As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This post originally appeared on The Victorianist, 8 July 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.
In my very first post I rhetorically questioned whether any of the ‘monsters’ in Penny Dreadful would be able to come to terms with their past or their actions. I also asked to what extent the show could be labelled ‘Victorian’ or ‘neo-Victorian’.
When I started writing this week’s post, I had no idea that I would be writing about the end of entire series, as well as the end of the third season. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to finish it is the way this ending has (unexpectedly) forced me to completely re-evaluate the show, and my expectations of it.
I have to admit to being quite torn about how to read the conclusion of Penny Dreadful. On the one hand I have enjoyed all three seasons of the show immensely, and appreciate creator John Logan’s wish to wrap things up on a firm note. On the other, I find myself deeply troubled by many of the themes that emerged this season – some of which were always embedded in the series’ portrayal of monstrosity, but have only really come to the surface alongside season three’s focus on the ’night creatures’, and their grand apocalyptic narrative.
Though it could be argued that season three’s obsession with apocalypse was an omen, Penny Dreadful’s core characters have never really been hesitant about embracing their own ends, making narrative cues that might otherwise have stood out feel like more of the same. Penny Dreadful is also not really a show about endings, or about futures at all, which is one of the things that made the finale’s attempt at a neat conclusion feel so strange.
I struggled most with the idea that Vanessa’s death at the hands of Ethan Chandler (Hound of God) ‘had to happen’, as show runner John Logan has argued, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it has something to do with Dorian’s observations about the futility of revolution in a previous episode. Is the show suggesting that all we can really hope for is death – apocalypse on a smaller scale?
With all this in mind, I’m going to take a two-pronged approach to these final episodes, and to the season as a whole. First, I will look briefly at the show’s portrayal of faith and religion. Then I’ll explore my feelings about the show’s conclusion, through its intertextual relationships with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus(1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
Religion and Post-Religious Horror
For me, Penny Dreadful’s greatest success this season was the way it captured a sense of religious dread. With this I don’t mean the way it used religious figures or Christian iconography to signal a supernatural evil, though it does so in many cases. Instead, I’m talking about the way it explores themes of existential angst, and lets its viewers experience both the desire for salvation and the fear of damnation.
John Logan argued that Penny Dreadful ‘has always been about a woman grappling with God and faith’, but never did I expect this journey to be played out so literally. In previous seasons, even when it manifested itself more physically, viewers have always been allowed to read Vanessa’s faith and possession metaphorically, as a way for her to cope with the mental issues that have plagued her since her youth. We were never quite certain if Vanessa was possessed by a demon, or if she was her own demon. Vanessa was also the show’s most religious character by far. None of the other leads – Sir Malcolm, Ethan, Frankenstein, Dorian – seemed to have much use for traditional faith.
For a show made in the twenty-first-century, post-religious West (by a gay man no less) this is hardly surprising, even though the show’s action takes place in an time and place where religion was still a dominant sociopolitical force. Contemporary horror boasts few complex portrayals of religious devotion. Christ figures and Christian iconography abound, but these are rarely linked to a religious narrative. Instead, these stories play into the postmodern connection between organised religion and the irrational, immoral, or unstable psyche. Think of the killer priest in Night of the Hunter (1955), the nuns in To the Devil a Daughter (1976), or the fanatical mother in Carrie (1976 | 2013). Even when the Christian devil is the key antagonist of the narrative, a god figure often remains absent. Religion serves purely to mark the text as fantastical, and religious people are generally either demonised or used as a warning.
The last few years have seen a return to the horror story as faith narrative, however. Think of The Last Exorcism (2010) or The Witch (2015). It still remains a bold move for a show that markets itself to intellectual audiences, and it is even more unusual to see in a show that deals so heavily with themes of queerness and sexuality.
From this perspective, it makes sense that the central conflict of the season finale isn’t a physical battle (though watching Catriona Hartdegen kick vampire butt was admittedly a lot of fun). Instead, it’s a conflict of faith. Is it too late to save Vanessa’s soul? Does Ethan believe enough in Vanessa’s god to kill her, and send her back to him? At the end, when Ethan recites the Lord’s Prayer with Vanessa – not to ward off a demon or invoke some force of good, but as an act of comfort and community – it stands out, and is unexpectedly moving.
