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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Penny Dreadful: Perpetual Night and The Blessed Dark

Well, I'm not sure what to do with this. If you're anything like me, you feel completely blindsided.
I had forgotten that the last two episodes of this season would air on the same night, and the moment I saw the change in opening credits I knew I was watching a Grand Finale. Which means I initially tuned in to Penny Dreadful expecting at least one more week of viewing, as well as a forthcoming announcement for a fourth season.
Nope, this is it guys. The show is finished.

I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes, but it feels like John Logan either got bored with his creation and scurried to wrap things up, or was told half-way through writing/filming this season that he wasn’t going to get another one. The latter option seems more likely, but the Variety interview with Logan and Showtime president David Nevins suggests the channel was quite keen for another season, only for Logan to decline.
Logan goes on to say he always planned to end the show like this, though between the lack of any announcement regarding this season being the last and the extremely strange trajectory that these final two episodes took, I find that hard to believe.
Granted, there are aspects to making a television show that can't be controlled (things like actor availability, network demands, budget constraints) and there were a few times in which Penny Dreadful clearly had to write around real-life problems: for example, Sembene's actor quitting the show to seek out greener pastures (not that I blame him) and Simon Russell Beale's theatre commitments necessitating the late arrival of Catriona as a replacement who ended up being the most bizarre case of an Eleventh Hour Ranger I've ever seen.
And let's face it, we've seen multiple times that Logan is excellent at atmosphere and build-up, but terrible at climatic payoff. Remember when Mina was abruptly shot in the head? Or when Vanessa faced-off against a doll instead of Helen McCrory? Or when we spent nearly two seasons with Inspector Rusk only for him to die without achieving anything?  Or when Dorian... just Dorian in general?
But these two episodes felt utterly at odds with the story that's been building for the last three seasons, and as a finale it makes the odd decision to dish out good/satisfying endings in reverse order of how important a character is. The more central a character, the more frustrating their send-off.
As such, there's no better way to tackle this review than to go through each character one at a time...

The finale's setup is very simple: a thick mist has covered London and the creatures of the night – frogs, rats, vampires – have taken over. Over seven thousand people are dead after breathing in the poisoned air, and the remaining residents are (presumably) staying behind locked doors. It's to this city that Ethan, Malcolm and Kaetenay return, and immediately go about finding Vanessa.
Catriona Hartegan
As mentioned, she was a truly strange case of an Eleventh Hour Ranger; introduced only three episodes before the show's conclusion and getting none of the background or development of the other characters. I'm at a loss to explain her presence – surely Simon Russell Beale's commitments elsewhere weren't so demanding that he couldn't have given Vanessa the necessary exposition on Dracula before departing.
Because other than that, she served no real purpose.
As much as I liked the character and was looking forward to seeing more of her, I can understand why others remained cold, as she reminded me very much of Talisa in Game of Thrones. Talisa came across as a WWII nurse incongruously plonked into a medieval setting, and Catriona had the same anachronistic air: the leather duster, the dusky eye-makeup, the Buffy-esque fighting moves.
But more damning, her presence very much undermined Vanessa and Lily's story arcs. What exactly have Vanessa and Lily to fear from the patriarchy when there's a woman like Catriona who can wear pants without question, fearlessly walk the streets at nights, and effortlessly defend herself against hordes of vampires? Just like Talisa, who left her home and family to pursue a nursing career without worrying about rape or murder or any of the other dangers that filled her environment, Catriona felt completely out of place in this context.
And yet, she got a great ending: lots of fun one-liners and some of the best fight scenes in the entire show. I'm sorry we didn't get to see more of her, especially regarding those time-travelling rumours that were floating around.
Henry Jekyll
The next rung up the ladder belongs to Henry Jekyll, perhaps the most obvious bit of evidence that Logan initially had plans for a fourth season. Ultimately he serves no real purpose in the grand scheme of things: never going anywhere near the apocalyptic A-plot and contributing nothing but the serum Frankenstein needs to domesticate Lily.
Surely there was meant to be more to him than this. And yet I really enjoyed the reveal on his Mr Hyde persona: after revealing to Victor that his father has finally died and he's inherited his title and estate, we learn that Hyde isn't a monstrous alter-ego – it's just the title of an English aristocrat.
