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Penny Dreadful: The Final Season

Showtime // Unrated // October 4, 2016
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 24, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Season (Finale):

Sometimes, it's hard to know when the time's right to close the lid and bury a television series, coming down to whether the story has the longevity to thrive across more seasons and, on a more practical level, whether the audience will remain engaged enough to keep it alive. That's a conversation not so easily had about Penny Dreadful, the horror-themed serial from Showtime. Along with a ravenous cult fanbase, the show appears to have seemingly infinite narrative possibilities within its grasp, considering how it can continue pulling character from the annals of classic horror literature into the hazy space of 19th-century London. With that in mind, there's also a tricky threshold involved with how much of this that writer John Logan can incorporate without overburdening the premise, or without repurposing the same narrative ideas from season to season. Thus, the decision was made to end Penny Dreadful at three runs, and the caliber of the diversions and overly familiar plot threads this time around prove it to be a wise one.

As one can tell from my reviews of season one and season two of Penny Dreadful -- seasons that should be experienced and/or reviews that should be read before continuing further -- that's not a comment that comes easily. This is a premise that I've found utterly absorbing over the past two years, largely hinged on the battle waged between Vanessa Ives, stunningly portrayed by Eva Green, and the myriad demonic forces hoping to claim her for their respective masters. At the end of the prior season, the core characters have reached their most vulnerable and disparate points. After thwarting the advances of a coven of witches granted power by Lucifer himself, Vanessa has succumbed to a weakened and faithless state, werewolf Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) finds himself on the run from authorities in lands far from England, and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) has lost both his resurrected, immortal creations; one, Calidan (Rory Kinnear), who yearns for solitude, and the other, Lily (Billie Piper), who desires power and redemption alongside her new eternal companion, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney).

The craftsmanship is still very much there in Penny Dreadful. From the musty bowels of an archaic mental hospital to the stiff air of Dorian's mansion and the expansive halls of a taxidermy museum, the show retains that textured, lived-in aesthetic that has so effortlessly captured the Victorian-era essence in previous seasons. The costumes, set design, and camerawork offer that keyhole glimpse into the world that authors of the past worked diligently to illustrate in their text, and John Logan ensures that there are a few grotesqueries around corners that'll get the skin crawling. This season, however, the thematic motifs feel more heavy-handed and the storytelling more episodic in nature, likely due to the deliberate "finale" inclinations of this run, amplified to leave a lasting impression while keeping the focus upon reaching a fitting conclusion for these characters. Penny Dreadful's third season feels more like a systematic epilogue than further accumulation, introducing new things while struggling to let its characters develop within the gothic setting.

What's been stated before about Penny Dreadful remain true to the very end: everything's held together by the enigmatic presence of Vanessa Ives, so it's no surprise that her safety becomes a crucial concern in this third season, especially after the physical and psychological torment she endured in last season's finale. Thing is, she's once again the target of another clandestine plot built upon desires for her extensive supernatural powers, this time sparked by the machinations of Dracula -- yes, that Dracula -- a threat vaguely foreshadowed in the previous season (and, thus, retroactively foreshadowed in the first). Creator John Logan offers his most profound twist on well-known mythology yet in his reimagining of Bram Stoker's vampiric lord, elaborating upon his link to Lucifer in a far-flung attempt at making this season's "big bad" feel integrated with the overarching story. There's no disguising the repetitiveness of Vanessa being this all-important lynchpin again, though, on top of how Dracula ends up getting shoehorned into Logan's universe, whose identity is of absolutely no surprise regardless of how the show handles it.

Falling in line with the previous seasons, Penny Dreadful further concentrates on the roots of Vanessa Ives' existential difficulties and tortured personality, this time elevated by visits to a certain psychologist who shares visible similarities to someone from Vanessa's past ... and it doesn't go unnoticed. Revelations about her past lead to yet another brilliant episode, "A Blade of Grass", that transports the point-of-view almost entirely away from the main plot line, offering a glimpse into Ms. Ives' bout with mental illness and institutionalization while resolving her newly discovered link to the world's dark forces. Eva Green fluctuates between trembling, wide-eyed fear and razor-sharp determination and gumption, deepening her character in this glimpse into the past and her temperament after reliving the experiences. Yet, the character of Vanessa Ives suffers from a case of selective, plot-determined mystical awareness throughout this season, notably her sense of communicative touch and detection of malevolent forces, which functions at certain points and gets ignored to benefit the story's intended progression in others.

Strangely enough, a key area where Penny Dreadful deviates from the status quo actually becomes one of its weaknesses, and it's because of a change in setting. Much of the series' essence is rooted in the Victorian London atmosphere, the foggy, dirty, washed-out haven for things that go bump in the night, yet a good portion of this season centers on Ethan Chandler's flight across the sparse, sandy American wilderness ... and Sir Malcolm's (a reliably sturdy Timothy Dalton) pursuit after him. There's eeriness within the tales being spun about Ethan's heritage and his connection to the Apache Indians, yet the transition to the wild west -- and to the cat-and-mouse chase for him and his traveling companion, a familiar yet surprising face from last season -- disrupts the mood so eloquently crafted around the ominous London environment. Guest appearances from Brian Cox and Wes Studi as important figures from Ethan's past muster sturdy, impassioned performance value in the show's excursion away from London, but it never gets over the appearance of being an easy, less atmospheric diversion.

