It all comes down to this. After nine episodes of build-up, Penny Dreadful ends its second season by destroying the status quo.
Let’s bitch it out…
I’m tempted to use the old adage “not with a bang, but a whimper” to describe the finale of S2 of Penny Dreadful, but I don’t want to suggest that the finale doesn’t check all of the boxes (It does). If anything, this reminds me of a True Blood finale, where the crux of the season’s conflict is wrapped up around the halfway mark and the remainder is dedicated to setting up the next season.
After last week’s stunning, cliffhanger-filled penultimate episode, series creator and writer John Logan wisely resolves the outstanding issues first. We pick right back up where we left off: with pretty much every single character in mortal danger. Viktor (Harry Treadaway) and Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) are being haunted by apparitions of their own guilt, Ethan (Josh Hartnett) has mauled Sembene (Danny Sapani), Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) is being choked to death by a Nightcomer and Vanessa (Eva Green) has come face to face with her ultra-creepy simulacrum.
Over the next twenty minutes or so, the tension continues to rise as the forces of darkness tempt our protagonists. Obviously Vanessa is the focal point of these scenes since Poole (Helen McCrory) has spent the entire season orchestrating Vanessa’s conversion to the dark side. The Dark Angel doesn’t seem very tactical with its taunts, but by the time that Vanessa is offered a hint of what she desires most – normality – the stakes have been suitably raised.
I’ll admit that the “vision” that accompanies Vanessa’s definition of normality is intriguing. Throughout S2, we’ve watched Vanessa grow steadily closer to Ethan – following the Nightcomers’ attack, at the Cut-Wife’s cabin – but I wouldn’t have expected that Vanessa’s perfect fantasy would be a family with him. It’s an ideal straight out of a catalogues, with the perfect nuclear family (one boy, one girl, both adorable) decked out in clean tan and white linens in a palatial home bathed in light. It’s such a stark contrast to the hell Vanessa and the others find themselves in; it also offers a nice contrast when she and Ethan eventually meet back up in the darkness at Malcolm’s house. Reality for these two is very different from her fantasy: here there are no children, their clothes are black, and the only light is the faintest hint creeping in through the window.
That’s appropriate for this series. These are inherently morose characters, steeped in tragedy and sadness. One of Penny Dreadful‘s greatest assets is its outstanding production design: from the costumes to the sets to the lighting, the series brings Victorian London to life in its most bleak and pervasively gloomy conditions. I like that the climax of the battle with Poole is resolved not because of heroics, but because the characters embrace the darkness within. The day is saved only when Vanessa gives up on God and draws on her dark magic, crushing her vice-tempting doppelganger and pronouncing herself Master. Poole is similarly not dispatched by a last minute effort by Viktor, Malcolm and Lyle, but by a transformed Ethan who doesn’t know what he is doing.
In the aftermath, we’re left to pick up the pieces. Ethan (mistakenly) decides that his darkness is too much for Vanessa and turns himself over to Detective Rusk (Douglas Hodge), who practically cackles with childlike glee and informs the former gunslinger that he’s being extradited to the US. Malcolm, meanwhile, decides to accompany Sembene’s body to Africa. Left alone in Malcolm’s cavernous house, Vanessa turns her back on God and burns her crucifix.
That leaves Viktor, who – following a harrowing encounter with new lovers Dorian (Reeve Carney) and Lily (Billie Piper) – similarly loses himself to darkness (ie: drugs). In hindsight, Viktor’s S2 journey ranks least interesting to me, if only because he was often peripheral to the main story lines. Still, thanks to him, we have a pair of legitimate adversaries in place for S3 as Lily and Dorian bloom into full-blown monsters, surviving Viktor’s jealousy-fuelled murder effort with aplomb (rocking matching white outfits, no less!). Their self-proclaimed ascension to the status of the immortal master race would undoubtedly come across as melodramatic and over-the-top had we not already bought-into Lily’s madness over the last few episodes. If nothing else, it should be exciting to watch two of the series’ most sidelined characters finally take hold of the reins in their effort to take over the world.
- This show loves to pack a visual punch and the finale includes two such stills. The first ocurs after Hecate (Sarah Greene) orchestrates the disposal of her “mother” and sets the doll room on fire, leaving a fiery pentagram burning on the floor (top image). This image mirrors Lily and Dorian’s candle-infused bloody dance floor routine (above image). Both use fire to create a sumptuous deep focus image with plenty of detail to examine.
- Also: I love how Hecate proves her villain mettle when she does a slow walk away from the burning house. Classic.
- I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy how Clare (Rory Kinnear) dispenses with the Putneys. After suffering through their offer to compensate him if he agrees to be a “friendly” freak, he breaks out of their flimsy cell when they go too far and suggest that he become a “father” to the new freaks. A quick snap of the neck kills Mrs. Putney while Mr. Putney (David Haig) succumbs to a severe head bashing. Perhaps the sweetest revenge, however, is reserved for the deceitful blind beauty, Lavinia (Tamsin Topolski), whom Clare leaves in silence to discover her parents’ fate. Mrs. Putney was expecting Clare to scream, so it’s a perfect irony that the last we hear of Lavinia is her screaming. Total perfection
- I quite liked the Vanessa / Clare scenes earlier in the season and their final goodbye is just as lovely. It is particularly touching when he asks her to accompany him on his search for a desolate shore and she declines with a kiss – the first and only time the Monster has ever been shown genuine human affection
- RIP Sembene. I hate that of all the people lost, we lost you
- The finale ends on a particularly grim note as our characters are scattered abroad: Malcolm is on a boat to Africa, Ethan is in chains on board a vessel en route to the US and Clare is aboard an icy tall ship (in the Antarctic?). Presumably half the battle of the early episodes of S3 will be reuniting the team.
- Finally, I love that this show somehow convinced me to buy into Eva Green having a dramatic devil-speak showdown with a doll fashioned in her likeness. Oh Penny Dreadful, I’ll miss you!
- Vanessa (destroying the simulacrum): “Beloved, know your master.”
- Lyle (shooting the Nightcomer): “Never underestimate the power of a queen with lovely hair, my dear.”
- Vanessa (kissing Clare): “I think you are the most human man I have ever known.”
Your turn: Did you like the finale? Were you surprised when Poole was dispatched halfway through? Are you sad that Ethan turned Vanessa down? Surprised that everyone is scattered to the wind? Excited to see Lily and Dorian step up? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful has now wrapped up its second season. It has been renewed by Showtime for a third season, which will likely debut next summer.