“Perpetual Night” / “The Blessed Dark”
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Technically, this review covers two episodes. But, as they aired together, and together constitute one feature-length finale episode, I will be reviewing as if they were one.
Penny Dreadful has officially ended. After three thoroughly enjoyable seasons, some of the best monologues on tv today and performances that felt like a genuine treat, this beloved vehicle is no more. Sadly, the finale has not done the preceding material justice. Season three felt all along as though it were building up to something. It felt as though the writers were confident of having more time, and at some point late into filming were told they weren’t getting any. And so we end up with what feels like a rushed, rabbit out of a hat ending. It’s a problem that has beleaguered many fine shows, and in this instance it left the narrative feeling cheated. Storylines that seemed destined for big things suddenly vanished. ‘Anti-climactic’ doesn’t really begin to cover it.
Let’s begin at the start, with Dr Seward.
“Not for your ears, unless I may keep them.”
Dr Seward really steps out of her shell this episode. Last week she was proclaiming Vanessa to be a true split personality, but now she has seen that Renfield is twitchy and creepy, and suddenly she understands that supernatural things are real, and is totally on board for everything. We never learn the connection between Dr Seward and the Cut Wife, and can only assume that she knew the truth of the supernatural all along, but kept it hidden for practical reasons. In these scenes, ironically, it is Samuel Barnett as Renfield who really shines. Renfield has been decaying by degrees over the last 9 weeks, and here we see him really in his doom. He is serpentine and otherworldly, projecting a strange physical strength that he hadn’t in earlier episodes. After their scuffle, and Dr Seward demanding to know where Dracula is, frogs and toads are pouring from the sinks and drains. It’s very ‘classic horror’, but goes a step further, delightfully, when Renfield starts eating them.
“The city’s like a graveyard now.”
A terrible fog has consumed London, floating sideways as only onscreen fog ever does, and killing people by the thousands. The air itself has become pestilence, and the sun is nowhere to be seen. In this pestilential nightmare, Ethan, Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm disembark their ship, and step into the deserted city, walking amongst the fleeing rats. (Pro tip: if you see rats fleeing, follow them.) Sticking with the orange and blue lighting theme, orange lanterns drift through the blue mist. The wind is audible, almost keening, like Lily and her keening women. They proceed to Sir Malcolm’s house, and the director finds an excuse for a skirmish with some vampires. A symbolic wolf (watch out, Ethan!) has been strung up in the bedroom, blood pooling onto the floor below it. A vampire that Malcolm mistakes for Vanessa (sitting where Vanessa used to sit, representing the complete transition she has undergone), takes Malcolm by surprise; and a bald vampire (we’ll call him Uncle Fester) attacks Ethan. This scene is really an excuse for Catriona to have a strong entrance to this group of people, and it does work.
“Who the hell are you?” “I believe I’m the woman who just saved your life.”
She saves Ethan, cauterises Malcolm’s wound when he’s melodramatically stating preference for killing himself rather than becoming a vampire, and takes no macho bullshit from any of them. They still ignore her warnings, despite her obviously being the best-prepared person present. Ethan and Kaetenay leave (because the vampires are definitely gone forever and splitting up a party has never ever ended badly), to try and find Vanessa, and to hunt down a doctor.
“Our grand endeavour is almost complete. Then, we have a whole hospital to cure.”
Speaking of doctors, everyone’s favourite narcissistic mysoginysts are hanging out in their secret lab, preparing to erase a human being’s agency and identity against her will. Lily is still defiant, foolishly attacking Victor when he’s beyond the reach of her chains, rather than gaining his trust. It doesn’t take long for her to figure out a better way, a way to make him see her as a person, rather than a project, and we learn about the baby daughter whose grave she visited last week. The chains on her ankle are omnipresent, rattling audibly constantly, so that we never forget the inhumanity she is facing – the constant undercurrent of inhumanity that has dogged her life.
“Holding her was like feeling the sun from both sides.”
