Season finale review: ‘Penny Dreadful’ – ‘Grand Guignol’

“Penny Dreadful” concluded its first season last night. Our own Greg Ellwood reviewed the finale, and I have some thoughts on that episode and season 1 as a whole coming up just as soon as I return to the land of ice chips and cherry phosphates…

At the beginning of the season, I called this show “entertaining, if largely nonsensical,” and was dazzled enough by J.A. Bayona's direction and some of the performances (notably Eva Green and Timothy Dalton) to overlook some of the rougher patches. The directors who succeeded Bayona couldn't quite match his visual flair, but the show compensated in other ways. There's still a sense that John Logan is throwing a lot of ideas at the wall – with the finale revealing that Ethan is a werewolf(*) and that Brona will be resurrected as the bride of Frankenstein's monster – to see what sticks, but later episodes brought certain character arcs to the forefront, that were then paid off in satisfying fashion in “Grand Guignol.”

(*) Werewolves are more a staple of the Universal Pictures monster movies that otherwise borrowed heavily from Victorian literature than they were an element of the literature itself. But they've become so accepted as a part of that larger monster canon (thanks to movies like this) that I'm less troubled by that than I am by the idea of revealing Ethan – introduced as the normal man reacting to the paranormal world – to be another supernatural creature.

By devoting two of the eight episodes to backstory on Dr. Frankenstein and Vanessa Ives, Logan not only put the emphasis on the show's best performers (including Harry Treadaway as Frankenstein and Rory Kinnear as Caliban), but gave the season a couple of obvious emotional targets to aim at in the finale. In both cases, they involved parental figures finally accepting their surrogate children, with Frankenstein recognizing Caliban's pain and loneliness (much of it caused by his own actions) and Sir Malcolm choosing to save Vanessa rather than clinging to the futile dream of curing Mina. Both sequences felt extremely satisfying after the previous build-up, and yet neither closes off too many avenues for Logan to explore next season. We'll see what choice Vanessa makes with the priest, how Brona reacts to her resurrection (and how Ethan will react if/when he finds out), what comes next with the vampire plan for the apocalypse, etc. And though I'm ambivalent as a whole on the Ethan werewolf idea, if Logan can find a way to have him slinging his guns while transformed, I may just become a believer.

Mainly, though, I'll watch this strange and creepy show for however long it will allow me to enjoy Eva Green's work as Vanessa. She's extraordinary, completely grasping the tone of this work and finding a way to play a realistic character while also launching into these over-the-top fits in a way that matches the simpler stuff. If “Penny Dreadful” was just a low-budget show where Green spoke in tongues and was possessed by Satan and other characters, it would still be a must-watch. When you add the other characters and performers, the action, the disturbing imagery, and everything else, it's a whole lot of fun. We'll see how long Logan can keep the overall concept feeling fresh, but he more than earned that second season to try.

What did everybody else think?