There was no duality here, no dark transformation – just a bitter, angry man. Victor once said to him: "good and evil braided be," and with that in mind the new Lord Hyde departs for his own story.
Kaetenay
Kaetenay didn't really get a lot to do here, but I'm pleased that he made it through in one piece. Though his relationship with Ethan has always been a little undercooked (simply because we have no clear idea of how complicit he was in the death of Ethan's family) I have nothing against their reconciliation, and his "good hunting" exchange with Malcolm was a great little coda to their camaraderie.
But of course, his transformation into a werewolf was one of the highlights of the episode, and got an "aw yeah!" from me. I didn't see it coming, but the reveal was handled beautifully. Finally we get some answers, however vague: Kaetenay was the original werewolf, initially believing he was called to defend his people against the white man, only for a vision to reveal his destiny was to pass it to Ethan so that he could use it save all people (remember this, because I'll be back to complain about it later).
Aren't you glad Logan gave us all those scenes of Ethan trudging through the desert and confronting his oblivious father so that he could skimp on the actual origin story of the werewolf curse, which is finally recounted to Ethan in a couple of seconds in a back alleyway? Sigh.
Strangely enough, Ethan neither knew that Kaetenay was a werewolf, or that he was the cause of his own transformations. Oh, Ethan. You're the Jon Snow of Penny Dreadful, knowing and understanding nothing.
Doctor Seward and Renfield
Samuel Barnett has perhaps been my favourite Renfield of recent years, and here he even manages a degree of pathos in his scenes with Doctor Seward. She initially finds him eating frogs in her office and quickly realizes that he's lost the plot. Her own contribution to the plot (see what I did there?) is to seek out Vanessa at her house, run across the rest of the Scooby Gang instead, and use Renfield to find Vanessa's location.
It's nicely staged, with a reuse of the technique she used with Vanessa to break into her memories of the white room – in this case she uses the rhythmic tapping of the cane and the sound of her voice to explore Renfield's mind and bring forth the answer she seeks.
And naturally, she gets the best line of the episode when Malcolm suggests she take up Dracula's offer and leave unscathed: "fuck him." It's all in the delivery.
It's a pity Logan never did anything particularly interesting with the fact Patti Lupone played both Joan Clayton and Doctor Seward. There surely could have been a more metaphysical reason than just a family resemblance, and I can't help but wonder if he was hinting that a little bit of her ancestress's magic awoke in her when she was depicted walking alongside Renfield in his fugue state. 
Perhaps that scene was meant to be an abstract depiction of her hypnosis, or perhaps she truly did reach into his mind and pluck out the answer she needed. After all, her answer to where Dracula resided came from her noticing a forgotten sign on the road; completely unmentioned by Renfield himself.
I'm also unsure whether Renfield crossed into true vampirehood at Dracula's hands, but I like to think Seward eventually returned to Bedlam in order to help him find peace (he was clearly a very troubled man even before Dracula came along).
Dorian Grey
He's been with us since the start of the show for reasons that were never particularly clear, but this time around Dorian caught me off-guard by actually being pretty compelling – in his last scene at least.
I thought the prostitutes (who are still sitting cheerfully around the dinner table as though London isn't completely covered in a killer fog) were done for, but instead Dorian just demands they leave. Justine puts up a bit of a fight, but on realizing it's hopeless she opts to die on her feet than to live on her knees. He obliges in a surprisingly gentle manner.
In the grand scheme of things Dorian existed more as a supplement to other people's storylines than anything resembling a standalone character (existing first as temptation to Vanessa, then as a sponsor of Lily's crusade) but his final monologue suggested that perhaps this was the point. He is an immortal, perpetually unchanging and inert. There was a strange sort of poignancy to his final shot, framed by the doorway and surrounded by portraits, telling Lily that the immortal life stretching before her will be bereft of passion or affection: "I'll be here. I'll always be here."
I think in those final moments we finally got to see who Dorian really was, though it does little to excuse his complete lack of relevance to the overarching storyline of the show. I had been waiting in vain to see how he would eventually be integrated into the main plot (surely the circumstances of how he became immortal in the first place was a story worth telling?) and the amount of commentators I've seen complaining that they never got to see his portrait demonstrates just how forgettable it really was.
