Before I begin, I want to apologize if this post is too long or rambly. Temperature shifts here in Pavia have rendered my brain somewhat useless, and I have trouble focusing. But we just finished watching this show, and if I don’t review it now I’ll forget all the finer points I feel need mentioning. But if you decide the review is too scattered or long for you to finish, I’m okay with that. In fact, for you, the early bailer, I will give you my final verdict now: 3 stars, a mixed bag of good, bad, and absolutely pathetic.
Let’s also get the spoiler warning out of the way because to unpack the hot mess that is Penny Dreadful, I’m going to have to spoil pretty much every story arc and character. I could in theory just write up a blurb of a review that spoiled nothing, but that blurb would leave you with the impression that I hated the show. The truth is that my feelings are more complicated, much like this series’ stretching attempts to make a grand unifying evil theory.
But I’ll be kind enough to put all the spoilers behind a page cut, so if you long to see this without knowing anything about it, bail out now.
So, Penney Dreadful at its core is about three white guys whose defining traits are that they are all wankers. Not likable wankers, just wankers. Oh, sure, the story in season one might have you thinking it’s all about Vanessa Ives, a witch possessed by a demon and pursued by…possibly three “Masters” over the course of three seasons. After all, Vanessa has a role in the story and multiple flashback episodes that build on her back story. But the problem is, Vanessa is just a woman pursued by otherworldly courting men, and her worth as a character is never viewed outside of that value as a bride to evil.
Let’s start with season one, which had the most potential and where most of the characters were in a state closest to likable. (Note: I said closest to likable, not to be confused with actually likable.) Vanessa Ives approaches one Ethan Chandler, an American sharpshooter touring England with a shooting exhibition modeled around a false yarn of his fight with Custer. We see right away what kind of man he is as he fucks and discards a local lady, who rightly calls him on his honey-coated bullshit by pointing out that he didn’t even ask for her name before preparing to dump her and move on.
Vanessa wants Ethan’s skills as a gunman to help her hunt down her best friend, Mina Harker. Oh hoh! So the villain must be Dracula! Yeah, no, not yet. First we have to go through a season of nosferatu-like vampires who work in service to Amun-Ra, or seem to, anyway. This brings me to the real problem with all of Penny Dreadful, the villains. The main characters are all warts and fascinating details, but the villains are just…cardboard props with no motivation beyond “get Vanessa.” There’s supposedly prophesies to explain their needs, but even in the first season that motivation is pretty weak.
But let’s set that aside to meet the rest of the league of extraordinary gentlemen (redux). There’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein, initially brought in to study the bodies of slain vampires. In the first season, he creates his finest opera of science, a creature named Proteus. Proteus seems like a nice enough monster, and in addition to learning new things quickly, he begins to recover some of his old memories of life on the sea. Before he can sort out who he is, though, Proteus is killed by the real monster, whose “birth” used a different and more painful method. This character, forever dubbed Creature in the subtitles, (hubby needs them because he’s losing his hearing) actually has two names over the course of the series, but in the first season, he’s Caliban.
Caliban has a flashback episode showing that he has some righteous anger and daddy issues because Victor abandoned him for being a very colicky baby. This by itself might be okay, but Caliban seeks out Victor because he has a right to a mate, and the world’s women are just denying him the vag he so righteously deserves. Yeah, Frankenstein’s monster is the world’s first incel.
Caliban kills good old Dr. Van Helsing because Victor is taking too long to make him some undead vagina to call home, and then wanders around menacing Victor to get to work. So eventually Victor finds his woman in Brona, a prostitute with tuberculosis who is shacking up with…Ethan Chandler. (Because everyone and everything have to be connected.)
Then there’s Sir Malcolm Murray, former great explorer of Africa, who, along with his former slaver manservant Sembene, serves in the role of Great British Bastard. He basically hates Vanessa, but he also needs her to find his daughter Mina. Much of their relationship in the first season is spent with barbed words, little efforts to wound with insults and reminders that neither is a good person.
So far, this is mostly fine with me. I’m okay watching a story where the protagonists are mostly assholes, and despite the swerve from Dracula to Amun-Ra as the Big Bad, I enjoyed watching the drama unfold between all of these characters. Yes, they’re all assholes, but they’re fascinating assholes played by good actors.
