Penny Dreadful, Season 3: And Yet His Glory Shines Through
By Thomas M. Sipos
Rumors abound that Penny Dreadful creator John Logan outlined four seasons, but that at the end of Season Two, Showtime decided the third would be the last. Thus Logan condensed two seasons into one. He denies these rumors, yet, like the last season of Game of Thrones, the third season of Penny Dreadful feels rushed and incomplete. But despite its flaws, Season Three has its moments -- and a closure that is both beautiful and profound.
We open several months after Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) defeated Satan by speaking the Verbis Diablo. Feeling that she has forsaken God, she is an emotional wreck. She lives in darkness, windows covered. Months of dirty dishes, pots, and utensils lay strewn about the mansion, upon tables and floors, crawling with insects. She sits on the floor, eating like an animal.
Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) pays a visit. Seeing Vanessa's broken state, he urges her to see Dr. Seward, a "doctor of the mind" who helped him come to terms with his homosexuality.
Vanessa is shocked to discover that Dr. Seward looks identical to her deceased witch mentor, Joan Clayton. (Well, they are both played by Patti Lupone.) The widowed Seward confirms that her family name was Clayton, and they did live in Devon, but that was centuries ago.
(Vanessa later accuses Seward of being Clayton, which Seward denies, but the resemblance is never explained. One senses that had Penny Dreadful lasted four seasons, we would have learned more.)
Seward is cold and robotic, resembling Ayn Rand in both appearance and manner. Barely having met Vanessa, Seward asserts, "Do you understand that you are ill? Not bad. Not unworthy. Just ill."
As the Apocalypse nears, rationalism is ascendant. Seward has no way of knowing whether Vanessa is bad or unworthy -- they just met -- but Reason asserts there is no sin, only sickness. Seward believes that Vanessa's struggles against vampires, witches, and Satan are the delusions of a troubled mind. When Vanessa says, "Everyone has sinned," Seward skeptically replies. "Have they?"
Seward is a parody of the Randian hyper-rationalist. After a brief interview, she claims to know everything wrong with Vanessa, giving a short speech detailing Vanessa's psychological state. Seward's analysis has some surface accuracy, but misses the supernatural and moral forces shaping that surface.
Prompted by Seward, Vanessa visits a museum just to get out of the house, where she meets Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo), a zoologist. Sweet is impressed by Vanessa's knowledge of scorpions. Sensing a budding romance, Vanessa is happy for the first time in months. Having rejected God, she now seeks happiness in self-actualization; in reason, feminism, individualism, and modern pop psychology. "The old monsters are gone. The old curses have echoed to silence. And if my immortal soul is lost to me, something yet remains. I remain."
Scientism challenges Christianity throughout Season Three, offering itself as the solution to all moral and mental problems. While Seward practices the new "science" of psychotherapy, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif) seeks a biochemical solution to sin. Believing that good and evil are matters of brain chemistry, he hopes to cure men of sin with a simple injection.
Jekyll and Vanessa share similar goals; both seek to suppress their natural dark desires. But whereas Vanessa had used prayer to help her adhere to God's moral code, Jekyll uses science to conform men to secular morality. "[W]e must be that thing the world demands of us. We must take the lust and the avarice and the ambition and bury them. All the alien, ugly things. All the things we really are. The other one. The other man. We cannot allow him."
Recalling his friend's theories from medical school, Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) reconnects with Jekyll and explains how he created Lily, who has turned malevolent. Frankenstein wants Jekyll to transform Lily into a loving, traditional wife. Jekyll says that his experiments have reached the point where he can transform a sinner into a saint, but the transformation only lasts a few hours. Frankenstein suggests that with his knowledge of electricity, he can improve upon Jekyll's work. "We will create a choir of angels!" The two form a scientific partnership.
Unlike in Stevenson's novel, the Jekyll of Penny Dreadful is biracial. His father, Lord Hyde, was a prominent British colonialist in India who took a native mistress. She became pregnant. He returned to England. Left to raise the half-English Jekyll as a single mother, she was despised by her Indian family. After she died, Jekyll's father paid for his English boarding schools, but otherwise ignored his son.
Jekyll seethes with resentment and hate. At the Indians who mistreated his mother as an "untouchable" for birthing an English bastard. At the English who call him a "wog" and worse. Split between two races, rejected by both, he feels unwelcome anywhere. But the rage born of his dual identity also inspires his work.
Frankenstein asks, "You remember late at night in our room, over the hookah, listing the names of all the boys who had insulted you? The recitation of your potential victims. Your nightly prayers. That anger inside you, all that rage. Have you lost it?"
Jekyll replies, "I have learned to control it. That is the essence of my work now. The neurologic chemical reactions of the brain. Taming the beast within."
And so Jekyll personifies two distinct themes; two modern trends. Scientific hubris. And the social costs of colonialism and imperialism.
(Penny Dreadful's conceit of a biracial Jekyll is innovative and promising. A classic literary character who embodies moral bifurcation is here also racially bifurcated. Unfortunately, Jekyll spends Season Three mostly assisting Frankenstein, whereupon his father dies and he becomes Lord Hyde. We sense that Jekyll's story is finally about to begin -- or would have, had there been a Season Four.)
