Blood-Soaked in the Divine Light: A history of Penny Dreadful's gothic leading woman
By: Brittany Alyse
Created by: John Logan
"You think you've suffered. You think you know blood. You think you've walked on corpses. Spread them from here to the horizon and I have walked further! How dare you presume to speak to me of death?"Imagine all the characters that you love from literature. Now, imagine them all placed within the same universe. What would that look like? In the case of writer and creator John Logan, he did just that. Logan devised a delicious, gothic television series set in Victorian London, appropriately titled Penny Dreadful , which included all his favorite monstrous figures from literary history, such as: Dracula, Frankenstein and his Monster, The Wolfman, Van Helsing, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dorian Gray. But there was one grand exception: the show’s lead was not a figure pulled from literature, nor was it a man. Penny Dreadful’s lead was a woman. Vanessa Ives was unlike anything I’d ever encountered before. The show itself, in its entirety, was about this woman’s struggle with her faith. She was a product of her time, but also very timely for today’s generation. She was a woman who felt both abandoned and redeemed by God, time and time again, all on her own.
I’ve seen some argue that Penny Dreadful was all about its evil and darkness, but I would argue against that in a heartbeat. Those are elements that are important to the show, sure. However, the hope and divine light radiating from Vanessa Ives in her darkest moments is actually what the show was all about, and no amount of evil could ever overshadow that.
Portrayed by the exquisite Eva Green, Vanessa Ives is a character who means the world to me. She has spoken words that have gone straight to my heart. I have seen myself represented in both her demons and her virtues. I’ve seen her hope and felt that hope for myself. I love her so much that my very first tattoo is a drawing of her, done by the talented Hogan Mclaughlin. Vanessa was, and always will be, the bravest character in the entire world and Eva Green played her with a ferocity only the greats can manage. I have never seen a more gutsy performance of soul, heart and body. Vanessa is a warrior, and not even a thing like death can take that away from her.
The other core characters are all men. Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Timothy Dalton, is a shrewd, well-travelled explorer who has faced many hardships, and is ultimately the leader of the pack. Sembene, played by Danny Sapani, is a soft-spoken man of many beliefs, an associate of Malcolm. Victor Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway is a young doctor, who unbeknownst to everyone else, discovers how to reverse death. Ferdinand Lyle, played by Simon Russell Beale, is a highly educated Egyptologist who often helps Malcolm and Vanessa. And Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, is an American gunslinger with a heart of gold -- a man who harbors the dark secret of his lycanthropy and who has a tumultuous past that could very much rival Vanessa’s. In fact, Ethan is the only other character in the series that has faith as strong as Vanessa’s. This team of misfits come together in hopes of saving Mina, Malcolm’s daughter and Vanessa’s best friend, from the clutches of an unknown, powerful evil that we later discover is none other than Dracula.
These characters were constantly tested in the most brutal ways. Always tempted to sin, always lured in by the push and pull of the darkness constantly creeps up behind them. At every turn there was darkness that could corrupt their souls, if the characters were to succumb to it. Each of them turn their backs against the light and fight to get back to it. Vanessa is tested more than any other character in the show. She also manages to prevail against it, no matter what the cost.
When we first meet Vanessa Ives, she is kneeling on hardwood floor, cloaked in black lace, in front of a plain wall that holds a single crucifix in the middle of it, Jesus’ carved physique in its familiar spot. She is not peaceful. Tears sting her eyes. She looks tired and determined, pleading with God in a desperate whisper. Suddenly, from behind the cross, darkness emerges in the form of a black spider. It crawls down Jesus’ body. Vanessa trembles.
Then, another spider emerges, this time over her shoulder, down her arm and into her clasped hands. A terrifying omen. Vanessa fixes her gaze from the spider back to the statue. Her praying intensifies. In the wind, a deep, demonic voice wails, “Soon, child. Soon.”
Vanessa trembles, her eyes almost roll back into her skull as she holds steady against the growling voice.
There is true evil at work, and even the power of prayer cannot keep it at bay.
