‘Penny Dreadful’: A Great Series Undone by a Dreadful Ending

Image: SHOWTIME
Image: SHOWTIME

Penny Dreadful spoilers ahead…

How did we not see it coming? What clues did we miss along the way? Three seasons in and gearing up for an exciting cliffhanger to drive us crazy between seasons, we were suddenly cut off at the knees when lead female character Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) died and rolling credits informed us it was “The End.”

Perhaps the title should have clued us in. Penny dreadfuls were famously created in the 19th century when the possibility of mass-producing cheap print literature was finally realised. Named “penny” for the cost and “dreadful” for the nature of the stories contained within, penny dreadfuls were known for killing off the hero or heroine in gruesome ways. Vanessa’s tragic death at the hands of the man she loved could easily fit within the pages of one of these terrible stories.

It was not only Vanessa’s death, however, that lent weight to the truth of the title in the final episode of the show. Ethan Chandler/Talbot (Josh Hartnett) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) both received a conclusion fit for the pages of a lurid penny dreadful. Ethan was forced to choose between saving Vanessa’s life and saving her soul, a decision that saw him fire the bullet that claimed Vanessa. Sir Malcolm was left bereft of all his family and his own self-identity.

It can honestly be said that almost every character we had come to know was saved from a fate unfit for the pages of a fairy tale. There were key figures, however, who instead of falling prey to a trademark penny dreadful ending, seemed failed in some way by the writers in the closing chapters of this story. Whether it was missed storyline opportunities or sudden changes of character traits, some of our favourites experienced a finale that went from poor to just plain dreadful.

Image: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME
Image: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

Lily (Billie Piper) had just begun to build an army of abused women and was intent on setting them loose upon the unsuspecting male dominated London. And then, suddenly, it was all gone and Lily was very un-Lily-like in her acceptance of that fact. Just like that, then she was gone, a truly broken woman. The Lily we had all come to know would have raged at having her plans thwarted and the resulting bloodshed would have painted London red. A very disappointing ending for this fiery lady.

Creature (Rory Kinnear) underwent a profound personality transformation this season. We saw him find his humanity and regain his family, only to lose them again tragically, but that’s not the true tragedy for this character. A few episodes prior to the finale we learned of the past connection between Creature and Vanessa – a connection that existed before Creature’s death. Sadly, no storyline grew from showing this bond. In fact, Creature couldn’t even remember this time in his life. Maybe I missed the boat on some deeper meaning for this story, but it seemed to me the writers missed a golden opportunity to capitalise on it. Where they could have taken it? Who knows, but anything would have been better than the dead end this narrative received.

Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Dracula/Dr Sweet (Christian Camargo) both seemed to suffer the same fate of open-ended story lines. Both characters faced the indignity of being rejected by their lady loves…and then their stories simply ceased to be. As far as irritating endings go, I believe these two gentlemen hit the jackpot.

You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned Dr Victor Frankenstein. Well, in truth, I didn’t feel much sympathy for this man’s circumstances by the end of the season. His own selfish actions had led him to become borderline contemptible in his pursuit of Lily. His only saving grace was the moment he chose to free her from being his captive below the infamous Bedlam. This was easily the only story arc that stuck in my mind as NOT being dreadful.

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