These past eight episodes of Showtime’s "Penny Dreadful" have been pretty hit or miss. Yes, we were given a transfixing séance scene, a steamy — and unexpected — sequence between two male leads and a flashback episode that provided us with some much-needed context, but the horror series has also bogged us down with its loose plot lines, tedious meanderings and slow character development. And last night’s finale gave us a bit of it all.
"Grand Guignol" picks up pretty much where we let off after last week’s awesome "Possession." Exhausted, but enlightened after her battle with a pervy demon, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) thinks she finally knows where Sir Malcolm Murray’s (Timothy Dalton) daughter Mina has been taken. But before the team — which includes the increasingly sentimental doctor Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), the mysterious American sharp-shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Sir Malcolm’s trusty aide Sembene (Danny Sapani) — prepares for what they hope will be their final foray into the supernatural world, they have some personal woes commanding their attention.
We begin with a wild-haired and bruised Vanessa confronting Sir Malcolm about his lack of trust. He responds severely, letting her know that she is nothing more than a necessary tool to find his daughter, and if given the chance, he would happily sacrifice her. While Vanessa insists the two are similar, both overwhelmed by past transgressions, Sir Malcolm reveals that their differences lie in the fact that he has no interest in trying to rid himself of the guilt. Redemption has never been part of his plan.
Throughout "Penny Dreadful’s" short run, their relationship has been a series highlight. Their tumultuous past keeps them from respecting one another, but at the same time their pain and drive to find Mina keep then united. It helps that Green and Dalton are so fantastic in their scenes together.
But in the midst of all their drama, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) appears, eager to see if Vanessa is okay, but even more eager to continue on with their passionate, but volatile relationship. Vanessa coldly tells him that she cannot continue to see him, blaming him for unleashing a darkness she is so desperately trying to subdue. Alas, she kisses him one last time and informs him the pain he feels is "rejection," a first for the infamous player. Still, it all feels rather unfinished and we wouldn’t be that surprised to see another Gray-Ives reunion in the near future.
Meanwhile, Ethan Chandler sits by the deathbed of Brona Croft (Billie Piper), the Irish prostitute he became infatuated with early on. She’s dying from consumption and he’s devastated.
As we’ve stated before, the Ethan scenes have always appeared less interesting than the others, but in this episode "Penny Dreadful" tries to raise the stakes. Two new characters, an American bounty hunter and his Native American sidekick are introduced. They’ve been hired by Ethan’s father to bring his son back to the States. Why is never revealed to us, but Ethan doesn’t want to go home and escapes via a violent outburst. "Penny Dreadful" sure loves its daddy issues.
A highlight of the episode, though, are the scenes with Victor and his hideous, but romantic monster (Rory Kinnear), Caliban. Caliban, who works at the theatre, has fallen for an actress who treats him kindly, but is in a relationship with an actor who isn’t so nice. At one point in the episode, she kisses him on the cheek and he lights up. It’s a touching moment, strengthened by Kinnear’s wonderful screen presence. Nevertheless, when Caliban misinterprets her kiss for something romantic, things go sour, he has nowhere to go and he finds himself back in the presence of the man he most despises, his creator. Caliban, in a beautiful, Shakespearean-like monologue, wonders why Victor created him with a soul. He’s a monster with feelings. At this point, we see Victor, who had planned on shooting his creation dead, breakdown. It looks like the start of a beautiful, albeit dysfunctional friendship.
As great as all these relationship explorations may be, it is also the major flaw present in "Grand Guignol." The episode is only an hour long, and halfway in we still have no Mina, no action. That’s why the ensuing venture into the theatre (the same one where Caliban works) seems so devoid of tension. It all happens too fast.
So Vanessa, Sir Malcolm, Ethan, Victor and Sembene make their way to the theatre. Once there, they encounter the shrieking vampire-ghoul women who first appeared in episode six. Also present is their father vampire, a bald creature with red eyes and sharp, dangerous-looking teeth. They’re all genuinely frightening creatures and the fight scene is a horror-pleasure to watch. Too bad it only lasts about five minutes. Sir Malcolm eventually kills the vampire with a couple sword stabs, which also happens to incapacitate the vampire ladies.
At this point Mina suddenly arrives and hugs Vanessa, who is delighted to see her friend well. Nevertheless, we know it’s all too good to be true. Mina, now a vampire or some sort of supernatural creature takes hold of Vanessa, threatening to bite her, insisting that Vanessa must join her master. Sir Malcolm begs his daughter to remember who she is, but Mina is long gone. So he shoots her dead, saving the woman he previously swore to sacrifice.
Unfortunately, the pacing is off and the blow never feels as strong as it should. Mina, Vanessa’s friend and Sir Malcolm’s daughter is dead, but they (and we) don’t even really care. "Penny Dreadful" has spent eight episodes building up to this moment and when it finally goes down it feels glossed over.
While season one of "Penny Dreadful" concludes with a rather lackluster climax, the show also provides us with some questions that may make the upcoming season a lot more enticing. Frankenstein, now interested in creating an immortal lover for his creation, takes a deceased Brona to his office/laboratory. Ethan, distraught over his loss is once again found by his father’s cronies, but just as they are about to take him, he transforms — into a werewolf. Surprise!
The episode ends with Vanessa, our heroine, making her way to a church. She seeks counsel from a priest and requests an exorcism. She is done being controlled by demons and is prepared for it all to end. However, when the priest tells her (in a very un-priestly fashion) that ridding herself of the demon will make her normal, the show suddenly ends. Just like that.
So the occasionally drawn out saga of "Penny Dreadful" ends quickly, but not without a lot to work with. We have some new and unanswered questions. What’s up with Ethan and his father? Who is Dorian Gray? What’s going to happen to Brona? All we can do now is hope that with a 10-episode order for Season 2, the very promising horror series will build upon some of it’s stronger elements. More sex. More literary fun. More Eva Green.