Season One made vaguely critical references to Western imperialism. Season Two was more explicit. Ethan Chandler related how, while in the U.S. Army, he helped wipe out an Apache tribe, women and children included. In Season Three this theme -- the sin of colonialism and its corrupting blowback on Western civilization -- is prominent.
As if paralleling their growing presence in the West, each season of Penny Dreadful gives greater space to people of color. Season One's most significant POC was Sembene, a very African African. Born in the Dark Continent, brought to England by Sir Malcolm Murray to serve as a domestic servant, never integrated to life outside of Sir Malcolm's household, and eventually returned "to lie in his native soil."
Season Two introduced the transwoman prostitute, Angelique (played by Puerto Rican actor Jonny Beauchamp), who laughingly tells Dorian, "If I were capable of blushing, I'd be red as an apple." Unlike Sembene, Angelique is integrated into British society, albeit on its disreputable fringes.
In Season Three, Jekyll is a doctor and heir to his father's title of nobility. He still feels short-changed; he is employed at Bedlam, England's notorious insane asylum, which (he feels) is not the prestigious institution a man of his brilliance deserves. Still, his privilege exceeds that of most British whites. His social status certainly far exceeds that of a prostitute.
Ironically, the higher Penny Dreadful's people of color rise in Western society, the more resentful they feel. Sembene expressed only gratitude. And while Angelique presumably endured far uglier insults than even Jekyll, the doctor complains more often, and more bitterly, than did the prostitute.
Furthermore, Season Three offers two prominent characters of color. The second is Kaetenay (Wes Studi), an Apache shaman.
After burying Sembene, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) sits in an African bar, questioning his legacy as an explorer. "Most of the local natives have been run off, or captured by the Germans and the Belgians for the rubber and ivory trade, for slaves in all but name. What romance I saw in Africa is done for me. The land is tainted now beyond repair, and I want to be quit of the filthy place."
Outside the bar, Sir Malcolm is attacked by a gang. (Curiously, they appear to be Arab, or perhaps Indian, rather than African.) Kaetenay springs forth and kills several gang members. Then he scalps them. "Old traditions die hard, don't they, Sir Malcolm?"
Kaetenay is of the tribe that Chandler massacred. Chandler felt so guilty, he killed his commanding officer, then went to the Apaches, asking to be scalped. Instead, Kaetenay had Chandler switch sides, which led to Chandler's "great sin." (What that is, we don't yet know.) The two men had a falling out and Chandler left for England. Only to be extradited back to the U.S. at the end of Season Two.
Kaetenay knows this because he is a shaman. He sees things. Recently, he saw that Chandler is Lupus Dei, God's champion in the coming Apocalypse. Kaetenay wants Sir Malcolm to come with him to America, so they can free Chandler and return him to London to fight Amun-Ra and Amunet (Vanessa). "You know you have a further destiny. Let this be it. Our son needs us. Where is your heart, Malcolm Murry? Be who you are."
Should one be who one is? This theme informs all three seasons. In Season Two, Sembene helped free Sir Malcolm of Kali's spell by shouting, "Know who you are!" Good advice for Sir Malcolm. Yet Jekyll seeks to suppress his hateful side. Vanessa also resists who she is with good reason; she has a dark side drawing her to sexual sin -- to her inner Amunet.
In Season Two, John Clare (Rory Kinnear) tells Vanessa, "Good Christians fear hellfire, so to avoid it, they are kind to their fellow man. Good pagans do not have this fear, so they can be who they are, good or ill, as their nature dictates. We have no fear of God, so we are accountable to no one but each other."
"That's a profound responsibility," Vanessa responds.
Is it? Their exchange raises questions. Do all Christians strive for good merely from fear of damnation? Are pagans accountable to each other -- or to no one at all? If the latter, it's not really a responsibility, profound or otherwise, is it? Clare's pagan philosophy -- to embrace one's nature, to follow one's bliss -- evokes modern New Age thinking. No one in Penny Dreadful is free of sin, as is often stated, thus such modernist ideas pave the road to the Beast.
Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) also struggles against his nature -- against who he "really" is. Season Three finds him in shackles, aboard a train in New Mexico Territory. He is being escorted by Scotland Yard Inspector Bartholomew Rusk (Douglas Hodge), and a contingent of U.S. Marshalls, to face trial for the murder of his commanding officer. But more bloodshed is on the horizon. Over the next several episodes, Chandler will witness or participate in five massacres.
First, a band of brigands massacres the Marshalls (and many civilians) aboard the train. They capture Chandler, intending to return him to his father. That night, Chandler turns into a werewolf, and with Hecate's help, massacres the brigands (and many civilians) and escapes.
