Jun 30 2014 4:00pm

Getting What We Paid For: Penny Dreadful’s Season 1 Finale, “Grand Guignol”

Penny Dreadful Grand Guignol

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.

Penny Dreadful Grand Guignol

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.

Penny Dreadful Grand Guignol

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.

Penny Dreadful Grand Guignol

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.

Penny Dreadful Grand Guignol

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.

Penny Dreadful Grand Guignol

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

Chris Nelly
1. Aeryl
I'm not making excuses for Caliban, but you did skip the part where Maud brought him the orange first to apologize for Simon.

I actually thought they might have Caliban change his mind and work on wooing Maud, and they did, but of course, as a Nice Guy, he fucks it up.

Instead, Victor does no one a favor and lets him live. Ugh, I'm over Caliban.

That final scene with Eva Green was fucking mesmerizing, the priest played very well off of her, and was captivating as well.

You know, I've forgotten all about Wolfman, but the idea of complete werewolf transformation is a rather modern one, IIRC, instead of the hybrid initially popularized along with Dracula and Frankenstein.

And while Victor didn't get to kill his Monster, his death count is up to two! Tied with Caliban? Why do I have a feeling that Brona's not gonna work out, and next season will end with Caliban doing absinthe with Victor and Dorian?

Questions not answered by the finale

What is Sembene's deal?(Seriously, if I don't get back story 1st ep next season, I quit)
WHY exactly am I supposed to cry for Malcolm? The raping murdering colonizer who abused his own son and left him to die while NOT naming a mountain after him?
Who is the Master? Not the Dead Less Creepy More Emo Looking Vampire* on the stage, whoever was controlling Mina after? Or did it jump from DLSMELV to Mina?
Will John Logan become the last writer to use the now overused Kill the Head and the Rest Die/Quit Attacking technique?

Oh, and the "old acquaintance Evelyn" was Madame Kali from The Seance(also, Evelyn Poole, from Brighton). She's definitely a hint at Malcolm's storyline for next season, since his quest for Mina and a family is over. Ethan has to stay on the run, and get Brona back from Victor and Cal, Vanessa will continue to battle for her soul and The Master will still seek her, as well as Dorian, who may or may not be The Master himself.
2. Dj112
Aeryl very nice comment. BUT I have to disagree with you with "being over" Caliban.
Caliban and Frankenstein are the same person and I think that is part of the reason Frankenstein could not accept him because he is his own ugliness personified.
Calibans speech in the finale stole the show for me Rory Kinner is a great actor.
I know the writer has a flare to explore the homosexual aspect. I will be disappointed if Caliban goes there. I can see Frankenstein but Caliban I cannot.
I agree that the Bride of Frankenstein is not going to work out but that will only lend more to this emotionally turmoiled Monster and might be his snapping point. He might embrace the "monster" once rejected by someone that is like him.
I cannot wait for season 2
3. build6
I cannot wait for season 2
agreed. have been surprised by how much I enjoyed the series.

Oh! And the soundtrack!!!

"I already have a daughter" - I really liked the line

(btw did anyone else think of Ethan as being a Jekyll/Hyde thing originally? I did but eventually (hey I'm slow) figured on "lycanthrope" since he wasn't a Dr and there were all those shots of the moon)
4. Isis
I just saw the episode and though it basically wound up as I had predicted, I still liked it. I'm quite certain that what we thougt was the uber vampire will turn out not to be. He and his brides always seemed more like watchdogs, all violence and no brains and Mina wasn't the slightest bit affected by his death and she still talked about her Master. So perhaps we will get to Dracula the next season.

I'm also eagerly waiting for Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man and the monster from the Black Lagoon. Well, perhaps not the monster.
5. rochrist
Um...they didn' t kill the boss vampire. Which is why Mina is planning to take Vanessa to him to be his bride. Honestly, you really don't seem to pay much attention to this show when you watch it.
6. dj112
in the beginning when they said that Ethan was an American. I thought American Werewolf in Paris. Since I read somewhere that the show was derived from books or something that took place in Paris but moved to take place in London I knew he was the Werewolf.

In season 1 it only makes sense to introduce the more popular mainstays like Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf thats the Big Three of monsters.
They brought in one lesser known in Dorian Gray and Ives I believe is made up. In season two it would be ok to expand the story. The writer said he has a story for years and years of show.

the only thing i did not like is that they killed Van Helsing just like that. they could bring back another younger Van Helsing which is my guess on what theyll do. becuase they will NEVER understand or locate the Master without his help i believe.... we will see this series is great hopefully they dont cancell it
Chris Nelly
7. Aeryl
@6, Actually, An American Werewolf in London is a much older movie than An American Werewolf in Paris

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