What we come to learn about Vanessa is that she is a woman of many hidden depths. She’s a poised, moderately wealthy woman, and also a ward to Malcolm Murray. Her past is a brutal one, built on betrayal, lust, sin and pain. We find out she has spent a lengthy amount of time in an asylum after a previous demonic possession that nearly left her for dead. She is a talented medium with an eye for tarot cards, which she reads and understands almost like second nature. She’s intuitive, and not just in the normal sense. It’s almost like she can sense the veil between worlds and sniff out the supernatural. She says it herself, “I think there are tremors around us, like the vibrations of a note of music, hidden music. Some may be attuned to them more than others.”
We know she has a taste for all things dangerous, and her first meeting with Ethan Chandler proves that to be correct, as she enlists the help of him and his gun. From there we learn that she walks a fine line between good and evil every single moment of her life. In the climax of the first episode we see her face down a grotesque vampire, willing it away with her powerful medium abilities with a mere stare. There is a ruthlessness inside of her. But she doesn’t get by because of luck. Vanessa’s faith is her shield. Her conversations often are about her relationship with her God, and how important He is to her.
The strong thread of all three seasons is between Vanessa and her faith. We’re constantly faced with the question of if it’s enough to save her and her soul.
Despite her connection to the mystic world and all the creatures and monsters she encounters, Vanessa is a devout woman of God. There is nothing more important to her than her faith, no matter how much it has betrayed her in the past, she remains committed to all things holy. Even when she is courted by Lucifer, she does not stray from the light.
In episode two, Vanessa does a dangerous dance between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Attending a party held by Ferdinand Lyle with Malcolm in tow, the guests gather around a large black table with Madame Kali at the head of it, played by Helen McCrory (she is Evelyn Poole, we later discover). A seance begins. The spirit, meant to be guided by Madame Kali, instead uses Vanessa as its vessel. In fact, she is not just taken over by one spirit during this seance, but three spirits speak through her during the session. In a most impressive display of physicality by Eva Green, Vanessa convulses as she moves through the personas that possess her. Her body contorts, she throatily screams curses and speaks in tongues. She breaks the glass top table and climbs on top of it, bending backwards in a way that is all kinds of unholy and unnatural. It is darkness at work.
During the night of the seance and before her possession, she met Dorian Gray, the beautiful man that everyone seems to love. From there, an infatuation begins between them. When things finally escalate, it is dangerous. In the midst of their sexual encounter, Vanessa, atop Dorian, falls into a dark orbit. Time slows, the dark voice from the first episode lures her away from her pleasure, voice calling out to her: “Hello, my child. I’ve been waiting. What games we will have now.”
The Devil lures Vanessa into a dark possession, and overtakes her, body and spirit. In mere days she is drenched in sweat, sores and blood, her body bruised and gamely. She describes the result of the sexual act as an animal scratching to get out. The evil within Vanessa spills unknown secrets about Malcolm, Victor and Ethan, and makes it impossible for them to win her back. The Devil also tricks Vanessa, shapeshifting into Ethan and professing “I want you to be the Mother of Evil. I want you to rule the darkness with me, at my side, looking over a black, scorched, dead world where there is no more pain because there are no more hearts to feel.” And Vanessa, attempting to resist, is ultimately lulled by these words spoken by what looks and sounds like the object of her affection. She’s not getting out of his grasp so easily.
But this is not the first time Satan has tried to tempt Vanessa. We come to find out that he has once before taken the form of Malcolm. What is clear to me about Lucifer as portrayed in this series is that he intends to inherit whatever good power that is locked inside Vanessa’s soul in order to banish God and destroy the world. This is a key pattern we see throughout the series, as the “End of Days” is referenced several times. What we know about the Fallen Angel is that he will use any resource to pursue what he desires and his favorite trick seems to be tempting people in vulnerable situations. This is a trait we see written in both history books and in any form of media, whether it be in a novel or on the screen. The Devil can take your deepest desires and draw them out with temptation. And it is up to us as human beings to resist that temptation. This is a test that Vanessa passes countless times in her life. But this time, the Devil found its way inside of her by taking a loophole - during her own throes of passion with another man - one that has his own dark demons hidden from the world.
