Spoilers for the entire run of Penny Dreadful follow.
Few phrases are lonelier than "The End."
In classic films, those words signaled to the audience that it was time to return to reality. The house lights came up, and that was all, folks. Usually, we’re ready to be done by the time "The End" comes.
When we’re not prepared, "The End" is the lover breaking up with you in the middle of a dinner date. It’s the friend that leaves you at the middle of the party without means of getting home. Series that end well let us down gently, with a fond farewell kiss; others pull an Irish goodbye and assume we’re fine with that.
Dedicated viewers of Showtime’s grand Victorian horror mash-up Penny Dreadful may have felt something akin to jilted, then, when those words — "The End" — appeared at the close of what was presumed to be the show’s two-hour third season finale. No other Penny Dreadful season had ended thusly, and these days, few series end without warning or fanfare.
Besides, there were multiple story threads left hanging, and so many characters the audience barely got to know. Why introduce Dr. Jekyll … excuse me, Lord Hyde (Shazad Latif), or a ferocious warrior like Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks) if only to use them for a few episodes? Why resurrect one character as an undead fury named Lily (Billie Piper), and fail to explore what happens when she runs into her old love, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett)?
What, in the end, was the point of Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), beyond being devilishly good-looking?
Alas, these and other topics for future chapters will remain unwritten. An official Showtime statement confirmed that this was indeed the final bow for Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), Mr. Chandler, Mr. Gray, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his creature (Rory Kinnear). Where most TV shows are abruptly canceled or have planned endings announced in advance, Penny Dreadful had, instead, an abrupt ending that was, nonetheless, planned, if Showtime was to be believed.
That news may be the only thing that could out-shock the final episode’s surprising death of Penny Dreadful’s central heroine, Vanessa Ives.
A medicinal study in loneliness
An anguished woman brought vibrantly alive by Eva Green, Vanessa was never destined for a happy ending or, for that matter, old age.
Relentlessly pursued by Devil and Dragon, tormented by witches, and tortured in a Victorian mental institution, Vanessa Ives lived a short, unenviable life filled with danger and adventure.
Miss Ives was blessed with loyal companions in Sir Malcolm, Ethan, and, for a time, Malcolm’s right-hand man, Sembene (Danny Sapani), all of whom fought to protect her. But at the end of season two, even they had to abandon Vanessa — another storytelling decision that made season three unnecessarily unwieldy.
Then again, Vanessa always walked alone. She stumbled and fell throughout her life, but always stood up again, tougher and stronger, if inevitably more by herself. At its heart, that’s what Penny Dreadful was — a study of resilience in the face of loneliness. For all of its Victorian scenery and gothic gorgeousness, for all of its ripped flesh and bloody fangs, loneliness was the show’s Invisible Man, the villain nobody could defeat, the shroud around Vanessa that, in her words, brought only pain.
In the brief time Penny Dreadful viewers were given with Vanessa, she rarely had occasion to be giddy, not even in the briefest reprieves between battles. But the darkness in her soul had a pulse that made her accessible.
Last week, series creator and executive producer John Logan told the Hollywood Reporter and other outlets that Penny Dreadful was "about a woman grappling with God and faith." Back in 2014, before the show premiered, he said something slightly different to critics, which resonated with me.
"Growing up as a gay man, before it was as socially acceptable as it is now, I knew what it was to feel different, to feel alienated, to feel not like everyone else," he observed. "But the very same thing that made me monstrous to some people also empowered me and made me who I was."
Penny Dreadful’s brand of loneliness also possessed a medicinal quality, in part because the Victorian loveliness and politeness of said loneliness made it somewhat intoxicating. Loneliness may be the handmaiden to depression and other psychological maladies, but here, it is the price one pays for being unique. In an image and manners-obsessed world, uniqueness is akin to being monstrous.
That’s part of the reason that Logan’s decision to drape season three’s villain, Dracula (Christian Camargo) in a cloak of bland kindness was so devious: Logan knew all too well how to break the heart of a woman like Vanessa. She never saw Dracula coming. The moment she realized her suitor was also her predator, the devastation that slid across her face was palpable.
Vanessa remained in the daylight for as long as she could, but in the end, she could not escape the truth of who she was. Ethan Chandler’s adopted Apache father Kaetenay (Wes Studi) rightly called her "a great fertile bitch of evil," and, like him, we loved her for her power — it made her fight more interesting.
The ferocity with which Vanessa clung to her faith in God, and the frigid disappointment with which she abandoned it, felt radical and genuine. There was solace to be found in Vanessa’s commanding presence, a strength that radiated from her eyes even as she stood nose-to-nose with evil. Vanessa was a woman who declared several times to those who would claim her soul that she knew herself — a brave notion to people who know what it’s like to feel hollow and lost, yet alive.
She began Penny Dreadful’s third and final season depressed and alone, feeding like an animal among the spiders and the flies. She also ended it in that place, but not for any reason to which the script built, which was the season’s biggest problem.
Something frustrating this way comes
The same character who crushed Satan at the end of season two, who defeated him with the simple declaration that, although she was no more important than a blade of grass, "I am," bafflingly swooned into Dracula’s kiss in the third-to-final episode with virtually the same declaration: "I accept … myself."
This set in motion the End of Days: The air became poisonous. Frogs poured out of drainpipes, hordes of rats came out to play. Unexpected twists are the meat of many good horror tales, and every great battle to end all battles requires defeating waves of terrors.
But this turn also defied everything we’ve been primed to accept and love about Vanessa as a character. Where was the heart-torn lady who would not be bowed? Where was the magical being who trained and suffered alongside a witch and learned that the most important lesson, the one she could never forget, was to be true?
In short, she was replaced by a waif in an ivory gown who had to ask her true love, Ethan, to do her in. After one final prayer, he fulfilled that request; a single gunshot, and it was done. Dracula disappeared, and the lady saw her Lord before she vanished into death.
Vanessa’s resting place was bedecked with lilies and surrounded by those who loved her, men left to contemplate her loss. As they walked away, the Creature — Miss Ives’s secret confidante and fellow outcast — crept forward to touch the freshly dug soil to which she’d been returned.
What a cop-out.
Penny Dreadful represented Logan’s first foray into series television, and after writing the first two seasons, he delegated several season three episodes to others, which may account for a few inconsistencies in its tone. But even that doesn’t explain why the writers would make Vanessa suddenly and sharply veer away from her guiding principles.
Of course, this opinion is formed by a very specific viewpoint, one that sees this show’s role as both entertainment and balm.
Death, be not proud. But don’t tick us off, either.
Every artistic work is born of specific vision and executed with that in mind. Once that work is presented to the world, however, the artist’s original intent becomes secondary to the beholder’s interpretation. Each of us brings a singular perspective to the works we find moving. A painting, a sculpture, or a television series can have as many different meanings as there are viewers.
Unlike static works of art, TV series and the people who create them evolve. A show can broaden in scope through its characters, fictional beings who win our hearts and trust as they lead us through their journey.
Because of this, when a character suddenly deviates from the moral and emotional structure previously made familiar to us, it’s shocking. And when she does this shortly before the curtain drops on her story and the show’s life — before we get see her meaningfully stand up again — it leaves a final impression of haphazard incompleteness. It’s ever so slightly violating.
Perhaps the best way to get over any pangs of anger and loss, then, is not to seethe over how Penny Dreadful collapsed and died, but to recall all of the ways it seduced us over its three seasons.
As one of Vanessa’s true friends observed, "Life, for all its anguish, is ours, Miss Ives. It belongs to no other." The same can be said of how we see our favorite TV shows.