That was fast: A critical review of “Penny Dreadful’s” series finale

While “Penny Dreadful” was not my favorite show, it was certainly something that I always enjoyed watching if only to see what writer-creator John Logan would do next. Somewhere between the talking Satan dolls and the characters being randomly reanimated or turned into werewolves, “Dreadful” was delightfully un-subtle. Normally this would have bothered me, but the show’s triumph was in atmosphere and theatrics, not in reality. In fact, given how much some shows struggle for (and fail to reach) a semblance of reality, it was kind of refreshing to watch something that was only interested in style.

And then it just kinda ended.

Like most fans of the series, I was a bit blindsided by the fact that this season would be the last. Even when one of the main characters died, there was still hope; it was not until the words “the end,” which had never graced an episode before, appeared on screen that we knew. Fan response to the realization has been mixed, from assertions of the move’s poetic brilliance to sentiments of outright betrayal on the part of the show’s creators and Showtime. Admittedly, Logan had taken a “scorched earth” tactic to writing in the season two finale, but this time around said tactic has been paired with enough loose ends and rushed writing to suggest a conspiracy on someone’s part.

Characters who were introduced in this season (Perdita Weeks’s Catriona Hartdegan, a kind of Hugh-Jackman-as-Van-Helsing leather-clad vampire huntress; Shazad Latif’s intriguingly hot ‘n’ cold Dr. Jekyll, who gets about six minutes of screen time) were given no development or backstory. It’s a trick the show has used before (remember Helen McCrory’s presence in season one compared to season two?), but with no fourth season in sight, the trick feels less like a trick and more like sloppy storytelling.

Given that “Dreadful” normally does things big, it was a bit strange when the end of the world, which the end of the season promised, seemed a bit more whimper than bang (I don’t blame director Paco Cabezas, who handled a few of the episodes of the third season and gives them all a suitably Gothic air). This end of the world all happens overnight, and yet the populace of London seems rather indifferent about it. On the one hand, dockworkers no longer show up because of the fog and plague and vampire infestation; on the other hand, doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein (the always affable Harry Treadaway) continue to work as if nothing is wrong. Until Ethan Chandler/Talbot (the eternally brooding Josh Hartnett) goes looking for Frankenstein, so the doctor appears ready for end of the world action, despite wolf boy never actually having talked to him.

And then the whole thing is resolved in a gun battle where the vampires, which had previously been vicious killing machines, transform into very effective bullet sponges, soaking up the collective violence of an assault team whose members include a middle-aged alienist (Patti LuPone) and a clumsy man child (that’d be Frankenstein), neither of whom dies in the ensuing slaughter (in fact, none of the main characters die…except for the one). I suppose said alienist is so effective at killing vampires because she murdered her husband when she was 20 years younger. That explains that.

Likewise, Dracula (an increasingly disappointing–or disappointingly used–Christian Camargo), who we spent three seasons building up as the worst thing on the material plane, slinks out of the finale without pausing to gloat at his escape. He’s just gone, as if he suddenly remembered he’d left some blood on the kitchen counter and needs to stash it back in the fridge before it goes bad.

To clarify, I didn’t mind the single aforementioned death; what I mind is the loose ends. In fact, the only ending that I found satisfying was the one for Dorian Gray (played pretty-yet-weary by Reeve Carney) and erstwhile bride of Frankenstein Lily (the fantastic Billie Piper–is her character’s name a “Munsters” reference? Did I just get that?); she just sort of wanders off and remains, framed like a painting, in his chilly mansion. For a show that was about the acceptance of death, it seems fitting that the characters that cannot die got the bleakest of endings.

Logan has defended his decision to end the show so suddenly, stating that he’s always planned the adventures of Vanessa Ives and her ragtag crew to be a three-season play. In short, he’s remaining true to his vision. That’s fine, but we must remain lucid. It is one thing to admire a writer for telling the story he chose to tell in the time he needs to tell it, especially in an age when there often is no act three, but rather a long, protracted act two that lasts for seasons on end; it is altogether another thing to admire a writer for telling a story well, something that Logan seems to have forgotten in his rush to finish up things when he wanted to finish them.

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