June 30, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Penny Dreadful”


If nothing else, this first half of 2014 has been marked as The Year of Eva Green.  Green will probably never be a mainstream Hollywood star–there’s something too feral and broken about her for wide audiences to be comfortable in her presence–but in 300:  Rise Of An Empire and in Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL, she’s had roles that play perfectly to her unique strengths as a performer.  All the best episodes of Penny Dreadful have centered on her Vanessa Ives:  the seance sequence of Episode 2, the hour-long flashback of Episode 5, and the extraordinary demonic possession of last week’s Episode 7, probably the most effective of its kind since the original Exorcist 40 years ago.  Green brings a wild sexuality to her performances even when she’s fully clothed, and with it a more general physical abandon that make her contortions when possessed feel organic instead of just another special-effects stunt.  She’s incredibly gifted (these days, one might call it a Maslany-level gift) at manipulating her voice, and comfortable walking the line between beauty and harshness, and between good and evil; in the final moments of the Penny Dreadful season, when she paused upon being asked if she really wanted to be free of the demons that possessed her and made her special, you could believe it was something she’d have to think about.

After the theatrics of last week’s hour, the season finale (written, as the entire series has been, by creator John Logan, and directed by James Hawes) was for the most part surprisingly low-key.  As expected, Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) chose the dying prostitute Brona (Billie Piper) as the Bride for his monster Caliban (Rory Kinnear), even snuffing out her flame a tad early.  Vanessa rejected Dorian Gray’s importunings to spend more time together, recognizing that he didn’t bring out the best in her.  We finally discovered Ethan Chandler’s (Josh Hartnett) secret:  he’s a werewolf, whose father’s Pinkerton detectives had the misfortune of approaching on the night of a full moon.

The season’s major storyline ended excitingly but with surprising abruptness:  after having assured everyone, including Vanessa, that he would surely sacrifice her to save his daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn), once Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) had fought his way, with the help of Ethan, Victor, Vanessa and the faithful Sembene (Danny Sapani), through the vampires living in the Grand Guignol theatre, and actually saw that Mina was wholly in the grip of her vampiric possessor, he more or less told her that Vanessa was his daughter now, and shot Mina, apparently killing her permanently.

That spoke to the major shortcoming of this Penny Dreadful season (it’s already been renewed for a Season 2).  Although gorgeously produced and superbly acted throughout, with admirable patience to develop its scares through character and mood rather than cheap shocks, the pieces of Logan’s story rarely seemed to come together, moving instead in scattered starts and stops.  Logan seemed to misjudge the cumulative impact of his fundamental premise, as he loaded the supernatural tropes of late 19th century literature into one narrative.  Rather than increasing the horror and creating a densely complicated world, Penny came to feel more like the Irwin Allen version of a horror movie (instead of “Hey, it’s Fred Astaire,” it was “Hey, it’s Dr. Van Helsing”).  By the time Ethan was revealed as a werewolf, you half-wondered if The Invisible Man might be watching silently from the corner, waiting to make his entrance.  After a few half-hearted references to industrialism in the early episodes, Logan didn’t seem to have much to say about the era that gave rise to so many horror classics, or the writing of the stories themselves, and smashing Dorian Gray into Dracula didn’t reveal anything new about either one.

Nevertheless, on an episode-by-episode basis, Penny Dreadful was often marvelous.  Apart from the extraordinary Green, Dalton and Hartnett had their most substantial roles in years, and seemed to relish the chance to dig into the strangeness of their characters.  Treadaway and Kinnear were suitably creepy as the two halves of the Frankenstein entity (as, briefly, was Alex Price as Victor’s more advanced creation), and marvelous British actors like Simon Russell Beale and David Warner turned up in small roles.  The directors–J.A. Bayona, Dearbhia Walsh, Coky Giedroyc as well as Hawes–provided tremendous atmosphere and an air of terror, and the production design of Jonathan McKinstry and costume design of Gabriella Pescucci deserve special credit.

Penny Dreadful‘s ratings weren’t anything special, although Showtime reported that it skewed particularly young and was watched online more than the network norm, both valuable attributes.  More importantly for a pay network, it was talked about and has a chance for some Emmy nominations, the kind of things that keep subscribers happy.  Next season, perhaps Logan will concentrate less on his gimmick and more on telling a sustained, even straightforward story–while not losing sight of the special gift he has in his remarkable leading actress.


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."