Penny Dreadful, the best gothic fever dream on TV, ended last week after three seasons. It wasn’t announced ahead of time that Season 3 would be the last, and as a result, the show’s termination is a relatively controversial one. After all, a surprise show finale is basically the opposite of a surprise album drop. But regardless of its untimely end, Penny Dreadful leaves a legacy as one of the most unique shows of recent memory.
In borrowing from multiple novels — Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Marquis de Sade’s Justine, and more, it managed to be the most successful page-to-screen adaptation on TV. Since it wasn’t using only one novel as a source text, fans couldn’t be distracted by protesting, “but it wasn’t in the book!” The focus was on the literary references, the atmosphere, and the subversive takes on characters. Here’s what else it will be remembered for.
Recycling characters whom viewers have seen a hundred times before is a tricky business, but Penny Dreadful handled it masterfully. Every monster or gothic film that’s made from now on will pale in comparison. Victor Frankenstein is a character who has been depicted countless times, but with Harry Treadaway’s ambitious young junkie with shades of modern-day “nice guy” thrown in, this version of the good doctor felt new and unique. And as the mysterious, sinister, charming gunslinger Ethan Chandler, Josh Hartnett gave the best performance of his career with a fresh new take on the Wolfman legend that tied it to both Native American massacres and Jack The Ripper.
Rory Kinnear’s Caliban/John Clare gave Frankenstein’s Monster a twist that was equally filled with horror and Billie Piper’s Lily provided a feminist take on the Bride of Frankenstein that will go down as one of the most intriguing, intelligent spin on the tale yet.
Penny Dreadful could be a messy show — it often focused on character at the expense of plot and fudged convenient changes of heart, like Vanessa’s too-abrupt demise in the series finale and Ethan’s Season 3 waffling between good and evil — but it delivered the most subversive takes on Victor Frankenstein, the wolfman, and the Bride of Frankenstein in recent pop culture history.
It was the most unapologetically feminist show on TV
Many shows feature strong female characters, but Penny Dreadful placed the unforgivable Vanessa Ives at the center, and gave her lines like “you seem to be a woman who understands why submission to another would be intolerable.” It also made angry feminism fun. Where other shows dance around or even avoid the F-word, Penny Dreadful embraced it gloriously.
It was the most atmospheric and insane
Nearly every episode ensured a bizarre image you’d see nowhere else on TV. Want to see a fancy dinner party with a bowl of human hands on a table? Done. A ball where blood rains from the ceiling as the revelers dance? Of course. And though the dialogue was beautiful, it never took itself too seriously, as seen in scenes like the increasingly unhinged secretary Renfield biting a frog and telling his boss, “Consider this my resignation” as he chewed, or Lily saying, “Liberty is a bitch that must be bedded on a mattress of corpses,” while having a threesome covered in blood. Nothing was too strange or or over-the-top for Penny Dreadful, and its sense of abandon will be missed.
It was the kinkiest show on TV
Penny Dreadful was far from the only show to depict kink, fetishes, or non- heteronormative sex, but it always treated them nonchalantly. Recall Vanessa and Dorian’s Season 1 blood play scene, or Vanessa’s taxidermy fetish (it can’t be a coincidence that she had sex to the backdrop of a room full of stuffed dead animals multiple times). It also featured nonchalant sex between a man and a trans woman and sex between a couple in which both parties are above the age of 40. Other shows feature fetishes or non-heteronormative intimacy, but rarely with this breadth or depth.
It was a showcase of fantastic acting
Eva Green gets all the praise for Penny Dreadful — and as well she should, her performance was the very definition of fearless and uninhibited. Vanessa Ives will always be her zenith.
For most shows, one performance like that at the center would be enough, but she was surrounded by equal strength. Billie Piper was magnetic, Josh Hartnett gave the best quietly intense performance of his career, Timothy Dalton’s every line was scenery chewing joy, while Rory Kinnear’s was tear-inducing, and Harry Treadaway made a role that’s been done thousands of times before his own. The show never did figure out what to do with Dorian Gray, but we saw Reeve Carney’s potential in the final few episodes. Penny Dreadful often showcased monologues and poetry recitals regardless of whether they moved the story forward — but in the realm of quality acting, it was one of the richest shows on TV.
Its end was handled poorly
In talking about Penny Dreadful, we can’t avoid the ending. Fans are not dense, and despite creator John Logan’s insistence that three seasons was always the plan, it clearly wasn’t. Why would the Wolf of God showdown with Dracula be dropped? Why would new character Catriona Hartdegen be introduced in the 11th hour if the show didn’t intend to do anything with her? Why would it spend three seasons making references to Egypt and Egyptian mythology, clearly setting up a subsequent season exploring it, only to say, “nevermind!” And if ratings were down, why on Earth wouldn’t creators announce it was the final season, thereby attracting more viewers? Suspicious fans is not an outcome that any show should strive for.
The nature of its ending goes leaves a bitter aftertaste, and it stands as a memento mori for the age of Peak TV — but perhaps that’s oddly fitting for this subversive, morbid, and monstrous show.