This Sunday marks the two hour Penny Dreadful season three finale, and like the demimonde in which the show’s characters are forced to live, the ending will be bittersweet. All of the pieces are set for a fantastic, apocalyptic confrontation between every famous creature of the night — a Dracula vs Wolfman vs Bride of Satan scenario to trump all previous monster mashes — but when the sun rises on 19th century London after the night things rip it to shreds, we’ll be left once again having to wait for more of what’s become one of the best shows (in my opinion the best show) on television.
In its third season Penny Dreadful has matured into everything it has always promised to be. A literary mash up of Victorian literature, it uses the most iconic personalities from the horror canon to explore ideas of transgression while leaning into its tropes for thrills, scares, and more than a few well earned tears.
Here are the five things Penny Dreadful got absolutely perfect in its third season:
1. Count Dracula Is Pure Evil (But Loveable As Fuck)
The promise of Penny Dreadful has always been that the misfits lodging in Sir Malcolm’s estate would eventually come face to face with the king of vampires, and leave it to series creator John Logan to breathe live into the old husk of a monster. Introduced as the loveable Dr. Sweet, the prince of darkness is initially framed to seem like Captain Nemo in disguise as he courts Vanessa Ives and wins over every heart in the audience. The foundation of charisma, charm and pathos laid out by actor Christian Camargo in those initial Dr Sweet scenes is so strong that it’s near impossible to not root for Lucifer’s sexier, more capable brother.
The trap with sexy vampires is that too often they are presented as wholly desirable, romantic beings, more misunderstood and cursed than something to be feared. Audiences have fallen victim time and time again for the hypnotic allure of vampire fantasy, hoping deep down that they would be special enough to be made an immortal, sexy blood sucker. But by combining the traditional Dracula mythology with symbolism from the Biblical Book of Revelations—Dr Sweet is the apocalyptic dragon, the carnal flip side to Lucifer’s spiritual corruption — Logan has made his series’ villain too ancient and evil to love. Balanced with Camargo’s addictive performance (which has uncanny similarities to his portrayal of Brian from Dexter‘s first season) and some truly disturbing scenes involving butchers hooks, the king of night creatures is irresistible to watch in the best, most threatening way.
2. The Mad Science Is Terrifying
In the same way that Dracula can sometimes come off as a bit too Mr. Darcy to be scary, mad science can also run the risk of having its bone-chilling spark diminished. For most of the series, Penny Dreadful’s depiction of natural philosophy merely stopped short at spitting in God’s eye, leaving the many children of Victor Frankenstein to champion the show’s existential terror rather than have the demented scientific method produce proper screams. In season three, however, the human experimentation becomes purely distilled and electrified, ready to be injected into your eyes for best horrific effect.
It turns out, the missing ingredient for peak mad science was an enabling agent for Frankenstein. Introduced as the post-modern prometheus’ old school chum, Dr. Henry Jekyll is the catalyst that awakens the truly horrible monster inside Victor’s lonely heart. Together the doctors test Jekyll’s literary mood serum on screaming and squirming human subjects, chemically lobotomizing them into high functioning members of society, with an endgame to placate Lily Frankenstein’s newly found militant feminism.
The team-up positions the doctors as villains, which fits them well. After all, mad scientists aren’t supposed to be heroes, they’re supposed to be tragic victims of their own lust for knowledge and godliness.
3. The Blood Orgy
A show with Dorian Gray counted among its dramatis personae is bound to be decadent. And while Penny Dreadful has never shied away from orgies, it has always needed to placate the decadent immortal by upping the ante in every on screen encounter. This third season, has shown that bad things happen to those who bore the Wildean antihero, but before Dorian started tapping his toes during revolutionary victory feasts, he at least broke one one last major taboo. After liberating a young woman from sex slavery, Dorian, Lily, and their new ward fuck while covered in the blood of a dead john.
For those keeping score: that’s a man older than time, a traumatized (potentially underage) former sex worker, and a reanimated corpse sliding in and out of each other with naught but the visceral fluids of an abusive misogynist for lubrication. The scene is captivating for its transgressive goreporn qualities, but it also manages to say something about each of the characters involved, not the least of whom is a man who is running out of new ways to get an erection in his old age.
4. The Werewolf Western
A major aspect of this season has been its transatlantic plot. Ethan returns to America in custody of bounty hunters, encounters Hecate the witch, and finds himself hunted by Sir Malcolm Murray and Kaetenay the Apache (aka Ethan’s two dads) who intend to bring him back to London for Dracula-fighting purposes. The atmosphere in America is bright, expansive and open in comparison to the foggy, claustrophobic streets we’re used to on this show, but instead of jarring, the contrast brings a new energy to Penny Dreadful.
Despite the genre mixing, the western aspects of season three still manage stay stay firmly in the realm of horror. Ethan — haunted by his brutal sins and tempted by a literal witch — finds that no matter how far he runs, there is no escape from the demimonde. Even under the blue desert sky, he is consumed by the darkness rooted deep in his soul. It makes for a fun excuse to have horse riding through the badlands and gunfights in despoiled chapels, but it never takes its eyes off the prize: emotional torture and the sublime encroachment of world ending doom.
5. The Flashback Bottle Episode Is Heartbreaking
Every season of Penny Dreadful has a flashback episode that sheds light on an important aspect of Vanessa’s past. These are the best hours of the show, as they showcase its greatest strength: Eva Green’s magnificent, fearless performance. This season, the tradition brings her back to the asylum that marked her transformation with the power of therapeutic hypnosis. The entire fourth episode, “A Blade of Grass,” is set in the memory of her padded cell as she is waited on by an orderly that will one day provide Frankenstein with his first successful reanimation.
The entire hour is one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen: a bottle episode that sees the show’s two best actors — Eva Green and Rory Kinnear — explore the nature of faith, stigma, sympathy, and womanhood. The performances alone make watching the episode worthwhile, even if you haven’t seen a minute of Penny Dreadful otherwise, but in the context of a larger series, “A Blade of Grass,” distills the show’s most powerful themes into delicate moments of sheer heartbreak.
A scene halfway through the episode, in which Kinnear’s Orderly applies makeup a catatonic Eva Green before reading to her, removing the makeup, and refastening her bonds to hide evidence of his treating her like a human—promising that one day she’ll never have to do these things she doesn’t want—delivers a powerful message that has always been at the core of Penny Dreadful. There is great evil and terrible horror in the world, and it preys on the weakest of us. But if we can face those evils and persevere through our own darkest depths—be they made of mental illness, trauma, or addiction—we can find a strength in us that will conquer even the oldest and most terrible of the night creatures.