Sunday, June 19, 2016

REVIEW: 'Penny Dreadful' - The End Comes for Vanessa's War with Darkness in 'Perpetual Night' & 'The Blessed Dark'

Showtime's Penny Dreadful - Episode 3.08 "Perpetual Night" and 3.09 "The Blessed Dark"

Ethan, Malcolm and Kaetenay return to London. Dr. Seward discovers Renfield's secret. Ethan heads out in search of Frankenstein. Lily reveals a heartbreaking story from Brona's past. Ethan learns the shocking truth about Kaetenay. Seward uses hypnosis on Renfield. The Creature must make a moral decision. Malcolm, Ethan, Kaetenay, Seward and Catriona battle to save Vanessa.

Penny Dreadful has undoubtedly been the story of Vanessa Ives. Its been a twisted and tragic tale of demonic possessions and the trauma that comes from her body and soul being hunted by the forces of evil in this world. John Logan's writing and Eva Green's committed performance helped create such a captivating main premise for the show. No matter how extraneous or tangential the world got around Vanessa, the narrative could always return to her for excellence. She was the show's center where all the meaningful characters and plot points orbited around. This season has had its ups and downs. It has been much more disjointed than the previous two because of the decision to separate the bulk of the cast. Certain stories took priority over others. And once again, everyone is working towards a common goal of rescuing Vanessa from darkness in the finale. But that has been such a captivating and rewarding storytelling trick. The show has an awareness of the familiarity of its plotting as well and delivers a finale that makes one bold and declarative final decision.

Vanessa embraced Dracula in last week's episode in order to end all of her suffering. She has been tormented for so long in this world. She wasn't able to rely on the support and love of her friends. Her new bonds with Seward and Catriona just weren't as strong as her love for Malcolm and Ethan. Dracula presented her with a world free from pain and full of love. He doesn't want to subject her to his power. He wants to serve her and rule over this world by her side as the night creatures that they really are. That has been his ultimate goal. She subjected herself to that. And now, darkness has fallen on London. It's a desolate ghost town compared to the last time Malcolm and Ethan were in the city. But they have returned nevertheless to save Vanessa from the darkness. They have gone to war to save this world from the evil forces that wish it harm before. But now, things are different because they are fighting to save Vanessa. She means so much to them. They need her in their lives in order to have purpose. They see their fates intertwined with hers.

The search for Vanessa really does encompass the majority of this two hour finale. The team struggles to track her and Dracula down in this changed landscape. That happens in order for the entire team to reassemble. It's not just Malcolm, Ethan and Kaeteney who get pulled into this quest. Seward, Catriona and Victor are as well. Some of those happen much more naturally than others. Catriona really has been such a badass and cool addition late in this season. Seeing her in action multiple times in this finale is perhaps the most thrilling and cinematic the show has ever been. Meanwhile, Seward got into those action beats as well. First, she needs to fend off Renfield when he attacks. And then, she is more than capable of handling herself during the epic confrontation with Dracula and his night creatures. However, Victor's inclusion in these events is a little more awkwardly handled. He's had his hands full with Lily, Dorian and Dr. Jekyll. That story reaches its resolution. And then, he just happens to run into Malcolm at the hospital. That's how he becomes aware of what's happening to Vanessa. It plays as a contrivance to include him in the final moments of the season. After not being a part of Vanessa's life for so long, it's awkward to have him as a part of the team again. Though it does make some sense.

Plus, the concluding beats of Victor and Lily's story together is absolutely fantastic. After Green, Billie Piper has delivered the best performance in this ensemble. Lily's rise to power has been an amazing and empowering story. She has decided to push back against the norms of society in order to create a reality of strong and powerful woman. It was a cause she was passionate about. But that passion frightened the men who surrounded her. So, they plotted against her in order to turn her into a pristine and proper woman of the time. They see her as a monster for the death and destruction that composes her life. But she sees them as the monsters for trying to kill her and make her into the image that best suits their ideals of the world. She cherishes the dark and tragic memories of her past. Those scars and traumas help make her the woman she is today. They are brutal. It's so horrifying to listen to Lily go into detail about the night her daughter died. That glimpse into her humanity shows the pain and beauty of the woman she has become. That event has defined her existence since it happened. It's a painful memory but one that she needs to hold onto for as long as she lives. Victor wants to take that away. Her impassioned speech reveals a new side of her to him. A woman who is not a monster. It's that woman that he sets free. But she returns to a world that no longer supports her cause. So she may be doomed to an existence of her emotions and passions being dulled over the tests of time - just like they have been for Dorian.