I haven’t even mentioned Dorian Gray, who is extremely true to his literature form by being the kind of man who brings out the worst in everyone. His relationship with Vanessa is what allows her inner demon to regain control of her, who is eventually exorcised by Ethan. Why does an American gunman suddenly know Latin? Who knows, and who cares? It’s a great scene even if it makes no sense.
With Vanessa “saved,” the team tracks down Mina and the Master vampire for an exciting shootout that see Malcolm kill Mina while declaring Vanessa to be his daughter now. Which means Vanessa gets saved twice in the same season by men. (Oh, and Amun-Ra is either a weak ass spirit inhabiting an ugly vampire’s body or he’s a complete no-show. Either way, he’s the worst defined Master of all three seasons.)
Before closing out the season, Victor opts to suffocate Ethan’s girlfriend with a pillow rather than wait for her to die from all the blood in her lungs. To be fair, he did at least ask permission to put Brona out of her misery, and she gave it on the promise of coming back to a better life. (Remember this because it becomes relevant very soon.)
Also before closing out the season, Ethan is pursued by agent of Pinkerton hired by his father to return him home. They think they’ve cornered him before he transforms in the light of the full moon to reveal he is the wolf man. This is not the surprise it seems, given the various clues throughout the season. (Also, if I’m being honest, the new Teen Wolf series did a better wolf man makeup job.)
Moving on to season two is when the plot creaks out some ridiculous mistakes in an effort to introduce the new villains and pad out an investigation against Ethan. But at first, the story seems like it would be very exciting, with Ethan and Vanessa attacked by shape shifting witches. These women scurry away after Vanessa starts growling out the same language they speak because…I don’t know.
That’s how I could sum up most of season two. The big bad is Lucifer, who hired these witches to torture Vanessa like that will somehow convince her that deviled dick is best dick. The real problem is the head witch, who was a medium from the first season. Why is she a problem? Because the show forgets that Vanessa sat right across a table from this unaging, unchanging women. During a flashback episode, Vanessa recounts how she met these witches, and she twice looks the villain in the face from a close distance. So how is it that she didn’t recognize said villain across a table despite this wicked witch killing her mentor?
But that’s not the only problem with the season. A new inspector is brought in to Scotland Yard to investigate the massacre Ethan committed in the inn where he’d been shacked up with Brona. It would be one thing if the new inspector looked at the crime scene and a former murder in season one and decided the two were linked. That would make him a super detective. But when one of the witches kills a young couple and steals their baby, Inspector Rusk declares that these crimes, despite being vastly different in execution and intent, are in fact both related to the same monster. Thus the brilliant detective is reduced to a blithering idiot who “just knows” magic was involved. I can’t OY VEY strongly enough at this.
While I’m on the topic, The stolen baby’s organs are needed power a super realistic voodoo doll. As the season progresses more of these dolls are made, which leads me to assume more babies were stolen. Why does Super Inspector Rusk never notice these cases? Why does the story so conveniently forget a major detail like this? Ugh. Let’s move on.
the next “mistake” is Victor, who despite knowing that his improved method of resurrection will grant Brona access to her memories sooner rather than later, decides that it’s best to weave a story that she is really his cousin Lily, come from the country to live with him. After touching her dead breast once, he’s decided to fuck over Caliban (now AKA John Clare) by seducing the creature’s bride to be. It’s the dumbest gamble because Victor already knows how the process works, but derp, let’s just let this bad idea run on until Lily randomly meets Dorian Gray, at which point Lily drops Victor like a bad habit and also tells John/Caliban to take his undead dick and shove it where the sun don’t shine.
I do want to give credit where it’s due on a subplot involving a trans prostitute, Angelique, who courts Dorian for affection. I knew that couldn’t end well, and it didn’t, but before reaching the point of tragic tragedy, Dorian is such a peach about his new lover. When Angelique first strips to reveal her dangly bits, Dorian smiles and happily takes her to bed. When Angelique is insulted by a man during one of their adventures together, he’s quick to stand up for her. (Though he’s too much of a gentleman to actually strike the offensive man. I won’t deduct points for that.) When Angelique dons men’s clothing and asks if Dorian can love her without the makeup and dresses, he replies, “I love you for who you are, not for how you dress, Angelique.” Bravo, sir. You almost even got a tear out of mine eye for that answer.