A priest is fetched by Malcolm, and despite his best efforts, he determines that Vanessa cannot be saved. She then breaks her restraints and unleashes a most violent attack on the priest. Ethan jumps in to the rescue, as the only one actually fighting to save her soul, points his gun at her with no real intentions to shoot. Vanessa’s true self emerges for a moment as she begs him to shoot her, to make it stop. Though Ethan has had his share of bloodshed, he will not put her down. Instead, he arms himself with prayer and his St. Jude’s necklace, speaking Latin from a hidden place within himself and ultimately breaks the evil from being confined within Vanessa. Ethan literally saves Vanessa’s soul. Unbeknownst to him, this is his destiny. Written by the gods themselves.
In the final episode of season one, Vanessa and the gang are unsuccessful in the salvation of Mina’s soul. The devastation of that loss hits Malcolm and Vanessa particularly hard. After all the evil she’s faced, Vanessa turns to the church. She steps in as a chorus of children sing. She makes the sign of the cross -- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Tears fill her eyes at the powerful song filling the air. In this instance, you can see it all on her face, how much the holiness affects her. She approaches a priest. He asks her if she believes in the Lord, and if the Lord forgives all. Vanessa says yes. He then asks her what she fears. “Those things of which I am capable. Of which I have proven myself capable.” She says it evenly but she is, without a doubt, terrified of herself. “Are they really so monstrous?” The priest asks, and Vanessa’s eyes pool again with tears. She leans in, her voice trembling as she asks if he believes a soul can be taken over by another. The priest says he believes in the Devil. Either he doesn’t want to entertain what she’s asking, or he just doesn’t understand. Vanessa replies, “I believe in curses. I believe in demons. I believe in monsters. Do you?” It’s exorcism she means. The very thing she was subjected to after the horrifying possession that nearly claimed her life. The priest reveals that he participated in an exorcism that killed its possessed young boy. “You must look into your heart and answer me a question. Just one. If you have been touched by the demon, it’s like being touched by the back hand of God. Makes you sacred in a way. Doesn’t it? makes you unique with a kind of glory. The glory of suffering, even. Now, here’s my question: Do you really want to be normal?”
Vanessa, with her tormented stare, does not reply.
Darkness is always around the corner when it comes to Vanessa. As she trudges through the snow in a park, she is overtaken by an impending doom and falls to her knees. Evil is afoot, and this time it’s at the hands of a powerful, satanic witch by the name of Evelyn Poole.
Shaken by the events in the park, Vanessa is on her way back home when Ethan shows up. He needs to talk to her. To say goodbye, because he’s done something horrific and out of his control. But before he can make his departure, they are attacked by three witches, whose bodies are covered in self-mutilated scars and symbols. Their eyes are dark, blacked out. One gets inside the carriage and speaks in a language that sounds satanic, and to our and Ethan’s surprise, Vanessa fires back at the witch in the same language. Whatever Vanessa said in the foreign tongue is enough to scare the witches off. Bloodied and shaken, Vanessa and Ethan emerge from the carriage and into the streets to feast their eyes on what new fresh hell awaits them this time.
Fresh hell it is, indeed. Vanessa is put to the ultimate test, knowing her soul is at risk to be devoured by a dangerous pack of ravenous witches who will do anything to please their master. And that, they do. The witches stalk her every move. They keep her paranoid and waiting for the next attack. They break into her home and steal a lock of her hair. Then they use Vanessa’s hair to create a doll, an eerily lifelike doll that looks exactly like her. They have plans for that doll, and none of them are good.
Evelyn Poole is not an evil to be taken lightly. Her manor is decorated in human skulls, she bathes in blood and kills anyone who crosses her, even her beloved “daughters”. Her plan? To lure Malcolm Murray in for information, get the “Lupus Dei” to stop protecting Vanessa (Lupus Dei translates to “Hound of God”), and, above all, they plan to offer up Vanessa as a trophy for their beloved Lucifer.