Within this reading, Vanessa also serves as a kind of Christ figure, who must die for the sake of all mankind. She is a reminder to the other characters that there is redemption from their monstrosity – if not in this life, then in the next. With evil denied its prize, the only possible ending for mankind is a happy one. There will be no apocalypse, and also no damnation.
The show doesn’t leave us with an easy redemption, however. The final episode begins with a new poem (a ballad written for the show by Tom Kitt, and sung by Sophie Meade), and ends with an old one. They serve as bookends for the episode, both dealing with the topic of decay and the loss of religious hope. Both also send mixed messages about faith and doubt that beautifully reflect the position of the show across its entire story arc.
Take the closing excerpt, from Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. John Clare (a.k.a. Frankenstein’s creature) kneels at the foot of Vanessa’s grave, and Rory Kinnear – presumably speaking as the character – recites in voiceover:
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (ln. 1-9)
But there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look’d upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (ln. 52-58)
If one takes these excerpts on their own, as screenwriter John Logan has presented them, the poem seems to suggest that ‘the glory and the dream’ have gone out of the world entirely, along with Vanessa Ives and her faith. Towards the end of Wordsworth’s complete poem, however, the speaker is able to move past this disillusionment, and finds greater and more stable faith in the power of human reason – and so too, by implication, will John Clare:
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind. (ln. 183-91)
Overall, then, the show has done a masterful job of juggling religious themes in a way that leaves all readings open, while encouraging its viewers to keep hoping and questioning.
Women Worth Dying For: Dracula and the Gothic Heroine
Each episode of Penny Dreadful’s two-part finale wraps up the show’s engagement with one of its key intertextual references. In ‘The Blessed Dark’, season three’s ninth and final chapter, Penny Dreadful ties off its sustained intertextual reference to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in ways that are both unexpected and disturbingly familiar. The epigraph above is from the end of Stoker’s novel. Here Van Helsing is talking about Mina Harker, but his words could just as easily be applied to the end of Penny Dreadful, and to Vanessa Ives.
Dracula, in the form of the taxidermist Dr Sweet, is not killed in the season finale of Penny Dreadful. Nor does his cause win out in the end. He simply fades away. Under other circumstances I might call this a revolutionary interpretation, but given the death of Vanessa Ives (and all the other women to cross Dracula’s path), Dracula’s impotence lacks narrative impact. He has served his purpose by seducing the heroine, so the story has no more use for him.
Many reviewers have argued that Penny Dreadful is a strongly feminist show. In a recent post hyperbolically entitled ‘Why Penny Dreadful Was One of the Best Shows of the Modern Era’, Eric Diaz of the Nerdist wrote:
In one of the many strokes of genius John Logan had when conceptualizing the series, the true horror in Penny Dreadful, it turns out, was misogyny.
While I think this is true, it is not really for the reasons Diaz lists in his post. In his opinion, the show allows characters like Vanessa and Lily to rise above ‘the confines that strong women found themselves in living in a Victorian society’. He describes Vanessa as a character clearly ‘not meant for corsets and archaic morality’, and cites Lily’s army of prostitutes as an example of the show’s empowerment of women. There is no doubt that the show encourages its viewers to take an ahistorical stance on feminism, and attempts to demonstrate how its women are just like women today – but in corsets literal and metaphorical. For all the feminist spectacle the show deploys, however, Vanessa’s ultimate demise was a little too Victorian for my taste.
