a lot of emotion involved. It wasn’t a blithe or facile decision. It was something we all talked about.

Nevins: Television is in a place now where each show can have its own sort of rhythm, its own trajectory. There’s not “one size fits all.” There’s no longer an economic imperative to get to 100 episodes in order to make a syndication deal in order to have a back end. This show is going to live for a very long time and I think it’s going to get re-watched. You know, “Arrested Development” went three seasons, and that was enough. It’s a very similar situation, and I think it’s exciting to handle each show as a very individual organism.

I sometimes wonder if the period aspect, the Victoriana of it all, which I loved, might have been an aspect of why it didn’t become even bigger.

Logan: That’s not a question I ask myself, because to me it’s the world it is. I’ve written a lot in my 30 years as a dramatist, and all I can say is when I meet fans of “Penny Dreadful,” they are more passionate, more engaged and more drawn into the reality of these characters than any fans that I’ve met in my life. So whether the numbers could be bigger or smaller, I can’t comment on that.

Nevins: This show is pretty big worldwide, not the biggest, so you may be surprised it’s not the biggest hit, but it’s been a significant show for us, in terms of audience and in terms of impact.

But you knew this was the final season going into it, right? Can you talk about that?

Nevins: We deliberately made the decision not to announce going into season three this was the final season, because given where we knew the season was ending, that would have been a massive spoiler. It would not have felt like the right way to handle this show. If it had been a more conventional show, I think I would have given a little more warning to the audience. But it felt like, in this case, that was the obvious move, but not the bold move.

Logan: Right. And also not appropriate to what “Penny Dreadful” is. What I hear from the fans time and time again is they love the theatricality of this show. They love the vigor, the panache, the fact that we’re not afraid to make strong choices and to surprise them and shock them and upset them. After the episode last season where Patti LuPone’s character was burned at the stake, people came up to me angry. They were so emotional about it. But that’s the kind of fans we have — very emotionally committed fans. And to treat them with less than absolute respect would have been the wrong thing to do. The way you treat them with respect is you give them what they want, which is strong drama and strong decisions.

If John had never broached the idea of ending the show, David, were you prepared to have a season four or beyond of “Penny Dreadful”?

Nevins: Absolutely. On its own merits this show would absolutely keep going if there wasn’t a creative reason to be done now.

This show had these themes of oppression, power, creating your own family, resisting power structures.

Logan: Breaking free.

Breaking free from your demon and accepting your demon at the same time. Did you feel like you got enough time to play with those themes?

Logan: Completely. If I weren’t, I’d keep writing. But those themes are also just part of me, and every writer has their themes. I’m an Irish-American writer, and the idea of damnation and salvation are in my DNA. That’s really what this show is about and really that’s a subject I will always return to, because at the end of the day, I don’t write to darkness. I write toward redemption. It doesn’t matter whether it’s “Penny Dreadful” or “Just Kids” or “Skyfall” — you have to write to the light.

What is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself as a creator from this experience?

Logan: I have more stamina than I thought I was going to. It is a tiring job, running a show, and the fact that if I could do it, I found very surprising and sort of delightful. In a way, the better answer to that is, I love writing episodically, because I’d always written in two-hour blocks. To write like Dickens or to write like Thackeray, to write like, “Tune in next week!” — it was a very fulfilling thing.

I’m just struggling a little with the fact that, this was a show that was so often about women empowering themselves. And then to see Vanessa actually sacrifice herself so that these guys could learn something, and so the world wouldn’t end — can you talk me through that?

Nevins: You have such conventional ideas of life and death. If you had a less conventional idea of death, you wouldn’t feel that way.

Logan: Exactly. Because the show is about empowerment, and she controls her own destiny. To me, whether you’re male, female, gay, straight, whatever — you control your destiny. You make the choices that are right for your morality and your ethics and your heart, and that’s what she does. She owns her life, and at the end of the day, she owns her death.

Nevins: I mean, I understand the feeling. By the way, a lot of people are going to have that feeling. I think it’s complicated, but I did mean what I said. I do think if you consider death a defeat, if you see death as a giving-in, if you think of death as sacrifice, then you’re going to feel that way. But I don’t think John sees it that way, and I don’t think Vanessa sees it that way. She chose good over bad.

The characters do learn something at the end. Victor Frankenstein did not try to re-shape Lily into what he wanted, and the Creature did not try to reanimate his child. A lot of these characters got catharsis or some kind of growth.

Nevins: I honestly did not know which way John was going to go. We had a lot of conversations. I did not know that it was just going to be about choosing the light, choosing God. If you had asked me a year ago, I could have easily seen John going the other way.

Logan: The season was structured for this to be the final chapter and to be satisfying as the final chapter. That’s why in this season, Ethan loses a father but gains a father in Sir Malcolm. Sir Malcolm has finally lost the last remnant he has of his family, which is Vanessa, but he gains Ethan as a surrogate son. Dorian Gray is left alone, framed in a doorway as if he’s in a portrait, in this wistful, poignant place. Lily is left empowered, walking out and choosing to live any sort of life rather than live the compromised life with Dorian. It was meant to all come together in this episode, all the strands.

Why did Vanessa have to die?

Logan: Because she’s a character desperately in need of peace, and the mortal realm was not going to give it to her. The options were the realm of the devil or the realm of God. And her way to achieve apotheosis, to achieve God, was to die and go to Heaven, and find the peace of the grave. That seems appropriate to the tone of the show. What I find remarkable about the ending is that she gets what she wants, which is to die and go to Heaven and be with God. That’s a shocking message for 2016, to tell that story, but that’s what it is. It’s about a woman who believes in something deeply, and is willing to sacrifice her life to attain it.

When she gave in to Dracula, it seemed like part of her felt total relief not to be fighting anymore. But was going off with him partly a ploy, part of this endgame we saw in the finale?

Logan: It’s certainly not what I intended, although if I had thought of it I might have done it. I just think the [conflict] in Vanessa’s character is evident from the first episode — that is, it’s very easy to be wicked and it’s very hard to be good. In that moment, she said, “Let me be wicked. It’s easier. Let me relax into evil.” But at the end of the day, that’s not who she is.

But in the actual moment of her death, she seemed like she was at peace — she was ready for the long battle to be over. Was that what you were going for there?

Logan: Yeah, with all the candles. It’s a room made for ascending.

You have the Patti Smith series you’re working on for Showtime. Was the existence of that an influence on this show ending?

Logan: Not at all. Showtime’s the only TV home I’ve ever had and the only TV home I’ve ever wanted. I learned how to be a showrunner and how to write for television sitting across from David, with him teaching me. That’s been incredibly exciting. The fact that I’m writing my next project for David and for Showtime is joyous for me.

Nevins: There’s always a degree of grief when a show that you love, that you had such an intense emotional connection tom goes away, particularly with a death. But I’m trying to change the way that we approach shows. Every show has its own thing. I’ve bragged about “Homeland’s” ability to reinvent itself, because its subject matter can keep going. The question with this show was, is it a show about Vanessa Ives and her battle with temptation and the devil and God, or was this a show about Victorian literature? To John, it was very clearly a show about Vanessa Ives [and had to end when she died]. Fortunately, we have enough strength across a calendar that each show can be handled in the right way for that show. This is the right way for this show. Fortunately for me, I get to go back with John to a different time and a different place — the Chelsea Hotel in 1972 — which is going to be really interesting.

Your show was a Romantic poet — it died young.

Logan: [laughs] The Keats of television.

Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse — Vanessa checked all those boxes.

Nevins: That’s how John Logan rolls.

Logan has a message for fans in this video, and the cast reflects on the way the series wrapped up in this video.