Yes, Hecate (Sarah Greene) has followed Chandler to America, still hoping to recruit him for Satan. And just as Satan tempted Christ in the wilderness, so Hecate tempts the Wolf of God as they trek through the desert. She mounts several angles of attack, probing for weakness. She describes Satan's rewards. She tries to fill Chandler with despair, suggesting that his sins are unforgivable. (Much like the despair that burdens Vanessa.) And like Seward, Hecate offers a contrition-free release. "There is only one way to free yourself of guilt. Embrace your sins."
Just like Satan (and later Dracula) urged Vanessa, Hecate urges Chandler to be true to himself. "I want to liberate your truest self. The beast that prowls around your heart. And when you are truly yourself, and we are painted with blood, I want to rule the darkness at your side."
Hecate also makes a play for sympathy. Perhaps sensing that Chandler is a White Knight who is drawn to damsels in distress, Hecate explains that she didn't want to become a witch. While still a child, her mother Kali offered up Hecate to Satan. Her mother was so cruel, much like Chandler's father, so perhaps he can understand?
Hecate tries to undermine Chandler's faith in God's goodness. "Whatever you did in the army, whatever the Indians made you do, know this. God watched it all unfold and laughed. This is the world he's made. We can create a world of our own, Ethan."
Although she is Satan's witch, at times Hecate sounds as if she wants Chandler to betray God and Satan -- and crown her (not Vanessa) the Mother of Evil.
The third massacre is when Hecate kills a frontier couple to steal their horses. Chandler still retains enough conscience to feel dismay. Hecate undermines that conscience. "Because I murder with will and not like a blind animal, you think me a monster. How many corpses have you left in your wake, Ethan? When there are bodies stretched from here to the horizon, and you can walk across them without touching the ground, then you can weep."
When Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm arrive on the bloody scene, Kaetenay exclaims, "We are losing him, Malcolm." The Apache realizes that Chandler is defending his soul with ever less resistance.
Then the fourth massacre. Hecate and Chandler see an encampment of U.S. Marshalls and Rusk around a fire. Hecate asks Chandler if she should summon the night creatures to kill their pursuers. She would need his blood. Chandler agrees, thus becoming complicit. Hecate casts her Satanic spell. Rattlesnakes emerge from the soil, killing most of the Marshalls. (Coincidentally, just as Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm enter the camp to steal two horses.)
Hecate and Chandler hide in a cave, gazing at some wall paintings that relate an Indian creation myth. Their discussion culminates in Chandler embracing his dark side. "I annihilated a tribe. I betrayed my family. I slaughtered women, and children, and murdered my friend. And I will send my father to Hell and laugh while I do it. I'm done trying to be good."
As people so often do in Penny Dreadful, Chandler seals his acceptance of evil with sexual sin. After declaring his rejection of "good," he fornicates with Hecate, during which act she says, "And when you end your father's life, whisper these words. 'Lucifer, I am your animal.' And you will never feel guilt again."
Back in London, Lily (Billie Piper) is raising an army for her secular revolution. Her first recruit is Justine (Jessica Barden), a sex slave in an underground club. Lily and Dorian (Reeve Carney) infiltrate the club, kill the patrons, and rescue Justine. (In keeping with Penny Dreadful's conceit of using classic literary characters, Justine is taken from de Sade's novel.)
How to respond to suffering or injustice is among Penny Dreadful's themes. Some seek answers from Christianity, others turn to Satan, science, or politics. Lily, Justine, Kaetenay, Chandler, Hecate, Clare, and Jekyll are among those whose souls are sickened with hate due to past injustice. Some will find redemption, some not.
Justine is deeply traumatized and full of vengeance. But rather than try to heal or suppress Justine's dark side, Lily stokes her rage.
"Would you have me forgive them?" asks Justine.
Not only do Lily and Dorian help Justine murder her former captor, but the three revolutionists then celebrate with an orgy (i.e., sexual sin) while smeared in his blood.
Lily recruits more prostitutes, gathering a nascent army in Dorian's mansion. Lily instructs the women on how to kill a man, using the compliant Dorian as a stand-in.
Thus the fickle Lily shifts ideologically. In Season Two, she advocated a sort of Nietzschean National Socialism for immortals, first to Clare, then to Dorian. Now she preaches angry feminism to her army. "We are not women who crawl. We are not women who kneel. And for this we will be branded radicals. Revolutionists. Women who are strong, and refuse to be degraded, and choose to protect themselves, are called monsters. That is the world's crime, not ours."
Like many revolutions, Lily's is a mishmash of lofty ideals, personal hatreds, and justifications for carnage. To a mother grieving over her child's grave, Lily promises a better future. "The day a good woman will have to undergo such indignity is almost past. We will not have to suffer our children to starve and freeze and die dishonored on cold hills. We will not be hungry forever. We will rise."
Yet at other times, Lily sounds like Robespierre or Trotsky. "Liberty is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses." She instructs her prostitutes to find clients, and return with their severed hands. Which they pile atop Dorian's dining room table.
Dorian begins to weary of Lily's new ideology. He thought he'd found an immortal mate, one with whom to rule the world. Instead, Lily now spends her time playing social worker. When one of her prostitutes has an emotional crisis, Lily shoos Dorian out of the room for some private girl talk.