Genevieve Valentine penned a review of the series finale that sums up my feelings in this regard almost perfectly:
In an object lesson for adaptations everywhere, the meta-narrative of Victoriana simply overtook its characters. It’s happened before that the series’ love of Gothic trappings swallowed individual psychology and subversive narratives; Malcolm’s partner Sembene never rose above the Mystical Other stereotype. But though Logan’s fascination with the dark side of Victoriana had served the story well in the past, it seems that in the end, the needs of the Gothic outweighed its own heroine’s journey. It’s not that she died; it’s been understood since Vanessa stared down her first vampire that this was dangerous work and death lurked around every corner. It’s that what happened to her was a defeat for the sake of another archetypal narrative; it’s that, in a show that’s been so fixed on the idea of women wielding power, the patriarchy won in overtime. When Vanessa can’t resist Dracula, it’s not because her character is struggling—it’s because we know Dracula always wins fair lady. It’s because the Gothic heroine who’s tasted of the dark is doomed.
Again, if we compare Logan’s story to Stoker’s there are many parallels. Writing about the scene in Stoker’s Dracula where the Crew of Light (Van Helsing, Quincey, Arthur and Jonathan) drive a stake through Lucy Westenra’s heart, Christopher Craft famously pointed out the heteronormative impulse of this act. He writes:
[S]tands in the service of a tradition of ‘good women whose lives and whose truths may make good lesson [sic] for the children that are to be’. In the name of those good women and future children (very much the same children whose throats Lucy is now penetrating), Van Helsing will repeat, with an added emphasis, his assertion that penetration is a masculine prerogative. His logic of corrective penetration demands an escalation, as the failure of the hypodermic needle necessitates the stake. A women is better still than mobile, better dead than sexual. (pp. 121-22)
With Lucy’s death, the power of penetration (and of patriarchy) is reasserted, pointing to the salvation of Mina Harker and final triumph against Dracula at the novel’s end.
In Penny Dreadful, Renfield offers the show’s own ‘crew of light’ a similar choice. ‘She’ll never be happy sitting by the fire in your loveless mansion,’ he tells them. ‘Let her be.’ In the end, rather than let Vanessa explore the ‘blessed dark’ of the episode’s title, Ethan chooses Lucy Westenra’s fate for her instead. Vanessa dies, virginal in a white gown, penetrated by a bullet to undo her penetration at the hands of Dracula.
I was not particularly impressed, then, by the way the season finale functioned as an intertextual reference to Dracula. Let’s take a step back to one of the other Gothic novels that returns in Penny Dreadful’s two-part finale. In ‘Perpetual Night’ (Episode 8), the penultimate episode, the key textual touchstone is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1818).
The Monster’s Wife: Frankenstein and the Monstrous Feminine
Frankenstein has been one of the foundational myths of Penny Dreadful from the very beginning. The first episode of season one ended with the revelation of Victor Frankenstein’s name, much as the first episode of season three ended with Dracula’s. We were introduced to Victor’s creation Proteus, who we all assumed to be the Creature from Shelley’s text, only to have that illusion violently shattered by Victor’s ‘firstborn’ (Caliban, later John Clare).
For me, Caliban has always been the real star of Penny Dreadful, because while his story often diverges from that of the other characters, it intersects the main plot in ways that make the story’s grand themes feel relatable, and resolutely modern. Caliban is the resentful child of the Victorians and all they have come to signify. This is evidenced by his later choice to rename himself after the working-class poet John Clare, rather than one of the era’s more Romantic voices. He cannot undo what his ‘parents’ have done, but he is also, ultimately, helpless to escape their shadow, or the effects of their actions.
Even more interesting than the show’s interpretation of the Creature himself, however, is it’s interpretation of the Creature’s bride. For all the things Frankenstein does as a text, and all the stories it tells, there are as many things left undone, and stories left untold. One of these stories is that of the female creature, who is rarely mentioned and is never actually brought to life, though her physical presence in the novel spans at least four chapters. In the following excerpt, Victor Frankenstein speculates what this other creature might be like:
I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation.
Without having met her, of course, he cannot know for sure whether any of this would come to pass. She never gets to tell her own story, or be her own myth. This present absence has been remedied in later years through various adaptations, homages, fan productions, and scholarly critiques, but the absence of the female monster remains an issue both inside Shelley’s 1818 text, and in the present-day culture that venerates it.
Unlike in Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster’s bride does get to speak at length in Penny Dreadful (albeit through the pen of the show’s male screenwriter and showrunner, John Logan).