Billie Piper has become so very, very good at monologues. Lily has ranted in anger, shouted for revenge, revealed grand plans, inspired and led other women. It is the standout scene of the entire episode, and in this moment, Lily lives in a cocoon of grief. She is unable to comprehend the idea of losing this pain, of sacrificing these memories, because it would erase her daughter. Lily doesn’t desire an easier, happier life. She only desires one in which she is not always at another’s mercy. Where she is not unconscious on the ground as her baby freezes. One where she is not chained in a dungeon with men who want to reach into her mind and take her very identity. Billie Piper owns the entire scene, her face contorted with grief, yet her whole body tense as though if she were to relax she would crumble into dust on the floor, unable to recover. Her hands twist by her side. And she does indeed fall to the ground, once she has expelled the worst of the pain. She cannot remain standing when once again faced with the world-sized guilt and grief – a feeling she would rather suffer forever, than risk having her daughter’s existence forgotten as though it had never happened. However great the pain, the happiness of that baby’s warmth outweighed it. The orange light wins over the blue, again and again and again.
“It is too easy being monsters. Let us try to be human.”
And it works. Victor does let her go. He seems finally to understand that he didn’t create a new person, he resurrected one who already lived. She is not his blank canvas, but a complex and valuable human being who cannot be broken apart and rearranged as he would prefer her. Lily argues for her scars, for her pain, as part of who she is. Finally Victor, the doctor, the brilliant scientist who defeated death, begins to comprehend what life is.
She grabs his throat, strokes his face, and leaves. It’s the perfect farewell for Victor and Lily. Brutish, and tender, and finished.
“I would rather die here on my feet, than live a lifetime on my knees.”
From Lily, let’s talk about her protege, Justine, who this week learns that Dorian is immortal. Her life has been nothing but horrors, until Lily pulled her from the monster’s grip and gave her a few weeks of freedom. But once again a man believed he could own his womenfolk, and so she stands, dead, in a mock-loving embrace with another horror. Justine deserved better. She deserved more. Her death was unnecessary, Lily was on her way back to her. Her hand balks at the feel of Justine’s icy skin, another frozen girl leaving Lily in abject grief. Sending Justine to the grave and Lily back into the world friendless and alone was not a worthy ending for this story. All the other women in the glorious Frock Army simply dissipated into the night, nameless and defeated. By one spoiled man. This is why rushing out endings to storylines that have been deliberately set up to be long-term is a terrible idea.
“So my great enterprise comes to no more than this? One more dead child.”
To be fair, the final scene between Lily and Dorian was very well done. Lily refuses to sign up for a life of not caring about anything, and Dorian refuses to surrender to the human urge to give a crap about other people. Really, he could have chosen to care about Lily, since she’s not going to age and die, but instead, as always, he expected that she would morph into a creature that suited him, and meekly walk alongside him into eternity. His existence is an empty mockery of life, a flat portrait of the human condition. Everything Dorian touched has turned to ruin, and it is no more than he deserved. She starts the music on her way out, leaving him fading into the glaring backlit fog, in front of the pictures of the fortunate dead.
“We shall go everywhere, thee and me.”
The death of John’s son, and the loss of his wife when she turns him away are bittersweet. Poor little Jack is no longer suffering, John doesn’t give into the temptation to have Frankenstein resurrect him, and there is a sense of closure. On the other hand, this is a level of suffering that John’s poor wife has done nothing to deserve. And was John right to give his son a burial at sea instead of a trip to Uncle Victor? His qualms about the resurrection process largely don’t apply to Jack. John was brought back, abandoned, unloved and hated by all who lay eyes on him. Jack would wake to his loving parents, never be left to suffer alone, never again be ill or die – and he’d always have a protector because his father just so happens to be immortal, too. Hell, bop Mrs Clare over the head and resurrect her, too, then they can all be together forever. The bottom line is, being a creature of Frankenstein (undead citizen?), isn’t all bad. Lily seems to be making a go of it. Was denying that life, imperfect as it may be, to his son the right thing to do? Either way, as he always does, John has missed out on happiness by a hair’s breadth, and is left to venture forth alone. Let’s imagine he bumps into Lily, and they find a way to bring comfort to each other throughout the eons. After all, he’s going to need a friend. John is reaching the conclusion that the world is a cruel and terrible place. He could bear it when he was the one suffering, but not when it was his son.