Even worse, these whores don't respect him. In his own house. They idolize Lily, but only tolerate Dorian. After all, he is a man. Justine is especially impertinent, seeing Dorian not as her rescuer, but as a rival for Lily's affections.
After Justine sasses off at him, Dorian glowers back, "Listen, child, I can toss you out like the baggage you are whenever it pleases me. And don't think for one moment your tiresome sapphic escapades shock me. You think you're bold? You think you know sin? You're still learning the language. I wrote the bloody book."
Lily has forgotten that despite his innocent face, Dorian is ancient, powerful, and has centuries worth of craft, cunning, and evil to his credit. And that revolutions tend to eat their own.
As in Shelley's novel, Season Two ends with John Clare sailing into the Arctic Ocean. Season Three opens with the ship frozen in ice, the crew staring hungrily at a dying child. As he protects the child, Clare suddenly remembers his life before Frankenstein reanimated him. He had a son and wife. Filled with renewed purpose, Clare kills the child, leaves the ship, and treks across the ice back to England.
(Clare thinks his act was a mercy killing, as the child would have died soon anyway. Ironically, his creator did the same to Brona in Season One, to provide Clare with a mate.)
Clare spends much of Season Three seeking his family. When he finds them, he worries they'll reject him for his appearance. He reconnects with Vanessa, who is filled with renewed optimism as she is falling in love with Dr. Sweet. Vanessa convinces Clare to assume the best of his family. He does so, and indeed, they welcome him back.
Clare is the happiest he's been so far in the series, yet he confides to his wife, "I've done cruel things. I've been unworthy and hurt those who didn't deserve it. A kind of madness, call it, and bottomless rage. The sun will never shine so bright for me now that I've walked in darkness. I cannot be the man I was."
That these two actors, Rory Kinnear and Pandora Colin, are married in real life, adds to the scene's poignancy.
Like Vanessa, Clare is aware of his sins and has remorse. Unlike Jared Talbot (Chandler's father), who, we will learn, has awareness but no remorse. Or Lily, who has neither, but instead continues to justify her savageries.
Vanessa Ives is the core of Penny Dreadful and each season devotes one episode to her back story. Season One's "Closer Than Sisters" relates Vanessa's betrayal of Mina and subsequent time in the Banning Clinic. Season Two's "The Nightcomers" follows Vanessa after she leaves the Banning Clinic and trains under Joan Clayton. Season Three's "A Blade of Grass" returns us to the Banning Clinic where Vanessa first met Dracula.
Vanessa had forgotten about the meeting. Then a vampire tells her that she met his "master" in "the white room." That can only be the Banning Clinic. Vanessa asks Seward to hypnotize her, so she can remember Dracula. Seward thinks that Vanessa might be helped by confronting her delusions, so she agrees.
"A Blade of Grass" is set mostly in Vanessa's padded cell at the asylum, reliving her memories under hypnosis. Her first shock is recognizing the orderly who attended her for five months: John Clare.
Vanessa never learns that Frankenstein reanimated Clare from the dead. She knows only that Clare is a badly scarred man. Now we see Clare as he appeared before his death. He is revealed to be soft-spoken and compassionate.
Two modernist forces (a carrot and a stick) assault Vanessa's Catholic faith at the Banning Clinic. The carrot is the feminist, individualist temptation to be "true to oneself." This is the greater temptation for Vanessa, for while she is firm in her faith, she still wants the liberty to follow her sexual impulses. The stick is science and reason.
Like those who deny "the science" of climate change and Covid masks, Vanessa denies her doctor's diagnosis, instead insisting, "I have been touched by Satan. My weakness allowed it. My faith was not strong enough and Lucifer came to me. I didn’t fight him strongly enough. I don’t know that I fought him at all."
Science punishes Vanessa for her Christian "delusions." When she refuses to eat, a tube is forced down her throat. After an ice bath ("hydrotherapy"), she is forbidden blankets lest she hang herself, so she shivers in her cell.
"It's not torture what they're doing," says Clare. "It's science. It's meant to make you better."
To a large extent, Vanessa does not, because normalcy means marriage under a man's rule. Free love or virginity, either is preferable. When she despairs that she will never leave the clinic, and realizes to her horror that "I've only been with one man!" (Mina's Captain Branson), she tries to seduce Clare. He resists. Whereupon she does a complete reversal. "I should of died a virgin. Like Joan of Arc. Be true. Be strong. Sing on the funeral pyre."
Vanessa tells Clare that she would not make a good wife. Yet her traditional Christian side wants that normalcy. At the end of Season Two, Satan tempted Vanessa with visions of a happy married life with Chandler. She insisted that she didn't want that, yet the tears in her eyes suggested otherwise.
Satan and Dracula both manifest in Vanessa's cell, in the form of Clare. Both compete for her love, to be the Amun-Ra to her Amunet. Both accept Vanessa without judgment, according to her nature and desires, without laying a guilt trip on her. "In this mortal world you'll always be shunned for your uniqueness. But not with me," says Dracula. "I love you for who you are, Vanessa."
