Benjamin Poore, ‘For our pleasure in the darkness’: Refashioning the fin de siècle in Penny Dreadful

Benjamin Poore, University of York, UK.

SPOILERS: This post contains plot details for seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful, so please read on at your own discretion.

Penny Dreadful, Episode 3.07
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

In a surprising move, just as season 3 of Penny Dreadful was finishing, it was announced that the series would not be renewed for a fourth season. Instead, the show would conclude with the death of central character Vanessa Ives. It was surprising news because the series has enough viewers and fans to make further seasons viable, and also because the characters still have so many potential stories to tell. I want to try to make sense of this unexpected ending, and where it leaves these other characters.

I say ’ending’, but there’s a strong sense in which a series made up of new beginnings from classic literary characters can’t really end. David Nevins, the CEO of Showtime, the channel that broadcast Penny Dreadful, has already asserted that the show ‘is going to have an incredibly rich afterlife’[1] through repeats and streaming, and it’s an almost irresistible parlour game to guess which characters might be candidates for a spin-off series.

Given the commissioning cycle of modern television, writers have to be elastic in their approach to world-building; new episodes of a show may be ordered as soon as viewing figures are in, or else a series may be unceremoniously cancelled and wound up quickly. Despite series creator John Logan’s insistence that this was the ending he’d had in mind for the series,[2] the sheer range of characters and storylines that Logan has opened up means that no ending can be completely satisfying.

Looking back, it’s tempting to follow Logan’s logic of a three-season story arc, and imagine that there was a ‘rule of three’ operating in the series all along: an (un)holy trinity. For a start, there are all those love triangles: Dorian-Brona-Ethan, Dorian-Lily-Victor, Vanessa-Captain-Mina. Then there are those families or pseudo-families of three: Oscar, Octavia and Lavinia Putney at the waxworks in season 2; Lily, Dorian and their protégée Justine in season 3; Victor, Lily and the Creature in season 2; the Creature and his human family, Marjorie and Jack, in season 3. There’s also Ethan Chandler and his three fathers: his birth father, his Apache father Kaetany and his surrogate father, Sir Malcolm. You can certainly see a story-world of threes if you’re looking for them.

But as these examples show, characters change groupings, allegiances and roles in Penny Dreadful, from hunter to hunted, from victim to perpetrator, parent to child figure. Such a restless narratological game of musical chairs means that, when the music stops, it’s only the Vanessa Ives story that is satisfyingly concluded. If instead of looking for threes, we read against the grain, Penny Dreadful is full of stalled subplots, wayward distractions and red herrings. The women’s revolution stirred up by Dorian and Lily, the ‘curing’ of Lily at the hands of Doctor Jekyll and Frankenstein, even the End of Days itself – all are threatened and built towards, and then never materialise.

The series has also been notably profligate with its guest stars, killing off David Warner (as Van Helsing) in season 1 and Brian Cox (Ethan’s father Jared Talbot) after two episodes in season 3. Yet the excellent Patti Lupone doubles up as Joan Clayton in season 2 and her descendant Dr Seward in season 3. Characters from season 2 like Hecate and Rusk carry over into season 3, only to die before they achieve anything much. Ferdinand Lyle packs up and leaves for Egypt early in season 3, and is replaced by Catriona Hartdegen, whom we never really get to know. Despite Logan’s claim of an overarching plan, Penny Dreadful at times lives up to the penny-fiction genre to which its title refers, an epic sprawl of seemingly improvised plot twists and cliffhangers.[3]

In the last of a stimulating and highly recommended series of reviews of Penny Dreadful season 3 for The Victorianist,[4] Megen de Bruin-Molé considers the series’ ending in terms of two of its source texts, Frankenstein and Dracula. I’m going to attempt to make that into yet another trilogy by reading the finale here through the character of Dorian Gray.

