Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Penny Dreadful 3x08/3x09 Review: “Perpetual Night” and “The Blessed Dark” (The End) [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

“Perpetual Night” “The Blessed Dark”
Original Airdate: June 19, 2016

The surprising news that Penny Dreadful would not be coming back next season, or ever again, led me to take a bit longer to get my thoughts together than I expected. I am very sad this is the end of Penny Dreadful — as sad as John Claire is all the time — though I understand why the creators felt like they told their whole story. So for the last time, let’s take a look at the story of Vanessa and her friends.


Since Vanessa gave herself to Dracula, the end of days have truly started. Darkness has come, and the fog will never lift. The night creatures are flooding London, starting with a pretty cool and gross scene of frogs coming out of the sink in Dr. Seward’s office. Thanks to Dr. Seward’s vampire assistant, she learns that the toxins that have fallen over London are because of Dracula and his new bride.

One thing I really loved about these episodes was how Vanessa’s female friends came to her aid. I wish she had many more episodes to get to know the delightful Cat, but it was lovely that she and Dr. Seward were willing to come and fight for Vanessa. Vanessa’s friendships with Ethan, Sir Malcolm, Victor, and John Clare were of course beautiful, and the foundation of the show, but it was so great to see Vanessa have some women friends and to see female friendship depicted on screen. I wish there was more of it.

When Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Kaetenay arrive in London, they find it covered in a toxic fog. They rush home to try to find Vanessa, but instead they find a dead wolf and a live Cat. Cat tells them that the fog has killed thousands of people in the last week (the timeline doesn’t quite add up to me because it looks like Lily is chained up exactly where we left her last episode), and that she has been searching for Vanessa as well. She tells them that she’s been helping Vanessa learn about Dracula, and she thinks the king of darkness has finally caught his queen.

Vampire infiltrate the house, and an exciting fight scene follows. But the most exciting part is when Cat’s cool head prevails and she cauterizes Sir Malcolm’s wound from the vampire to save his life. Cat is tough and smart, and does it sort of seem like she’s a good match for Sir Malcolm? I think so. She can certainly stand up for herself, and he likes fiery women.


Meanwhile, Victor and Jekyll are still holding Lily captive with plans to use Jekyll’s personality serum to make her docile. Lily begs Victor to let her keep her scars, and Lily gives an incredible monologue about how her baby daughter died one winter night while Lily was out, trying to earn some money for their food. She begs Victor to allow her to keep her pain because she doesn’t want to lose her memory of her daughter. It was a horrific story, and Billie Piper did a tremendous job with such an emotional topic. It could have veered into maudlin or ridiculous, but she kept it grounded in emotion, and it was tough to watch. Victor sees that Lily’s memories and sadness are what make her human, and in doing so he gets some of his humanity back as well. He puts the serum down and unchains her.

Lily’s daughter fits with themes of parenthood and creating life, but I wish some mention of her daughter had come up before a few episodes ago. Maybe it did, and I don’t remember (if you do, let me know in the comments). Lily goes back to Dorian to say goodbye and finds her surrogate daughter has died by Dorian’s hands. The immortal Dorian tells Lily that to live forever, he has given up emotions and caring to make it easier when people leave him. But Lily, like Victor, chooses humanity and refuses to live that way.

Another unexpected moment of parenthood occurs when both Ethan and Kaetenay transform into wolves during the full moon, and Ethan realizes that Kaetenay is who turned him into a werewolf. This whole season has been about creating life and what responsibilities you have to the life you have created, and Kaetenay’s reveal underscores that theme.

John Clare, too, faces his son. The toxic fog is too much for his son’s lungs, and the already sick child dies. John Clare’s wife begs him to take his son to Dr. Frankenstein so he can be brought back to life like John Clare, but John Clare knows that some things are worse than death. Like Justine, he knows it is better to die as yourself than to live as a shell. His wife tells him to come back with their reanimated son, or to not come back at all. John Clare chooses humanity for his son, but he is also forced back into loneliness himself.


