With only eight episodes to work with and Gothic subplots spawning every minute, we knew Penny Dreadful couldn't possibly get to it all in a single finale. But in "Grand Guignol," it sure did try.
Penny Dreadful has done very well this season in balancing giving us the inevitable and quietly confounding expectations. However, with an increasing number of inevitabilities and expectations, there was a lot of pressure going into this episode. It was impossible for "Grand Guignol" to wrap things up neatly, because there was just too much—thank goodness for that second season already in place!—but it did as much as it could.
Perhaps, in the end, that was a bit too much, because more than once during this episode it felt as if we were watching a cut of something that was originally two hours. Promo photos confirm that we're definitely watching a shorter cut than originally intended, given that they offer us at least one scene with Mr. Lyle and Madame Kali that never appears in the actual ep. Not that it would have given us much information (I think we can agree it would have mostly been some deliciously arch portent thrown around) but it's clear this episode was something of a battlefield of story points and character moments. In fact, this episode is pretty much a battlefield full stop, as several of the key relationships through the season fracture or unexpectedly reconcile. First up?
These two, of course; Vanessa demands some details about the plan to rescue Mina, including that he's willing to shoot Mina rather than let her suffer any longer as a vampire. Vanessa, as viciously curious when she's herself as when she's possessed, asks if that will bring him peace. He growls, "Don't be naïve. It doesn't suit you."
And speaking of relationships that are falling apart, Vanessa's absentminded shuffling ("Why are all these cards covered in spider guts?") is interrupted by Dorian Gray, who stops by to mention he stopped by when she was sick, then he went to Italy, and now he's back so how about lunch?
Oh. Well. How about a fortune telling? "Some people only have a past." Anyway, thanks for stopping by! Sembene will show you out, this episode confirms they have nothing else for him to do.
There's something about Dorian getting so amazingly shut down that warms my heart. It only gets better when she meets him in the botanical gardens, where she explains they can't see each other any more because of the person he makes her.
"I do not know what I'm feeling." "It's rejection." I laughed so hard I had to to back up.
I will forever think that this relationship is a hard sell. Given her chemistry with Malcolm, Ethan, and even Victor; Vanessa milquetoastly expositing to him about the depth of their connection only enhances the feeling that we're having to be convinced of something. At the same time, Dorian has not had much to do except to insinuate about making out and then make out; while I'm glad the reveal about his night out with Ethan ended up being something of a non-issue among the gentlemen of the house, it's safe to assume Dorian will be back next season to sow a little discord.
He won't be sowing the most discord, though. Next season's biggest discord already gets sown this episode, by Dr. Victor BadIdea.
The Frankenstein aspect of the Penny Dreadful story is, of course, one that carries the most expectations, which is one of the reasons it's been such a source of twists, trying to confound the story we all know. However, Brona Croft was doomed pretty much from moment one, and with every brief encounter, near miss, and rattling cough, we've been waiting for the big moment. It was a more unexpected twist that after all the build of Caliban in the Grand Guignol, he's kicked out before the team can even arrive for vampire hunting. I'd expected a last-minute rescue when the Doctor was in vampire peril, leading to a momentary truce.
Instead, Caliban's plot stayed closer than expected to the spirit of the novel from whence he sprung, by making him alternately horrifying and piteous.
(Horrifying AND piteous: this outfit, which might be in the top ten of most punishing TV costumes ever donned. "How about overalls?" "But he's a MONSTER." "Overalls and a bandana?" "...Better.")
Though he's been set a little adrift in terms of story—a fantastic, vicious introduction giving way to a season of treading water—Rory Kinnear does absolutely everything he can with Caliban, making him as off-putting or nasty or melancholy as the scene requires without worrying about making him appealing. The monster's inherent dichotomy has always been that he's given completely shitty circumstances, is understandably upset, and then makes a series of extremely questionable decisions. In the abstract, that makes him the manifestation of divine vengeance, and Kinnear gets no greater moment in this episode than the rueful recitation from Paradise Lost: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mold me man?"
Maude's kindness is very touching, and her gift very sweet (he takes that orange in the least natural possible way to take an orange from someone). However, given Caliban's general desperation and his specific lack of boundaries about poor Maude, he decides to get dressed up like a normal human and ask her on a Victorian orange date.