Ferdinand Lyle gets hold of an ancient box of objects from the British Museum. Within the confinements of this box lie the writings of a Monk who was possessed by a demon, and during his possession, he wrote on anything within reach. It is confirmed that the Monk wrote the entire biography of the Devil in words scrawled over various random objects. The pieces are out of order, and it’s up to the members of the monster squad to put them in order and decipher the tale. Lyle is the only one who can translate the Devil’s memoirs. And with each new discovery comes the truth about what roles Vanessa and Ethan both play in the dark war to come. Through these artifacts, Ethan’s connection to Vanessa seems to be literally written by the gods, as his fate is directly connected to Vanessa. He is the fated Hound of God, aka Lupus Dei. Ethan is destined to be Vanessa’s protector and weapon against all evil.
A woman such as Vanessa, who has battled demonic presences and faced down vampires, is terrified of these witches. And it’s not because they’re a new threat, no. We discover that these witches are a very old threat come back from the depths of Hell to wreak havoc on Vanessa’s life yet again. They are called the Nightcomers, and they are in Satan’s service.
In a flashback episode entitled “The Nightcomers", we discover where Vanessa went during the gap between her stay at the asylum and her present status as medium and ward. She happens upon a cottage in the middle of the moors, and inside lives a witch. We come to know her as The Cut Wife, played masterfully by Patti LuPone. Her real name is Joan Clayton. She is reclusive and all-knowing. She is also hated by the townspeople, due to her aiding young women in abortions. Joan is a hard woman, but takes in Vanessa and begins to train her to control her abilities. She teaches Vanessa the Verbis Diablo, aka The Devil’s Tongue, the satanic language the witches used in the first episode. She also teaches Vanessa how to wield the tarot cards properly. Though she takes Vanessa under her wing, Joan is still not convinced Vanessa will stay in the light. Neither is Vanessa. And that is why the two women look out for each other as long as they can before Evelyn shows up. The same witches that hunt Vanessa now are the ones that send Joan Clayton to her fiery death. At the climax of the episode, it is revealed that Evelyn and Joan are sisters. Once upon a time, they were in a coven together. But the two witches took very different paths, and though Joan is strong, she is not a natural leader like Evelyn. Over time, Evelyn turned to worshipping Lucifer and banished Joan to exile.
Before Joan is burned, she speaks earnestly to Vanessa: “When Lucifer fell, he did not fall alone. They will hunt you until the end of days. Be true.”
With the witches stalking her every move, Vanessa arms herself with ritual. Her prayers are bathed in blood as she paints a symbol of protection in the shape of a scorpion. She prays in Latin. At her lowest, she is still powerful. And she uses that power to protect herself and the ones that she loves. And those around her do the same. Each character is plagued by sin, but despite their own personal hardships, they band together to protect the woman that is most dear to them. They all do religious rituals to protect the house as the witches do anything they can to get in and get a piece of Vanessa for themselves. Malcolm turns to his guns to arm the household. Lyle turns to the Torah and covers all the mirrors. Sembene hangs protective emblems. Ethan smudges each room with sage in a ritual of smoke and prayer. Finally, a large, metal door is installed and Vanessa again uses her blood to create the scorpion.
During this desperate and terrifying time, Vanessa and Ethan become extremely close in a natural progression that is both beautiful and delightful to witness. Ethan mirrors Vanessa in so many ways. Both Vanessa and Ethan pray regularly and in earnest. Both are haunted by their own sins, but Ethan is much more adamant that his own salvation is not deserved, and very much out of his reach. But even then, he is constantly ready and willing to call upon God and his faith in order to save the ones he loves.
At her most vulnerable, hunted by the witches even within her dreams, she tearfully turns to Ethan. Barging into his room, he is at his bedside, praying. She confides in him: “I wish I were going mad. Then the doctors could lock me away and cut out the madness. Anything to make it end. You want to know the true path to freedom? Open any vein.” It’s the first time we realize that Vanessa is mildly suicidal. It is an interesting trait, because during the promotion of series two, John Hartnett revealed that Ethan is also suicidal, but the reason why he cannot do it is because of his faith, and because of Vanessa. Outraged, Ethan’s strong in his insistence that she cannot do that, she replies: “No. God has a plan.”
