The Real Problem With Penny Dreadful’s Ending

Over a week later it’s still unclear whether or not Penny Dreadful went out as a passionate fire or a doused flame. After Showtime aired its dramatic and emotional two hour season finale, fans found themselves in a weird and confusing place.

Upon watching main character Vanessa Ives cave to the darkness of death, they were presented with one final image: an oddly eerie “The End” title card. While many understood the episode to be a season ender, it appeared as if the brilliant series about the ultimate battle between good and evil — and the popular characters of horror literature that found themselves in the middle of it — was over. But that simply, didn’t, or rather couldn’t, make sense.

Fans were left scratching their heads the night of Sunday, June 19 before waking up the following morning to learn the inconceivable truth. Without giving any warning that the episode would, in fact, be the series’ end, Penny Dreadful had once and for all concluded its run. The mass realization that season three’s final moments were actually the series’ finale sent fans into an emotional tizzy, earning the show and its creator John Logan some backlash and ire.

It’s easy to see how the series’ sudden evaporation would leave a particular ache in viewers’ hearts. Penny Dreadful was in so many ways a gem among TV’s smorgasbord of dramatic, genre offerings. An unadulterated mashup of adapted drama, historical fiction and horror, the Showtime series was trailblazing in its cinematic scope and in the talent of its star-studded cast. More importantly, it remained innately and intimately character-driven in spite of its massive, rich universe. To put it simply, the show was a true example of how to use big screen principles to make a small screen masterpiece.

So after three years of critical praise and fan adoration, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the decision to end things so abruptly (along with the death of Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives), felt to so many like a betrayal, especially after seasons of loyalty. But despite many fans’ searing bitterness over what they deemed a calculated deception, narrative betrayal isn’t inherently bad. A story betraying its viewers or its characters has in many instances led to some of TV’s best character developments and plot twists. The problem is that Logan betrayed the wrong thing.

There are plenty of television show deaths that still haunt me. Character kills like Firefly’s Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne and True Blood’s Tara Thorton have left a specific kind of black mark on my TV loving heart. The odd truth is, we let ourselves feel so strongly for characters that their existence begins to feel real. Through that sudden tangibility, we become emotionally connected to them. Jarring deaths don’t just happen to characters either. Back in 2000, the NBC cult classic Freaks and Geeks disappeared from  television in the dead of night. Only a year later the young, burgeoning nerd inside me was forced to say goodbye to Joss Whedon’s epic sci-fi western Firefly. Then there was the still head scratching 2011 The Secret Circle incident on The CW and Syfy network’s casual announcement during a mid-season episode teaser that there were only six episodes left before the end of Being Human in 2014.

Despite our own losses, it’s important to acknowledge that not every TV death is a great injustice. Sometimes actors just want out of their contracts. Sometimes networks have to make monetary concessions. As painful as it is to acknowledge, a TV death is not always within reasonable control of either the production team or the network itself. Part of that is a result of the vampiric relationship between advertisers and shows. One where the objective business of TV is the primary fuel for the subjective art of telling stories. Another part is the continuous threat of evolving viewing methods and their impact on traditional TV show ratings. The final piece to the complicated puzzle is directly influenced by both of the previous. Genres like horror, sci-fi and fantasy require a lot of imagination and a lot of money to bring to life. If the ratings aren’t there, that puts it directly in the line of fire for cancellation.

However, in the case of Penny Dreadful, none of that applied. The critically acclaimed drama ended because Logan believed the story had come to its natural conclusion. “Some poems are meant to be haikus and some are meant to be sonnets and some are meant to be enormous epics, and this was always meant to be a sonnet,” said Logan in a post-finale interview with Deadline.

There has never been anything wrong with shows ending on their own terms, and it’s refreshing and commendable to see a creator who thinks both carefully and realistically about the organic, creative longevity of their story. In a world of cable television episode orders, volatile ratings and heavily serialized storytelling, a targeted three seasons can be a shining example of TV’s changing preference towards producing good stories over lining pockets. There really is something to be said for going out on top instead of sucking your story dry. But that isn’t, in the end, what happened with Penny Dreadful.

This interview first appeared at ScreenSpy on June 27, 2016.

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