Vanessa's friends fight to save her from the forces of darkness
Credit: Jonathan Hession/Showtime

And so season 3 of Penny Dreadful goes out with a bang — and a whimper. The final two episodes of the season, which aired back to back to give us all twice as many opportunities to cry, delivered enough “random gunplay” to satisfy even Dr. Seward, but the shot that mattered most rang out in silence. It was an apocalyptic battle that ended with a prayer. So was Vanessa’s life.

After struggling for three seasons, and a lifetime before them, Vanessa Ives is dead, leaving behind a makeshift family of people whose paths crossed because of her. They’re all still standing; she isn’t. I expected this to go the other way. That’s the point, really: Vanessa dies so that everyone else can live. It’s an altruistic sacrifice made for other people (her friends, the world) and because of them (she needs Ethan to pull the trigger). But it’s also an intensely personal choice made on her own, to the sound of the objections of the one other person in the room. The war that rages on the other side of that door that might as well have nothing to do with the one she’s fighting. Vanessa’s death is the culmination of an internal struggle. In her words, “Let it end.”

Is that what “THE END” means? “The Blessed Dark” leaves us on a cryptic title card that could either close the book or send us into a new chapter. Could this show go on without Vanessa? Is there life after her death? She believes that there is: Her final moments bring Vanessa back to the faith she thought she’d lost. Earlier this season, she named Joan of Arc as her hero: “Dying for her beliefs and her God, true to herself no matter the darkness that gathered ‘round her.” She lived up to that legacy. The woman who argued that “to have belief in anything with such confidence is heroic” chooses to believe Ethan when he tells her that God waits ahead — and she’s so confident in that belief that she allows him to kill her.

Vanessa is rewarded for her faith, but religion isn’t this episode’s only argument in favor of death over life. The Creature, Vanessa’s atheistic mirror image, has to watch his son die of consumption only to hear his wife give him an ultimatum: If he doesn’t take Jack to Victor and restore the boy to life, he’s banished from his home. Now that Marjorie knows it’s possible to die and come back, she’ll accept nothing less. But she didn’t know the Creature before. “Don’t ask this,” he begs. “To make him suffer as I did. Those little bones. That face. To become something so unnatural, so hated.” The Creature wraps his son in a shroud and carries his body into the water. He’s not going back home.

That’s the thing about living forever that Marjorie can’t understand: At a certain point, it just means watching everyone else die. As the oldest of Penny Dreadful’s immortals, Dorian knows this better than anyone. “After a time,” he tells Lily, “you’ll lose the desire for passion entirely, for connection with anyone, like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use.” He compares himself to the portraits that line his walls: “beautiful and dead.” How literal. Dorian doesn’t even care to see how Lily’s fate plays out; he goes back to his mansion after leaving her in Victor and Henry’s captivity and kicks out her army of women, sending them back to a life on the streets. When Justine refuses to go, arguing, “I would rather die here on my feet than live a lifetime on my knees,” he kisses her and snaps her neck.

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Like the Creature, Dorian sees the mercy in death. He tries to tell Lily that the price he’s paid for eternal youth and beauty is worth it, but he can’t even remember any other way to live. Dorian has already lost the battle that Lily is still fighting: She wants to hold on to her pain. “You don’t know,” she tells Victor as soon as she gets him alone in that Bedlam lab. “There are scars that make us who we are, but without them, we don’t exist.” She has a story for him, and it’s about to suck all of the air from the room.

NEXT: Her name was Sarah

Lily tells Victor about her daughter, who died because Lily had to prostitute herself to feed her. One cold night, a man who didn’t want to pay struck her so hard that she couldn’t move. “Why didn’t I just get up?” Lily cries. “It was all I had to do: just get up. Get f—ing up!” Her screams echo through the lab as she falls to the ground; even now, she can’t stay standing. She woke up the next morning to find that it had snowed, and the fire she’d left for her daughter was dust. “She died alone,” Lily tells her captor through her tears. “Her name was Sarah. Please don’t take her from me.” Victor looks ready to inject himself just to forget how terrible he’s been, but he lays the needle on the ground and unlocks her chains. Lily chokes him for a second, then kisses him and leaves.

For as much time as Lily has spent cultivating her brand as a monster, she winds up defined by her humanity. “I’m the sum part of one woman’s days,” she tells Victor. “No more, no less.” Being an undead thing might have given her the courage she needed to take control, but it’s also the reason she pushed herself to go too big too quickly. Her “great enterprise,” she notes as she kneels by Justine’s body, ends in nothing more than “one more dead child.” Lily can’t become Dorian, so she cuts ties with him and disappears, scars intact.

Could she run into Ethan again down the line? They could both use a friend. Ethan, Sir Malcolm, and Kaeteney dock in London more than a week after Vanessa takes her place as the “mother of evil.” The city looks like something straight out of a Biblical plague: Frogs are coming up the drain pipes, and the streets are empty aside from vampires and poisonous fog, which has already killed 7,000 people. Vamps have also made themselves at home in Sir Malcolm’s estate; our team fights them off with Cat’s help, but one of the creatures bites Malcolm’s neck. He jumps to the worst-case scenario and asks to be put down, but Cat waves her hand at his drama and cauterizes the wound instead.

