Penny Dreadful / Screen

Penny Dreadful wraps up an incomplete season with a lacking finale

Before Penny Dreadful‘s season one finale fades to black, a priest asks Vanessa if she wants to give up the horrific glory and terrible sacredness of being touched by the devil and undergo a life-threatening and potentially useless exorcism to become normal, and we don’t hear her response. The obvious answer would be yes, considering the horrors her affiliation with the devil has put her through, but the interesting answer (for the sake of the show’s second season at least) is no. If Vanessa loses her abilities, what will the show be?

This first season has skated by on Vanessa Ives and Eva Green’s portrayal of her. Zooming out and looking at the season as a whole, it’s been a bit of a mess. The finale wraps up this mess as best as it can, which is pretty well, but by the time the episode’s over it’s clear what a prologue this season has functioned as and how limited it was in its scope. Even for cable’s shorter seasons, eight hours isn’t enough to time to work at the scope Penny Dreadful was trying to. There are huge gaps in characterization and plotting that were hastily bridged on the way to more pressing concerns, and bigger plot points won’t be elaborated on until the show returns for its second season making this one feel incomplete despite the conclusion of its biggest element: Mina.

Chief among these is Ethan. Considering the quickness with which viewers suspected him of being a werewolf, it’s disappointing we had to wait until the near end of this episode to see it come to fruition as he wolfs out and slaughters two men sent by his father (and maybe more) to drag him home. Recalling the first episode, the Jack the Ripper-esque terror stalking London seemed like it would become an important part of the season, and it faded into the background never to be seen again until it was most convenient (when the full moon was upon us). The conclusion of his and Brona’s storyline is equally annoying as Ethan turns to Victor to help her, and his new friend responds by smothering Brona with a pillow and taking her corpse to use to stroke Caliban’s wounded ego.

How Victor’s storyline started off as one of the most electrifying and fizzled into one of the most boring is almost astounding. You can trace the moment it started going bad as when Caliban killed Proteus and replaced him, and as Caliban’s infatuation with Maud turns bad and he attacks her which gets him booted from the Grand Guignol. I can’t express how much better I think this could have gone with Proteus. It would have been a refreshing departure from the source material to see gentle Proteus become disillusioned with his place in the world and the loss of his former life (remember those hints to it we got before Proteus was brutally killed?), which would have made his desperation for a companion more palatable than Caliban’s which is just uncomfortably like a guy running wild and threatening to burn the world down because he can’t get a girlfriend, though everyone agreed its not Caliban’s looks that leave him single but his bad personality.

It’s a weak season-ender for Brona as well though at least at this point it seems like she’s fulfilled the role she was meant for. It was up in the air for awhile what plans the show had for Brona, and any hope that there was something more was quickly dashed. She was invented for the sole purpose of being Ethan’s dying love interest, to finally be murdered and eventually reanimated to make Caliban feel loved. It’s cheap and unworthy of Billie Piper’s time and talents, and only the vague hope that her new designation as Victor’s newest creature will give her something to do makes this less awful (but not by much). I’ll only be satisfied if Brona awakens and only wants to see Ethan, who she’s actually in love with and wants nothing to do with Caliban’s hurt feelings. I remember talking about something similar when I read Frankenstein, and the stupid assumption of both Victor and the creature that a female version would immediately want to be with Caliban and not have any opinion on it whatsoever, and the only way for Penny Dreadful to work around this is to give Brona the autonomy and character development it avoided this season.

This turn is similarly grating for the backpedaling it does with Victor who, for all his ambition, has never seemed a man capable of killing a woman and using her corpse to soothe the bruised ego of a man he hates. Instead of killing Caliban as he plans, Victor is swayed by Caliban’s sorrow despite only minutes ago asserting his inability to feel anything remotely close to forgiveness after Caliban’s homicidal reappearance. If the show was insistent on going this route, it would have been just as effective, and not as terrible for Victor as a character (nor as dooming to his and Ethan’s newfound alliance) to let Caliban remain insistent, have Brona succumb to her illness and Victor just happen upon her corpse and decide to use it. It would have had the same emotional punch without regressing Victor, and it still would provide the drama of Ethan inevitably learning the truth.