Though he is fated to look after her, Ethan’s concern is genuine. He allows her to stay in his room, and this quiet moment between them is both intimate and comforting. They are able to confide in one another in a way they cannot with others. Vanessa asks him about his prayers, knowing he has faith but doesn’t face it. But it isn’t God he believes in, it is people. People make themselves who they are. And if there’s blood on their hands, it’s at their own mercy, not God’s. And for someone like him who has picked up a gun multiple times, and has transformed into a monster with hair and fangs to put another down, he knows this all too well. Even though his words are in earnest, his eyes give him away. He doesn’t really believe that, and Vanessa knows it.
Ethan gently tucks her into his bed, and before he can pull away, Vanessa holds onto his arm and says: “Whatever you have done, whoever you have made yourself, I am here to accept you. We’re together for a reason.” Ethan’s eyes don’t leave hers as he whispers, “God’s plan?”
“Yes.” She replies. He kisses her forehead and she drifts off to sleep.
Even in her despair, Vanessa holds fast to her faith. And it is so important for what comes next.
Evelyn and her witches ultimately get what they want: Hecate, one of Evelyn’s “daughters”, unleashes Ethan’s true self and forces him to be locked in a corridor with Sembene as moonlight approaches. Lupus Dei is forced to change, and in his blind were-fury, he kills Sembene. Malcolm becomes their puppet and it forces Vanessa out of hiding. She goes to Evelyn’s manor, quite literally into the lion(esses) den, where Evelyn and her wicked witches await her. Vanessa ascends deeper into the manor to find Evelyn’s devilish cave. She is locked in the room with the doll they created. And manifested in that doll is Satan. He uses her own voice to convince her that there is no running from the evil inside of herself, and that darkness embedded in her soul will never, ever go away.
For a third time, Vanessa is tempted in a torturous way by Lucifer. He gives her a vision, a promise of a life with Ethan, where they are married with beautiful children. A vision which she calls cruel, but she nearly gives in. Nearly. It’s so damn tempting for her. Vanessa’s life has been marked by so much sadness and pain. For someone like her, who has been brutalized with loss, it is her dream to live her life with happiness, with the man she loves. She wants this. But it is a dream, and she cannot take the dream when it is being offered by the Devil. Instantly, she regains herself and fights back. “You offer me a normal life. Why do you think I want that anymore? I know what I am. Do you?” Then, she unleashes something deep within her, speaking words in a snarling Verbis Diablo battle. She reaches forth and shatters the doll’s face, crushing Satan within her grasp and releasing a swarm of scorpions.
“Beloved, know your master.”
This is a huge turning point for Vanessa. A woman once convinced she can defeat evil and prevail against dark forces begins to accept that if she is to defeat it, it may be at the cost of her happiness.
The dust settles. Malcolm breaks free of his spell upon Evelyn’s death. Sembene’s body is discovered, and Ethan shows up the next morning in Vanessa’s room, guilt ridden beyond belief. She knows what he is now. The werewolf. But what she does not know is his purpose, and what Lupus Dei is to her. Vanessa tearfully begs Ethan to stay with her. “Stay with me.” Ethan tears up, barely able to get the words out. “And tomorrow?” Vanessa’s expression is true: “I promise you will be less afraid.”
Sembene once described Vanessa in the most delicate way, reading her so well as he told Ethan, “She will take your pain and make it her own.” This is the truest description. She’s someone who is so accepting, yet so burdened by her own demons. Vanessa and Ethan are two sides of the same coin. They will do anything in their power to protect one another and at the same time harbor such darkness within them. But things like fate and destiny do not weigh in their favor. Ethan leaves, and it shatters Vanessa’s heart.
Her heavenly protector walks out of her life, and with it goes her faith. Vanessa, left alone, goes to each room in the house and turns out all the lights, bathing herself in darkness as Ethan’s goodbye letter is narrated to us. Each member of the family separated, Ethan’s words make everything hurt even more as he proclaims, “We walk alone.”