After some hypnotizing by Dr. Seward, the Scooby Gang finds the location of Dracula’s lair. So they head there, together, to do battle for Vanessa’s soul. Vanessa’s friends — family, really — say they are here to save Vanessa and will never stop fighting. But Dracula says that Vanessa doesn’t need saving, she made her own choices and she chose to be with him.

Though I don’t think Dracula would be as much of a champion of Vanessa’s independence if she had chosen to leave — since he stalked her for years and years — I do like how Penny Dreadful upends the idea of saving a woman. Vanessa needs help and support, just like anyone, but she doesn’t need saving by any man. It’s a common trope to have a man keep fighting to save a woman even when she says she doesn’t want to be rescued—because of course he would know better than she—and the repetition that Vanessa chose to be here so leave her be reflects the feminist themes that have been the undercurrent of the season. Vanessa made a choice, and that should be respected.

And, ultimately, it is. Vanessa knows that she doesn’t want to stay with Dracula, even after her moment of weakness that led her there. She knows she wants to choose good and she wants the fight to end. So when Ethan finds her, she asks him to kill her. Their reunion was too brief and too cruel, but he tells her he loves her, and he loves her enough to do what she asks. She dies in his arms.

I am still processing this ending and how I feel about it. Let me go into what I like about it first. I like that it was Vanessa's choice. So much of this show was built around people losing their agency. Lily, John Clare, and Ethan didn’t ask to be created — they never would have chosen their fates — and each of them were able to chose their future in the finale. So did Vanessa.

I also like that it fit into themes of her faith. Vanessa had lost her faith, and choosing death for her was choosing to return to God. Her sacrifice to save everyone else was Christ-like, and I thought it was a fitting end to her story. But did it have to end? She hardly got any time with her true love, Ethan, and I wish they had spent more of the season together instead of him wasting time with Hecate. That seems cruel, now that they have no future together.

I also kept waiting for her to be brought back to life, or to come back as a Big Bad, or something, and I didn’t believe she was truly, fully dead until the next morning, when I heard the announcement that Penny Dreadful was over. For this reason, I wish they had told us earlier that it was the last season. That would have allowed me to be afraid for her death and to believe it when it happened, instead of holding out false hope and not get fully invested into the story that was happening in front of me. Of course, I expected her to come back, it’s a show about Vanessa!

On the other hand, I am so, so, so relieved the show is not continuing without Vanessa. If Penny Dreadful had pulled a Sleepy Hollow, I don’t know what I would have done. This show is Vanessa’s journey — she is the center of her friends and the center of this world. It could not have gone on without her and stayed true to the story.

And while I’m glad the show allowed her to make her own choice about her life and death, I want to look at who is allowed to choose death. When Sir Malcolm asked to be shot earlier after he is bit by a vampire, Cat tells him he is being dramatic and offers another solution. Couldn’t someone have offered another solution to Vanessa? Her death is fitting with the themes of her faith, but choosing life and choosing humanity would also have fit with the show. In a vacuum, it might work with no caveats. But with women dying on shows left and right, it stings a little. And though I haven’t read or watched Me Before You, there is some discussion cropping up around that movie and who is offered death as a choice. In stories, I feel like choosing death is reserved for the disabled, or someone, a woman, maybe, in an abusive or bad position. Death is seen then as a mercy, as a way to escape. But when men like Sir Malcolm are given other options, and disabled people and women are handed ways to bring about their death, I think it’s worth looking at this trope a little closer. Why is death seen as an escape and an ok route for some, and not others? Shouldn’t we be fighting to protect the life of every person, especially if they may have fewer resources in life?

I will miss this show, and I’ll miss reviewing it. It has been a delight. But now it’s your turn. What did you think?

Post script:
  • The woman singing over the opening credits of the last episode was haunting and perfect.
  • I am sad that Vanessa didn’t get more time in the last two episodes, but I thought keeping her hidden until later and revealing her as Dracula’s bride was an effective choice. 
  • “While you were in America wrestling with her demons, she has freed herself of hers.” 
  • Dracula repeating that Vanessa doesn’t need saving and that she is her own person is a reflection of Dorian telling Lily that the women in her army weren’t her women. Constantly Penny Dreadful reminded people that women aren’t yours to own or control. 
  • "Men. Always so dramatic." Cat, you were here for too little time.


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