[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
At the end of last week’s Penny Dreadful, it felt as though a multitude of threads were left dangling, threads that went beyond the showdown between Vanessa and the demon (and Ms. Poole, to a certain extent, though she seemed content to simply introduce the two and watch as a Verbis Diablo rap-battle commenced). While the main characters were all in the same place, trapped in the Nightcomers’ castle, the season’s storyline had delivered enough digressions and introduced enough additional character arcs that, in order for them all to be given their fair shake, the finale would have a lot of heavy lifting to do.
As it turns out, ‘And They Were Enemies’ did most of its heavy lifting in the first few minutes, as the confrontation that had been simmering all season long was handled rather succinctly and decisively, and without much in the way of conflict. Sure, Vanessa got a considerable payoff in her showdown with the demon, but the rest of the character threads felt somewhat scattered.
One would be hard pressed to convince anyone who doesn’t watch the show that Vanessa’s confrontation with the demon was made more convincing and powerful thanks to the presence of a doll that looked like Eva Green and spoke with her voice. Aside from Vanessa grabbing and cracking the doll’s face, the much-ballyhooed clash was mostly static. That’s not to say it didn’t have its moments. The vision granted to Vanessa of a happy life, with Ethan as her husband and two adorable little tikes with a penchant for drawing fat horses (or hippopotamuses, if you believe the older kid/art burgeoning art critic) was revealing in two ways. For one, it confirmed Vanessa’s feelings for Ethan. And for another, it established Vanessa as a woman reconciled to her fate as someone who is anything but normal.
Those two developments were significant enough – the notion of doomed romance and a life spent wandering in darkness carried sufficient emotional currency – that the relative brevity of Vanessa’s skirmish with the demon (not to mention the inherent silliness of seeing Eva Green in a face-off with a doll) was more successful than it had any right to be. Moreover, listening to Green recite the Verbis Diablo in that frightening, guttural voice of hers transcends the lunacy of almost any situation and makes it seem far more harrowing than perhaps it really is. It’s a testament to Green’s devotion to the material, then, that the scene felt epic at all, much less as grand as it did.
Still, despite the theatricality of Vanessa’s performance and her subsequent absorption of a scorpion into the palm of her hand, the conflict still boiled down to Eva Green vs. a doll, while Evelyn Poole stood back and watched it all go down. Helen McCrory has been such a significant part of why season 2 was so successful, it was a shame to see her sidelined in such a way – forced to be an observer and not participate in the event she helped organize. The sapping of her youth brought a visual razzmatazz to the proceedings, but being rapidly aged and then having her throat ripped out by Ethan felt as though the character was given short shrift.
The same goes for Ethan, in that regard. For all the chatter about the Hound (or Wolf) of God, slashing the throat of a now-elderly woman failed to truly demonstrate his status as a protector or weapon against evil. After all, what was it about his action that revealed only a lycanthropic Ethan could have performed it? There was a tense moment when Ethan was face-to-face with Vanessa and the beast was seemingly quieted by her presence, but seeing him run off offered little in terms of payoff, emotional or otherwise.
What’s interesting about ‘And They Were Enemies’ is that, as with last season’s finale, the episode chose to wrap up the main storyline with considerable haste, so that the latter portion (forty minutes or so) could focus on a series of fittingly melancholy epilogues that shattered the group and sprinkled what remained across the globe.
So distraught with the knowledge of what he is, and certainly for having killed Sembene (the weight of whose death, and the fact that Malcolm was taking his body back to Africa, feels like it may be sadly permanent), Ethan declines Vanessa’s romantic gesture and turns himself in to Inspector Rusk. But rather than face the gallows for his crimes, he is instead whisked away to the United States on an extradition order.
Victor, having apparently learned little from the mental torture of facing his sins during his time in the Nightcomers’ guilt room, attempts to strong-arm Lily into returning to a life of domestication. As she’s demonstrated in the last few weeks, Lily’s acid tongue is her weapon of choice, choosing to thrash her creator verbally after he shoots both her and Dorian. The scene ends with Victor returning home in search of a viable vein, while in a remarkable visual flourish, Lily and Dorian’s blood-soaked white clothing paints the floor of his ballroom red. It’s a gorgeous way to put a bookmark in Lily’s story, while setting her up to be a potential Big Bad in season 3.
Perhaps the most fulfilling epilogue, though, is that of Jon Clare (a character whose depiction I’ve had considerable issue with throughout both seasons). After falling victim to the Putney’s trap, it turns out the Creature was able to free himself at any time, but being the lover of poetry that he is, he chose the most lyrical moment to break free and kill his captors – leaving their crumpled bodies on the floor for their daughter to find. But Clare’s violent retribution wasn’t what rehabilitated the character for me; it was his conversation with Vanessa, and the quiet dignity with which he greeted her praise and his elegiac decision to retreat from humanity. For a character who has been obsessed with obtaining what was “owed” him – namely a woman – this turnaround may have put Clare on the path toward redemption. Should he factor into season 3, it will be interesting to see how or if he continues to walk that path.
Despite the issues that came up with the finale – e.g., the ease with which the devil was cast aside, the sidelining of Ms. Poole, and the lack of payoff with regard to Ethan’s status as a heavenly Wolfman – season 2 was still a remarkably strong season that capitalized on what the series does best, while demonstrably refining certain weak spots. Having two extra hours certainly helped make the season feel less rushed, and while ‘And They Were Enemies’ offered a stronger finish than ‘Grand Guignol,’ it still feels as though there’s room for improvement, when it comes to crafting satisfying finales.
Penny Dreadful remains a moody, atmospheric gem that continues to succeed at delivering a sense of macabre wonder, even when the narrative stumbles a bit. If the distinct enhancements seen throughout season 2 are anything to go by, season 3 will be a Gothic horror to behold.
Penny Dreadful returns for season 3 in 2016 on Showtime.
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