It's an odd and difficult scene, but not impossible to interpret. Vanessa begins by invoking Christ (who "vanquished" Satan by dying on the cross), then asserts herself -- "But I am." -- and ends by conjuring her own dark powers. (It's noteworthy that "I am." is how both God and Christ expressed their divinity.) She is conflicted, wanting both her Christianity (submission to God's law) and her autonomy. She will later lament in a letter to Sir Malcolm, "I have done things in my life for reasons that seemed right, and even moral, in their violent immorality. And now I stand without that God upon whom I have always depended."
Vanessa is eventually scheduled for "trephining" (brain surgery). Clare relates the disastrous results in the patients he's seen. He urges Vanessa to deny her faith if that would please the doctors. "Pretend to be cured. Be like everyone else. Do what he wants you to do. ... Is it so important to be different? To have such specialness?"
Vanessa resists his advice, but later claims she tried to follow it. But when Dr. Banning asked her what she believed, she couldn't help herself. She blurted that "God's immortal glory lives in me as in all of us. How can that be anything but lunacy to a man like Doctor Banning?"
Chandler is trekking toward his father's ranch to kill him. Alas, he and Hecate run out of water. Before they can die, Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay arrive. Soon thereafter, Jared Talbot's (Chandler's father) men arrive, and take them to the Talbot ranch. They leave Kaetenay to die of thirst.
Talbot (Brian Cox) is thrilled to meet Sir Malcolm. "It's like looking in a mirror." Just as Sir Malcolm helped tear an empire out of Africa, Talbot tamed the North American wilderness. Like Sir Malcolm, Talbot brags of having mountains named after him.
"And at what cost?" asks Sir Malcolm, having lost his taste for empire. He denies that he and Talbot are alike. Sir Malcolm respected Sembene. "A proper man. I've not known many." Whereas Talbot contemns the Apaches. "More animal than human. Not human at all in truth."
Talbot brings Chandler (aka Ethan Talbot) to the family chapel. We learn Chandler's great sin, about which he's spoken since Season One. After joining Kaetenay, Chandler helped the Apaches raid his father's ranch for guns and ammunition. The Apaches promised Chandler that his family would not be harmed. They lied. They tortured, then murdered Chandler's mother and siblings, cutting out his little sister's eyes and tongue.
Penny Dreadful is admirable for giving most of its characters a fair hearing. Talbot, Chandler, Hecate, Clayton, Clare, Kaetenay, Justine, Lily, and others commit monstrous acts, yet they are also victims of cruelty. While this doesn't absolve them of sin, they are fruits of a fallen world. As Vanessa explained to Chandler in Season One, "We here have been brutalized with loss. It has made us brutal in return."
(Sir Geoffrey is an exception -- one-dimensional and offering no defense for his cruelties -- thus he is more caricature than character.)
Talbot demands that Chandler repent. "I don't blame you for hating me. I have given you cause. But try as I have, I can't forgive you either. We're not here to make amends."
"Why then?" asks Chandler.
In a way, Talbot resembles Vanessa. Both care deeply about God and repentance. But whereas Vanessa is conflicted, still struggling against her fallen nature, Talbot accepts himself. And like Vanessa, Talbot believes that he is lost to God. Yet damned though he is, he wants to save his son.
But Chandler will have none of it. "I'm done repenting. And I belong in Hell."
The dinner does not go well. Hecate transforms into her witch's form. Kaetenay bursts into the room, gun blazing. All fight against all. In the end, casualties include Talbot and his men, Rusk, Ostow, and Hecate. Her last words, "Ethan, Hell awaits us both."
Chandler seems saddened by Hecate's death, yet quickly realizes that he loves Vanessa. He no longer cares about the Apocalypse, but wants only to be with her. Kaetenay insists that Lupus Dei has a duty to forgo love and fight Hell. Luckily, Kaetenay has a vision of Vanessa, whereupon he, Chandler, and Sir Malcolm realize their goals are aligned. All must return to London to save Vanessa from Dracula.
Along the way, Sir Malcolm praises Chandler for not being able to shoot his father. "And for that you must be thankful. You have a soul left inside you, Ethan. You have some kindness. Never lose that."
Even so, Chandler's quick return to goodness, then the three men's race to London, feels rushed. Hence the rumors that Penny Dreadful was originally planned for four seasons.
Back in London, Vanessa visits Lyle to learn about Dracula. But Lyle is leaving for Cairo, seeking a place more tolerant of homosexuals. He refers Vanessa to Catriona Hartdegen (Peridita Weeks), a thanatologist (one who studies death).
Catriona is Penny Dreadful's most ridiculous character. With her sassy attitude and black leather outfit, she is an anachronism, marring the show's carefully constructed Victorian milieu, looking and behaving like video gaming's Lara Croft. Her presence is pointless. She is dropped into the second half of Season Three, and does nothing that some other character couldn't as easily have done. Why is she even here?