While the men have been away, the women have been getting things done, and the men do not know how to handle it. Cat flusters Malcolm by refusing to identify herself as anything more than a friend; their conversation is interrupted by Seward at the door. “Who are you?” Malcolm asks, at the end of his rope. “A friend,” Seward answers. So many friends for Malcolm! An encounter with a vamped-out Renfield has convinced Dr. Seward that her patient is fighting a very real battle, and she’s here to help, so she drags Malcolm and Cat to Bedlam, where she’s locked her former assistant in a basement cell. With the help of a drug and the rhythmic tapping of Malcolm’s cane, she hypnotizes Renfield into telling her the exact location of Dracula’s lair.

Meanwhile, Ethan is off meeting Dracula face to face. He tells the vampire that his “destiny is joined” with Vanessa’s; he has no idea. Kaeteney is the wolf who turned him. Ethan’s Apache father had a vision about a “man with a true heart” and knew that his purpose was to help his son fulfill his, giving him the power to save the world. Saving the world aside, Ethan doesn’t appreciate the fact that so many dead bodies are on his conscience because someone else decided to put them there — but Kaeteney reminds him that he’s also got the ability to save Vanessa, and he can’t argue with that.

Even destiny has an element of choice involved, even if the choice belongs to someone else. Anyone on this team could choose to abandon the fight, but none of them do. Seward’s responses are especially delightful: When she, Malcolm, Victor, Cat, Ethan, and Kaeteney gather outside the slaughterhouse, Malcolm warns that they can’t protect her. “I’m a New Yorker, Sir Malcolm,” she shoots back, revealing a pistol in her pocket. “We know our way around random gunplay.” Once inside, Dracula honors Vanessa’s wishes and gives them the option to leave, but as soon as Sir Malcolm confirms that this is the man who killed his daughter, he knows he’s staying. He gives everyone else an out, and while Victor and Cat politely refuse to leave, it’s Seward who sums up their opponent best: “F— him.”

NEXT: Sealed with a kiss

A fight rages between our characters and a seemingly endless stream of vampires. Victor, fittingly, is the least equipped for battle, while Cat swings from the rafters like this generation’s chosen Slayer. But it’s all background noise when Ethan slips away to a white tile tunnel lined with candles, where Vanessa waits for him in an enclave. Her hair is down and she’s pale, with red circles under her eyes, but she’s still Vanessa. “It hurts me more than I thought it would, seeing you,” she greets him. Ethan wants to take her out of there and fight every force that pursues them for the rest of their lives, but Vanessa is done. No man, even Ethan, can change who she is.

Vanessa believes that she’s beyond hope — she’s been lost since she burned the cross on her wall — but Ethan argues that if he could step back from the edge, she can, too. He frames it in explicitly religious terms, telling her that God waits ahead even for her. For all of the people who’ve expressed faith in Vanessa’s worth as a person this season, what she needed was to hear someone vouch for her soul. Ethan can’t protect Vanessa on earth, but if she still has a soul, he can help her save it. “My battle must end,” she tells him. “You know that. Or there will never be peace on earth.” This was always Ethan’s destiny: to help Vanessa deny the devil his prize.

Ethan fights it, but not much, because he also understands killing as an act of mercy. For Dorian and the Creature, it’s the best defense against a life lived too long; for Ethan and Vanessa, it’s religious salvation. Vanessa takes Ethan’s gun and places it in his hand, asking him to kill her with a kiss. “With a kiss,” he repeats. “With love.” But as soon as they’ve kissed, he goes rogue, launching into the Lord’s Prayer. Vanessa’s face is an Eva Green Acting Classic: It’s like the only thing more surprising to her than the thought that she can be saved is the thought that someone else wants her to be. She joins in on, “Thy will be done.” He drifts off on, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and she finishes alone, crying. And he shoots her.

Vanessa falls into Ethan’s arms, her face lighting up as she dies. “Oh Ethan,” she smiles. “I see our Lord.” Outside that door, our team has won its own fight: Dracula is the only vampire left standing. Ethan carries Vanessa out to a balcony, and the fog lifts. Malcolm, Cat, Victor, Seward, and Kaeteney stand in the sun. Every ending in this episode is a quiet one: an unlocked chain, a dead child, a group of people standing in silence. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to go, and Malcolm sees something disrespectful in making noise to fill the emptiness. He wants to run away on one of his expeditions, but he won’t. He owes it to himself and Vanessa to figure out who he’ll be without her. Ethan promises to see him through it: “You’re my family.”

We end on Vanessa’s funeral, as the Creature watches from a distance. He comes in search of comfort after his wife’s rejection, but he finds a hearse instead. It’s the Creature who gets the last word here, reciting in voiceover a passage of Wordsworth in which the poet mourns the end of his childlike sense of wonder. The older you get, the worse the world looks. Everyone on this show knows the feeling. If there’s a bright spot in all of this, it’s that memories might not have to make everyone monsters. Pain can be channeled into purpose, whether that’s saving the world or just finding a way to live in it without trying to burn it down.

In the cards:

  • Check back on tomorrow for my interview with series creator John Logan. (UPDATE: Read the interview here.)
  • The new opening for “A Blessed Dark” was bleak.
  • Eva Green is obviously the focal point here, but Josh Hartnett and Billie Piper also did great work in these episodes.
  • “Good day then, Lord Hyde.”
  • “You must be Sir Malcolm Murray. You, I don’t know.”
  • “I whistle away haunts like you before breakfast, love.”
  • “You deluded man. Even if you keep me locked in the attic, render me with the mind of an obliging child, I will always see that dark little space that so yearns to be a soul.”
  • “Holding her was like feeling the sun from both sides.”
  • “It would be cruel for her to suffer more. She’s at peace.”

Episode Recaps

Penny Dreadful
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