penny_dreadful

I’ve been loving this show since it first landed. Full of actors I liked or loved and with a lavish, detail-driven production that rivals that of any top tier show (yes including Game of Thrones), Penny Dreadful set a wonderful stage for the performances, writing, drama, and boldness that it eventually became known for. It’s an incredibly well-regarded show, but this is not good enough for old media and the lich of ratings-derived decisions.

If you’re mildly interested or a big fan of the show wondering just what in fuck happened with that ending, a season finale that magically became a series finale out of nowhere, then it may be of interest to you to check out all the press there is on it. The showrunner, John Logan, and the prez of Showtime (Penny Dreadful’s home) are going to great lengths to convince everyone that this was all planned and the show was not cancelled. I say they are on damage control. Big time.

My theory is the show got canceled but Logan’s deal with Showtime remains intact. Why was it canceled? Some point to the expense of the show vs. ratings (closest to the truth I think) and others say it was probably Eva Green wanting to leave (impossible to substantiate but a compelling theory). I can almost understand cancellation if Green was done with the show, since she’s definitely its heart… but, well, spoilers to follow.

dracula

After Season 2 ended with all the core cast of characters split up and on their own individual paths, Season 3 was marketed as a “getting the band back together” over-plot, with time given to all the characters to settle whatever needed settling before finally confronting the demon(s) that have been haunting Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). The show always seemed to be heading this way, in its own strange and wonderful fashion. The first 2/3 of Season 3 proceeds the way you’d expect: each character faces their own challenges while Vanessa begins to confront the truth behind her lifetime of suffering. This is all super good stuff, with standout performances (episode The White Room particularly) and the usual bold storytelling and rich production design. I think I speak for many fans who felt like they were in safe hands.

New characters and hints at future subplots were offered. Catriona (Perdita Weeks), Kaetenay (Wes Studi), Dr. Seward (Patti Lupone), Jekyll (Shazad Latif)… all new people and all with a lot of potential for coverage. I can see characters like Kaetenay and Seward being one-season only, but the show leaves them alive and incomplete (Kaetenay’s story with Ethan in particular) so it seems impossible to consider that there wasn’t more planned. Jekyll only symbolically and in the loosest possible terms addresses the Hyde story, while Catriona is a bizarrely out of place “Ms. Van Helsing” character who seemed to suffer the most from the rushed hatchet-job of the finale. With teases about Imhotep, Lucifer, and Jekyll/Hyde offered throughout season 3, and it’s leisurely pace with the main characters and story, how can anyone believe Logan when he says this is his complete final version of the show?

Some of the main characters are left in interesting “final” places, but in other cases they are cheapened by rushed decisions. I like that Ethan (Josh Hartnett) chooses Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) as his family, but what about being a werewolf and Kaetenay’s role in his affliction? I like Dorian (Reeve Carney) left alone and cold to the world, but his storyline was so separate from everything else in the season that it felt like they never quite figured out what to do with him in the context of the broader conflict (which admittedly was never a huge focus in the show… it’s not that kind of story). Lily (Billie Piper) and Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) have a great ending where Victor finally puts aside the sniveling neckbeard he’s become, while Lily perhaps will try “being a human” after all. This is nice, but the relationship between Victor and his monster, John Clare (Rory Kinnear) remains completely unresolved. There’s a symbolic beauty to Clare’s lonely vigil on Vanessa’s grave site, and maybe that’s the only fully appropriate ending any character gets.

I think there’s evidence of a lot of cheap story decisions, tropes, and even executions of conflict in those last two episodes. The show has never been about a bunch of superhumans effortlessly fighting the undead, but suddenly in the finale even Victor is taking a big level in badass, to say nothing of Catriona who is like an overnight Black Widow. Ethan wolfing out and slaughtering vamps is satisfying, but he never really faces off against Dracula (Christian Camargo) despite a lot of foreshadowing. And speaking of Dracula, what the fuck happens with him? We see him drop Malcolm after realizing that Ethan has killed Vanessa and ended the apocalypse… but they don’t kill him and we don’t see him run away. Closure? None.

In terms of story decisions, the decision to reveal that Lily’s Dworkinian feminist revolution is all because she lost a child relegates her to being defined by her capacity for childbirth, a cheap device. Cheaper still is Vanessa’s quick turnaround on Dracula’s “love” and then equally quick submission to Ethan with the caveat that he kill her to “put her at peace”. Like she’s fucking Old Yeller. A lot of the setup around all this is truly baffling, including Catriona’s explanation that this apocalypse has been happening for weeks, casting confusion on the happenings for the other London-based characters while retroactively padding the time it would take for Ethan’s trio to get back there.

In the end, there’s a lot of questions and loose threads. Very little is tied up neatly and Logan sounds political one minute, totally ignorant the next. His interviews suggest a guy who doesn’t know how to stories, while his show (which he wrote 22 episodes of the 27 for) proves that’s nonsense. He knows what he’s doing and it’s very interesting that the last few episodes were written by other people (except the very last, which I expect Logan had to massively change from whatever was there originally).

I don’t want to do big conspiracy theories about how this show was destroyed behind the scenes. I shouldn’t have to. This kind of shit happens all the time and it’s usually chalked up to ratings failure. HBO used to be famous for canning expensive, well-regarded, but “under-watched” shows. Netflix and other streaming services have proved that ratings are not important, even when the advent of piracy already showed how little they actually reflect actual viewership. If Eva Green left the show, it doesn’t make sense that they would end it either because literally every other character is still alive and many have obvious setups for the next season. I don’t really buy it as an explanation, nor do I really believe that Vanessa dying meant it was time to end the show, otherwise why not use some of the 9 hours in the season to bring the other characters to satisfying conclusions?

I’m pretty pissed off. All of Season 3 of Hemlock Grove was an absolute trainwreck, but Penny Dreadful is worse because up until the last two episodes, this was one of my favorite shows operating at peak quality. I really get how fucking Firefly fans felt. Before you tell me “at least you got an ending”, I will say that I think the lack of full closure works really well for Firefly and shows like it. It’s better than an ending that largely betrays the show you loved and reasons you loved it.

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