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The Real Problem With PENNY DREADFUL’s Abrupt Ending

By on June 27, 2016
Photo: Patrick Redmond/Showtime

Photo: Patrick Redmond/Showtime

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.

Maybe it’s because I’ve experienced so much “gone too soon” heartbreak. Or it could be that I’m just one of those viewers who has rarely gotten the chance to say goodbye to a story on my own terms. But even with a viewership that is increasingly aware and accepting of TV’s temperamental nature, it’s hard to conceive how a creator would believe that staying hush on the death of their show — not to mention its main character — until after its literal end would somehow do the show or its fans justice.

Fan justice is a complicated concept that shouldn’t be confused with fan service. Service is about giving fans exactly what they want, while justice is about staying unflinchingly faithful to a show’s continuity and world building. Not just out of respect to the narrative, but also to those who know it as well as or maybe even better than those who make it. While this seems like a general best practice, not everyone is of the mind that a show should or needs to do this. Fans watch, interact with and consume it, but they have no hand in making the story’s wheels turn or constructing the universe. The line of thinking is that we did not build Logan’s beautiful creatures, so ultimately it is not our story. 

Nevertheless, during that Deadline interview, Logan and Showtime president David Nevins both make a point to acknowledge they partly prioritized fan feelings when deciding how to end the show. At one point, they call Penny Dreadful viewers passionate and admit that they know the characters emotionally move people.  This means that Vanessa’s final act and the show’s last sequence belonged to viewers as much as to those that conceived it.

This is why their ultimate choice to package and deliver the finale as they did feels so wrong. For all the care Logan and Nevins argue they had for the world, its characters, and its audience, it’s hard to believe Logan thought telling fans they were losing their favorite show was an “act of bad faith,” as he called it. Perhaps it’s from having a long history in film that he missed this, but TV has never smiled kindly on those who fail to allow their fans the chance to be painfully and wholly present until the show’s very end. Countless save our show campaigns and even entire show revivals illustrate people’s inability to let go of never getting proper closure.

The reality is, people like to say goodbye. People want to be able to carry out the grieving process, regardless of how painful it is. Logan and Nevin were able to grieve. They had been grieving since season two when Logan realized his story was coming to an end. Fans, on the other hand, were denied the ability to treasure every moment they had left with it because “the blow” was more important, according to Nevins.

“I knew it was going to be very emotional and I imagined Sunday to be even somewhat traumatic because people have a very deep emotional connection to these characters, but it seemed like why should we spoil that?” Nevins told Deadline. “Why should we sort of lessen the blow? Because that’s what TV and certainly good storytelling is about — creating an emotional experience. So it’s going to end with a card that says ‘the end’ and let people live in that experience and then we explain that on Monday morning.”

Whether Nevins realizes it, he’s just spelled out Penny Dreadful’s actual betrayal. In spite of any other organic creative intentions, in the end, the show died in the name of shock value. The biggest plot twist in series’ history rested on how they chose to deliver the emotional experience of saying goodbye. And it was a choice that artistically prioritized stirring up emotions and garnering post-finale hype instead of letting fans honor characters and their final journeys.

Now I’m only left to wonder how, outside of being doubly devastating, that choice leaves Penny Dreadful with the “strong, bold, theatrical ending” Logan believed he delivered. How does that ending solidify Penny Dreadful’s legacy as a pioneer in cinematic storytelling and a “theatricality” fans love when it’s just doing the same thing every other show is? Logan believed that letting his story go with a “gotcha!” was a subversion of traditional TV storytelling that fans would like. What he did was betray his loyal audience and the most traditional expectations of the medium over the better betrayal of a tiring industry behavior.

What fans got was not a goodbye. It was not a chance to live in the moment of the show with its characters. Penny Dreadful disappeared. It evaporated. It ended in a flurry and haze of what-ifs and maybes. Even worse, for those who pay no mind to online Deadline interviews, it hasn’t ended at all. Those poor souls will be waiting for the next season announcement until someone is kind enough to break the news to them. Penny Dreadful for all of its creative groundbreaking has become another example of a show remembered more for a marketing choice than its story. More for its desire to be creatively cunning than to be loyal to its emotional gravity. Penny Dreadful is a story that will be remembered not for a brave willingness to not stretch itself beyond its creative means, but for a botched acknowledgment of its end.