At the end of season one Victor hastens the death of the Irish prostitute Brona, with the intention of transforming her into a companion for Caliban. In the premiere of season two we met Lily Frankenstein, resurrected with new strength and deadly resolve – and, as we discovered through the course of the show, all of Brona’s memories.
As with the series as a whole, it’s difficult to know how to read Lily. On the one hand she is a super-feminist (what the internet might unkindly refer to as a ‘feminazi’). She is willing to go to wild, aggressive lengths to see justice for her fellow prostitutes, and her fellow women. On the other, she is often super-feminised as a character, and highly sexualised. In many ways, she is the lustful Lucy figure to Vanessa’s more reserved Mina.
Remarkably, however, Lily is allowed a kinder fate than Vanessa. At the end of Penny Dreadful, Lily disappears into the night, leaving Dorian to his lonely immortality. It happens without much fanfare, while the story is focused on Vanessa’s fate and the mourning of the white, ’monstrous’ men left behind. But like she always does (and like all good monsters should), Lily Frankenstein escapes the grand, Gothic fate that should have been waiting for her.
Lily is even able to escape after her betrayal by Dorian, and imprisonment by Victor. She does so by begging Victor not to take away the painful memories that make her who she is – specifically, the memory of Brona’s daughter Sarah. Though she is only allowed to escape once she reveals her feminine role as a mother (as Stacey Abbott rightfully pointed out to me at a recent conference), I find motherhood to be a much less comfortable identity on Lily than I do on Dracula’s Mina, whose ‘sweetness and loving care’ inspires men to ‘dare so much’.
Lily may be a mother, but she is not a tame mother, or a tame woman.
Learning to Love the (White, Male) Monster
Audiences are finding it increasingly easy to embrace monstrous characters like Hannibal and Walter White, Sir Malcolm and Frankenstein. But as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen wrote more than twenty years ago, some ‘monsters’ still apparently need to be driven out: the women, the queers, the people of colour. It is OK to be monstrous, it seems, as long as you aren’t different, or don’t challenge the status quo.
Victor Frankenstein falls into this trap as well. As he releases Lily from the chains he used to bind her, he leaves her with a few parting words as a peace offering. ‘It is too easy being monsters,’ he says. ‘Let us try to be human.’ Lily stares back at him, expression unfathomable. He has missed the point that Henry Jekyll has been trying to make this whole season: some people don’t have the luxury of choosing not to be monstrous. Some people – Jekyll, Angelique, Caliban and Lily – are made monstrous by others.
This is what, for me, makes Lily’s ending the most subversive, and the most powerful. For the most part Penny Dreadful’s characters are punished for their otherness. At worst they are killed, at best they are sidelined… but the female Creature speaks, and lives to speak another day. She is allowed to escape into the world, with all her anger and violence and emotion. With all her monstrous femininity.
Who knows what delightful, irrational, and monstrously female things she will do in the world?
- The Showtime network maintains that the decision to end Penny Dreadful after three seasons rested with John Logan, who had been preparing for this conclusion since the end of season two. I am not sure this is entirely accurate, but the decision not to tell fans about the show’s cancellation until after the final episode had aired proved controversial. I do respect Logan’s assertion that fans loved ‘the vigor, the panache, the fact that we’re not afraid to make strong choices and to surprise them and shock them and upset them’. The conclusion certainly surprised and upset me.
- The finale hasGothic weather – and its associated metaphors – covered. There are dark and stormy nights, and there is fog in London. The former is used (tongue in cheek) for dramatic effect, and the latter is a thinly veiled metaphor for the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.
- ‘The creatures of the night. What music they make!’ Dracula quotes himself several times during the Penny Dreadful finale.
- I am a big fan of Kaetaney the werewolf – I only wish he’d been used more this season.
- The other big reveal of the finale is Dr Jekyll’s new title. Following his father’s death, he will now be known as Lord Hyde. This was a brilliant touch, and I would love to see Shazad Latin’s Jekyll in his own series, spinning Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella into a contemporary metaphor for class and race divides.