Her last name is a clue. H.G. Wells did not name his protagonist in The Time Machine, but the 2002 film version calls him Alexander Hartdegen. Is Catriona a time traveler? That would explain her anachronistic attire and attitude. It's also evidence of an intended Season Four. As it is, no mention is made of time travel, so Catriona remains a character in search of a story.
She's also not very likable (though I suspect we're supposed to like her). In her first scene, she cheats at fencing, and proudly claims victory even though everyone saw her cheat. "Strictly speaking I would not categorize that as cheating. More as creative improvisation to assure a victory. Which is, as you know, rather the point."
Well, no. The point of any game is to win within certain restrictions. Improvisation to assure a victory is admirable in actual combat. But the battlefield imposes restrictions that cannot be improvised away (e.g., a muddy field, a river in the way, etc). Games impose artificial restrictions, to discipline one to fighting within actual restrictions when the time comes.
Catriona is also insultingly arrogant. She will later say to Vanessa, "You may as well read the Bible for its history, which, it goes without saying, is a fool's errand fit only for idiot children."
To her discredit, Vanessa admires Catriona's cheating. One senses that the fencing scene was written to celebrate Girl Power. The two women bond over lunch. Vanessa tells Catriona that Dracula is after her.
"If Dracula wanted you dead, you would be," says Catriona.
Vanessa's feminist rebelliousness is increasing, just as Dracula's influence is growing over her. (Much like her feminist rhetoric intensified while under Satanic possession in Season One.) During a psychic contact, Kaetenay tells Vanessa, "You're made for the day. Not the night." She replies, "There, sir, you are wrong." This is not the Catholic Vanessa speaking; this is the one who yearns for sexual liberation and autonomy. Kaetenay concludes, "She is halfway his [Dracula's] already."
How to interpret Catriona? She is what in fandom is called a "Mary Sue" -- a perfect, one-dimensional female character who is beautiful, knows everything, and can do anything. Catriona is both soldier and scholar. Her father raised her to be tough, because he had no sons (what in the manosphere is known as a DODO, a dad of daughters only.)
But the best way to interpret Catriona is to ignore her. She is silly and cartoonish in a show that is otherwise full of literacy and gravitas. Her scenes are scraps of an idea for a character that might have developed into something had there been a Season Four.
Fearing Dracula, and seeking security, Vanessa reaches out to Dr. Sweet. But she warns him that, if they are to be together, he must know that she is in danger. She has a troubled past, disaster striking whenever she sought romance.
Brushing aside all her warnings and self-recriminations, Sweet says, "Vanessa, I love you for who you are, and not who the world wants you to be."
In Penny Dreadful, fornication never ends well. Renfield (Samuel Barnett) falls under Dracula's spell while copulating with a prostitute. An attorney in Stoker's novel, here Renfield is secretary to Dr. Seward, privy to her therapy talks with Vanessa. Thus, Renfield supplies Dracula with intelligence about Vanessa.
Soon after Vanessa's night with Sweet, Catriona drops a casual remark. It's the vital clue. Vanessa realizes that Sweet is Dracula. (Too quickly and easily, but typical of a rushed Season Three.) She is outraged at having been tricked, her heart betrayed by the demon who tormented her at the Banning Clinic, who murdered Mina, and who is the enemy of her God.
Vanessa goes to the museum at night, intending to kill Dracula. She is instead seduced. The scene is brilliant for its writing and acting, for its psychological complexity and thematic depth. Like a master pickup artist, Dracula knows how to play Vanessa. He knows when No means Yes.
Vanessa asserts her autonomy. "I will never serve you."
Dracula agrees. "No, I don't want you to serve me, Vanessa. I want to serve you."
He plays on her guilt, her desire to be accepted, even celebrated, for her "true" sinful self. "We have been shunned in our time, Vanessa. The world turns away in horror. Why? Because we're different? Ugly? Exceptional!"
Vanessa calls Dracula a monster. He doesn't deny it. He uses it against her, to build empathy, knowing that she sees herself as a sinner, a murderer, a monster.
"There's one monster who loves you for who you really are. And here he stands. I don't want to make you good. I don't want you to be normal. I don't want you to be anything but who you truly are. You have tried for so long to be what everyone wants you to be. Who you thought you ought to be. What your church, and your family, and your doctors said you must be. Why not be who you are instead?"
"Myself," Vanessa whispers.
Dracula comes near. "Do you accept me?"
Vanessa offers her neck. "I accept myself."
Weary of feeling guilty for her natural desires, losing hope, despairing that she is beyond redemption, Vanessa follows Hecate's advice and embraces her sins. She surrenders to Dracula, who transforms her into a vampire. Thus does Vanessa become Amunet, the Mother of Evil. The Apocalypse begins.
The scene is brilliant partially because we don't know if Dracula truly loves Vanessa, or if he's lying. Christian Camargo is so charismatic, and his performance so convincing, that his Dracula has won the hearts of at least some female Penny Dreadful fans, who post their devotion on the internet. Yet as Clare warned us in Season Two, "True evil is above all things seductive. When the devil knocks at your door, he doesn't have cloven hooves. He is beautiful and offers you your heart's desire in whispered airs."
