Penny Dreadful wraps up its premiere season, failing to fully deliver on the immense promise seen in earlier episodes. The season finale, titled Grand Guignol, gave us everything a season finale should: it resolved the tying thread of the Mina Harker story, left certain subplots open-ended to return next season, and gave subtle hints as to stories we should expect to explore next season. It checked all the right boxes, but the finale felt empty and not nearly as accomplished as the best episodes the series has offered thus far.
Perhaps my reaction to the episode was my own fault. For me, titling an episode Grand Guignol signifies the sort of dramatically overwrought carnage associated with that theatrical style. Instead, we somewhat limped toward an anti-climactic resolution in the Grand Guignol theater where the vampire who controlled Mina built a nest for himself, Mina, and his pack of brides. Our intrepid explorers defeated their foe and “saved” Mina, but the sequence felt rushed and deprived of the atmospheric thrills that earlier episodes delivered.
Where writer John Logan earlier employed an assured, steady approach (particularly in the season high episode Closer Than Sisters), the entire finale felt hurried. This rush to conclusion confirms an earlier suspicion I had that the leisurely detours I’d loved so much would ultimately cause the creators to sprint to their end.
I am happy that the Mina story is resolved even if the question of the Master, the Egyptian allusions, and Vanessa Ives’s status as his desired bride still remain open-ended. The sequence gave Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray some opportunity to prove how valuable his performance has been to the overall proceedings. In my opinion, Dalton is the unsung hero of the series thus far, giving a very good performance that echoes those of the great British actors employed in the Hammer horror films of the 1960s. He will receive no awards attention, but the show is stronger with him in it.
Given several opportunities to showboat through the entire season, Eva Green as Vanessa Ives had somewhat of a comparatively muted presence this episode save for a remarkable conversation with a priest that closes the season. Green remains the series best performer for reasons I’ve covered multiple times through the season, and I hope that some awards-giving body somewhere finally recognizes her primal talent.
Other expected/predictable subplots, including Ethan Chandler’s “shocking” transformation and the identity of Frankenstein’s Bride, largely deferred until next season. The true travesty of the series thus far has been the ridiculous and tedious Dorian Grey sequences. The character instantly felt out of place with his 21st century emo appearance (leather pants, ball necklace, and guyliner), and he never significantly contributed to the overall story. I suspect he was meant to serve as a foil to Vanessa Ives, but, frankly, Eva Green embarrassed him with her brilliant performance.
At the end, we are meant to pity Grey as Ives rejects his romantic advances, telling him that the foreign emotion he professed was simply rejection. Reeve Carney the actor as much as Dorian Grey the character felt like a contribution from another time and place, significantly out of place here. If Grey is to return in the second season (and I suspect he will given the infamous portrait was never revealed), then Logan is going to have to find a way to better integrate him into the story above and beyond causal dinners and graphic sex sequences.
Looking back over the season, I still consider Penny Dreadful a positive overall experience even if the finale disappointed. Green’s towering performance, the first-rate cinematography, and grimly beautiful art direction make the journey worth taking. And I will always love the majesty and theatricality of the Grand Guignol theater sequences. These, in my opinion, were powerful enough to warrant a spin-off series.
But now that we are all free of the tragedy of Mina Harker, let us hope that the planned 10-episode second season provides room to breathe so that we can stop and enjoy all of the detours Logan throws at us.
Detours are only worth savoring if they don’t spoil the journey itself.