Victor Frankenstein and Lily
Now we're moving into the more important regular characters, and their stories manage to be relatively rewarding while still leaving massive holes filled with unanswered questions in their wake.
Last week's reveal that Brona had a daughter during her lifetime felt a little random at the time (and honestly, still does) but it pays off when she uses her memories of Sarah as a final trump card to secure her freedom. Dorian doesn't fall for her offer of a last kiss, and Victor is unmoved by her begging, so she begins to speak of Sarah in a way that suggests she is doing it as much for her own benefit (knowing this could be her last chance to recall her daughter) as it is a last-ditch effort to save herself.
Billie Piper blows it out the fucking park. Before Penny Dreadful who could have ever expected she had this sort of talent in her? It's enough to reach Victor, who finally, finally does the right thing and lets her go free.
Perhaps the most touching thing about it is not his mercy, but Lily's. She had every right to snap his neck, but she doesn't. Likewise, she had every right to snap Dorian's neck – but doesn't. On seeing the body of Justine she is quiet and resigned. Her crusading fervour is gone.
If she was driven this whole time by her love for her daughter, I doubt she'll ever return to Dorian, not in any of the long years ahead of her. Dorian will stay in his house, causing private destruction to anyone who enters. Caliban will remain on the outskirts of the world, weeping and reciting poetry. But Lily? I have hope for Lily – she re-found Brona's warmth and compassion, rejected Dorian's speech of isolation and nihilism, and left with her head held high.
I have every confidence she'll be a force for change in the world. Not bloody revolution, but the real, positive change that comes from helping one individual at a time. Her story is only just beginning.
On the other hand, Victor's character arc is more or less over from the moment he decides to free Lily. His inclusion in the assault on Dracula's lair is almost comical – on his way out of Jekyll's laboratory he literally bumps into Malcolm who pretty much says: "hey, Vanessa is in trouble again – wanna join up with these random people and go save her?"
He's not there for any reason beyond the fact he's one of the core cast members and it would be remiss not to include him in the final battle. (And of course, in the wake of Vanessa's death it's obvious he's learnt his lesson since he doesn't offer to resurrect her).
But at the same time, his reunion with Malcolm and Ethan is deeply frustrating. Let's face it, he got clean away with the crimes he committed against Caliban and Lily, and not only will he never have to answer for them, but nobody else will ever find out.
I started wriggling with excitement when Ethan went looking for a doctor after Malcolm was injured, knowing that it would take him straight to Frankenstein and the sight of Brona/Lily chained to a chair – but as it turned out, Ethan never crossed paths with his old love. I'd been looking forward to that since season one!
And of course, Victor never again sees his original creation. Speaking of which...
Caliban/John Clare
In a direct inversion of the season one finale, when Caliban leaves the theatre right before the rest of the gang arrives, it's not until the departure of the gang from the graveyard that John Clare appears. Ages ago I assumed he would eventually be integrated into our group of outcasts and fight alongside them, but alas – it was not meant to be.  
Obviously his happy ending with Marjorie and Jake was temporary: despite plans to visit a range of places once the fog clears, his son dies in his sleep. But then the ball drops, and I can't believe I didn't see it coming: Marjorie orders her husband to take Jake to Frankenstein for resurrection. Oh dear.
Poor John Clare, who has only ever seen himself as a monster refuses, but Marjorie insists. It's her very love and acceptance of John that makes this scene so heart-breaking, as she is perhaps the only person (sans Vanessa) who has never viewed him as a monster – and so to her it's unfathomable that he wouldn't agree to bring their son back to life.
She gives him an ultimatum, and it's obvious he's not coming back. The next we see him, he's taken his son's body to the river. It's simple and tragic and (since Logan had already played out the fate of his book counterpart in journeying to the North Pole) as fitting an ending as you could anticipate.
I don't mind that we never learned his true name, or how he died, or how Frankenstein gained possession of his body (I assume it was grave-robbers, which is why he gave his son to the water, ensuring that no one else could get their hands on it) but his face on returning to Vanessa's house to find her funeral process is perhaps the most heart-rending thing in the entire episode. It's not a clean ending in the way his son's death was, since he's never even going to find out how his only friend died.
