This week brought the surprise series finale of Showtime's ambitious Penny Dreadful. The gothic horror show got through three seasons with classic characters like Frankenstein's monster and his unhinged bride, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, and the wolf man, fused together with an original story of the very troubled Vanessa Ives.
After a brilliant second season where the group banded together to fight an evil witch, the third season sent our characters spiraling in different directions – and continents – which is typically a misstep but not so here. Sharp shooter Ethan Chandler (the wolf man) was extradited to the wild west where he spent the majority of the season. John Clare (the monster) spent the season finding himself, and Ms. Ives meanwhile found a new love interest while being pursued by the greatest monster of all.
The show's nebulous plot, English accents, and darkly lit moodiness lends itself well to late-night binge watching, especially since the murky storytelling requires viewers to avoid multitasking. But the reward is the stunning cinematography, impressive sets, exquisite costumes, and genuine moments of sheer horror.
The series' greatest asset is the accomplished ensemble cast – one of the best in recent memory – which includes Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Patti Lupone and Eva Green. But Green's extraordinary performance as the tortured Ms. Ives anchors the show. As a character actress, she's often been relegated to thankless odd roles but this character is truly her master work. As Ms. Ives, Green exudes a painful fragility and a demonic ferocity that leaves her character's soul teetering between probable redemption and palpable darkness. The season's (and series) climax unexpectedly arrives when we follow her into the madhouse. Every moment spent inside that padded room is harrowing, tragic, and culminates in an unnerving and terrifying crescendo.
According to an interview on TV Line, Showtime wanted to continue the show, but the series creator believed it was the right time to end it since Ms. Ives' story had come full circle. It certainly didn't feel that way, and at a scant nine episodes, the ending felt rather rushed and unsubstantial. A couple more episodes could have rounded out the arc a little more organically, especially for a show that is so cautiously methodical in unfurling its narrative.
So why did it end? Unlike many other genre shows, Penny Dreadful never reached critical mass like American Horror Story for example. Considering its remarkable production design and acting pedigree, it was still overlooked in the major awards cycles, and the media never quite fell in love with it. It was also stridently niche: an English period piece soaked in bloody horror on a second-tier premium channel. And previous seasons were not made available on other streaming outlets ensuring the audience would never grow beyond immediate fans/subscribers.
Nonetheless, the title card at the end of the series finale reads "The End" and final nail has been driven into the coffin. It's a remarkable series that will hopefully live on in streaming at some point, and is highly recommended to adults who want to revisit the classic monsters in new and interesting ways, or for fans of Gothic horror.