Posted on October 2, 2016

Rationality, Masculinity, and the Death of Penny Dreadful

Guest Post

Guest Author: Cayla McNally

Please forgive my lateness with this post, dear Reader; I was blindsided to discover that Penny Dreadful’s season 3 finale was, in fact, its series finale, and have been spinning my wheels trying to write a proper send-off ever since. In my last post, I said that wherever this show goes, I will follow. I didn’t realize that it would fade into the black, where there is no following. So, even though it hurts, let’s dive in, one last time.

While the previous two seasons focused on creation, this season explored the idea of unmaking. The core group of characters- Ethan (Josh Hartnett), Vanessa (Eva Green), Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), and Victor (Harry Treadaway)- are far flung and left to their own devices. Forced to forge friendships of convenience, each of them makes a series of choices that hurtles the plot towards its ultimate tragic end.

Ethan is brought back to the New Mexico territory by Inspector Rusk to be tried for his crimes. He manages multiple bloody escapes, aided by his father’s goons and Hecate the witch (Sarah Greene). Hecate is hoping to sway Ethan to the dark side, and convinces him that killing his father (Brian Cox) and damning himself is the best option. Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm is followed to Africa by Kaetenay (Wes Studi), an Apache man who is determined to bring Ethan back around to the light side. Making their way to New Mexico, they follow Ethan to his father’s house. It is revealed that Ethan- somewhat unwittingly- previously led Kaetenay to his father’s house, where the Apaches killed most of his family. A shootout erupts, Rusk and Hecate are killed, and Sir Malcolm kills Ethan’s father in order to save Ethan from eternal damnation.


In London, Vanessa is rendered almost catatonic by Ethan’s swift disappearance and her lost faith. Professor Lyle convinces her to see an “alienist” (therapist), Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone). Dr. Seward, who is distantly related to Vanessa’s late mentor Joan Clayton, helps Vanessa insert herself back into the world. As Vanessa’s mental health improves, she meets charming zoologist Dr. Alexander Sweet, whom she begins to fall in love with. Her peace is short-lived, however; she realizes that the monster that stalked her in Season 1 is after her once again. Dr. Seward hypnotizes her so that she may go back to her earlier memories when she was in a mental ward and met Dracula, brother of Lucifer. Once she realizes that it is Dracula who hunts her, Vanessa, with the aid of death expert Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks) attempts to figure out how to kill him. The choice is made much more difficult when Vanessa realizes that Dracula and Dr. Sweet are the same man, and that she has already given herself to him in many ways. She goes to him with the intent to destroy him, but she instead gives herself over to the dark, where she is convinced she may be allowed to exist in brief peace.


Back in New Mexico, Kaetenay has troubling visions that lead him to conclude that the darkness will soon take over the world if they do not return to London and save Vanessa. It is unclear how much time passes, but when Malcolm, Ethan, and Kaetenay return to London, a pestilent darkness has cloaked the city. Along with Catriona and Dr. Seward, they attack Dracula’s lair, in hopes of finding Vanessa. With Dracula distracted, Ethan is able to find Vanessa, who begs him to kill her, so that she may finally be truly free. They kiss, he shoots her, and she drifts wide-eyed into the afterlife.

Meanwhile, John Clare regains the bulk of his memories and reunites with his family. However, the joy of his wife’s acceptance is tempered by the fact that his son is dying of tuberculosis. After his son dies, John’s wife begs him to see if Dr. Frankenstein can reanimate him, telling him “Come back with our son or don’t come back at all.” He takes his son’s body and floats it out to sea, choosing to never return home. His pain is further magnified when he goes to visit Vanessa and stumbles upon her funeral.

Victor, with his old university friend and ethics-less scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that Dr. Jekyll), obsessively works on a plan to recapture Lily and render her submissive. His plan is aided when Dorian turns Lily over to him because she has grown too powerful (or, perhaps, he finally felt as unnecessary as I have always found him to be). Lily has been using her influence to recruit whores, creating an army of invisible women who delight in killing cruel men. When she is captured, Dorian turns all of the women back out onto the street. Lily, terrified of being made docile, appeals to Victor’s humanity by telling him the story of her daughter, who died as an infant. Victor lets her go, telling her, “It is too easy, being monsters. Let us try to be human.”


This season had an uncomfortable feeling, which I attribute to the increasing moral ambiguity of the characters. Unlike previous seasons, where Vanessa and Malcolm were unwittingly and unwillingly possessed by sources of evil, the characters in this season chose to stray from the path. Ethan flirted with the line of damnation, while Victor doggedly followed his own desire to possess Lily. Vanessa, tired from fighting, gives herself over to the dark. They all fall back in line by the end of the finale, but I missed their hard-won camaraderie that typified the previous two seasons.

The themes of fatherhood and possession continue to play out this season; however, this season, I found scientific discovery to be the most interesting outlet for masculine anxiety. In the hands of Drs. Sweet, Frankenstein, and Jekyll, science becomes another tool of control, a vehicle for male obsession. Under its thin veneer of rationality, it is monstrous and brutal, based on imposing patriarchal order on the world. It is no coincidence that this rationality physically roots itself in the bowels of Bedlam Asylum. However, when a woman, Dr. Seward, utilizes scientific rationality, she is able to help Vanessa fight Dracula. She uses it to empower women, while the other characters use science to control them.

While the level of female interiority was impressive, I was disappointed by how much time Lily and Vanessa spent under the control of men this season, how much they both had to beg at the conclusions of their narratives. They are both allowed what they need, but the power rests in the hands of the men who love them to the point of harming them. But perhaps that’s the point; they are revolutionary women existing within a degrading structure, who have finally been worn down by the fight. The men are allowed their paternalism as the women of the show are ground under their boots. With Vanessa’s death and Lily’s exit, the show ends on a tragic, masculine note.


Cayla McNally is a Philadelphia-based Afrofuturist examining the intersection of academia, social justice, and pop culture. She is particularly interested in cyborgs, contamination, and monstrosity. You can find her here:;

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