That he lurks in the shadows while the other mourners pay their respects is fitting, and – I have to give John Logan this – the final shot of him kneeling before her grave; a man with eternal life paying vigil over a woman's eternal rest – was magnificent. I hated pretty much everything else about Vanessa's ending, but damn it if this shot isn't perfect:
In hindsight I wish that Vanessa hadn't identified him as the orderly at the clinic – it would have been even more poignant if neither she nor he had remembered their time together (leaving it solely for the audience to know) but forging a close post-resurrection/post-trepanning connection without fully knowing why.
Malcolm Murray and Dracula
Now we're almost at the top of the ladder, with the two characters that can best be described as the hero and villain of the season, and who were both utterly short-changed by this finale.
I recall an interview somewhere or other in which Timothy Dalton mentioned he didn't have a lot to do this season – and it's true. His role was to follow Kaetenay's lead and shoot Jared Talbot in the head.
It's a damn shame that he never got even one scene with Vanessa, especially since their relationship in season one was the touchstone of the show, and although I liked the mention of Mina and what Dracula did to her, Malcolm never gets the chance to avenge his daughter.
And Dracula ... hoo boy. Dracula, our seasonal Big Bad whose appearance has been teased since the very first episode of this show – just disappears. He's not defeated, he just leaves. Why, after Catriona tells Vanessa that he takes on different forms, did we not get to see his true, monstrous self? Why, after all the foreshadowing that Ethan would be his downfall, including the direct quote: "[he's] foretold as my singular enemy" did we not get to see that actually happen?
Because honestly, if you get Dracula and the Wolf-Man in the same room together, you let them fight! That the show straight-up skipped this is downright baffling. It's like watching Alien vs Predator or Freddy vs Jason and not having them face-off at any point.
I'm completely flummoxed here guys.
Ethan and Vanessa
Which brings us to our star-crossed lovers. Did the show fail them? I think it did.
I've already mentioned the bizarre choice not to have Dracula and Ethan fight each other, despite all the prophesising that they would, but as it turns out Ethan's entire story across the past three seasons was building up to nothing particularly interesting. Vanessa didn't need Lupus Dei to save her, she just needed a guy with a gun. Anyone would do.
The reveal of Ethan's werewolfry at the end of season one was masterful, coming as a gasp-inducing surprise despite all the clues pointing to his condition strewn throughout those first eight episodes. The second season introduced the concept of Lupus Dei or the Wolf of God, putting Ethan right in the centre of the show's mythology. He had a destiny, his name was inscribed on ancient artefacts, he was chosen by God – we just didn't know for what.
But there was an element to Ethan's purpose that didn't make much sense, one that he points out himself to Kaetenay: in his years as a werewolf he's killed dozens if not hundreds of innocent people. Why on earth does God allow his instrument to do reap such carnage? Another problem was the fact the audience was never given any clear facts about Ethan's condition – for the longest time I wasn't sure whether Ethan himself knew he was a werewolf, or whether he was just experiencing unexplained blackouts.
Yet one thing was made clear by the finale: Ethan's werewolfry would somehow save the day. It was a condition that vampires and witches alike seemed preoccupied with, it was the reason Kaetenay made him one in the first place, it was a destiny and a curse placed upon him by God.
Except...not. Ethan's role as the Wolf Man didn't mean a damn thing. It plays no part in reaching Vanessa, destroying Dracula, or fulfilling Vanessa's last wish. 
So it's hard not to feel that Ethan's entire role in this show has been rendered entirely pointless. If anything, he made Vanessa's life worse since abandoning her in her time of need only made her more vulnerable to Alexander Sweet. She also wouldn't have been left on her own in the wake of the witches' defeat considering Sembene wouldn't have been killed and Malcolm been given no reason to leave her.
To not provide justification and pay-off to Ethan's role as the Wolf of God is to fail Storytelling 101. I don't really know what else to say.
***
And so now we come to Vanessa.
I'm not even remotely surprised that our dark heroine of the past three seasons was relegated to only two scenes in this finale, clocking in approximately five minutes of screen-time. Logan has long-since set the precedent for anti-climactic endings.
But I just don't understand what happened here. What Vanessa's story amounts to is a woman who fights relentlessly against forces that are trying to invade her mind and body, only to finally give in to them and then ask for help in assisted suicide. I can't read this scene as anything but Vanessa giving up. And what kind of ending is that?