It's a cringeworthy setup, knowing the shift from piteous to horrible was coming. Not that it made things any better when he barged into her room against her wishes, kissed her, and almost strangled her before he got hold of himself.
And with nowhere to go, he ends up right back where he started.
(Oh lord, it's a bad day when you have to come back home to your weird petulant unwilling dad who's younger than you.)
Despite what it's been boiled down to in the last couple of episodes, these two have a great relationship. Harry Treadaway fully inhabits Victor's fear and his denial—it must be Caliban's fault that being abandoned to a cruel world after a violent and unwanted reawakening made him awful!—and Caliban's viciousness finds its true home here, with the guy who deserves it.
But as Victor pulls out a gun (he's not great at considering long-term implications, but the guy is ruthless about getting what he wants in the short term), Caliban tells him he understands that he's his own worst enemy, that making a bride for him will do nothing to actually improve his lot, and Victor might as well shoot.
"I once thought that if I was like other men, I would be happy...The malignancy has grown, you see, form the outside in. this shattered visage merely reflects the abomination that is my heart."
That's the face of a man feeling guilt for the first time in his life.
This is a picture of a really, really awful family.
Not pictured: the nervous tension Rory Kinnear radiated while he waited for what he was sure was a blow, and Harry Treadaway's painful hesitation. (Also not pictured: the music, which is universally great this episode; hats off to Abel Korzeniowski.)
And then, having accepted his culpability in something that wrecked a series of lives, and recognizing the importance of consent, kindness, and contemplation of consequences, Victor went on to be a helpful, wonderful doctor with a solid moral compass forever.
Wait, nope, sorry.
When Ethan asks him over (with an "I need you" that started a hundred fanfics), it takes him literally fifteen seconds to check if Brona's afraid of death, get Ethan out of the room, and smother her with the promise of a better life on the other side.
There's no doubt he's affected by her situation (let's not forget his mother—he can't), but this is a collection of dark characters, and the show knows only too well that beneath Victor's youth and his blushing hesitance with women in a non-clinical capacity and his petulant sidling to be Malcolm's next son-victim, is this man:
Caliban's desperate, power-hungry, ruthless apple did not fall far from the tree.
Why Victor decided to give Caliban this gift—something they both know is horrific and that Caliban has admitted won't do anything to assuage his essential agony—would be a mystery if we didn't know the power of guilt. As it is, even though we knew this was coming, it was done with notable recklessness; I look forward to seeing how Victor tries to explain this to Ethan as he tries not to get shot one hundred million times.
Which will be easier than ever thanks to Malcolm's visit to the Convenient Weapon Emporium, where he picks up an automatic and runs into Madame Kali.
She puts on the Full McCrory, and Dalton puts on the Full Dalton, and it's a wonder to watch two veteran scene-stealers put on their best Old Hollywood cadences and go at it. He gives one interesting lie about Vanessa ("Friend of my daughter...I don't see much of her") that feels like both a casual dismissal and casual protection. One doesn't introduce a smoking Helen McCrory simply to throw her away; one definitely doesn't give her moments like: "I hope we'll meet again." "I"m sure of it," without leaving a door open to make good on them. I would absolutely be here for her as a villain next season, and by the way Malcolm is smooth-talking his ass off, so would he.
But what about his current daughterwife?
Why, he doesn't care for her at all! "I will sacrifice you to save my daughter," he says, and then explains his heart is broken. "Not a young girl's heart, Vanessa. A man's heart." (I cackled. I love it whenever John Logan takes a swipe at Malcolm's dreadfulness.) But, with Vanessa willing to kill Mina to save her, and Malcolm willing to kill Vanessa first, what will happen when they finally make it down to the Grand Guignol?
Vanessa, at least, assumes the worst, and she and Ethan share a non-tobacco cigarette inhale item with the loaded pleasantries of people who are pretty sure they're about to die and don't particularly care.
You know she's gone soft on him, because that stare is max a hundred yards.
Then Malcolm runs up, gives them a safety talk as Victor pretends he doesn't have the corpse of Ethan's girlfriend on his slab at home, and it's into the theater.
This was some effective wandering-the-haunted-house. The lighting in this show is pretty stellar, and this just highlighted how well it's used to convey dread. The fight itself is nothing compared to the creaking floorboards as they go.
But it's okay, Mina finds them eventually.
Then the disappointment starts.
