Penny Dreadful: The Blessed Dark

penny_dreadful_3-9Previously on Penny Dreadful: Everyone set off to look for Vanessa, who’s now fully committed to Dracula, which is not good for the world.

It’s the last episode ever, and we get some new credits. For those interested, the shots of Vanessa are pretty much all of her doing something religious.

Cal’s son dies in his sleep, and he and his wife, Marjorie, are very sad. Cal is ready to make the funeral arrangements, but his wife reminds him that he knows someone who can bring people back from the dead and orders Cal to take the boy to Frankenstein. Cal, having had a shit-riffic life, thanks to Victor and his resurrecting and terrible parenting, is not willing to bring that on his son and vetoes the idea, but his wife tells him to get it done or get lost permanently. He wraps the boy in a shroud and buries him at sea, after taking one last moment to tenderly stroke the child’s face.

Victor, meanwhile, is being harangued by Jekyll, who calls him weak and keeps insisting that curing all the inmates in Bedlam will bring him fame and acceptance. Victor practically laughs in his face, because since when has high society cared about the sciences? But it seems Jekyll’s douchebag father has finally died, so he’s Lord Hyde now, so he’ll get some acceptance that way, right?  For some reason, the show makes this seem like a big reveal, as if anyone watching doesn’t already know who Jekyll is.

In other storylines that ultimately went nowhere even though they had great potential, Lily, insanely, goes back to Dorian’s house (having clearly stopped off to have her dress dry-cleaned along the way) and finds him standing over Justine’s body. Dorian tells her she’ll have to get used to life as an immortal and basically learn to stop caring about anyone or anything. She kisses him goodbye and leaves.

Sweet hears about the dual-werewolf massacre courtesy of the creepy vampire kid and realises this means Ethan’s coming for him. Vanessa finally appears on our screens and reassures him it’ll be fine.

Speaking of the werewolves, Ethan wakes up alongside Kaetenay in an alley somewhere. Apparently, this is the first time he’s figured out where his werewolf curse came from. Kaetenay always had it and then had a prophecy about a man who would basically save the world. He figured that guy was Ethan and turned him (without his knowledge? How is that possible?) Ethan is not at all happy to learn any of this, but Kaetenay points out he gave Ethan the power to save Vanessa and Ethan restrains himself from killing him.

At Bedlam, a combination of drugs, threats and hypnosis gets Renfield talking and he reveals that Dracula hangs out in a former slaughterhouse in Chinatown. Off they all go, collecting Victor along the way. Somewhere they also meet Ethan and Kaetenay, who decide to go in through the sewers.

At the charnel house, Dracula tells the Scooby Crew that Vanessa is his. Since Vanessa doesn’t want her friends to die, Dracula offers to let them live, if they leave immediately. They take a look at the vampires now surrounding them and basically go, ‘Eh, F-it,’ and start shooting. Vampires swarm and are killed, bodies pile up. Cat is seriously badass with a knife and even Victor’s holding his own. But there are just too many vampires for them to fight off on their own. Fortunately, Ethan bursts out of the sewers and gives everyone some bonus energy, so they continue fighting until the vampire army is pretty much dead. Ethan tries to go for Vanessa, but Dracula’s not having it and goes after him. The others distract Dracula, who should not be that easily distracted, considering he’s frigging Dracula, Satan’s actual brother, and Ethan gets away to search for Vanessa.

He finds her in a candle-filled room and she admits it hurts to see him. He urges her to come with him, swearing that he’ll protect her, but she knows that’s just not possible. He tries appealing to her faith, swearing that God waits for them all. She tells him that she needs to die, or there’ll never be peace on earth, and urges him to do the deed. He can’t bring himself to do it, so she begs, putting his gun in his hand. They kiss, one last time, and Ethan starts reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She joins in, and when it’s over, he shoots her. She dies in his arms, telling Ethan she can see the Lord.

Wait, that’s it? The mother of all evil or whatever just…gets shot and dies? Has a man shoot her? That seems…unlike her.

Ethan carries her body into the main room, where Sweet’s in the process of throttling Malcolm. The sight of dead Vanessa distracts him, and he lets go of Malcolm and vanishes. The Scooby Crew all stand, gaping at the sight, as above, the pestilential fog that oddly never seemed to affect any of these characters parts and the sun shines down. Malcolm cries.

London starts the monumental task of cleaning up.

The remaining original Scoobys gather at Malcolm’s to man-hug and reassure one another that Vanessa’s at peace and all will be well. Malcolm and Ethan wonder what they’re going to do with themselves now their sole purpose in life is gone.

Vanessa is buried, as Cal looks on in surprise and sadness. Fittingly, we get Cal VOing Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality during the burial. Once the mourners are gone, Cal goes to the grave, presses a hand to it, and cries.

Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. What a tremendously disappointing end to the series and to the character of Vanessa. And no, I’m not talking about her death. I agree that the only thing left was for her to die, because as long as she lived, clearly, the world would not be safe. But for her to be such a passive character at the end seemed to go against everything we know about her. She’s a strong woman–too strong for this world, in many ways. She’s a fighter–she fought off the freaking devil last season, with little more than an assist from Ethan. She’s not one to leave others to do the hard work for her. And yet, here she is, barely even present in the last two episodes, the conclusion of her story, blankly telling Ethan that he has to kill her. I suppose one could argue that, like Justine, she’s claiming some agency by dictating the terms of her death, but like Justine, that’s pretty much obliterated by her being uncharacteristically incapable of pulling the trigger herself (so to speak). They both had to get someone else to do it. A man, no less. And on a show that’s been pretty unabashedly feminist up to the last couple of episodes, that’s odd and a massive letdown. Vanessa should have had a stronger role in vanquishing the vampires. And her arc there should have made more sense–she went from wanting to kill Dracula to being totally on his side to being back on the side of good so quickly I felt like I got whiplash. It never made sense or felt organic. Was she playing Dracula the whole time? To what end? Considering the carnage that ensued, I find that doubtful. So what made her switch back? Just the sight of Ethan? Sorry, but that’s not good enough.

But narrative whiplash plagued this whole season, which suffered from terribly weak storytelling. Hecate and Ethan hooked up for no rhyme or reason. The entire New Mexico storyline was a needless diversion that served no useful purpose. Dorian just got bored of the feminist revolution, seemingly overnight, again, for no apparent reason. They could have done something with that: had him start to become more clearly disturbed by the direction it was taking, or even uncomfortable with the increasing power these women were beginning to wield (something which a man of his time and station probably would have had an issue with) and deciding to put a stop to it by rendering Lily docile. That would have made much more sense, because if he was just bored, why hand Lily over to Frankenstein to be ‘tamed’? Why not just cut off the funding and tell the ladies to get out of his house? Like New Mexico, that whole storyline was a complete waste of time, a narrative dead-end that had potential but never delivered. Instead, it introduced a potentially interesting new character (Justine) and then never did anything with her, before ultimately killing her off. Same with Rusk and Hecate. Why put these people in the story if they’re not going to serve a purpose? Why make a point of telling us how strong and fierce they are if they’re just going to be killed off in a moment, before they get to do anything substantial? (There was a similar problem with Sembene, who seemed like he had an interesting story to tell, but ultimately never made it beyond ‘mystical black guy’, which is pretty offensive.) I was eagerly anticipating Justine rallying the ladies and going to save Lily, a battalion of women who have HAD IT with men going out and overwhelming the ultimate patriarchy: men who have developed a treatment specifically meant to tame at least one woman. Isn’t that what they were trained to do?

How great (and reasonable) would it have been for Hecate and Rusk to join in on the fight against Dracula–Hecate driven by that deep-seated rage over her mother handing her over to the devil, and Rusk driven by his extreme devotion to duty at any cost? Could Lily and the ladies not have had some role there, fighting, again, against a man out to control the world? Couldn’t Dorian join in, finally finding some sort of purpose in his aimless, empty life? Could Jekyll’s and Victor’s work not have been adapted, perhaps with Seward’s help, to help subdue the most horrifying parts of Vanessa’s psyche, the ones that led her to embrace pure evil in the space of a five-minute speech? Could Cal have not joined in, seeking redemption for the things he’s done and eager to save Vanessa himself?

See, if they had done that, these characters might have all seemed like they were part of an actual coherent narrative, instead of disparate pieces spread out all over the place, moving around but ultimately doing nothing. Dorian never made any sense in the story–his storylines always seemed entirely separate from any main narrative and never went anywhere. Same with Jekyll, whose introduction to the story seemed full of promise, but who quickly became boring and frustrating. His endless tantrums about how unfair life had been and how racist everyone was got dull really, really fast. I’m not saying his rage wasn’t justified, just that, as an audience, we don’t constantly need to be reminded of it. It was basically his only defining characteristic. We need a little more. His story went nowhere. He went nowhere, and then he just melted away. Cat seemed promising but was introduced too late for us to really get into her. Hecate was pointless. Rusk was pointless. You can’t make us spend ages following pointless characters around–that’s not how good storytelling works.

Personally, I wish the show had fully committed itself to the two most intriguing characters: Lily and Vanessa. These were two women who did not fit into the little boxes society set out for them, although they tried (disastrously for both). If the show had just kept the focus fairly tightly on them, fully developed their stories and had them move towards a reasonable endpoint (that does not include Lily just wandering out of a room and leaving Dorian behind), we could have had a much better, more focused and streamlined show. We didn’t need all the drama about Ethan’s family, or Dorian’s relationship with the trans woman from last season. Bits of everyone else’s stories would have come out naturally as part of Lily’s and Vanessa’s story and histories, and we could have done away with some of the superfluous characters because they simply wouldn’t have had a place in a narrative that was almost exclusively about these two. And if the story had really been about them, then characters like Dorian might have felt less peripheral. This would have been a show about women, strong women learning to channel their strength in both good and bad ways and either destroying the world or saving it.

Alas, the show was simply too wrapped up in its own gimmick to go that route. It was more concerned with tossing endless monsters at us than giving us a coherent story. Too bad. Penny Dreadful was good, and for the most part I enjoyed it, but it could have been great, and that wasted potential is ultimately frustrating.

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