We watched Penny Dreadful recently, a show that finished its run on Showtime a year or so ago and then washed up on the shores of Netflix. Of course, we began watching the series before reading the spoilers and reviews which suggested that the third (final) season was terrible and disappointing, but it starts off pretty gangbusters. Victorian heroes and heroines? Gothic stories, wicked violence, thrilling adventure? The perfect summer guilty pleasure, and so it was — we gobbled up two seasons in the space of about a week at the end of the summer.
Then we got about three episodes into season three and … just stopped. Partly because we ran out of time — when the summer goes for a family of educators, so goes the free time for binge-watching — and partly because the show lost its sense of what it was.
Here’s the part where I warn you that there are spoilers ahead for this show that’s over a year in the can, if spoilers are a thing you care about.
The first season was basically like the Avengers meets the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets all those dusty old novels you’ve thought about reading but never quite got around to: it mashes up Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde and Dorian Gray, and turns them loose on the seedy, foggy streets of London. We end up with werewolves and gunslingers and vampires and witches stalking each other through back alleys and holy sharknado, is it a wild, dark, sexy ride.
The second season takes those heroes and fixes them firmly in orbit around the only female hero in the bunch, one Vanessa Ives. She’s a badass witch, and we learn just how she became so badass, and the perils of becoming so badass — she’s sought after by basically all the forces of darkness. More adventures. Frankenstein re-animates a woman for his monster and falls in love with her himself, but hey, whoops, turns out she won’t be owned, and she wreaks absolute hell in the streets of London herself.
That’s what made the show so satisfying: it was a bloodbath every episode, with a ragtag group of mercenaries fighting for their lives against the ultimate darkness, and the strongest, most fearsome, and most interesting characters in the series were the women.
Until season three. Wherein Vanessa, the most fearsome witch in the land, goes into a dark, existential struggle and gives in to become the bride of Dracula, and the aforementioned bride of Frankenstein falls into orbit with and becomes the diversion of Dorian Gray.
And it just becomes so … boring.
Well, we hate to leave a thing unfinished, and having sunk in the time to watch two seasons of what was once a pretty good show, we felt compelled to commit the time to finish the series out, to see if it turned itself around.
And it did … kind of.
There’s a sort of lovely duality to the final two episodes. The two women — Ives and the Bride — are both kept women, slaves to the men who have tamed them, bested them. But they respond differently: Vanessa gives up, stops fighting, and accepts that she can no longer fight against the forces that pursue her, even though she’s free to leave at any time, while the Bride fights with every breath, though she’s literally chained in a dungeon. Too much of it has escaped from memory, because I waited too long to put down these thoughts about it, but it’s all actually very poetic and sharp.
Except — and here’s the big spoiler — Vanessa kills herself at the end.
Which, I dunno, is a thing that makes sense, given the world that’s been built up around her. She has, after all, been pursued by the devil himself, and then by Dracula, and, due to the events of season three, been left by herself to stand against these advances. She sees no way out. She succumbs, and death and destruction ensue as the world’s most powerful witch and the father of vampires open the gates of hell.
But she kills herself. Or rather, she asks the man who loved her to kill her, and he does. And … that’s it. This woman who has been built up as the baddest, most indomitable spirit between heaven or hell? She sees no way out, gives up, and doesn’t even do it herself; she asks a man to kill her.
Horribly anticlimactic and disappointing.
Now, the Bride — she uses her cunning, plays upon her captor’s heartstrings, and escapes into the wild again. That’s an ending we can get behind. But the show isn’t about the Bride, not really. She’s a side-plot. If the show’s about anybody, it’s about Vanessa, and at the end, she gives up. And it’s hard to get behind that.
Not because she dies; a character choosing death can be valiant, if it’s for the right cause. And the argument can be made that Vanessa’s cause is valiant — the union between her and Dracula is literal poison for London, and eventually, for the world.
But she goes out weak. And I was led to believe, by everything that the show showed us up until the moment of her death, that this character was anything but weak.
That, I think, is why the show’s final season got panned. But it’s not like Showtime hasn’t seen horrible finales before — this is the network, after all, that turned one of the most compelling anti-heroes in recent memory into a reclusive lumberjack in his series finale. (Oh Dexter, we hardly knew ye.)
Tonight’s viewing? The first episode of Westworld. And initial impressions are double plus good.