Penny Dreadful S01 E08: Grand Guignol and S01 Closing Thoughts

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

And so this marvelous show’s first turn upon the stage comes to an end. The last episode of Season 1, “Grand Guignol,” brings many of our characters together for a final climactic night at the theater. Along the way, other characters end up isolated or dead (for now), and some pieces get moved into place for our next season.

Dorian’s part in the episode is blissfully brief; he’s largely there so Vanessa can cut ties and he can return to his hedonistic moping.

Our Dracula story strand concludes at the eponymous theater where several characters took in a show earlier in the season and where Caliban had until recently been working. Vanessa gets the tipoff that this same theater is a vampire nest courtesy of her recent Demonic Possession Experience™. Why the Devil pointed her this way is a question we may return to in Season 2….

In any case, the confrontation pits Vanessa and Sir Malcolm (armed with a spiffy new automatic pistol) against another tattooed-on-the-inside vampire, followed by Mina. Meanwhile, Ethan, Sembene, and Frankenstein mix it up with vampire women below the stage, putting up a good fight before being gradually overwhelmed. Fortunately for everyone, Sir Malcolm reconciles himself to the fact that Mina is gone and Vanessa is his true daughter-figure now, kills Mina before she can kill Vanessa, and in doing so, drives off the rest of the vampires. (All told, this episode gives Sir Malcolm a surprising amount of apparent maturity, as he also admits to Vanessa that he was never really going to go to Africa again.)

Our Frankenstein story strand watches Caliban alienate himself from the rest of the theater through a combination of social creepiness with the show’s ingenue and some apparently accidental bad ropework. Kicked out of the company, he returns to his only social connection, however despised, in the form of his creator. For his part, Victor is ready to shoot Caliban until he hears his creation’s lament about his own loneliness and sense of isolation. This touches some part of Victor’s heart, and he capitalizes on Ethan’s request that he help the dying Brona. As it turns out, his “help” involves smothering her with a pillow while Ethan is out of the room and volunteering to “take care of the body” while Ethan grieves. And so our future Bride ends the season on Frankenstein’s worktable.

Two men from America disturb Ethan’s brooding and grief, having been sent by his father to bring him back to the States. Unfortunately for them, their first approach ends with Ethan escaping. Even more unfortunately, their second approach comes during the full moon, allowing Ethan to reveal his long-hinted-at lycanthropic nature. The fact that some innocent bystanders were present in the inn…well, this is a show where the heroes are also the monsters.

And we get some hints at what Season 2 might hold. While at the gun shop, Sir Malcolm encounters Helen McCrory’s Madame Kali, whose real name is Evelyn Poole. She drops some hints at possible future interest in him and, at an outside-the-show level, is played by too heavy a hitter for this to be her last appearance. Separately, Vanessa has a conversation with a priest who wonders if just maybe maintaining a connection to the Devil might be worth it….

All told, this is an appropriate conclusion to an excellent first season of television. Most of the various wanderings of the story are wrapped up enough to be satisfying, enough new possibilities are opened up to offer a sense of possibility and excitement for the future, and our characters continue to interact in interesting combinations.

It also advances the show’s core question so far: How can a monster become a good person?

This is what Season 1 has been circling around this whole time. Sometimes that monstrosity is literal, as with Ethan’s intermittently lupine existence and Caliban’s resurrected status. At other times, that monstrosity is metaphoric. Perhaps the least supernatural of the main ensemble is Sir Malcolm, and he’s also the one with the most manipulative tendencies and the highest tolerance for cruelty (although Dorian might give him a run for his money there).

All of the main characters, though, exhibit some desire to be less monstrous, at least occasionally. Guilt routinely wracks Vanessa, Frankenstein’s whole experience with his short-lived second creation is one of tenderness, Dorian appears to relish moments of genuine human connection that break up his id-fueled life, and so on.

And yet…for as much as they desire to be less monstrous, it’s not clear how many truly wish to be wholly rid of their monster-dom. This is made explicit for Vanessa in her conversation with the priest. When he asks if it might not be worth it to continue being special, even if that special-ness comes through ties to the Devil, we see her seriously consider the question.

Ethan is presented with a way to control himself – the Pinkertons his father sent come with chains – but he refuses to go with them or take any steps to constrain his lunar episode. Instead, he uses the power of the werewolf transformation to kill them, along with “civilians” at the inn. We know now that the mysterious deaths in the blood-soaked room at the beginning of the season were also his fault. For as often as he is the voice of morality and sympathy to the other characters, he exhibits no desire to spare innocent life by restraining himself before he transforms.

Victor continues to raise the dead, and Caliban continues his quest for connection gained by questionable means. Sir Malcolm, for all his signs of new maturity this episode, is still a well-trained manipulator; we can’t help but wonder how long until his old patterns resurface, perhaps even using his apparent moments of growth here as part of future manipulations. And Dorian remains locked in his bored spiral of hedonic adaptation, showing no sign of interest in undoing the magic that keeps him young and healthy forever.

Sembene remains a question mark in many ways, having received little development, which is one of the disappointments of the show. And Brona, well. If Mr. Proteus’s experience was any guide, she’s on the way to a hard reset of her personality with occasional glimpses of the character we came to know. Only Season 2 will tell how she’ll join our rarely-merry band of monsters.

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