“I’m all for pride but there are limits.” “I’ve never known them.” “Then you’ll learn.”
Back to our fighting brigade, Malcolm is unsure what to make of Catriona. He can see that she is smart and strong and not likely to bend easily, so he tries to flex some macho muscle, refuses to sit until she says ‘please’, generally glares distrustfully at her. After all, who can trust a woman in pants?! Dr Seward arrives on the doorstep. She knows who Malcolm is and summarily dismisses Cat, demanding that they go with her if they
want to live want to find Vanessa. Completely neglecting to put on some anti-death-fog masks, they all stride off to find Renfield.
Meanwhile, Ethan has a moment with Dracula. The creepy vampire child has led him into a trap (what a shock. Since when can’t you trust a child vampire?), and the orange lanterns swinging in the black and white landscape are lovely. The fog gives the impression that nothing exists outside of this little landscape, and a fight unfolds. It turns out that Kaetenay is also a werewolf, and in fact turned Ethan into one, and the moon very considerately transforms them both into creatures capable of defeating a small army of vampires. The splashes of colour – lanterns and blood – are atmospherically wonderful, like brushstrokes.
Dracula makes a good point. Vanessa’s choice to become Queen of the Damned is questionable, certainly, but is her choice. She went freely. She made the decision to stop this exhausting battle and just embrace the darkness. Ethan and Co might not agree with that choice, and yes it’s causing a bit of an apocalypse, but their determination to ‘save’ her rather than ‘defeat’ her is somewhat grating. Your friend has become a super villain. It might be best to raid the weapons chest and draw up battle plans, rather than demanding secondary villains hand her over for some intense hug therapy.
‘Each day brings more and more suffering, and each night is silence and fear.’
At the open of part two, “The Blessed Dark”, absolutely everyone is drenched by blue filters. The doom has consumed them as they shuffle towards what is likely to be their final hours. The episode is opened by a young mother singing a hypnotic lullaby to her baby – as Lily visits Sarah’s grave, as Victor cuddles up with his opiates, as John farewells his son, Dorian stands frozen with Justine’s corpse, Malcolm admires the rubble that his life has become, and Vanessa and Ethan pray. Once more into the breach.
The child vampire runs to his master and tells him all about the werewolves. Werewolves are frightening creatures, to be sure, but does Dracula really lack the numbers to defeat them in the field? He never seems to be lacking in scuttling acolytes, surely backing the wolves into a corner and sending wave after wave of bloodthirsty vampires at them would do the trick.
Vanessa is languishing in Dracula’s lair, in a grand black gown. She smells his fear of the werewolves, and instructs Drac that we are but the sum of our choices. We make our own heaven, we make our own hell. In the end, Penny Dreadful has always been about choice and accountability, and Vanessa has always been the point. She was marked as a target her entire life, but she made the choice to let herself be taken, feeling that there was no other option. But we always have a choice, a fact she seems to still be conscious of, even as she stands her brokedown palace of night creatures.
Kaetenay is not a big advocate of choice, it seems. He hounds Ethan (heheh) about how he is the only man who can save everyone, how only one man – one Apache – must be the one to save the world. It’s deeply unclear why. Ethan is an adopted Apache, he was made werewolf by another werewolf, not ordained by God. And in the end, he saves the world with the only weapon he’s ever really understood – a gun. Literally anyone can pull a trigger. It was probably less likely to be successful with Ethan on the business end, because he hesitated to shoot the woman he loved right until the last moment. Seriously, Catriona could have done it, and more efficiently. Anyone.
