Penny Dreadful, John Logan’s gothic, Victorian horror series on Showtime, has just wrapped one of the best and most unique seasons of television in memory. Since its premiere last year, the show has defied expectations by giving new twists to some very old tales (about Frankenstein and his monster, vampire lore, werewolves, and others), while also creating an extremely compelling central story around a new character, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, a Performer of the Week alum). It also took the well-trod tale of Mina Harker and repurposed it into a way to bring together and bond the series’ characters under the singular roof of Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) halfway house for troubled souls. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) also joined the cause alongside Malcolm, Vanessa, and Sembene (Danny Sapani), protecting each other against the devils within and without.
Despite all of that, Season 1 was also mired in torment, with Vanessa living in fear and being possessed by satanic forces that culminated in several difficult episodes that occasionally bordered on the overwrought. But Season 2 has subverted Season 1 in every way. Not only was Vanessa given new agency in her own life (through her embrace of the strength she found at the Cut-Wife’s shack both in the past and present day), but also in how the season ultimately split the “family” apart.
Vanessa’s trajectory has remained the show’s main drive, as it should be, but Logan also found ways to keep The Creature (Rory Kinnear) relevant, while deepening the stories of former side characters Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) and Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory). And no character went through more transformation or took more of an unexpected turn than the reborn Lily (Billie Piper), who went from (seemingly) an innocent girl to a cold and calculated killer with designs on a master race of the undead.
Logan’s scripts have always found great balance between the beautiful and the grotesque, but nowhere is this more apparent than in the visual design of the series. The sumptuous nature of its world, and attention to detail in scenes like those in Evelyn’s evil castle, are incredible to behold: the cave-like room of dolls (the dolls themselves!), the both dark and light room where Malcolm and Victor were trapped and forced to confront their pasts, the conical hallway where Ethan slew Sembene. And in one of the episode’s most striking images, Lily and Dorian (Reeve Carney) dancing in white in his luxurious portrait room, sweeping blood around the floor like an elaborate living painting. (Shades of an earlier episode there, when Vanessa was almost drowned in imagined blood at Dorian’s ball).
But Penny Dreadful also knows how to hit us emotionally as directly as the “fallen angel” (as she called him so delicately) did to Vanessa, when she was showed what a “normal” life might look like: a genteel existence in a loving marriage with Ethan, and two lovely children. “You are cruel” she says, and it was. But it was also a kind of validation for viewers — is this not what we want, and the show has led us to want, for Vanessa and Ethan on some level? — while also addressing its impossibility, taking it away from Vanessa and from us.
In the end, Ethan turned himself in and was sent off to America to die, while Vanessa burned her crucifix and seems to have embraced her dark fate. Malcolm is off to Africa to bury Sembene, while The Creature embraces his fate from Mary Shelley’s novel and takes off to the arctic to hide away from humanity. Victor is hiding, too, in hazy morphine dreams after being scorned and abandoned by his progeny, including being humiliated by Lily.
Another of Penny Dreadful’s triumphs is in the caliber of its acting talent. One of the finale’s most incredible scenes was with Malcolm and Victor and their ghosts, which unfolded like a stage play. It was theatrical yet grounded, with the accusations being filled with both lies and truths and everything in between. The two men were goaded almost into suicide, looking tortured, scared, and haunted, as their families (natural and created) held them accountable for their deeds. And yet, even after the two were released from Evelyn’s spell and the specters cast away, they remained haunted throughout the final scenes, still turning over in their minds the damning facts of the revelations.
It’s a sad and dark place to leave our troupe (though it was a nice symbolic touch to have Vanessa going through the house and turning off every light), but it also changes the game and galvanizes the story. Penny Dreadful, which will return for Season 3, hasn’t set up a clear path for where it might go next. Hopefully it will pivot again and spend the next season bringing the group back together. Although in this new configuration, will they be warring against one another?
Though this season and the finale in particular were excellent, there are still some unanswered questions: one is Ethan as “the hound of God,” and why he doesn’t seem to know about or understand his role as Vanessa’s protector. And is Vanessa now walking alone between God and Devil, uninterested in giving an allegiance to each? How exactly does Lily plan to create a master race of immortals? Did the show really just kill off the only person of color in the series? (And one who had such a rich backstory and character we hardly yet got an inkling of?)
Still, in most ways, “And They Were Enemies” brought satisfying closure to the main stories, while still keeping them all completely wide open. But what endures when thinking back about Penny Dreadful’s second season is its celebration of the ordinary among the extraordinary. Further, the show has always focused on self-discovery, and the possible pain and heartache it may cause to confront one’s true self, and living through the consequences of embracing what seems like an inevitable fate. But there are still choices to be made, and Penny Dreadful makes that journey one that is filled with the strange and the beautiful, with sadness and hope, and with a desire to step into the darkness without knowing where it may lead.