Dorian even hosts a coming out ball for Angelique, inviting the cream of London to view his new lover. It’s almost too good to be true. But then it is, because Angelique uncovers Dorian’s portrait, and with his secret revealed to a mortal, Dorian has to kill Angelique. Hubby wanted to complain about that, but I pointed out that he used a poison to kill Angelique almost instantly and painlessly. So yeah, he’s a bastard, but he is at least a considerate bastard.
In this season, Vanessa gets the chance to do all the saving, but it’s mostly because the “father of all lies” makes the world’s most unconvincing argument for why they should get married. So Vanessa tells the devil to go to hell, the men are saved and…eh, it’s mostly done.
The wrap up to this season sees Ethan taken back to America, John/Caliban sailing to Antarctica, and Sir Malcolm bound for Africa to bury Sembene. (who died an inglorious death, befitting a side character who isn’t white. Don’t roll your eyes, I’ll cover a white side character in season three who gets to ride off into the proverbial sunset, and also talk about how Sir Malcolm gets himself another magical native to replace the one he just lost.) Victor’s hosting a drug-fueled pity party for one, leaving Vanessa all alone. This is all set-up to make the third season’s theme “We’re getting the band back together.”
So, the big bad of season three is Dracula! This should be a step down at this point because Vanessa has faced Amun-Ra and Lucifer, but the show struggles to insist that Dracula is actually Lucifer’s brother, and like his brother, Dracula needs Vanessa to bring about the end of times. Again.
At this point I need to address a side character I’ve not mentioned during season one or two, Ferdinand Lyle. An Egyptologist first brought in to study the first prophesy written in hieroglyphics, Mr. Lyle returns in season two as the lap dog of the head witch, a role he rejects to become an honorary member of Team Wanker. Being a gay jew in a country not known to tolerate either tribe, he is a cheerful little man who I found myself loving over all other characters, and as such, I also found myself dreading the moment he would die.
At the start of season three, Vanessa has shut herself up in Sir Malcolm’s mansion, letting the place and herself go because all the men have left her. But not Mr. Lyle. He demands an audience, and upon seeing the trash and dirty dishes and insects and…and everything, he just smiles and says “I love what you’ve done with the place.” At this point, I started to tear up. Mr. Lyle begs Vanessa to get help, referring her to an Alienist who helped him recover from depression, and as he offered her unconditional love with no strings attached, I really started to cry. In a show full of glorious bastards, Mr. Lyle was the genuine truly nice guy. (The only reason he was helping the witches was because they were threatening to blackmail him using his gay lovers as reins to control him.)
So I suppose it’s only fair that Mr. Lyle exits the show by being exiled to Egypt. His employers somehow got wind of his proclivities and decided to send him away rather than institutionalize him. It’s perhaps the one arc of the show that I felt was merciful on the writer’s part, and considering how everyone else fares, it’s worth mentioning.
Let’s get back to Vanessa and the alienist Dr. Florence Seward, who is a clone of Vanessa’s murdered mentor from season two. (Because once again everyone and everything has to be connected.) The Alienist is the catalyst for Vanessa meeting Dracula, making her seemingly good advice dreadful. (that play on the title is only half intentional.) I called Dracula out long before his reveal, even as my hubby said, “No, you’re probably wrong.” But what I didn’t see coming was a twist reveal during a hypnotism session with Dr. Seward. In looking back at her memories of the padded room where she was kept decades before, Vanessa sees that the orderly who cared for her is…John/Caliban. (Because once again everyone and everything has to be connected.)
It’s here that the story strains to make Dracula and Lucifer brothers, and it’s just one more example of how these great characters are squandered on a plot that sucks harder than Dracula’s minions.
Dorian and Brona/Lily start up a woman’s revolution by liberating the most abused prostitutes they can find, a plan Dorian quickly begins to regret because these are all man hating women, and he is after all a rich white dude. He sees how this is all going to go south when Brona/Lily sends her crew out to amass a pile of hairy man hands on his dining room table, so he lets Victor kidnap Brona/Lily and tells the platoon of prostitutes to get the hell out of his home. Brona/Lily’s left hand woman refuses and stabs Dorian, which doesn’t work, of course, and this sends everyone else packing. The young apprentice, though, decides she would rather die than go back out into the harsh world, and Dorian grants her a quick death.