The conclusion of Malcolm and Mina’s hunt for Mina goes moderately better, kicked off with Vanessa naming the Grand Guignol as where Mina’s holed up with the vampires. Having resolved to kill Mina if it means ending her suffering, Malcolm leads the rest of the group inside and warns them not to pursue Mina because she’s his responsibility.The fight scene is disappointing, the same as all the others we’ve seen thus far. There are nearly identical white women with very-blonde hair who screech and bare their teeth while Ethan, Sembane and Victor respond with gunfire and nearly succumb before Malcolm kills the Big Bad Vampire (though not Dracula who’s still chilling somewhere) which kills the women and saves them.

Then Mina emerges from the shadows in the most anticlimactic way possible, opening her arms to Vanessa. Though the entire season has been devoted to finding Mina, and it’s a relief to know that we won’t have to look for her anymore, it probably shouldn’t have been that unemotional to see her reunited with Vanessa and Malcolm. Perhaps it’s because it’s pretty much a given that Mina’s succumbed to her vampire nature and is now lost to them, confirmed when she grabs hold of Vanessa and details the plans to turn them all into vampires so they can join the Master, who’s eager to meet his bride.

With Malcolm’s promise of sacrificing Vanessa to save Mina hanging over the episode, it’s not surprising when Malcolm kills Mina to save her. His “I already have a daughter” isn’t as effective as the next scene, as he and Vanessa reunite at the mansion and embrace, both of them sobbing over Mina’s loss. It’s mostly because “I already have a daughter” lacks the subtlety that’s been permeating their relationship from the start, even as their interactions turned sour. It feels to on-the-nose for the ringer the season’s taken their relationship through whereas their mutual hug and their tears over being actually alone, with not even Mina to refer to as a loved one, are more fitting.

That being said, Mina’s death is also disappointing. There’s a lot the show only alluded to regarding Mina and her feelings toward Malcolm and Vanessa. She went from dreamy cipher to vaguely characterized and beloved friend and daughter following “Closer than Sisters” only to fall into the dark abyss of mindless, villainous drone and die. We never got a chance to know Mina so her death is sad only because I’d have liked to see more development for her, even if it meant that she was allied with the Master and against her father and friend.

Strangely it’s Vanessa and Dorian’s breakup that works best despite Dorian only appearing to see that through (here’s hoping for more material for him next season as well). With Vanessa recovered from her “illness”, Dorian’s cleared to visit her, hoping to pick up where they left off in their romance. He’s almost painfully smitten, even as Vanessa’s giving him the cold shoulder after what their tryst awakened in her. Dorian’s certainly never tasted rejection before, so Vanessa doing so is shocking for him, especially since he’s actually attached to her because of their shared mysteriousness. With Vanessa cutting him off, Dorian’s right back where he started, alone and navigating a world of less interesting people and desperate for companionship, but Vanessa’s situation doesn’t allow for that kind of sharing. Despite hers and Dorian’s “rare bond”, Vanessa can’t act on it lest she get possessed all over again cuing her visit to a priest to discuss a more permanent solution to her problem.

This finale made clear what a precursor all this season has felt like, as if the show’s been leading to something that has yet to really arrive. This wouldn’t be bad if this was meant to be a prologue, and not an actual season of television, but there’s a lot of wait-and-see going into the finale. Though Mina’s story is ended, it doesn’t feel as though it really mattered in the long run, more as if it was thrown into an already packed season that was full of things the show didn’t get to explore completely, feeling as though the show barreled through these episodes because it was in a hurry to get to next season.

Stray Observations

  • Sembane survived the season!
  • I can already see how Brona’s story will go next season. At first she’ll be horrified at the suggestion that she hook up with Caliban just because. But then she’ll be self-conscious about her appearance and will catch Ethan exchanging googly-eyes with someone else and resolve to hook up with Caliban after all. I’m preemptively annoyed.
  • I’ve no idea what to make of Malcolm’s weird flirting with Evelyn Paul (aka Madame Kali from the seance) except that she probably knows way more than she seems which is like, duh.
  • I have my doubts about season two, but I’ll probably watch just to see if Penny Dreadful manages to dig its way out of the sometimes-incoherent and structurally-ridiculous hole it dug itself this season.

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