Penny Dreadful is one of my favorite shows and before season 3 started I was really excited about one thing in particular. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Shazad Latif) was being added to the cast of literary characters and he was going to be of South Asian descent. It’s not a secret that period pieces are notorious for whitewashing history, so this development was awesome. My excitement lasted for about half of the season until I realized things weren’t going well at all. And they never got better. There are going to be MAJOR SPOILERS ahead so stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Before I go into what didn’t work, I’ll focus on what did. Jekyll’s backstory is intriguing. Jekyll was friends with Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) when they studied medicine at Cambridge. At Cambridge, Jekyll was the target of racist bullying and Frankenstein was his only friend. As the son of an Indian mother and the British father that abandoned her, Jekyll is never accepted by British society. He hates his father for abandoning his mother and leaving her to die. The loathing he has for his father and his rage at the racist abuse still directed at him nearly consumes him. But Jekyll has found a way to medically contain the beast inside him. He works in a laboratory in Bedlam, experimenting on patients to see if they too can be cured of their mental afflictions. When Frankenstein and Jekyll are reunited at the start of season 3, Frankenstein becomes fascinated by Jekyll’s work and the two friends join forces.
The casting was perfect. I’ve never seen Shazad Latif in anything else, but I hope after his time on Penny Dreadful he gets more work. He was great as Dr. Jekyll. The scenes where you can see him fighting to keep his rage inside were terrific. Penny Dreadful is a show about the monsters inside all of us and Shazad really nailed that with Jekyll. It’s such a shame that he didn’t get the chance to do more with the character.
Unfortunately the third season of Penny Dreadful was also its last. I didn’t know this going into it, so I thought whatever problems there were with Jekyll would have been ironed out in fourth season. That wasn’t meant to be. The biggest problem was that Jekyll isn’t given much to do. When Frankenstein tells him that Lily (Billie Piper), his latest creature, is dangerous and full of rage, Jekyll suggests that instead of killing her like Frankenstein is contemplating, they make her docile with his treatments. It’s horrifying. Frankenstein and Jekyll spend most of the season plotting to kidnap Lily and turn her into a docile housewife without her consent. And the fact that Jekyll, who has had to deal with being controlled by society thinks this is fine, is awful. That’s what his interesting backstory gets reduced to. Being Frankenstein’s sidekick in his quest to turn Lily into a 19th century Stepford Wife. So for most of the season, Jekyll is stuck in his lab conducting experiments to help Frankenstein become a creep. The one good thing about this setup is that Jekyll doesn’t take Frankenstein’s crap, so there’s that. But Jekyll deserves better. The audience deserves better.
The show’s creators have insisted that season 3 being the final season was their plan all along. But I don’t buy it. Vanessa is practically written out of her own story for the last two episodes and many of the character’s stories go nowhere. It feels very haphazard and rushed, so Jekyll’s story gets lost in the shuffle. His character arc ends with his father finally dying and Jekyll inheriting the title of Lord Hyde. That’s the closest to Hyde that the show gives us. It’s one of the happier endings of the series with Jekyll vowing to use his title to get into British society.
So, that’s it. Jekyll shows up, putters around in a lab, tries to turn Lily’s brain to mush, and then gets a fancy title after being kind of a dick. It’s not that I expect Penny Dreadful characters to be good people. Honestly, I love to hate the majority of them. I just expect them to be more fleshed out and better written. That said, I’ll miss watching the characters and I hope more TV networks include more diversity in their historical shows.