July 6, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Penny Dreadful”

In its second season, John Logan’s gothic horror mash-up PENNY DREADFUL remained an elaborate conceit that pays off only from time to time.  Logan has gathered together a host of characters for his saga.  Some hail from classics of the genre:  Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), his Monster (Rory Kinnear), and the latter’s intended Bride (Billie Piper); Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney); and a werewolf (Josh Hartnett), whose true name we learned this season was–LOL–Ethan Lawrence Talbot.  Others are of Logan’s creation, notably the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), his otherworldly ward Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), his longtime associate Sembene (Danny Sapani), and the gay Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale).  Trying to fit together so many characters who weren’t originally intended to co-exist is a full-time job, and sometimes it seems as though the effort doesn’t leave Logan room for much else.

Season 2 had some advantages over the first.  For one thing, we already knew who everyone was and where they stood in relation to one another, so there wasn’t as much need for exposition.  Logan also wisely switched the Big Bad from last year’s Nosferatu-like vampire to the more nearly human super-witch Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), which was able to engage with the other characters more directly and gave the drama an emotional focus Season 1 lacked.  The reveal at the end of Season 1 that Ethan was a werewolf gave Hartnett much more to do this time around, and it was inventive to keep Piper around by transforming her from last season’s dying prostitute to the body of this year’s Bride, which Logan and she portrayed as an entirely different character.

Penny Dreadful also has Eva Green, ideally cast as the tortured, powerful Vanessa.  It was no accident that both of this season’s best efforts had Vanessa at their center:  a flashback hour that detailed her early training as a witch, living in a remote cottage with an experienced practitioner and local abortionist who turned out to be Evelyn’s sister (and who was beautifully played by a nearly unrecognizable Patti LuPone); and a later episode that took Vanessa back to that cottage to hide out with Ethan for a brief moment of peace that ended with murder.  Green is capable of expressing both vulnerability and elemental force, and she’s one of the few actresses around who could have pulled off the climax of tonight’s season finale, spewing witchy gibberish at white-heat to a puppet replica of herself who was apparently the personification of the Devil.

Unfortunately for the finale (written by Logan and directed by Brian Kirk), that climax came just 20 minutes into the hour with Vanessa destroying the puppet and wolfman Ethan ripping out Evelyn’s throat, leaving the rest of the episode for lengthy epilogue sequences that ended up separating most of the characters by continents.  The previous episode’s other seeming cliffhanger turned out to be something of a fake-out, as the Monster, who had been imprisoned by an evil wax museum proprietor who was going to use him as the first attraction of his new freak show, proved to be easily capable of pulling the cell door off its hinges at will, freeing himself to kill the sadist and his wife, although leaving their blind daughter alive.  (We were meant to appreciate the Monster’s horror at his own violence in killing the couple, which would have had more power if we hadn’t seen him kill before.)  Logan always has to work hardest to justify Dorian Gray’s inclusion in the project, and by the end of the finale, he had joined forces with the Bride as some kind of immortal avatars of a new master race, which was less thrilling than Logan seemingly intended it to be.

Penny Dreadful can be stunning at its best, and even when it’s off its stride, it’s gorgeously designed and costumed, and extremely well performed by its impeccable cast.  Although the ratings have never been great, it has a mix of classiness and pulp violence that justifies Showtime’s desire to keep it around.  There’s something about the series, though, that feels more studied than compelling, as though Logan is working out a fascinating mathematical problem rather than telling a great story.  (Watching all the characters separate at the end of Season 2, one could already anticipate the contortions that will be required to bring them back together when the already-renewed series returns next year.)  The show’s ambition is admirable but also somewhat cold, and Penny Dreadful has yet to achieve the grand statement that it seems to be striving to express.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."