Hours earlier, Dorian is out walking with Lily. He has grown bored with her secular revolution. "I've lived through so many revolutions, you see. It's all so familiar to me. The wild eyes of zealous ardor. The irresponsibility and the clatter. The noise of it all, from the tumbles on the way to the guillotine, to the roaring mob sacking the temples of Byzantium. So much noise and anarchy. And in the end, it's all so disappointing."
He also reminds Lily that hers was not the revolution signed up for. He expected to be Caesar, not Spartacus. "And you have disappointed me most of all. We had the potential for true mastery. A cosmic darkness. And what have you created? An army of depraved whores. A slave ship bound for ruinous shore."
Dorian concludes that one of them must change. "And I think it should be you." Whereupon Jekyll drives up in a horse-drawn carriage, Frankenstein emerges, and the three men kidnap Lily.
Despite his evil, Dorian speaks the wisdom of the ages. Secular attempts to create heaven on earth are doomed. He later tells Justine, "In my time, I have seen a thousand Lilys. Beating their breasts, burning too bright and too wild. I understand she dazzled you, but she's gone now. Trust me when I tell you, you are lucky. You have glimpsed liberty, and that is more than most ever know."
Lily awakes in Jekyll's Bedlam lab, chained to a chair. Frankenstein explains, "Lily, we're going to try and make you healthy. Take away all your anger and pain. And replace them with something much better. ... Calm. Poise. Serenity. We're going to make you into a proper woman."
But like Vanessa, Lily wants to remain her true self. "I shall be unmade. Become a nonperson. I would rather die who I am than live as your demure little wife."
"Monstrous I may be in your eye," says Lily. "A savage beast, you say. Then so be it. I am the sum part of one woman's days, no more no less. That woman has known pain and outrage so terrible that it's made her into this misshapen thing that you so loathe. But let her be who she is."
Lily then tells a sob story to elicit sympathy and justify her murderous deeds. Years earlier, while out whoring, she left her baby alone. The baby died of cold. Billie Piper's recital of Lily's monologue is powerful, and viewers are doubtless moved. But if one sets aside emotion, and considers Lily dispassionately, she is less sympathetic.
Had Lily married, or found honest work, her baby would not have been so neglected. Furthermore, even while ostensibly taking responsibility, Lily is deflecting blame for her neglectful mothering onto her client, much like Eve deflected blame onto the serpent. Yes, the client and serpent were evil. But that doesn't excuse Lily or Eve.
Worse, unlike Vanessa or Chandler or Clare, Lily feels no remorse for murdering others. She justifies it. Because she suffered, she is right to inflict suffering onto others. She weeps only for herself, not for her victims. Wholly self-absorbed and solipsistic, she remains a danger to others.
She demands the right to her painful memories, which fuel her rage, and make her who she is. But the question is not, Does she have a right to her pain? The question is, Does she have a right to spread her pain onto others?
I wanted Frankenstein to inject Jekyll's serum into Lily. She wouldn't be sinless -- scientists cannot take away sin -- but the world would be safer. Yet Frankenstein is a sentimentalist and a romantic. He pities Lily and releases her. (Ironically, he commits Adam's sin -- listening to the woman he loves rather than doing what's right.)
This scene, like that of Vanessa at the Banning Clinic, can be interpreted from a feminist perspective. Science is trying to mold women into patriarchal standards of perfection. But the scene can better be interpreted from a Christian perspective. Science is trying to supplant God and conform women and men to secular standards of moral and mental health. Jekyll plans to use his serum on everyone, himself included. Like God in Revelation, Jekyll promises to wipe away every tear.
Both Christianity and science try to tame rebellious women in Penny Dreadful. Some critics see the show as a feminist apology. Yet one can indict science without condemning Christianity. Dr. Banning turns women into vegetables. Frankenstein creates monsters. By contrast, the women freest of Christian conformity -- Kali and Hecate -- are hardly role models.
Jekyll's serum seems to work. But his story is not yet finished. His final words to Frankenstein bristle with the egotism that corrupts so many of Penny Dreadful's characters. "I create my own world. I create my own self. And one day, one day all of you will understand that of which I am capable."
"I'm sorry, Henry," says Frankenstein. "It's a dark road ahead for you, I fear."
Frankenstein has accepted the limits of science. Jekyll has not. He then gleefully announces that his father has died, leaving him the family title. Jekyll is now Lord Hyde. The implications for his serum are foreboding. The specifics, alas, were left to an aborted Season Four.
Lily returns to Dorian. But he has evicted the prostitutes and murdered Justine. The revolution is dead. Dorian's final monologue explains the sad emptiness of eternity among mortals -- a problem he might have avoided by following the Christian path to immortality in Heaven.
The Apocalypse begins with a fog upon London, blotting out the sun and carrying a plague. Thousands are already dead. (Critics have cynically remarked that Dorian's storyline seems immune to the fog, yet more evidence of a hurried and sloppy warp-up to Season Three.)