After an entire episode about Vanessa's devotion to Mina, her portentious postscript from the world's longest letter, and Malcom's own bloodthirstiness, I expected much more of a standoff than what we got. We did get perfectly serviceable Ye Olde Penny Dreadful Villainy, complete with Mina snarling to a worried Ethan, "No, Mr. Chandler. You have no role in this play." (I'm so glad people are refusing to tell Ethan anything, right to his face, right to the end; it's been a long time since I enjoyed a running gag on a show this much.) But the stalemate is surprisingly brief for something that had been promised to be a heartwrenching decision for Vanessa. Instead, it's not even Vanessa who triumphs, but Malcolm. "I already have a daughter," he Bonds just before he shoots her through the head.
We're left with nothing but questions: Was Mina really just a giant Macguffin for the Big Guy still to come? Why waste all that bosom friendship and buildup for Vanessa on something that feels so dashed-off and perfunctory? Does Vanessa have any particular feelings about the bosom friend of her childhood nearly murdering her? We'll never know. Apparently there wasn't time. It's a shame; wasted opportunity.
However, having confirmed that he considers Vanessa a daughter, at least one pair can reconcile, finally embracing the messed-up tangle of their relationship that no amount of filial declarations can ever really make not-weird given everything that's happened:
But Malcolm's determined to try, and suggests they put up a Christmas tree to celebrate the season. Vanessa's into it: "We can have the boys come over to decorate." Have you guys been reading the fan fiction?
The boys are busy, though. Victor's bringing someone back to life with extremely iffy consent for extremely iffy reasons.
Sembene is off doing whatever it is he does when this show doesn't need him to answer doors or knife vampire minions; he's the season's second-biggest disappointment, a character with nothing but promise who barely scraped together a dozen lines all season. Better luck next year, Danny Sapani; I hope we see more of you then.
And Ethan is having a standoff with the two men his father's sent to fetch him back home. (One of them, they take pains to point out, is an "Americanized" Chiricahua Apache, which is a callback that's probably worth putting a pin in for next season.) Ethan, however, doesn't want to go, and he'll prove it.
THERE IT IS. We all knew it was coming for Ethan Chandler, normal human man; nice to see it at last. (Does that mean he's the murderer of those long-forgotten women from the first two episodes? We'll have to wait until next season for textual confirmation, but given that he's clearly a master of tearing people into tiny bloody corpse parts, chances are good. Let's hope he'll be participating in his own manhunt next season, because that would be amazing.)
And as everyone else settles in for a long winter's montage, Vanessa bites the bullet and asks a priest about exorcism. He's heard of them, but it's a scary thing to do it without Rome, apparently, based on his experience with the last one: "He died. They all died." Yikes.
Then he tries to talk her out of it so hard I honestly thought he was going to be the demon, because this is a pretty eyebrow-raising monologue. "If you have been touched by the demon, it's like being touched by the back hand of God. Makes you sacred in a way, doesn't it? Makes you unique with a kind of glory. The glory of suffering, even," he says to a woman who nearly tried to tear her veins open for a week last episode even before the demon started visiting her.
His actual question: "Do you really want to be normal?" So demons are cooler than nothing, Father, is that it? That's...very openminded of you.
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to show her walking down the aisle of a church like someone about to be crowned Queen of the Underworld, could I?
And as Vanessa contemplates her options (because being haunted by a demon means you'll be living under an invisible kidnapper for the rest of your life, but being normal is just so Mainstream), we end an incredibly ambitious season of television wondering what she'll decide.
Whatever it is, it's bound to be interesting. The show's occasionally been hard-pressed to balance throwing so many characters into such a tight narrative; however, where it succeeds, its given us a fantastically fun story, pulled right from the pages of the serials they mimic while interrogating and tweaking many of the usual tropes; beautiful to look at, impeccably acted almost across the board, and unafraid to make everyone sort of awful and then throw them into a big, unresolved mess, just like a Victorian weekly. And Vanessa, possessed or not, is a fascinating character who has plenty to offer; she's haunted enough for six normal people. One demon missing will hardly even shake her.
And there's clearly still plenty to revisit. Nearly everyone's still carrying major secrets, either from others in the group or from themselves; someone's momentarily-dead, someone else is gone forever, and Season Two looks like it's going to be nothing but people staring lustfully and/or murdering each other. Whatever it is, I'm here for it. See you next season.