Penny Dreadful episode 8 review: Grand Guignol

Penny Dreadful's finale rounds off a masterful first season. Here's Becky's review of Grand Guignol...

This review contains spoilers. 

1.8 Grand Guignol

Grand Guignol draws the first season of Penny Dreadful to a close as Vanessa finally learns the location of childhood friend, Mina. Murray reveals the extent to which he would go in order to get his daughter back and sets about gathering their allies for the final confrontation. Elsewhere, Frankenstein and his Creature are forced back together and Chandler’s past begins to catch up with him as Brona’s illness finally takes its course.

The constant presence of death has been one of the chief concerns for the characters of Penny Dreadful, whether it be facing its ominous approach or attempting to find ways of defeating it. In Grand Guignol, death comes to the fore once again not as a finality, but an opportunity for rebirth. With this focus, the finale is more fittingly an atmospheric conclusion for some characters, whilst offering others new opportunities to reconcile themselves with the darker world they are residing in. Each character has their moment in the spotlight, but rather than allowing them to shine, John Logan keeps them in that same murky grey that characterises their morality.

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To do this, the episode focuses on the various relationships that have been formed as a result of Mina’s disappearance, fracturing some and cementing others. The central pairing of Murray and Vanessa is put under the most strain as he finally admits to her that he has been using her to get to his daughter and will use whatever means necessary. That moment of realisation that Mina is now lost and Vanessa is to be saved is beautifully played by Timothy Dalton. Murray’s inability to identify what matters most to him has been one of his foremost conflicts and finally learning that lesson, many years too late, is particularly tragic. The affirmation of his surrogate father-daughter relationship with Vanessa is a hopeful moment to end their relationship with, a second chance to get fatherhood right.

He is not the only one. Frankenstein’s Creature returns to his creator, following his expulsion from the Grand Guignol Theatre for attacking the ingenue, Maud. Though the focus has drifted from their relationship, it proves once again to be one of the more fascinating pairings in the series. Their scene together is hauntingly written, particularly the Creature’s monologue which allows Frankenstein to empathise with his creation for the first time. Rory Kinnear gives another fantastic performance as the Creature, finally forced to acknowledge that he will never be accepted, even in the theatre.

By taking this more sombre tone in the build-up to the theatre-based fight for Mina, the episode continues the careful, quiet atmosphere that has characterised much of the season, making the short, sharp shocks more effective. The climactic fight with the vampires in the theatre is thrillingly staged and director James Hawes makes inspired use of the grand architecture, the different levels and low lighting. Like the ship sequence in an earlier episode, the slow build of tension before the fight is perfectly pitched. The vampires’ screeching piercing the action combined with the frenzied gunshots and swirling torches produce something both chaotic and enthralling.

The two following twists may have been predicted by some a while ago, but they were revealed in excellent fashion. The shot of the moonlight before Chandler’s transformation was beautifully done, a quick confirmation of what many people had thought about the gun-toting American going into this finale. So too was the transformation itself; it’s a tease, a brief glimpse of what he has been running from and why he has such an affinity with Vanessa’s torments. It was also nicely simple with the cracking of the knuckles and make-up effects for his facial features suggesting just enough. Josh Hartnett has been quietly effective throughout the season and hopefully this revelation will lead into seeing more of Chandler’s story.

The other reveal, that it is Brona who is to be the Creature’s mate, has also been long mooted by the show’s audience and so it proved. Brona’s death was perhaps the most haunting moment of the episode as Frankenstein resorted to euthanasia, giving Brona a calm speech about the place between life and death. Having seen Frankenstein develop from the hubristic intellectual into a man more ready to acknowledge the consequences of his actions has been an excellent interpretation of the character, following certain beats of his original story whilst remaking it into something new. This latest development is taken from the story itself though Frankenstein agrees to make a female companion under considerable duress rather than as a result of an emotional connection to his Creature. This change makes the character’s journey into the second season a particularly tantalising prospect.

The final scene with Vanessa in the church is an excellent way of bringing the narratives of Chandler, Frankenstein and herself together. As she confronts the idea that she could finally be free of her gifts, she is asked the question: “do you really want to be normal?” It is that very question that the three characters have been wrestling with throughout the season, suppressing their darker sides for the sake of others yet it is a battle that all three of them are clearly capable of losing when isolated from the rest of the group.

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Penny Dreadful has been one of those shows that promised so much from its initial announcement that it seemed impossible that it could live up to those expectations. With a careful understanding of its gothic source material and an endlessly intriguing cast of characters, the first season was something really quite special. The final episode provided an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the main narratives whilst also offering teases and glimpses into the show’s future. It’s a masterful production and one I particularly cannot wait to see the next instalment of.

Read Becky’s review of the previous episode, Possession, here.

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