Penny Dreadful Season 1 Ep 8 (TV Show Review)

Going into the finale, at only just eight episodes, one might wonder what it is exactly that Penny Dreadful has been building up to. Is it the story of Frankenstein’s Monster, Caliban, and his search for an immortal mate? Or is it the larger story of the hunt for the Master Vampire who has Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina in his spell? Or could it be the mystery of the libertine Dorian Gray and his frivolities? Or perhaps the story of Ethan Chandler and the possibility that he is the Wolf Man after all, being one of the stellar crown jewels of penny dreadful stories that the show evokes? The answer, of course, is that it is all of it.

Aptly titled “Grand Guignol“, the entire main act of the finale takes place in the Grand Guignol theatre where Caliban works as a stage-hand and where he has some measure of contentment and peace, having experienced the charity and friendship of one of the actors, and perhaps something more from another one. All of the storylines come to a close in this finale, though some are frustrating dead ends, and that’s where the finale failed for me, though I enjoyed the resolutions to the Sir Malcolm/Vanessa/Mina arc and the reward at the end of the Brona/Ethan arc.

Note: There will be spoilers here.

Penny Dreadful Logo 0001

One thing that Penny Dreadful has done really well so far is to play up viewers’ expectations in a certain way and then go in quite the different direction altogether. This is more than evident in how the character of Ethan Chandler, Josh Hartnett’s character, has been portrayed in the show. We’ve known from the get go that he has a dark and mysterious past that he is running from despite all his brash confidence and rough exterior, and we also know that he has some connection to wolves from an early episode. Waiting for the big reveal that he is indeed the Wolf Man has been quite tormenting since a ferocious and bestial presence like the Wolf Man would really have upped the stakes on the show. But in their wisdom the showrunners waited till the finale for that reveal. And in that light, I have to admit that they made it a masterstroke for with everything that was built up in respect to this arc, the reveal felt rewarding and it added a lot of tension to the finale as well. I certainly was on the edge of my seat all the way.

In all of this, the star is definitely Josh Hartnett. The character of Ethan Chandler fit him perfectly and he seemed to go from strength to strength in this show. The previous episode, “Possession“, was where I truly believed that Josh Hartnett is an actor to be reckoned with given how the final ten minutes of the episode played out. And as I expected, he carried over that brilliant performance in this episode. Reserved and grieving at first over Brona’s impending death, he became quite the firebrand at the end and when his past catches up to him, he delivers an even better performance for the brief five seconds we see him as the Wolf Man, revealed in much of his monstrous glory. Watching the transformation really gave me the creeps.

Of course, the main story from the get go has been Sir Malcolm and Vanessa’s search for the master Vampire who has held Mina in his spell for several months now. Many revelations have been had as well and we’ve seen that things aren’t as they seem, for Mina may just be too far gone to be saved. We know from the flashback-heavy fifth episode that Vanessa intended to kill Mina if she was found, for Vanessa doesn’t believe that her childhood friend can be saved. But, what happens when Sir Malcolm realizes that as well? Sembene gave him an earful last week about it, and told him to be sure of what he wanted, and watching the tragic resolution of this arc was truly heartbreaking.

This arc was almost entirely about redemption for both Sir Malcolm and Vanessa. For one, it is to atone for his mistakes as a father and to find a measure of peace. For the other, it is to atone for her sins as a friend and confidante and to have some measure of salvation from the demon who wants to use her to bring a full measure of evil and darkness into the world. The two arcs have intersected quite brilliantly and the standoff between Mina, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm at the Grand Guignol makes it all quite plain. Until the final shot hits, the arcs could really have gone anywhere and I certainly appreciated and enjoyed what writer John Logan did and how director James Hawes portrayed it all.

If there is any one deficiency in this arc, it is that we find extremely little on the master Vampire and Jonathan Harker. We are told that Mina has fallen in with the former and that she was married to the latter, but that’s it. We learn nothing else, and that is something that I wish had been otherwise. But no matter. The show was already juggling with a lot.

The other big story to get a conclusion here is that of Victor Frankenstein and his prodigal first creation Caliban. We first met Caliban at the end of the second episode when he murdered and ripped apart his “brother” Proteus, and since then we’ve seen him as a true monster, a villain of the highest order, but not one who intentionally has evil designs. He just wants to survive and be loved and have some measure of a normal life as that afforded to the people around him. Frankenstein’s moral and ethical dilemmas on this have brightened the arc immeasurably with both Harry Treadway and Rory Kinnear’s performances in the finale being very emotional and powerful. Their arc comes to a very good resolution and I can’t wait to see how things go from here in the second season, which should hopefully not be all the way in 2015.

Penny Dreadful Cast 0001

On the other hand, Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray got the short shrift in the finale and his arc didn’t really go anywhere. I was expecting that we’d finally get to see more of him and how he plays into all of the goings on of the Penny Dreadfuls (i.e. Sir Malcolm, Vanessa, Frankenstein, Ethan and Sembene), but nothing of the sort. And now I wonder if there was even any point of his arc since he now proved to be little more than a diversion and nothing else. The same goes for Helen McCrory’s Madame Kali, the medium we saw in the second episode who was upstaged by a temporarily possessed Vanessa during a soiree held by the egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle who was consulted by Sir Malcolm in relation to the vampires. Madame Kali makes an altogether brief appearance in the finale, suggesting a larger role for her character and while I’m intrigued I’m also frustrated since the implications of the cameo appear to be quite big.

We shall see how that plays out.

In terms of pure impact on the viewer, “Grand Guignol” lacks a certain punch in its characters and is not quite the finale I was expecting, but at the same time the action at the Grand Guignol makes up for a lot of the shortcomings. Watching the Penny Dreadfuls assailed by hordes of pale, blonde vampires and fight against really long odds for once proved to be quite enjoyable and rewarding in itself. Definitely a good and decent finale in the end.

More Penny Dreadful: Eps 1-3, Ep 4, Ep 5, Ep 6, Ep 7.

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Posted on July 3, 2014, in Penny Dreadful, Review Central, TV Show Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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