Warning: This story contains spoilers from Penny Dreadful’s season 3 finale.
The end of Vanessa Ives’ story will also serve as the end of Penny Dreadful.
EW can confirm that the season 3 finale of Showtime’s gothic drama was also its series finale — a choice that originated with series creator John Logan. The final episode, which signed off on Sunday night with a title card reading, “THE END,” saw Vanessa (Eva Green) voluntarily dying at Ethan’s (Josh Hartnett) hand in order to save the world.
“I realized that’s where the third season was going to head,” Logan tells EW. “It was going to head to Vanessa sacrificing herself and reuniting with God.”
Logan and Showtime CEO David Nevins joined EW on the phone to discuss how the show’s “emotional” conclusion came together and why it had to be a surprise.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the decision come about to end Penny Dreadful now?
DAVID NEVINS: I always knew it wasn’t going to be a really long-running show — John made that clear coming in. As he was laying out what he wanted to do this season, John came in and said, “This needs to be the end of Vanessa Ives. I know exactly how I want to end it. And when Vanessa Ives, when that character, is done, I think the show is done.” And I went through the usual stages of grief, of, “No, there’s lots of other great characters. You can keep going.” But eventually he persuaded me that that’s not the smart way to handle it, and that different shows have different rhythms and fit in different boxes, and that this was the right rhythm and the right box and the right ending. I told him, “You have to promise me that you’re going to make an incredibly satisfying ending.” And I think he really has.
Then the question was: At what point do we announce it to the world? And at some point we looked at each other and said, “Well, why should we announce it to the world? Just to sort of ease the pain, ease the surprise? That’s not how the world works.” We could have maybe tempered the emotional ending and given people a little warning, but what’s the fun in that? Who wants to be warned that there’s going to be a surprise to come? It just seemed like the not-bold choice. So we said, “We’re going to end it, and there will be a title card that says, ‘THE END.’ And that’s the end of the story, when that title card comes up.” John? [Laughs]
JOHN LOGAN: I knew well before David did, which is sort of midway through the second season, so two years ago. I was planning out the third season. Penny Dreadful is about many things, but for me it’s always been about one really simple thing, which is a woman’s journey of faith — a deeply religious woman who loses her God and then finds him again. I realized that’s where the third season was going to head. It was going to head to Vanessa sacrificing herself and reuniting with God. And that had to be the apotheosis for the character, the end of the character. I really thought about it deeply, because I love these characters so much, and I care about them so much, but it seemed that’s what had to happen. Anything other than that would be, for me, an act of bad faith, and the last thing I’d ever want to do is treat Vanessa Ives or Eva Green with anything less than completely good conscience and good faith. So I had the discussion with Eva, and then finally it just became apparent. I talked to David about it, and here we are.
John, I know you’ve said before that David was instrumental in helping you shape the show. Can you speak to that?
LOGAN: This is the first time I’ve ever done anything with television other than watch it. This is my first television show, my first time running a show, my first time writing a show, and I knew very little about it. David’s been an unbelievable mentor from our very first meeting, and the personal connection I’ve had to him and everyone at Showtime is incredible. I mean, we talk about every script. We talk about every edit. He’s got skin in the game with Penny Dreadful.
NEVINS: The great thing about television right now is that you can sort of make it up as you go along. It used to be literally a business failure if you didn’t get a certain number of episodes. You couldn’t go into syndication; you’re not going to have any afterlife. That’s no longer the case. This show is going to have an incredibly rich afterlife. I would not be surprised if this show is bigger five years from now than it is now, because it just feels like the kind of show that is going to live and is going to get discovered. It’s not going to go anywhere. It’s going to live on, on our air and on streaming platforms … And we try to make decisions with an audience in mind. This show has a passionate base of Dreadfuls following it, and we try to make decisions that will respect the audience and respect the people who’ve fallen in love with the show. You can have satisfaction and closure in 27 episodes. 27 is an odd number, and three seasons is an odd number, but that’s what this show wanted to be, so we let it be.
John, you called this the story of a woman’s journey to faith. Why could returning to her faith only happen for Vanessa as she died?
LOGAN: Because Vanessa, like all characters that are interesting to me, is broken. She’s a cursed, dark creature, and she was never going to exist easily in Victorian society as a proper Victorian wife or matron or anything. There was always an exceptionality about her, most emphatically in the fact that she’d dwelt in the dark side, with both Dracula and the devil seeking her soul. The only peace she could possibly have was with God, and the way to commit to that was to give herself entirely to it. And it became a sacrifice that she had to enact for the good of mankind. It was a generous act that she did in dying and going to God, as well.
Opposite her experience, we’ve got the Creature [Rory Kinnear] who’s also choosing death over life on behalf of his son. Vanessa is religious. The Creature is not. Were their similar responses to death an intentional counterpoint?
LOGAN: Of course. Those two characters do a pas de deux the entire series for me. I’m Irish, so it’s like different sides of my personality. Half the time I want to go to Mass; half the time I want to walk away.
The story around Lily [Billie Piper] has been one of my favorites this year.
LOGAN: Yeah, me too.
That monologue about her daughter in episode 8 was just stunning. Can you take me through why it was so important that you saved that really human story for the end of the season?
LOGAN: Happily. I chose to write about women in Victorian society — that’s the stealth thing this show is actually about. It’s a very feminist show, and the idea that the audience gets to see, in our three years, Lily as a degraded figure who’s abused by men, as Brona, literally being reborn into a blank slate and then achieving incredible power but always having a great human connection. That was a case where I was also inspired by the actor, because Billie Piper so delights me, and I found that in the second season I was able to write her an eight-minute monologue that she absolutely delivered, completely, in a way that I found thrilling. I just wanted to do it again, because she’s an actor who understands theatricality and understands larger than life language in a very unique way, and that’s part of what this show is about.
What stands out to you both when you look back on the show?
LOGAN: For me, when I look back on my whole Penny Dreadful experience, beyond what I’ve learned as a writer, I think what I’ll remember most is my relationship with Eva. Because it’s very rare that a dramatist has a genuine muse, which is another artist who actually inspires them in a way that makes their work better every single second. Every day, I would start on the set, I’d spend time with her. We would talk about everything, and so she became embedded in my DNA as I worked my way through it. I think I’ll remember some of the moments with Eva most.
NEVINS: I remember some of the Eva Green performance pieces. The seance in season 1. The padded room. Her performance on the moors in the flashback. Those are the scenes that resonate with me.
Was there anything else that either of you wanted to say?
LOGAN: The only thing I would say is that one thing that’s moved me most, in my introduction to television with this show, is the affection of the fans. The respect they have for the show and the characters is deeply touching to me, because mostly, as a dramatist, you write things, and people like it or they don’t like it, and it’s a sensation or it’s not. But the level of commitment that our Dreadfuls have is deeply moving to me. I hope we’ve treated them fairly, and I hope we’ve treated them with honor.