[This is a review of the Penny Dreadful season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Penny Dreadful has shown off some compelling scenarios, highly intriguing characters and award-worthy performances during its eight episode run, but it lost momentum and story structure in the final two installments of its first season.
As was the case with episode 7, ‘Possession,’ the finale, ‘Grand Guignol,’ is still a strong enough hour of television, but when you’ve come from far more powerful places, it’s tough not to be just a little underwhelmed by the conclusion of the first season.
The first half of episode 8 plays rather slow. The conversation between Vanessa and Sir Malcolm repeats information from previous episodes, we’ve never really come to care about Dorian so Vanessa’s rejection doesn’t spark much emotion and Sir Malcolm’s run-in with Madame Kali doesn’t go anywhere. Perhaps there will be more to Dorian in the new season and Madame Kali’s promise that she’ll cross paths with Sir Malcolm again will actually happen, but as far as this episode goes, both are dead ends, and dead ends are especially disappointing in finales.
Caliban, Frankenstein and Ethan, however, fair much better. We’ve seen two completely different sides of Caliban since his introduction. With Frankenstein, he’s a ruthless and demanding monster, but at the theater, he’s rather meek and sensitive. The opportunity to see those two halves come together makes for a very satisfying conclusion to his season 1 arc, and it serves Frankenstein quite well in the process. Caliban’s been professing his desire to find a mate all along. Frankenstein, on the other hand, expresses his loneliness in less direct manners, like his conversations regarding Sir Malcolm’s exploring for instance. Caliban’s done abhorrent things, but we’ve also seen the good in him as well, so seeing the two of them take a step closer to reconciling their differences is a rather reassuring way to end the season for both of them.
Then there’s poor Ethan. This was a rough one for him, but his struggles did finally give Josh Harnett the chance to go big and access so many more layers of Ethan. His feelings for Brona were never in question, but his reaction to her passing is the first time we’ve ever been able to feel how much he’s really come to need her. All along he’s paraded around with his pistols in hand, brandishing more confidence than most, but here, it all comes crumbling down and that paves the way to what we’ve been waiting for since the very beginning of the show – for Ethan to turn into a werewolf. We made the connection early on, so his transition wasn’t much of a surprise, but the fact that his mood-change sparked the outburst made the big moment an especially well-earned one.
As far as the hunt for Mina goes, the lack of clarity in episode 7 definitely hurt the big theater scene in the finale. It was just too difficult to get into the action while still wondering what sparked Vanessa’s vision revealing Mina’s location in the first place. However, once the combat kicks in, the action is powerful enough to divert your attention.
The battle on the lower level rocks the bigger thrill and build. As we’ve experienced before, pitting our heroes against a horde of those blonde vampires elicits some stunning imagery, especially when all hope is seemingly lost and they’re being devoured by them. However, the sequence’s big finish is the crown jewel of the episode. The show’s been barreling towards a standoff between Vanessa, Sir Malcolm and Mina ever since revealing their history in the 5th episode. When Sir Malcolm makes his choice and puts a bullet through Mina’s head, you feel it because the show’s earned it.
If Penny Dreadful only resolved one thing this episode, that had to be it and, personally, it’s just the ending I wanted. Sure, the talk of buying a Christmas tree and having the boys come over to decorate it was a little saccharine, but after so much darkness, that little bit of pure happiness and hope was vital to letting us part with the show and these characters on a positive note.
‘Grand Guignol’ certainly did not match the season’s strongest episodes – ‘Séance’, ‘Resurrection’, ‘Closer Than Sisters’ and ‘What Death Can Join Together’ – but the strength of the show as a whole absolutely made up for the less impressive finish. Even at its worst, Penny Dreadful is still better than most and what John Logan achieved in this first season, particularly the remarkable connection he struck between the audience and the main characters, is well worth continuing on. There is an astounding amount of room for this show to grow and Penny Dreadful most certainly earned the opportunity to move on to a second season and give it a go.
Penny Dreadful has been renewed for a 10 episode 2nd season.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.