Penny Dreadful’s second season has been a Victorian Gothic rollercoaster, and going into the finale we had a half-dozen cliffhangers to clean up—but nothing could have prepared us for what happened.
Okay, to be fair, the season has, in a lot of ways, prepared us for what happened: John Logan has clearly been building his imagery (which is always stellar) and his character continuity (which comes and goes) for serious payoff. We knew when Vanessa went to Evelyn’s house to face down the witches and the Devil that she’d come out different than she went in; the big question of this episode was – how? The little question was those half-dozen miserable people, and how on earth they were going to be saved. Here, the ten most WTF moments of a no-holds-barred finale.
Not surprising, just WTF: Turns out it’s never too late to let Sembene down one last time.
He’s dead. The only person of color in the show, and he’s dead. Wow. He is probably going to be the only character in Penny Dreadful history to stay dead. He is so dead that Danny Sapani got another pilot, that is how decisively deceased Sembene is. Who can blame him for bailing? Not I. Goodnight, sweet prince. You deserved far better than this show ever gave you.
2. The Faceoff.
So, a lot of this season has boiled down to two parallel journeys: Vanessa and Lily (mirrored neatly in Joan the Cut-Wife and Evelyn Poole). Where Penny Dreadful’s first season was about upending tropes—Frankenstein and his momentary good-fatherhood, Vanessa as the jealous lover out to rescue Mina, deconstructing Malcolm the Great White Explorer—this season has been about women discovering who they are and handling the consequences.
These two women don’t know each other, because John Logan is testing me and decided to give Vanessa some plot amnesia, but they have essentially the same central problem: desired against their will by forces they never chose, and having to go dark to get any control back. Lily briefly fell for her manipulator; Vanessa’s realized that resistance to her manipulators might end up costing her soul anyway. For Lily, the consequences are sidecar concerns: her appetite has no other considerations. For Vanessa, the consequences are the consideration, and have shaped the entire season; she’s found herself damseled by a prophecy and has already turned her back on God by using black magic just to make sure she had control over something.
Every step of the way, Joan’s influence over Vanessa and Evelyn’s increasing lack of interest in the consequences was their dark mirror. And with Eva Green going great guns this whole season and Helen McCrory sharpening her knives, I was excited for the two of them to finally get the moment we’d all been waiting for.
And Eva Green spent most of it talking to the doll.
And I mean, Eva Green is intense as hell about talking to the doll! This is not lack of commitment. Vanessa’s knowledge of what she’s done and the consequences she’s willing to accept for it are both chilling and awesome.
But after all that glorious buildup and with this level of acting at your disposal, why the doll had to be the fulcrum for the Devil’s offer and not Evelyn is unexplained and...well, hollow.
(Bonus WTF: Vanessa nearly kissed her own Devil-inhabited doll. “Is it subtext? Eh, just make it text.”)
Still, we got the intra-WTF images of Vanessa cracking the doll, the scorpion sinking into her palm, and the devastation she caused as dolls rained from the sky!
Moments from now the Devil’s vanquished, and the tableau’s completed when Evelyn is mostly-decapitated! Who could possibly do such a thing? (Ethan. It was Ethan.)
3. Ethan were-commitment-phobes.
Ethan Chandler, normal human man except not right now, dispatches Evelyn with great haste and then runs smack up against Vanessa Ives, who turns out to be both deeply unsurprised by what he is, and utterly unafraid.
It’s a lot for him. He bails. (Everything this finale is a lot for Ethan, we will discover.)
We also bid farewell to the orchestrator of his transformation and Sembene’s death: Hecate, who just waited the entire business out so she can come back and villain later.
Hecate lights the entire mansion on fire behind her and walks out singing “The Unquiet Grave,” in one of several reaches this episode makes for “Most Victorian Gothic Even For This Show.”
4. Malcolm and Victor are two garbage humans, both alike in indignity.
Given that these ghosts seem targeted horribly keenly on their particular guilts, one assumes the enchantment worked merely to conjure them, and the rest of it drew on each of their worst beliefs about themselves. Which is frankly fine with me, because neither the Murray Family Spectres nor the Frankenstein Class of ‘91 Reunion said anything that wasn’t true. The scene itself has to be seen to be enjoyed, since a lot of the power comes from the overlapping dialogue and nightmare-logic blocking, but highlights for me include, to nobody’s surprise, Lily calling Victor out on his abuse of her, Caliban as cool collected customer, and Mina pointing out one more time that Dad pulled the trigger on her awfully fast.
They’re rescued at the brink of suicide, since Evelyn’s enchantments die with her, and it is equally to this show’s credit and detriment that you could already tell neither one of them was going to make any positive life changes as a result of this dreadful epiphany.
5. Ferdinand Lyle is a stone bitch.
He shoots that witch with his teeny gun and says, “Never underestimate the power of a queen with lovely hair, my dear,” and then shoots her AGAIN.
(Simon Russell Beale also manages to be heartbreaking again when he asks Victor to keep his religion a secret. Victor, being even more self-involved than usual after his big epiphany, barely registers it, but Lyle’s shaken after everything, and the fact that hiding “that tribe into which I was born” was so paramount in his mind speaks volumes.)
(Lyle is magnificent. Lyle forever.)