As Victor notes, it's easy to be monsters. It's more difficult to be human. That's certainly a declarative statement that suits this show and its approach to storytelling. Ethan and Kaeteney need to literally turn into monsters in order to fend off the creatures Dracula sends towards them. It's an act that shows just how much of Ethan's life has changed because he met Kaeteney. He has come to accept that his fate in this world has been predestined by God and is deeply connected to Vanessa's. He needs to find and protect her from the evil that wishes her harm. That's his mission. That's his humanity shining through. He is able to shift into the monster during his first encounter with Dracula. But he cannot during the second when he's aided by the rest of the team. They have walked into the lair of darkness to seek answers and save their friend from evil. Malcolm needs to know why Dracula took Mina from him. This is an emotional encounter for all of them but especially for Malcolm. Both of his daughters have been taken by Dracula. He was able to kill one in order to protect the other. But now, Vanessa is the only family he has left. He needs to fight in order to save her. But what does saving her actually entail? Vanessa has fended off the forces of evil before. They have still kept coming with new plans of attack. She hasn't found any happiness or peace. In fact, she has lost more and more the longer she stays alive.

So, Vanessa makes the brutal decision to remove herself from this world entirely. She has brought nothing but pain and darkness to this world and to her closest friends. She has nearly destroyed the world because she accepted the darkness. That's not as big of a deal as one might have thought heading into this finale. Vanessa is largely absent from the two hours. She exists largely as a stoic and menacing figure aiding Dracula on his mission. And then, she appears for that final confrontation with Ethan. It's a phenomenal scene that proves that he is her light capable of pulling her out of this darkness. That is his mission. He does not need to be a monster in order to save her. He does so as the man she loves. But she recognizes the stakes her life has on this world. She needs to die so that the rest of the world can live. It's poetic in its tragedy. It's fitting that Ethan is the one to deliver the bullet. He does so after they kiss and say the Lord's prayer. Religion has meant so much to Vanessa. And now, she dies having found that connection once again. Her death sends Dracula fleeing and restores order to this world once more.

It's also important to note that Vanessa really does seem to die in the concluding beats of the season. This isn't a fake out. She dies to safe the world. And now, her friends have to figure out how to move forward with their lives without her in it. Death means something on this show. It's an act that has consequences. Vanessa dies with the clarity that she will be welcomed by her God. That has always been her mission. That has been something she has worked to achieve despite the constant challenges to her very existence. Taking that away from her now would seem very cruel. In death, Vanessa finally has peace. It's just a time of anguish for everyone else. It is problematic that she dies in order for the male characters to have emotional reactions. But they are such moving reactions as well. Vanessa has meant so much to each of them. And now, she's gone. Perhaps that means the forces of evil are gone from their lives as well. But now what? There is no easy road to the lives they should live. Malcolm and Ethan are committed to finding them though. They aren't running away. They are choosing to embrace the uncertainty head on. They are happy they got to know Vanessa during this trying time. And they are happy to understand that she finally has peace.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Perpetual Night" was written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and directed by Damon Thomas.
  • "The Blessed Dark" was written by John Logan and directed by Paco Cabezas.
  • That final shot of Dorian standing in his house all alone yet again was a beautiful image for a character who has always been extraneous at best. He found himself in a world that didn't excite him in the same way it did Lily. And now, he's the one who ended it for her. He does so knowing that this isn't the end of their story. They will meet again as the two immortals in this world. But this is a definite closing on their story for now.
  • Justine is the only one of Lily's acolytes who stays loyal to the cause to the very end. She chooses to die instead of being forced to go back to the streets to be tormented by men once again.
  • The inclusion of Dr. Jekyll this season really wasn't that great. It's all pretty much summed by the hammy way the show needs to address that his father dying changes his title to Lord Hyde which is just a really lame moment.
  • It was a genuinely surprising moment when Kaeteney turned into a beast as well to help Ethan in his big battle with the night creatures. He has these powers as well in order to help guide Ethan on his mission. But that's about the only explanation that's really given.
  • The Creature's son dies and he has to make the ultimate choice of asking Victor to resurrect him or leave his wife behind for good. He found happiness with his family again after being depressed for so long. And now, he embraces that worldview once more in order to keep his son from feeling the same kind of isolation he has felt throughout this cruel and unforgiving world.
  • The finale closes with the words "The End" appearing right before the credits. That's a very important stylistic choice to make right now. Showtime hasn't announced whether or not there will be a fourth season of the show. But those words help cement the importance and finality of Vanessa's death. They could mean the closing of a chapter with more stories of darkness and literary characters to tell moving forward. Or they could mean the end of the show and John Logan is satisfied with being able to tell this complete story across 27 episodes.