When I look back over three seasons of Vanessa, a couple of things stand out. Although it was never spelt out clearly (to the story's detriment) Vanessa was hinted at being the reincarnation of the demon/goddess Amon-Net, whose union with either Lucifer or Dracula would bring about the end of days. Every time Vanessa was possessed, it was because Amon-Net had surfaced and taken over her body. Every time she spoke the Verbis Diablo, Amon-Net grew a little stronger.
Though Vanessa grappled for control over this demon, a part of her liked its presence. This not only had to do with sex being the trigger for Amon-Net's takeovers, but because of the constant battle within Vanessa's mind that was not between good and evil, but specialness and normality. It was a theme that often emerged across all three seasons, and it was tied closely to Vanessa's identity and understanding of herself. Even as she held fast to her Catholic faith, it was to Amon-Net's power that she turned to whenever threatened by her opponents.
As Lucifer pointed out to her when he appeared in the guise of Malcolm, her free will was paramount. Nothing could happen without her consent; she could "close the door at any time." Being the target of supernatural forces and an object of desire made her special, and she wanted that.
Yet at the same time, she longed for domestic normality, as glimpsed in the vision Lucifer conjures for her at the end of season two, in which she and Ethan have two children together. The question that's been strung out across all three seasons is: which side of herself would Vanessa choose? Her supernatural uniqueness or her common humanity?
Or, would she find a way to Take a Third Option? Admittedly this was the type of resolution I was hoping for: that Vanessa would reconcile the two sides of herself, assert power over the dark forces both internal and external, and gradually reclaim her faith over the course of a life well-lived.
John Logan obviously had different ideas. He finds a fourth option, one that prioritizes the show's Gothic aesthetic over Vanessa's characterization.
Sure it looks amazing - but at what cost?
In the lead-up to Vanessa's appearance, my stomach sank at the way Ethan was repeatedly described as the man who had to rescue/protect Vanessa, as well as the Save the Girl mission that the narrative had become. When we finally see Vanessa properly, she's gone full Bride of Dracula: loose hair, red eyes, sweeping gown. I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking at. Did she get turned into a vampire? Was Amon-Net back in control? Whatever the particulars, the premise is spelt out pretty clearly: Vanessa had accepted herself (those were her actual words to Dracula: "I accept myself") and having done so she now wants Ethan to Mercy Kill her.
In other words, Vanessa has embraced who she is: the Mother of Evil. Even her simple act of self-acceptance brings death and destruction. Vanessa therefore has to be destroyed in order to save the world. The whole point of this story was not to save Vanessa, but to save everyone else from Vanessa.
Sorry, but I can't get behind that creative choice.
Surely the right path for Vanessa's character and story arc would have been for her to finally embrace both sides of herself and strike out a path that had nothing to do with either Ultimate Evil or Ultimate Good (and I say that as someone who was a little impressed at Logan's audacity at having Vanessa's faith vindicated – it's not a storytelling choice that happens much in these secular times).
I was fully expecting Vanessa's submission to Dracula to be some sort of long con. Knowing she couldn't destroy him herself (because she loved him just a little?) she brings the Wolf of God to his door. Either through Amon-Net's power or her love for Ethan (or perhaps a mixture of both) she can break through the Wolf Man's mindlessness and command him to destroy Dracula. This was the great destiny God had planned for Lupus Dei, and Ethan's redemption.
With Dracula gone and Lucifer banished, Vanessa finally has control over herself and her abilities. Amon-Net might still reside inside her – will always reside inside her – but she's strong enough to command it. Her soul is saved, her enemies are defeated, yet she'll always remain close to the darker currents of the demimonde.
Though I was never preoccupied with the shipping side of things, it would have been a fitting end for Vanessa and Ethan to return to the moors and the house that Joan Clayton bequeathed to her. She could have found renewed purpose in becoming the village's new hedge-witch (though without the immolation this time).
By all means, have her faith returned to her – but in a quiet, understated way, not with all the bombast and drama that we got here. How much more satisfying it would have been for Vanessa to choose life on her own terms, and then re-find God in the rising sun or the kindness she bestows on others or the peace she finds on the moors – not as a desperate last-ditch attempt to escape the mortal coil.  
So, what did we get instead? Vanessa convinces Ethan to shoot her in the stomach and then dies in his arms, using her last breath to tell him that she can see God and is on her way to heaven.