6. Lily takes it all.
Lily has this whole thing on lockdown. A high-dudgeon Victor storms after her after realizing he’ out with Dorian (and crushing a white rose in his grip, also a contender for Most Victorian):
Lily? Pauses her dance with Dorian just long enough to retcon her whole existence as a ruse (I call no way, we’ll get there) and mock Victor for his lack of sexual finesse. That’s less painful for him after he shoots her, and quickly gets more painful as she turns out to be functionally immortal and mocks him for his lack of shooting finesse instead.
Things with Dorian go similarly except afterward he just smiles down at the wound and says, “Going to have to do better than that, sport,” which might be the most British thing anyone on this show has ever said, which is impressive.
And while I am honestly baffled at the idea that we’re now playing everything we saw of Lily this season as a long con, because we had enough from her point of view that it seems like an awfully slim chance this was actually the case, it’s also peak John Logan in a lot of ways. Her actual emotional arc? Irrelevant. Can her kind be killed? Demonstrably yes, it was one of this show’s earliest cliffhangers, so her talk of immortality is, at best, flawed. But what she has been or done before no longer matters; she’s covered in blood and smearing the floor with it as she waltzes with her evil, equally-bloody lover, and that is all this scene was ever meant to do.
(Continuity: deeply iffy. Imagery: Nailed it.)
7. Ethan bails. Again.
This one hurts. Ethan, after a season of eagerly bending the knee and coming closer and closer into Vanessa’s fragile trust, is finally on the level with her: she knows about him and thinks it only makes them better matched. The moment when she draws him close and promises that she’ll make him less afraid is one of her most achingly honest ever, and we know, just like he knows, that she needs him to stand with her and look into the dark if she can ever face coming back from it.
Naturally, this means that after one of the longest almost-kisses in TV history, which in some time zones may still be happening (check local listings):
Ethan peaces out.
Why? Oh, to turn himself in, only to realize he’s actually being extradited home to face his tragic backstory.
There was literally no reason for this outside of finale-itis (he doesn’t even have a moment of expressing grief over murdering Sembene as impetus, which, wow), so it’s safe to assume we will be revisiting this tall drink of dummy early next season to watch him face down his family and head back to protect Vanessa from all the things he left her to face alone. Now who’s the monster, buddy.
8. Caliban breaks out.
Last episode, the Dickensian wax-museum owner locked Caliban in. This week, Caliban’s bossjailer sits down for a little Dickensian bargaining about Caliban’s new work duties, and Caliban decides to leverage that body-splitting power and show himself out.
I was so happy about this blurry basement sequence; in an episode that ditched so much continuity just to set up miseries to tackle next season, the reminder that Caliban is capable of casually ripping an iron door right off the hinges without breaking a sweat and then dispatching two people with his bare hands before anyone can even call for help is a great callback to Caliban as we were introduced to him.
It’s equally surprising, in its own way, that he let Lavinia live; just as it’s surprising – though heartening, honestly – that he makes no attempt to find Lily after the breakout. Given their intimacy, it would have made sense for him to assume he was still first lieutenant in that army; if he’s had some sense knocked into him that means an end to the entitled-boyfriend nonsense, we’ll all be happier for it.
9. Vanessa and Caliban almost elope.
Another continuity WTF, and another welcome one. Their philosophy debates had set up their respective downfalls (him with someone who trumps his every destructive instinct and denying the beauty he fought to see in the world, her by turning her back on God) enough that it wouldn’t have seemed like a missing beat if they never met. But with both of them so crushingly alone, it somehow made more sense than ever for them to find one another on the verge of two precipices.
What a great scene for Eva Green and Rory Kinnear; such great payoff for a sometimes-thankless subplot. They easily overcome the awkwardness of the moment, and when Caliban comforts her that God is still waiting and offers to let her come with him to the desolate place he’s seeking, it manages to read as much a reflection of their poetry than as a man secretly terrified to be alone.
She turns him down with a kiss, and I cringed, but for once he seems more concerned for her than himself, which means that at the end of this finale I was looking forward to seeing him next season more than I was expecting to. With Lily and Dorian joining forces maybe, at last, Caliban will enter the fold (either the townhouse or the portrait room, I’m not picky) and be allowed to share group scenes like a real boy!
10. Vanessa’s crucifix.
Of all the things I didn’t expect to have unresolved at the end of the season, the state of Vanessa’s soul is the most surprising. In the witch’s house she knew who she was and it was enough to give her thin end of the wedge to bring the whole place down, but if you use the Verbis Diablo against its creator in the service of defending your soul, what does that mean for you? We know Vanessa is looking for absolution that no one can give her, and is desperate for understanding company she won’t find, even from her husbandfather:
The Devil’s vision of her future was cruel in its wholeness – not even for Ethan, but for her mention of Mina, offering a life in which she hadn’t just triumphed over this moment but a life in which none of this had happened.
And after two seasons learning about her, now she’s as much a mystery to us as the first time we saw her.
We know she spoke the spell that turned her away from God; we know her suffering has been immense enough and her need great enough that if she asked forgiveness, she might find it.
But after a season of consequences, Vanessa chooses to know who she is rather than hope for what she could be. It’s the darkest possible place to leave her, and of course, Penny Dreadful would have it no other way.
CRIPES, everybody, that was one hell of a wrap to the season! With no fewer than three boats dragging our characters to parts unknown, it will take something big to bring them back together. Given how this show is paced, I expect that to be the first five minutes of next season. Until then, Victorian wishes and Gothic dreams!