Coupling grotesque supernatural thrills with our culture’s insatiable nostalgia for Victorian pomp isn’t a bad bet for any TV show. Back when Dracula and Frankenstein were turned into their 1931 film counterparts, making an hour-long movie based on a book was also a safe bet, because the recognition of those novel titles helped to ensure butts where squirming around in those seats. Not quite a hundred years later, we’re still digging on Dracula and Frankenstein, albeit now with these newer, subtler-and-yet-more-obtuse versions of them.
With the season finale of Penny Dreadful, the easy question to ask would be: did it deliver on its various promises? But then, you have to remember it didn’t actually promise all that much in the first place.
Spoilers for Penny Dreadful Episode 8, “Grand Guignol.”
Throughout this last episode I kept being surprised by how much Penny Dreadful was surprising me, but not in a plot-twisty, I-can’t-believe-that’s-what-so-and-so-is-up-to kind of way. Instead, I was surprised by how much it seemed to have a hold of itself, and actually concluded most of its different storylines fairly calmly and rationally. The flip-side of this is that a lot of it was pretty predictable, but as I mentioned in my last review, there might be a nice distinction to make here between a predictable plot and a satisfying one.
If the overall thrust of the show was Sir Malcolm’s quest to find Mina, then this episode jumps in right away with Vanessa telling him that she knows where Mina is: the theatre. In a nice meta-twist, the whole Dreadful gang has to head to the theatre—the theatre where Frankenstein’s monster Caliban works his day job—for the final confrontation with Dracula, the Vampire, or “the Master.” Before heading off for this big show-down however, a few things need to be made clear.
First, Sir Malcolm tells Vanessa he has no problem with killing Mina if he can’t save her. This runs a little contrary to his previous conversations with Sembene, but maybe that’s because Sir Malcolm was shamed by trying to play word games and now that he got a preview last week of what it would be like to have a demon-person as a roommate, he’s now totally down with the mercy-kill. To this end, he also hits up a gun-shop where he buys an automatic pistol, which I believe is a Mauser, but I probably only think that because it sort of looks like Han Solo’s laser blaster. While buying this gun, Sir Malcolm meets an old acquaintance named Evelyn who flirts with him (kind of?) and makes blackmail-y references to she and Malcolm’s “first meeting.” She smokes cigarettes inside and does not come back later in the episode, at all.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s monster Caliban is having a rough time with his tech-work at the theatre. He’s still obsessed with Maud, and after messing up some special effect he’s supposed to be responsible for, he decides to put on make-up and talk to Maud in her dressing room, where he ends up trying to choke her.
She freaks out and he gets fired right away, though the old drunk theatre manager is still super-nice to him and tells Caliban to “remember us better than we are.” This, for me served as an unexpected telegraph to the audience that Penny Dreadful was going to spend the rest of the episode with characters (mostly) being nice to each other. To that point, Caliban has to crawl back to hang out with Frankenstein, because he’s got nowhere to go. This leads the audience to believe that the tables are now-turned and Frankenstein is going to coldly shoot his first monster and put everyone out of their misery.
But again, Penny Dreadful surprises us by being kind. Frankenstein doesn’t kill Caliban, but instead puts his hand on his monster’s shoulder and rushes out into the cold to help Ethan try to save the life of the dying Brona. Of course, upon arrival, Brona is way too far-gone to actually be helped, and when Ethan leaves the room, Frankenstein takes this opportunity to smother her, so she is totally dead all the way. Ethan walks in just in time to make it look like Brona has just died that second, and Frankenstein looks sufficiently sad before saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of the body.” Just as many of us predicted, he’s going to use Brona’s corpse for the baseline of the bride-for-his-monster.
Elsewhere, Ethan is being chased down by some bounty hunter dudes from America who have a weird chat with him in a bar about how they’re going to chain him up like a monkey and bring him back to his Dad. Ethan smacks both of them in the face with glasses from the bar and saunters out whistling “Can’t Touch This,” under his breath. He bumps into Vanessa Ives in the street who asks him if he likes to get high before killing vampires and he’s says, okay, that sounds great. They talk for a little while about whether or not he was nice to her and nobody explains why he was possessed by the ghost of his high school Latin teacher or whatever and managed to pseudo-drive the demon from her last week.
Vanessa, by the way, has spent the earlier part of the episode shutting-down Dorian Gray, which is crushing, not only because it seems like he likes her, but also because this episode lacks any lusty Dorian Gray orgy-action. Do you get to see his secret painting in this finale? No. If you had no idea Dorian Gray was a magical immortal would you just think the character was a foppish weirdo who was somehow more weird than these other weirdoes? Yes.
Now it’s showdown time as Frankenstein, Sembene, Ethan, Sir Malcolm and Vanessa all march to the theatre to confront the Vampire and “save” Mina. As this scene was coming, I kept thinking there was going to be a really big twist with the Vampire, specifically, I hoped he’d start wearing some clothes and talk more like Bela Lugosi. But, after a typical Dreadful shoot-em-up and vampire-stabbing fest, the twist seemingly is that killing the boss Vampire doesn’t really matter. After Sir Malcolm is confident the main bad-guy is dead, he turns his attention to his daughter Mina, who, as it turns out, doesn’t feel like coming back from the Vampire-side-of-the-Force. She says “I’m you’re daughter!” to which he replies that he already has a daughter (Vanessa!) and kills her.
The episode then quickly wraps up with Ethan FINALLY, FINALLY, FINALLY going full-werewolf on the Bounty Hunters who were trying to track him down. It’s a full-moon, but we don’t hardly see Ethan’s werewolf face for a full-minute. Just before all of this is happening, Frankenstein reveals the corpse of Brona to Caliban and both start working on making her a Frankenstein-Bride. The twist here, of course, is Frankenstein seems to now be into it.
In the end, Vanessa goes to a priest (again?) to try and sort out her demonic possession, but like he’s talking to the camera, the priest asks “do you really want to be normal?” And so, Penny Dreadful closes not on a cliffhanger, nor with any really closure. Instead, as it began, this show scared us a little bit, gave us some familiar characters, and ultimately delivered what it promised; cheap thrills and slick new renderings of Victorian archetypes.
The plotpoints or “twists” ultimately didn’t matter too much: the idea that Brona was going to be the bride of the creature was written on the wall ages ago, as was Ethan’s wolfish tendencies. Vanessa not quite resolving her demonic possession seems, well, realistic, considering the Ghostbusters don’t exist in the Victorian times.
But, the surprising coming together of various foes was one of the cooler things about this finale. Because if Sir Malcolm and Vanessa can actually seem like they like each other, and Frankenstein can team up with his Monster, then perhaps the second season of Penny Dreadful will reveal something even more unexpected: monsters who get along with each other!
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.