“You made me this monster?” “I claimed you for God.”
Though, perhaps the point of this pointlessness is to demonstrate that he was never the ‘Wolf of God’. He was just a werewolf, just a man. Never tempted by evil by his own great darkness, but because any mortal man will be temped by his worst instincts at times. Kaetenay had visions but he als smoked a lot of drugs, so again God plays not part. All this grand drama, all this struggle and magic and destiny, was always and forever in the hands of these humans. Not mortals, necessarily, but humans. Supernatural forces existed, but they were just the mechanics by which these stories were told. Look behind the smoke and mirrors, and all there ever was, was flesh and blood people. No God, just metaphors. Metaphors, and suffering, everywhere you look.
None of this makes a difference to the characters, of course. Ethan and Vanessa firmly believe in their God, and pray together at the burning end. As they say in crime fighting, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, and these two characters choose to hold fast to their faith. It does not weaken them, it brings courage in an impossible moment. Vanessa needed to believe she was loved and destined for something other than darkness. Ethan needed to believe she was not going to suffer any further. We can’t know what Ethan brought from this experience into the rest of his life – his bromance life with Sir Malcolm in the big house in London (anyone else picturing an American Werewolf in London version of Friends?), but for that moment, for those two people, the existence of God was not in question. Whether the matter is a psychological construct, with or without basis in reality, is irrelevant here. It is their choice.
“Where is Vanessa?”
“She’s not yours, she’s mine! But she wishes you to live, so leave, now, while I allow it.”
So. Dr Seward hypnotises Renfield (would that work on a vampire?), and he seems to regret a few life choices on his way leading them all to Dracula’s lair. He tests Dr Seward’s patience by dwelling on his existential crisis about having lost all chances at love, until finally he reveals the location, and all our avengers assemble (ha!) there, muttering farewells at each other. Everyone is very ready to die, which seems odd for people like Dr Seward and Catriona who literally just met everyone about five minutes ago. The slaughterhouse is full of bodies strung up – was there an epidemic of missing people in London around this time? – and the merry band of adventurers tiptoe anxiously through oceans of blue lighting, until it’s time for the menfolk to argue over who rightly owns Vanessa. There’s a bit more back and forth, Malcolm confirming that Dracula took Mina, Dracula talking some smack about Mina being delicious. Though the battle is well-choreographed, the entire scene feels rushed, and yet like they were trying to cram an enormous amount of nothing into a small amount of time. We don’t feel the bond between these characters because they aren’t bonded. They are essentially a group of strangers, who have joined together for a cause… to recover someone who left willingly. It also damages the narrative that we barely know half of these people. Dr Seward is a side character, Cat is brand new, we generally dislike Victor. It’s made worse by the throwaway one-liners like “Makes a change for a Tuesday, though” and “Fuck him”. At some point, we crossed from ill-fitting into cheesy.
“We’ll fight him.” “It’s not him. It’s me.”
Thankfully, that feeling really only lasts for the one scene. Ethan finds Vanessa in the Baz Luhrmann-esque candle-filled antechamber, and attempts to talk her down. They speak of destiny, of God, of hope and of hopelessness. Vanessa doesn’t take long to get to the point. Her red eye make up and pale skin are beautifully done, and her dress is every inch the wedding dress. The room is filled with orange light as Vanessa is finally free from pain and suffering. Not happiness, but peace. Like everything for Vanessa, it’s ‘something like’ – something like happiness, something like freedom, something like love. Her own version of the human condition. Her version of a candlelit wedding with a handsome man and a perfect kiss, the lord’s prayer and a white dress. Vanessa has met her destiny, by choice, and without fear. Hers was the only ending that felt right.
“Miss Ives was the last link to who I was. I must find out who I am yet to be. But I will miss her. To my bones.”