Vanessa stares up at her cross in the silence of her home. She stares at it with wounded eyes, reaching up and taking it from its place on the wall. She then walks over to the fire and tosses it inside the flames. It is an unbearably painful thing to imagine the feeling inside Vanessa’s heart at this moment. Everyone she loves has left her. Ethan has rejected their love because his guilt was too strong. She is driven to the point of no return as she burns the holy artifact that we’ve seen her turn to in her most desperate hours. The crucifix burns, the flames engulfing the sacred artifact as Vanessa dejectedly embraces her dark fate.
You can see the pain in her haunting gaze as she murmurs the line from Ethan’s letter: “So we walk alone.”
Dejected, abandoned and left to her own devices, season three opens to a desolate Vanessa. She is alone in her home. Filthy. Her mental health having deteriorated so much with the pain of losing Sembene, Ethan, and her relationship with God. This marks Vanessa’s descent into a darkness, a journey that cannot be undone. The loss of her faith is a loss of self in a way that feels so final.
With the gentle pushing of dearest Lyle, Vanessa enlists the help of Dr. Seward, played again by Patti LuPone, who also turns out to be a direct descendant to the previous seasons’ Cut Wife, Joan Clayton. Dr. Seward is a psychiatrist, and she makes it her ultimate mission to rescue whatever is left of Vanessa, and to help her find her inner strength. The two form a very special, intimate bond that shapes Vanessa’s journey for the rest of the season.
After her sessions with Dr. Seward, Vanessa forces herself out of the dark confinements of her home little by little, and ends up wandering within the Natural History Museum. There, she meets a handsome Zoologist named Dr. Alexander Sweet, played by Christian Camargo. They instantly connect. We see Vanessa take an interest in him, and we’re supposed to like him too. But, Dr. Sweet, turns out, is not actually a zoologist and his name is not actually Sweet. It is Dracula. And he has one goal: to take Vanessa’s soul for his own by any means necessary.
It’s a truly disgusting arc for a malicious character. Dracula sees Vanessa only as a ploy in his dark plan. He does not care for her, he does not love her, but rather, he loves that he can worm his way into her life and tear it apart. He loves that he manages to pull her further into a dark situation that, quite literally, ruins her soul. He does not love her. Dracula wants her total unhappiness. One of the most horrifying things about the third season is that we have to watch Vanessa blindly give herself, her heart and her body to her abuser. This is a creature who has stalked her entire existence and who kidnapped and murdered her best friend. It’s a major fall from grace from which Vanessa never fully recovers.
It is through sessions with Dr. Seward that Vanessa uncovers memories of her time within the Banning Asylum, and it’s a horrific truth. Vanessa is confined to a small, white padded room. She is alone, hiding in corners, cowering into herself. Her only confident being the Orderly, played by Rory Kinnear. Through the show’s other storylines, we know him as Dr. Frankenstein’s first creation: The Creature, John Clare, before his death and rebirth. His eyes go black and he presents himself as Lucifer, and he tells a praying Vanessa that God has turned His back on her already. “You’re not even a blade of grass to him.” He says, cruelly. The Orderly’s face is used to manifest the physical presence of not just Satan, but Dracula, too. Turns out, Lucifer and Dracula are very familiar with each other. They are brothers and eternal rivals. Both of them determined to seduce Vanessa into being their Mother of Evil. They both want her soul. Two evil entities with the Orderly’s face, on either sides of the padded room, have a showdown for Vanessa’s soul. And it’s in that moment that they forget who they’re really dealing with.
Vanessa gathers her strength and declines the offers both brothers try to lure her in with. She stares them down, definitely, strong in her weakened state. Dracula rages: “Who are you to defy me?” He asks, and Vanessa lifts her chin to him: “I am nothing. I am no more than a blade of grass. But I am. You think you know evil? Here it stands!” She spits, then she recites the Verbis Diablo and her feet lift off the ground. Her voice grows stronger as she levitates in the air. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She makes LUCIFER and DRACULA COWER IN FEAR.