For the past couple of days I've been asking myself whether I disliked this outcome because it's objectively not good, or because it's simply not what I wanted.
It's not like I can't grasp what Logan was going for; I can even appreciate certain aspects of it. As this review points out, Vanessa's death has been foreshadowed constantly – most obviously in her adulation for Joan of Arc. Ethan's blasphemous take on the Lord's Prayer at his father's house was transformed here into an earnest recitation with Vanessa, deliberately marking his development from a savage beast to an instrument of salvation. His decision not only echoed Vanessa's sentiment to Mina back in season one ("I love you enough to kill you") but was well in keeping with the Gothic aesthetic that in many ways was the reason for the show's existence.
And with this, we've reached peak Gothic.
And after all of Vanessa's grief and suffering, how can you look upon her ascension as anything other than the ultimate happy ending? She dies and goes to heaven. For Vanessa the person, it's all she ever wanted (well, except for all those times she craved the darkness instead – but I've already gone over this).
But for Vanessa the character, it just doesn't feel right. This is a woman that fought and fought and fought, and then she gave up but it doesn't really matter anyway because she dies and goes to heaven. How is that even remotely satisfying from a narrative viewpoint?
First of all, Ethan and Vanessa have been through this exact same scenario before. In season one Vanessa begs Ethan to shoot her after she becomes possessed by her inner demon, and he responds by performing an exorcism. To play out the same scene again, only to end it with death instead of hope, feels narratively wrong somehow.  
It reminds me of the BBC's Robin Hood, which had the season one finale revolve around saving Marian's life, only for her to really get killed off at the end of season two. It's deflating and repetitive and cruel. In both cases I was left thinking: well why not just kill off that character the first time around? In Vanessa's case it would have been the preferable option, since she does little but suffer in the intervening time between her fake-out death and her real death, and manages to kill off seven thousand innocent Londoners in a poisoned fog while she's at it.
Secondly, despite Logan's talk of Vanessa's agency and martyrdom, this feels like yet one more addition to an already very long list of dead female characters in 2016. That's not his fault, but Vanessa's death ticked several gendered boxes that might well be Gothic requirements, but are still tired out clich├ęs when it comes to dead women.
When male characters die, they not only get to do a lot of good before their deaths, but more often than not are allowed to take the bad guy down with them, or save someone else's life in the process of dying. Some recent examples just off the top of my head: Robin Hood, King Arthur, Spartacus, Maximus, Jack Shepherd – or even the original Wolf-Man, Lawrence Talbot.
When female characters die, it's often by accident and/or to provide man-pain and/or because their deaths are required to save the world. Think of the female characters we've lost this year alone: Lexa, Laurel Lance, Abbie Mills, Yidu, Poussey – they all fit into at least one of those categories and are just from the shows I'm familiar with.
Perhaps I'm generalizing, and I've no doubt these examples will be taken as an invitation to provide me with dead female characters who don't fit into those categories, but we can certainly add Vanessa to the list of those who do. In comparing her to the aforementioned male characters who die heroically and leave the world a better place, Vanessa probably caused more suffering than happiness during her lifetime (everything from Mina's heartbreak to the deaths of those seven thousand Londoners), doesn't get to take down Dracula with her, and ends up begging a man to kill her so she can finally just quit.
(And don't tell me she was saving the world – the fact that she succumbed to Dracula is what endangered the world in the first place).
I was disappointed by her passivity, by the loss of her fire, by her suicide by proxy, by how accepting herself led her to conclude she had to be destroyed, by the fact that she just gave up – first to Dracula and then to death, by how the whole thing reminded me of Wolverine killing Jean Grey at her behest in The Final Stand (why would you want to channel that movie, why??) and by the way in which Vanessa was reduced to a tragic waif in keeping with the show's Gothic tone but at odds with her entire characterization up to that point.
***
But the underlying problem is even bigger than all that, and it's going to take a while to unpack.  
There's an obvious reason why God seldom appears as a character in supernaturally-themed "good versus evil" stories, and that's because he's the ultimate deus ex machina. He's omnipotent and omniscient. He can't intervene or else there would be no story. The bad guys would be rendered ineffectual and the struggles of the good guys would be rendered null and void, since at the end of the day they can die and go to heaven and forget about all the crap on earth.