Victor, working with Dr. Jekyll now, has an initial plan to wipe Brona/Lily’s mind so he can have a nice docile wifey/cousin/daughter again, but after Brona/Lily makes an impassioned speech about needing to own her scars, Victor decides to get off the Douche Train and just let her go. So Brona/Lily goes back to Dorian’s, finds her army gone and her apprentice dead, and…she just leaves.
John/Caliban finally has flashes of memory that lead him back to the family he forgot, a young son dying of tuberculosis and a wife struggling in a factory job trying to keep them both alive. John/Caliban first sets about robbing random dudes to get money for his family, but after a chance meeting with Vanessa, he is convinced to return home and rejoin his family. His son dies, and his wife demands that either John/Caliban take the body to Victor, or to never come home again. So John/Caliban also opts to get off the Douche Train by sending his son’s body off in the Thames river and walking away. Like Brona/Lily, he just leaves. That’s the end of their arcs, neither of which are cathartic or even slightly satisfying. They weren’t important enough to get a proper send-off like Mr. Lyle, and that rubs me the wrong way the more I think about it.
While all this is going on, Ethan is saved from Federal Marshals by hired gunmen sent by his father. He then kills the gunmen during a full moon and is reunited with the last surviving witch daughter from season 2, who wants to serve Ethan so Ethan can serve Lucifer and bring about the end of times…AGAIN. (Seriously, you can’t trot this shit out twice in the same season and expect me to care. The end of times has to be used sparingly or it’s pointless.)
Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm is back on the coast of Africa wondering whether to give up on this whole manly rage gig when he’s approached by Kaetenay and tasked to travel to America to save Ethan. It’s here that the timeline becomes the most tortured. How long does a ship take to travel from Africa to America? How long does it take to journey across America by rail and by horse? Don’t bother doing the math because the answer is, “Just enough time for everyone to be conveniently reunited.”
So Ethan and his new lover reunite with Ethan’s two adoptive dads to meet his real dad, and at the same time Inspector Rusk arrives just in time with a US Marshal. Just in time for what? Why a huge fight scene, in which Ethan loses his witchy lover, Rusk gets another one of those inglorious deaths, and Ethan, Kaetenay, and Sir Malcolm head to London to “save Vanessa.”
But that’s not gonna happen because despite knowing who Dracula is, Vanessa decides that Dracula’s pathetic excuse of a speech is instead Very Compelling Stuff and opts to go for The End of Times. (AGAIN) So Ethan and crew roll up to have one last fight kill Vanessa, and that’s the end of the show.
Before I go on, I have to point out how localized these End of Times are in all supernatural shows. This same thing rubbed me the wrong way when Buffy did it, and then when Angel did it. The END of TIMES is always affecting one location, and if the shows were to continue after The Day Was Saved, no one else in the world would even know something happened. It waters down the scale of the threat, and frankly, I’d like to see that threat cranked up higher. Much as I’m tired of zombie fiction, at least those writers know to go big or go home. These End of Times prophesies need to go the same route, or else they’re Just Another Day at the Office.
I guess it made sense to someone that once Vanessa was gone, the show was over. But even two days out from the finale, I’m left disappointed. Vanessa, supposedly a fierce and powerful woman, is time and again shown to give in with a bit of recited poetry or the limpest of pleas to be the Bad Guy. At least Ethan’s halfway turn to evil made more sense because the witch who tried to turn him made a more compelling argument for why being good was pointless. Vanessa just gives up, and then she gives up on life and lets Ethan shoot her so she can’t be courted by some other otherworldly dude.
So…yeah, I liked most of the characters, even the bastards, but the villains were just so lame, and the over-arcing plots and their attempts to unify everything and everyone fell flat for me. Your mileage may vary, but the best I can give Penny Dreadful is 3 stars, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend to anyone except fans of the old stories. If you’ve read the books that inspired the show, you’ll love the characters like I did. But the story they’re in is so flimsy and nonsensical that it leaves me feeling like these fantastic bastards are wasted for nothing.