Suddenly, the apocalypse is over. Dracula has the tactical advantage, but inexplicably simply chooses to stop killing people and melts away, his character joining the list of unfulfilled potential in this story. The episode opened with the lullaby, positing the question of whether or not there is a heaven. And we end now with Malcolm, Ethan and Victor sitting around the fireplace, wondering the same thing. Victor and Ethan enjoy a super awkward manhug, and Ethan goes to Vanessa’s room to have a bit of a sit down. He sits, bathed in
blue lighting sorrow, until he and Malcolm decide they’re just going to stick together forever.
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.
Our final scene is Vanessa’s funeral. There are only a handful of people in attendance, her grave fittingly draped in lilies, with John sneaking in at the end to farewell his friend. The poem John’s voiceover leaves us with is an excerpt from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” by William Wordsworth. The full poem is exceptionally long (over 1,400 words), and speaks about heaven living in innocence and infancy, the shades of prison closing over us as we grow and become cynical. It reinforces the message that no matter how we have suffered, how keenly we have hurt, where there is life there is hope. Vanessa died, the core of their purpose gone, but those who remain behind must carry on, and look for hope where they can find it.
The finale was really all about parents, and how they love their children. How they lose them, have pieces of their soul chipped away, and yet remain standing to fight another day. Malcolm lost all his children, both biological and otherwise. Ethan’s father was killed by Malcolm, who then became a surrogate for the position. Kaetenay was a father figure, lost as well to the rigours of betrayal and stubbornness. The Cut Wife was a mother to Vanessa, and Dr Seward filled her shoes this season. Lily was given life by Victor, after having lost her daughter; just as John was brought back only to lose his son. Do we want our parents to love us, or protect us? To teach us, or allow us to learn? Do we need them to intervene, or to catch us when we fall? How does a parent recover from the moment a child slips away into death?
The answers are simple: human beings are complex creatures, each one needing and contributing something different. Some children need protection, others merely guidance. Some parents try to control their children, some accept their choices. The only universal theme is pain, felt by all, inflicted by all, carried and nursed like a living child itself. Through three seasons of Penny Dreadful we’ve seen people choose their families, choose their destinies, choose their own endings while railing against the heaving tide of oppression or destiny. In the end, the message from Penny Dreadful to us is clear: do not be cowed by horror. Do not surrender your strength. Stand always between the big bad and the end of the world, push back against the ebb tide – and whatever you do, don’t trust the bad guys will look like monsters.
- The character of Jekyll at this juncture becomes entirely pointless. It seems very likely that the writers, believing they would have more seasons, introduced him with clear purpose. Now, however, he just another loose string left dangling. Perhaps they are hoping for a spinoff, now that he is Dr Jekyll and Lord Hyde, having inherited his father’s title. Regardless, the time spent on Jekyll has become wasted minutes.
- We never learn how Victor got hold of John Clare’s body to reanimate him.
- We never find out any more about Catriona, or why she is apparently a ninja.
- We never see Lily’s wonderful revenge plot to smash the patriarchy play out.
- Vanessa dies, and that on its own is of course a major plot point. But Vanessa was always doomed, so the loss is not enormous, especially when we’re aware that the show has been cancelled. However, no one else dies in that enormous melee with all the vampires of London. No one. Not even Dr Seward, who really had no business surviving more than a few minutes in that kind of situation. It feels like someone hit a cheat code.
- Vanessa has apparently been reincarnated many times. How is dying again actually going to solve this problem she has of being a magnet for evil?
- “You’re not going to die” “Worse. I’m going to be unmade.” Lily is right, it is worse.
- “I’m a New Yorker, Sir Malcolm. We know our way around random gunplay.”
- Vampires scuttling and commando rolling = awesome.
- The writers. Honestly, if this is the magic ending they pulled out of their hats in a hurry, bloody well done to them. Shows with far more time to prepare have ended on far lower notes than this. Imperfect, frustrating and at times disappointing, the two finale episodes were still beautifully constructed, richly shot, seamlessly edited, and as close to satisfying as they could have been under the circumstances.