In real life, this is an idea that may or may not bring comfort, but when we're dealing with fiction, the minds of the reader and the characters needs to be on earthly struggles. That's where our investment lies. That's why God can't get involved. Going to heaven is like a narrative "get out of jail free" card, where any and all preceding plot is rendered pointless. In any given story there has to be a slight tension surrounding the question of God's existence and the mystery of death, otherwise there's no need to care about what happens in life.
A timely example is the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Jon Snow has been brought back from the dead, but can share no information about any sort of afterlife and clearly has suicidal/nihilistic/depressive tendencies in the wake of his resurrection (you can't convince me he cared all that much about whether his army won or lost against Ramsay). He's already crossed into the great unknown, now he has little interest in the daily grind of the living.
Without any sort of understanding of the metaphysical/spiritual rules and realities that govern his world, of course Jon is going to behave as though the battle ahead of him doesn't really matter. We have to rely on other characters and our own investment in the story for that, because Jon has already checked out.
Whatever else their faults, the writers know that they can't have Jon return to life with any clear answers about what's waiting for everyone after death and what their purpose is on earth. That would take all the wind out of the sails of the story they're trying to tell. (See also: Melisandre's recent crisis of faith, which calls into question the existence and purpose of the Lord of Light).
The situation in Penny Dreadful is almost a complete inversion to that of Game of Thrones. Unlike Game of Thrones, which has dozens of opposing religions and belief systems, Penny Dreadful is set firmly within a Biblical context. Demons and vampire and witches are real, are an integral part of the story, and therefore – so is God. There's no question as to the structure of the show's metaphysical world as there is in Game of Thrones.
Now in the real world, we all at one point or another ponder the question: if God is real, why does He allow suffering? The go-to answer is that He won't/can't interfere with free will. But once you put this inevitable question into the world of Penny Dreadful, things get stickier. Vampires and witches and other monsters are free to wreak havoc on Vanessa's soul. So why didn't God intervene? It's not like she didn't spend half her life begging for divine intervention.
From a Doylistic perspective, I've already given the answer: if God had exercised His power in protecting Vanessa, then there would be no story. But from a Watsonian angle, from within the context of the story, His absence is glaring.
We see Vanessa praying desperately, yet she gets nothing in return. Every time she successfully fights back against her attackers, it's because she's drawing upon her own power (or Amon-Net's). Apparently God arranged for Ethan to be his Wolf, but I've already mentioned how pointless that turned out to be.
So when God finally appears to Vanessa in her dying moments, my first thought was: "where the heck has He been all this time?" Why was God so silent in this story?
And ultimately – there was no real story anyway. God's Doylist absence didn't justify Vanessa's struggle to fight against the forces of evil, because his Watsonian appearance left me wondering whether there was actually any point to her life at all. She suffers, she succumbs, she dies.
It's just a hopeless, muddled mess to me. I'm not even sure if I managed to explain it properly.
***
I can take John Logan at his word that he always intended Vanessa to die – but looking back over these two final episodes makes me seriously doubt that he planned to do it at the end of season three. Something happened behind-the-scenes that either forced him to rush to the finish line, or make him lose interest in a fourth season, because there were way too many loose ends and last-minute additions for me to believe there wasn't meant to be at least one more season to wrap things up.
In fact, it's pretty clear to me what the original plan was. If season three had vampires and Dracula as its Big Bad, and season two had witches and Lucifer, and season one not only introduced both these foes but also Vanessa's demon, then a hypothetical season four would have logically dealt with Vanessa (or rather, Amon-Net) as the biggest threat that our heroes had to face.
The resurgence of Amon-Net would naturally take the action to Egypt, the seeds of which were already sown with Ferdinand's departure there earlier in the season. This would not only give us the chance to learn more about the whole Amon-Ra/Amon-Net prophecy that was introduced in season one, but also provide the opportunity for an Imhotep/Mummy subplot.
I've already mentioned Jean Grey, and so I can't help but feel that Vanessa should have been given a Dark Phoenix arc of her own, in which she rejects both God and Lucifer and simply revels in her own identity. Obviously this would cause a fair amount of destruction, but the final Ethan/Vanessa scene as it was depicted here would have felt a lot more justified had it come after a season's worth of Vanessa unleashing her power on the world.
