This past Sunday was the two-hour long finale episode of Showtime's Penny Dreadful. Which as a fan of the show I did not realize was truly "The End" until the title card appeared, even though with the death of Vanessa Ives it seemed pretty likely that it was over.
I'm left conflicted. This was a logical conclusion to the three season story arc, but this show was so unique in current period or theme dramas that I selfishly wanted it to continue for years. My feelings toward characters have grown and changed and evolved over and over and I was consistently entranced and provoked with each episode and revelation.
For instance, with the introduction early in this season of "Doctor Sweet," I had an argument with my father (also a fan of the show) over whether or not he would prove important in the coming events. As we now know, he was super important and pretty much the catalyst for the end of the show.
The real question about Penny Dreadful though, is what made it so special? In a world of television currently dominated by The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful wasn't given the same level of attention or appreciation. The only way I could get conversations at work going on about this show was to urge co-workers to check it out and catch up. Many had never even heard of it, in contrast to those who don't even have HBO knowing a whole lot about Game of Thrones or even non-genre lovers knowing that everyone and their sister is worried about someone named Glenn on The Walking Dead. Penny Dreadful was a quiet Gothic ensemble drama that drew from the origins of science fiction and horror to give us characters like Dr. Frankenstein and his "monster," and Dracula, and the "wolfman," and Satan, and witches, and even Dorian Gray. There were explorers and mystics, scientists and psychics, whores and johns, and dying children. The colours were often dark and dreary with the faint touch of rot always at the edges, illustrating a time and an era that is fading and falling apart at the seems. There was copious quantities of blood and violence as well as the "smaller" acts of cruelty that honed and sharpened the women in the show into a towering examples of power.
The real strength of Penny Dreadful rested firmly in the hands of the female characters. There were many "big strong men" who were either trying to be heroes, or actively villains, but the women and their responses to their environment and history are what compelled me to keep watching. A few of the men were shown to have atypical relationships to the women around them and they were also engaging in their complexities.
Lily, played so beautifully by Billie Piper, starts out as a prostitute named Brona Croft, who is dying of consumption. She is a survivor and does what she has to to survive. She briefly has an almost romance with Ethan Chandler (the wolfman of the story), but she catches the always selfish and self-centered eye of Dorian Gray and ultimately is killed and resurrected by our dear Doctor Frankenstein. She is his third, and most perfect, "creature." Re-imagined as "Lily Frankenstein" she starts out innocent and without memory of her previous life, but as time goes on she starts to remember all the cruelties and pain and degradation that she suffered at the hands of men. Initially she tries, unsuccessfully to seduce "John Clare," the first Frankenstein monster, to join her in murder and domination, but he is ultimately too sensitive and gentle a man to go that route. Instead, she connects herself to Dorian Gray and together, they cut a bloody swath through London while she collects a small army of fallen women, training and teaching them to kill the men that hurt them.
Lily is consistently assumed by the men around her to be only a prize or token that they can use as they see fit. Dorian wants her for her immortality and cruelty. Frankenstein wants her for her endless and perfect beauty and because he feels entitled to her. Doctor Jekyll wants to test his latest serum on her because why the hell wouldn't he use an immortal female test subject? None of these men see Lily as a complex and complete individual with her own needs and desires and strength. Frankenstein is perfectly willing to erase her memory again and drug her into compliance to have unlimited access to her flesh. Dorian kills her favorite companion to make a point, and had given her willingly to Frankenstein because he was bored with her. He was bored with her. Lily is tossed around like a doll between the men who think they know what they want and what she is. What Lily is, is strong. She survived the death of her daughter. She survived the abuses of man. She survived the resurrection process. She survived Frankenstein shooting her in the chest for insulting his manhood. She survived being with Dorian Gray. She survived, and she found her voice and her purpose and she fucking terrified the men around her. Lily was an example of what men fear in women. A willful, dangerous, woman with a purpose that has nothing to do with serving the needs of the men around them, and will gladly kill any that get in her way and any that hurt her sister women in any way. Lily is a take no shit, show no mercy dynamo and one of the most intriguing and interesting characters I've seen on screen in a long time.
Ethan Chandler, the gunslinger from America, and a werewolf, starts out the story on the run from his past in America. He has linked up with Sir Malcolm Murray the explorer. Ignoring his habit of getting all furry and toothy during the full moon, he is a rather kind, albeit stand-offish man who falls very hard for the prostitute Brona Croft. Obviously that romance is doomed as she is dying and when she is resurrected as Lily, she no longer remembers, or desires the tender attentions of Ethan.
Ethan ultimately falls in love with Vanessa Ives, the glue that holds the ensemble cast together. Vanessa is where the story starts and ends. But she is cursed and does not feel worthy of love or happiness and ends up sending Ethan away. Briefly he hooks up with a witch, Hecate, and dabbles in intense darkness and violence against those who hurt him previously. In the end his love fulfills a promise that ends the story.
The reason I included Ethan in my admiration of the strong feminist story is because never does he assume any weakness in the women around him. He never sees them as objects to be either used, or protected, or manipulated. He expects the women to be strong, assumes they have their own power, and is comfortable being with or next to women who make their own choices. Ethan was played by the gloriously attractive Josh Hartnett and was one of the most classically handsome characters on the show. He could have easily been portrayed as a "lady killer." Instead he was shown to be a romantic at heart, being gentle and loving and very reluctant to cause any hurt to the people around him, always attempting to atone for his past. Except of course for when he does encounter his, truly awful, father again. But he comes back from that moment stronger for having closed that chapter of his life.
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is the heart of Penny Dreadful. She is a complex and fascinating character, so artfully written and acted that it was a joy to watch her for three seasons. Vanessa is convinced that she is cursed to be the Mother of Darkness. She seduced her best friend's fiance on the eve of their wedding and destroyed a life-long friendship that ends up leading to her friend's death. That friend being Mina Murray, Sir Malcolm Murray's daughter, and a very public victim of Dracula. Vanessa spends the series alternately fighting against, or welcoming, the darkness she believes is irrevocably a part of her. She is strong, and fragile, faithful and damned, loving and cruel, depressed and cheerful, alternately and all together. Vanessa is poised and educated, articulate and multilingual, both innocent and seductive. Eva Green's sharp features and dark eyes add to the hypnotic aspect of her performance. Vanessa may be the pivotal character in the show, but each and every other character has their own arc and actions and reactions independent of her and her destiny. Vanessa isn't crazy (even though she spends quite a lot of time in an asylum), she is in fact being pursued by both Satan and Dracula who each want her to spawn darkness on the world. That she was a virgin until she seduced her friend's fiance and then does not have sex again until her relationship with Ethan, and a third time with Dracula himself, adds to the level of innocence in the strong and seductive body of Vanessa Ives. She carries herself as a woman with experience and maturity, though when it comes to relationships, she is unskilled and clumsy. Unfortunately her last act and acceptance of her own sexuality is her undoing as she does in fact spawn a plague that is spreading and will only end with her death. This is probably my least favorite part of the story. Vanessa truly was cursed and doomed and she was pretty much killed by owning her own desire. Not the most positive message. But she did choose to die instead of letting the darkness spread, and she was killed "with love" by Ethan. The one man she truly could have loved.
Penny Dreadful is a strong, dark, gripping Gothic fairytale that takes us through many stories and many lives and I wish it could have continued. I understand why it ended when it did, but selfishly, I wanted more. I hope that it opened the door for more unique period dramas to come.
I'm Kirsten. Some things you could label me with; tattooed, geek, mama, animal lover, weirdo, nerd, writer, movie and TV addict, lazy, ambitious, insomniac, feminist, LGBTQ+.