It absolutely fucking haunts me how John Logan can write a scene like this and then give us that finale.
In the aftermath of these visions, Vanessa discovers Dr. Sweet’s secret identity. She now knows he is responsible for the war on her soul, Vanessa confronts him with every intention of killing him. She nearly does. It was so powerful to see Vanessa confront her stalker and abuser. It felt like such a victory, only to have all those good feelings snatched away when she does a complete 180 and loses herself to Dracula’s embrace. She gives herself to him, uttering the words “I belong to myself”.
It’s a great line, and it made me feel hopeful. But, the truth is that after that moment, she doesn’t belong to herself anymore. She gives herself over to darkness. And it’s complete bullshit.
The finale gave us a look at the fated “End of Days.” London is ugly in its bleak state, all human life seems to be rotting with it. Dracula’s vampires rule the streets. Vanessa, at Dracula’s side, is a shadow more than the valiant soul we know her to be. All members of the forged family reunite in an attempt to save Vanessa. It is monsters vs. demons and vampires, and during the fight, we get the long awaited reunion of Ethan and Vanessa. But it’s a short-lived one at that. Vanessa, a hollow shell of the woman she once was, firmly announces that she cannot be saved, and the only way for her to put an end to the endless darkness and Dracula’s Hell on earth, is for her to die. Vanessa pleads for Ethan to end it. In a very out-of-character moment for the two of them, Ethan gives in to Vanessa’s request and shoots her. Vanessa collapses into her lover’s embrace, exclaiming to him that she sees their Lord, and breathes her last breath.
What the surprise series finale does is betray its most treasured characters. It’s not that I expected a show with the word “Dreadful” in it to be anything but. However, if you’re going to build nearly three seasons on the notion that we can overcome the darkness inside of ourselves, and then end a beloved character by finally surrendering to that darkness, it feels a lot like a direct stab to the heart. Season three is the only season I have not revisited. Perhaps the wounds are still too fresh for me, even two years after the fact. It’s not that Vanessa dies at the end that gets me, because I think I somehow knew it was all leading to that. But, it was the execution of it that irks me. We as an audience witness this woman fight tooth and nail for her life with blood and magic and ritual. She calculates and forms plans to ensure her survival. She had that intention before confronting Dracula, but then somehow all went lost in translation by the last two episodes.
I’m focusing on Vanessa here, but let me also just say that this finale did a major disservice to Ethan Chandler. I will never get over the rich complexity of that character. He was often sweet and soft, but dangerous and protective. A bisexual man plagued by guilt and at the same time filled with a sort of hopeful innocence. Looking at the grand scheme of the finale, all the pieces of the oh-so-perfect holy puzzle from Ethan to Vanessa were never fulfilled. Ethan had a destiny that for nearly three seasons focused heavily on him fulfilling, yet that didn’t happen. As a result, I can’t help but always wonder how Ethan carries on after the events of series three. Murdering his lover would only give him cause to hate himself more than he already does. It was a grand betrayal to have his character vow to lay down his life to save hers, only to have him kill her in the end.
I’ll tell you something: Vanessa deserved to go down fighting for her life like we have seen her so gallantly do for three seasons. She didn’t need to ever submit to any creature, demon or man. She was powerful. She had God and light as her shield. Even the likes of Lucifer and Dracula could not contain her. Vanessa Ives never needed to be reduced to a play-thing, or sad gothic heroine. She was so much more than that.
To wrap things up here, I guess you can read this very critical last part and wonder why Penny Dreadful still holds a special place in my heart. All I can tell you is that Vanessa Ives’ arc constantly felt so incredibly human to me. She is one of the most holy characters I’ve ever encountered. Her faith and belief in the good even when things were completely dark gave me complete hope. All of these monsters held a beautiful humanity within themselves that touched my soul with every new episode. These beautiful, broken creatures will always have my heart. I still find myself looking to Vanessa’s quotes for comfort. I look at my tattoo and hear Joan Clayton’s “be true” recited in my mind, and it gives me strength.
Vanessa Ives is, and will always be, my hero.