And of course, one more season would have given Logan more time to expand on new characters such as Doctor Jekyll and Catriona Hardegan, who surely had more story in them than what we got. The fact that Mr Hyde never truly manifests is a blatant oversight, and I recently learned that it was John Logan himself who wrote the screenplay to 2002's The Time Machine. If Catriona's last name was indeed cribbed from that film, can there be any doubt she was a time-traveller? (And if so, perhaps she could have been the one to uncover the origins of Amon-Net, courtesy of a little jaunt to Ancient Egypt).
There would also be time to have Ethan/Lily find each other again, for Frankenstein to once more cross paths with his Creature, and to delve into the details of Dorian's immortality.
Miscellaneous Observations:
The opening credits of the final episode are stunning: a haunting song played over past images of the core cast, each one caught in a moment in which they were particularly lost and/or alone. As well as a prayer to a God that doesn't seem to be listening ("why aren't you here?") it's also a lullaby (literally sung by a woman to her baby) that ends on a note of almost pathetic childishness ("wouldn’t that be nice?" – "that" being the promise of heaven).
I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, only that it captures the question at the heart of the show: of whether there's any light to be found in a very dark and desperate world. And much like the song, the show itself never definitively answers that question – it can only acknowledge that it would be nice if such a thing were true.
What was up with the dead wolf hanging over Vanessa's bed? I guess it was meant to be a warning for Ethan, but I was left wondering who cleaned it up afterwards.
I suppose I shouldn't point out that Malcolm's fears of becoming a vampire after he gets bitten were unfounded: he would have had to exchange blood with his attacker in order for that to happen. Then again, Logan tossed the rulebook on vampire lore out the window a while ago, and after Catriona cauterizes the wound it's never mentioned again anyway.
Speaking of which, was it just me or were Malcolm and Catriona flirting just a little? Again, I'm sure this was a dynamic that would have been explored more in season four.
John Clare mentions the novel Kidnapped to his son – the sequel to which features a character called Catriona. Coincidence? He also refers to himself and Jake as "thee and me", an odd choice of words considering we've come to associate that phrase with Lucifer.
I'm pretty sure the vampire child that leads Ethan into a trap wasn't the same one Vanessa interacted with at the start of the season. I wonder why they switched actors. Sudden growth spurt?
So what does being the Mother of Evil actually entail? Apparently standing in a candlelit room, staring at a blank wall. Heck, maybe Vanessa asked Ethan to kill her out of sheer boredom.
***
How can I end this review, knowing it's going to be my last ever review for Penny Dreadful? I'm long past the days when I have prolonged meltdowns over stories that disappoint me – by now I'm an expert at cherry-picking the elements I found meaningful and disregarding the rest. I've already played my How It Should Have Gone scenario several times in my head and found a sense of closure with it. I got to enjoy the beautiful journey Penny Dreadful accorded, even if it didn't stick the landing.
And yet... I have to go out on a disappointed note. I wasn't expecting a happy ending for Penny Dreadful, but I at least wanted a hopeful one. This wasn't hopeful. It left me feeling as empty and bereft as the Creature kneeling at Vanessa's grave.
Granted, Vanessa's fast-track ticket to heaven can certainly be described as a "happy" ending, but the audience can't follow her into it. Heaven has nothing to do with earthly happiness, and so it's impossible to fully imagine, experience or understand Vanessa's joy; not in the same way we could have grasped the notion of her returning to the moors to find peace there.
I didn't want the show to end like this – not with Vanessa's death and not without any sort of pre-warning that this was its final season (seriously, what was that about?) I wasn't ready to say goodbye, and the more I think about it the more obvious it seems that it ended prematurely, and in such a way that undermined the arcs of several key characters.
Still, I can be grateful for one thing: that all our monsters (even Dorian!) finally found their humanity. In amongst all the cobbled streets and macabre mansions and shadowy graveyards, it was that tiny flame of kindness and compassion that gave the show its emotional centre. Farewell Penny Dreadful.

2 comments:

  1. Your review is impeccable and I appreciate how much detail you've delved into. It's such a shame we won't get the ending Penny Dreadful deserves.

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    1. It is a shame, but thanks for your kind words. Who knows, perhaps one day John Logan will return to this project: these days it seems as if *everything* is returning in one form or another. Then there's always the possibility of supplementary material...

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