Sir Malcolm, Kaetenay, and Chandler arrive in London. They quickly meet Catriona during a vampire attack. Seward shows up. Chandler and Kaetenay -- who is also a werewolf, surprise! -- easily repel yet another vampire attack. Renfield reveals that Vanessa and Dracula are at a slaughterhouse. Everyone rushes to save Vanessa.
Dracula meets the whole gang, who are surrounded by vampires. He offers them a chance to leave with their lives. Because Vanessa wants them to live. (A part of her is still good!) Leave now or die. He also taunts Sir Malcolm, saying that his daughter Mina tasted sweet.
The following exchange demonstrates the show's increasing creative weakness as Season Three winds down. And how detrimental Catriona is to the show.
Sir Malcolm refuses to leave. He will die fighting to avenge Mina. But there's no reason for the others to die. He turns to his comrades, advising them to go. "We are all doomed in this place."
Turns out, vampires aren't so tough. Our heroes slaughter the entire horde, without a single casualty. Seward is an old woman. Frankenstein is no soldier. But hey, they're only vampires. During the battle, Catriona clambers up a pole, then straight back down again, achieving nothing very much, but doesn't she look way cool doing that!
While this comic book silliness is going on, Chandler slips out and finds Vanessa in a room full of lit candles. She is now a vampire, the Mother of Evil. Chandler urges Vanessa to run away with him. He will protect her from Dracula.
But Vanessa realizes the real threat is not from a Dracula, but from her own sinful nature. "It's not him. It's me. Look at me. This is what I am. And this is what I've done. Brought this terrible darkness to the world."
Chandler persists. "Vanessa, please."
"Vanessa? And where is she? When did we lose her, Ethan? She was standing in a quiet room, gazing up at a cross. She reached out, took it from the wall, and put it in the fire. And then she was lost. And so alone."
In Season One, Vanessa begged Chandler to shoot her during her possession. He refused. In Season Two, she contemplated suicide. Chandler dissuaded her. Now she insists there is no other way. "You must help me defeat the forces of darkness and deny them their prize for all time." She takes his gun, slips it in his hand, and aims the gun at her chest.
Chandler begins reciting the Lord's Prayer. She joins him. When they finish, he shoots. Her last words, "Oh Ethan, I see ... our Lord."
The death of Vanessa Ives is a beautiful and powerful scene, remarkable for its closure. So many things are brought full circle.
* Chandler's recital of the Lord Prayer is in contrast to his reciting a blasphemous version of the prayer at his father's ranch, signaling that he has come full circle from evil to good.
* Vanessa's last words are in contrast to Hecate's last words, "Ethan, Hell awaits us both." That Vanessa says "our" Lord suggests that Hecate's words are void. Chandler too is redeemed.
* Chandler's words to Vanessa echo those of Clare, who said the same to her at the end of Season Two.
* Vanessa had several times declared Joan of Arc one of her heroines, so her martyrdom comes as no surprise, but flows naturally from her character.
Most importantly, in her martyrdom, Christianity defeats modernity. Despite all the temptations and assaults upon her faith throughout the show, in the end Vanessa chose Christ over her "true" sinful self.
Back at the battle, every vampire is dead, except Dracula. He has knocked out all the good guys and is choking Sir Malcolm. Apparently, the vampires were useless. Dracula could easily defeat everyone by himself. He is about to kill Sir Malcolm when he sees Chandler enter with Vanessa's corpse.
Without Amunet, Dracula is defeated. He drops Sir Malcolm and flies off. The sun bursts through the clouds. The fog has lifted. Lupus Dei has defeated evil and ended the Apocalypse. Or merely delayed it? Because life goes on. Well, no matter. Penny Dreadful is an allegory, not theology. One in which, despite all the gore and silliness and debauchery, Christ's glory shines through.
Clare's sickly son has died. His wife insists that he bring their boy to Frankenstein, so the doctor can work "his miracles" and return their son to life. But Clare doesn't want his son to suffer as he did, an undead freak. His wife says that unless he returns with their boy alive, she never wants to see him again.
Clare buries his son in the River Thames. Alone again, he goes to Vanessa's house, seeking consolation. Instead, he finds a funeral procession. He follows it to Vanessa's grave. During this final scene, Rory Kinnear recites William Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." It's a poignant and fitting end to the series.
Clare kneels at the foot of Vanessa's grave. We fade out and read: The End.
And so it should be. But despite Penny Dreadful's beautiful closure, the show's cult following has led to an afterlife in merchandising and comic books, continuing the supernatural adventures of Vanessa Ives. These are best ignored.
Also ignore Showtime's 2020 TV series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Created by John Logan, this is a sequel in name only, with a new set of characters and storylines, set in Los Angeles, 1938. From what I've seen, it truly is dreadful. Rejected by fans of the original, it was canceled after one season.
Thomas M. Sipos writes horror fiction and film criticism. His website: http://www.CommunistVampires.com.