Back in London, the secondary stories retain much of the mysterious, schlocky, yet thematically robust energy that Penny Dreadful has become known for over the past few years. John Logan's glimpse at the emergent forces of Dorian Gray and Lily as immortal insurgents might not amount to the game-changing revolution they'd like it to be (as it shouldn't become in such a condensed season), but their recruitment of "soldiers" throughout the streets taps into a meaningful expression of empowerment for the impoverished and abused -- and, notably, for women. This branches off into an examination of Lily's domineering and volatile temperament, which goes under the microscope of the sulking Victor Frankenstein and his newly reconnected research "partner", Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif), whose presence already offers a nod of things to come. While they're intriguing and integrate more appropriately with the 19th-century setting than the contemporary social themes of last season, these narrative strands lack forward movement, savoring macabre nuances of the situations -- including another shocking sex scene -- without going very far.

Penny Dreadful slaves away at recapturing and mirroring a similar kind of mounting suspense as the previous two seasons, escalating Dracula's stratagems and realizing prophecies as, once again, the fate of Vanessa Ives hangs in the balance. In the midst of a dense literal fog spreading across the layout of Victorian London, creator John Logan devises a scenario that would draw allies both old and new -- including the newly-created Catoriona Hartegan (Perdita Weeks), a supernatural huntress who resembles a cross between Van Helsing and Seline from Underworld, primed and ready for her own spinoff -- into another exciting, guns-blazing onslaught upon the season's antagonists. Yet, in its quest to leave a lasting impression, Penny Dreadful also sinks its teeth into suspicious twists and turns that devise a specific melancholy end for the series, to which John Logan relies on lapses in coherent thinking from the characters that undermine the intentions of his send-off. For a show that so ardently sidestepped the root of its title, elevated in quality far beyond that of cheaply-produced horror books with even cheaper thrills, it reaches a vexing and contrived end that ultimately loosens its grip on the higher-brow, better-than-it-should-be entertainment value of its prior chapters.

The DVD:

Penny Dreadful: The Final Season descends onto DVD in a fairly standard three-disc presentation, featuring eerie artwork that focuses upon a body doubled over to look like a skull. Inside, the clear-case, tray presentation reveals an episode guide on the interior artwork, while the discs sport plain designs on top.

Video and Audio:

Penny Dreadful has always lurked in the shadows, grasping onto faint gruesome textures and lingering in overbearing shadows while navigating the streets of London. Paramount/Showtime's visual presentations struggle less with these issues in the higher resolution on Blu-ray, as can be seen in the slate of nine episodes found in this three-disc Final Season DVD set, evenly spread across each disc. While detail can be moderately satisfying in skin textures and the ornateness of Victorian laboratories and stuffed animals, and the under-saturated color palette achieves its intended mood with faintly visibly skin tones and pool of blood udnerneath, the other elements tend to be a somewhat mixed bag depending on the scene's lighting and visual effects. Contrast levels have their moments of satisfaction when pools of steely light pour upon people inside, but darker scenes showcase noisy and detail-swallowing black levels, and effects and other complicated lighting situations struggle with noticeable banding. These are issues that the uptick in resolution should counterbalance to a degree, but they're still tolerable here, even if they detract from the gloomy beauty of the show at times.

The slate of Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are serviceably clear, mildly atmospheric, but ultimately unremarkable. The raspy depths of Eva Green's voice tap into moderately rewarding mid-range clarity, while the louder calls of revolution within the halls of Dorian Gray's house remain stable and balanced, never distorting. Gunshots have plenty of heft to them, tapping into lower-end oomph and spreading out across the front channels, as do the thumps of bodies crashing into wood surfaces. The ringing of bells in the distance, the hiss of an old-fashioned recording device, and the slither of snakes grasp at satisfying high-end activity. Yet, there's a suppressed quality to the tracks in their louder moments, and a slightly thin property to dialogue at certain points, more or less just getting the job done and not really embracing the full breadth of the surround channels. It's a fine collection of tracks, but they lack texture and resonance.

Special Features:

The extras for Penny Dreadful: The Final Season are scattered throughout the three discs, yet despite this being the show's grand farewell, there's about the same amount of supplemental content available here as the previous seasons, if not less. On Disc One, two brief featurettes focus on creating Hecate's Witch Prosthetics (2:35, 16x9) and The Making of Dr. Jekyll's Lab (2:28, 16x9), while on Disc Three features two snippets on Vanessa's Costumes (2:44, 16x9) and the museum from the show, The Dead Zoo (2:45, 16x9), which was actually shot largely unaltered in Dublin's Natural History Museum. Interviews come and go between behind-the-scenes shots throughout, though only having about ten minutes of such cursory extras doesn't seem befitting for a send-off for this series. Disc Two also contains a series of Character Profiles.

Final Thoughts:

In my coverage for the second season of Penny Dreadful, I concluded that the series had reached a particularly climactic, albeit somber point by the end of its finale, where it would be difficult to imagine the stories of Vanessa Ives and her ragtag guardians really progressing forward any further than they already have ... yet one's absorption with the characters and the atmosphere they inhabit would continue to lure one's interest regardless. The hope, of course, was that creator John Logan would provide a fresh enough spin on what's happening around the characters to make one regret those thoughts, yet this final season proves that, indeed, the story has reached a point of diminishing returns. Repetitive plot devices, questionable character actions, and departures from the Victorian London atmosphere take the series down a peg in quality, though the performance values, the exploration of time-transcendent themes, and inventive usage of recognizable figures from literature still provide an experience that's better than it probably should be. Despite yet another dazzling departure episode centered on Vanessa Ives' backstory, one of the series' best, this run of nine episodes and the conflict they focus upon reveal some creative rigor mortis setting in with the series, mounting to a fairly unsatisfying and strained conclusion to Vanessa Ives' war against demonic forces. As a fan of the first two seasons, the third provided enough gothic entertainment while spending more time with these people, but didn't quite conjure the same spell as before. Mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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