In one of the more purple passages of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Doran Gray, the narrator pictures Dorian waking before dawn, and suggests that almost everyone at such times has had  ‘a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been re-fashioned anew for our pleasure in the darkness, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no place, or survive, at any rate, in no conscious form of obligation or regret’.[5] The creation of ‘such worlds as these’ was ‘amongst the true objects of life’ for Wilde’s Dorian.[6] Such a world is Penny Dreadful in relation to its source texts; the characters are remade in new colours, with new secrets, and there is no obligation to the literary past. Dr Jekyll is a contemporary of Dr Frankenstein; Frankenstein’s monster has a bride, but also a human family; Mina Murray was actually a pawn to enable Dracula to get to his real prize, Vanessa.

For a series that mashes up the literary past so freely, Penny Dreadful is weirdly particular about dates. The first season begins in 1891, and season 3 starts on the day Tennyson died, October 6th, 1892. By that point, of course – if we’re being strictly historical – Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray had already been published in both serial and novel form. You’d imagine the novel’s availability would make it a bit more difficult for Dorian to inspire the same adoration in society beauties as before.[7] And by 1892, Wilde himself was just on the cusp of a new form of celebrity, as a commercial playwright.

The point is that Penny Dreadful, like Dorian, has no obligation to history, either. The paradox of The Picture is that the portrait is painted in the contemporary London of Wilde’s time, but as time passes and Dorian looks no older, we don’t move forward into the first half of the twentieth century (well, we do in the Oliver Parker film adaptation, but that’s another story).[8] In the novel, Dorian never ages, but London never really stops being 1890s London either. How could it be otherwise, when Wilde barely survived the end of the century himself? So it is with Penny Dreadful. To mangle the words of Vincent Starrett, in Penny Dreadful it’s always 1892.[9] The series is crowded with figures seemingly queuing up to escape the nineteenth century, but who cannot do so; they’re stuck in a fin de siècle moment.

In his classic work of criticism, The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode writes of the cyclical appeal of endings, and the end of the nineteenth century in particular:

‘There are famous saecula, Ends of which everyone is aware, and in which we may take a complex comfort, as in the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, where all the elements of the apocalyptic paradigm clearly co-exist’.[10]

There is certainly an apocalypse brewing at the end of season 3: we’re told that the graves are set to overflow, the rivers to run with blood, and darkness is going to consume the earth. But after Vanessa’s death, the darkness and the deadly fog recede; Dracula leaves in the flap of a bat’s wing; and in the rest of the episode, Lily leaves Dorian, Victor leaves Jekyll, and the Creature leaves his family. The subplots are all abortive action and abandoned plans. Apart from Vanessa, all the other game pieces are still in play.

Kermode also remarks of novel reading in The Sense of an Ending, that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity’.[11] He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’.[12] It strikes me that Penny Dreadful has a lot of kairos ­– a series of divine prophecies being fulfilled – and not a lot of chronos. Dorian has escaped from chronicity, and so have many of the supporting characters. That’s why, even if official television sequels are not forthcoming, the world of Penny Dreadful provides almost limitless scope for fan works and reinterpretations.

‘You’ll be back’, says Dorian in the series’ final episode, ‘And I’ll be waiting. I’ll always be waiting’.


[1]  Kelly Connolly, ‘Penny Dreadful will not return for season 4’, <> [Accessed 13 July 2016]

[2] Connolly.

[3] See my article ‘The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic’ (Victoriographies 6.1 (2016): 62-81) for further discussion of the connections between the series title and the Victorian penny dreadful.

[4] Megen de Bruin-Molé, ‘Neo-Victorian Review – “Perpetual Night” and “The Blessed Dark”: Penny Dreadful Finale (S3E8&9)’, <>  [Accessed 13 July 2016]

[5] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2011), p.193

[6] Wilde, p.193.

[7] See Wilde, pp.202-3.

[8] Dorian Gray, dir. by Oliver Parker (Ealing Studios, 2009).

[9] Starrett was a Sherlockian scholar, the author of the much-quoted poem on the appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories, ‘221:B. See Vincent Starrett, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1975), p.58.

[10] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.11.

[11] Kermode, p.50.

[12] Kermode, p.47.

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