We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog topic to gush over the Season Two finale of Penny Dreadful. Of course gothic horror isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if not you are missing some of the finest storytelling, acting, and filmmaking ever produced.
Arguably, a story cannot be truly great if it does not shock the audience in some way. And Penny Dreadful does not wield horror gratuitously but rather as a master surgeon’s scalpel to cut deeply into the soul of the viewer.
One might have worried that Season One was just too good; that the exceptional quality could never be maintained; that the novelty would have worn off; that all the possible shock value had been expended; that Season Two could never hope to thrill the audience like it was their first time.
But Season Two somehow continued to amaze, astound, and even surprise. It works well that the seasons are short, so much like Penny Dreadful novels themselves. If you have not seen the series, stop reading now and go watch it you fool.
The penultimate episode of Season Two opened with an exquisitely brutal confrontation during which Ethan and Vanessa dispatch Pinkerton Agent Warren Roper in a manner that is absolutely mesmerizing in its raw unapologetic brutality. That one could continue to view Vanessa as a relatable and sympathetic victim / heroine after her demonic murder of sadistic Lord Cromwell and then continue to do so after her repeated stabbing of Warren Roper is a testimony to the depth of these characters.
Then in the final episode she walks knowingly into the deadly trap long arranged for her by the devil himself, alone, unprotected, with naked vulnerability. She listens defiantly to his seductive manipulations and eventually draws her lips near his, a faint breath away from a final kiss of surrender, only to snatch it from him with scorn. “Beloved, know your master” she spits at him as she banishes him in spectacular verbal combat.
Is she a sympathetic victim, a mere damsel in distress? Yes, but so much more. And so it is with the entire ensemble cast. They all have tremendous depth and duality of character; all are flawed to the brink of evil yet redeemed all the more profoundly by their nobler qualities.
As Vanessa confronts the devil himself, Victor and Sir Malcom confront their own demons. In a brilliantly parallel sequence, they each battle the horrors and failures of their respective tragic families, each tormented by the very monsters they created.
But since even all that is not near enough drama for Penny Dreadful, Ethan simultaneously confronts the monster within him, and chooses to stop fighting against it and to abandon his chance for love.
We are even treated to another (see here) intimate and powerful conversation between Vanessa and John (paraphrased and abbreviated):
Vanessa: All my life I have fled the darkness only to find myself in deeper darkness still.
John: No matter how far you run from God he is still just ahead waiting for you.
Vanessa: You don’t believe in God.
John: But you do.
Perhaps most surprising is where the writers left the show. It seems to have ended well only for Ferdinand Lyle who has redeemed himself from his duplicity and cowardice. Sembene is dead. As is Miss Poole. Ethan has been shipped off to America shackled in a cage like the animal he is. Victor has taken what refuge he can find in drugs. Sir Malcom is finally aboard ship bound for Africa, taking the body of his son to final rest. John has apparently fled normal society and we see him standing on a boat in the arctic, immune to the cold of death. And Vanessa is left alone, abandoned and purposeless, even forsaken by or at least forsaking her own faith in god.
With the cast so utterly crushed and dispersed, where can the show possibly go from here?
I for one cannot wait to find out. The future will undoubtedly follow the unholy romance between Dorian and Brona, and Hecate will certainly tie in somehow. Hopefully we’ll learn the significance of the scorpion that merged with Vanessa. Beyond that, I am quite happy that I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I will only be surprised if I am not completely surprised by Season Three.