Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 7 “Possession”
Written by John Logan
Directed by James Hawes
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
There’s a very specific formula for success on Penny Dreadful: the more unhinged Vanessa Ives gets, the more interesting and colorful everything else in the world around her becomes. Part of this is by design: there is so much to discover with her character, there almost needs to be no other distractions around her character – but it’s also a by-product of performance: Eva Green’s command of her performance allows her to unleash or retract at any time, truly one of the best split-personality performances I’ve ever watched on film. “Possession” makes these strengths – and by comparison, flaws – quite clear in the episode’s opening minutes: but as the episode carries on inside Malcolm’s townhouse, the people around Vanessa become more three-dimensional, a symbiotic relationship between overarching plot and minute character development that makes for the show’s most thrilling, emotional episode yet.
Honestly, all the major players deliver terrific performances in tonight’s episode – and still Eva Green dominates the camera, her captivating turn as Vanessa reaching new peaks as the possession with her finally comes to light (after a sexual experience with Dorian Gray… begging the question of what might happen to Ethan soon… but I’ll get back to that). Locked in the upstairs bedroom, the demons within Vanessa come to light, bringing with it a lot of condemning dialogue towards the men in the room, judging her (save for Ethan) psychological flaws as a deflection of their own shame, be it Viktor’s treatment of Caliban (and oddly, his virginity), Ethan running away from the violence he’s (probably) caused on both sides of the ocean, or Malcolm’s many guilts about being a rapist, conquerer, terrible father, and philanderer (seriously, the man isn’t kidding when he says he doesn’t have a “shred of decency left”).
It’s an expert bit of narrative crafting: it allows Vanessa’s possession – the driving plot of the season – to bring forth the darkest bits within each character, a metaphor that works symbolically and literally for each character in the episode. Vanessa’s possession is her shame, and the more it comes to the surface, the more it forces the men surrounding her to look themselves in the mirror and consider the monsters lying within (“like animals scratching at the surface,” Vanessa says to not-Ethan, another clue that ol’ Wolfy may appear soon). It’s the overriding theme of the season, but hits especially hard when each man (save for Sembene) talks about the weaknesses they try to keep hidden: Chandler’s past (which sounds like it involved Native Americans, and not in a pleasant way), Malcolm’s raping (and death of his son), and Viktor’s morphine addiction become impossible to ignore to each other after spending weeks upon weeks in Malcolm’s home, trying to rescue Vanessa.
The best climatic episodes of television serve both plot and character: “Possession” does an expert job at both, pushing its narrative forward in exciting ways without losing sight of the people tied up in the whole bloody, supernatural mess. There are moments where it slips a bit – I still don’t get why Viktor’s virginity was such a big, stinking deal – but there’s so much overshadowing those small, head-scratching pockets (wait… Ethan knows Latin?), like Ethan teaching Viktor how to shoot a gun, or Vanessa’s scenes with anyone, the camera is as intoxicated by her performance as the audience.
Penny Dreadful‘s first season is a short one (next week is the season finale), so it remains to be seen whether the events of “Possession” will lead to satisfying conclusions in the finale. There’s certain threads I’m sure won’t be picked on until next season (Vanessa’s continued struggle with Lucifer, Sembene’s back story), but part of the magic of “Possession” is how it delivers answers (so Malcolm was using Vanessa to get to Mina, probably still pissed about the whole banging-the-future-son-in-law thing) with conviction, but in a way that allows it to cleverly delay big payoffs. If those moments aren’t cashed in during next week’s finale, “Possession” could be a bit disappointing in hindsight – for now, however, Penny Dreadful can revel in the fulfilled potential of this week’s thrilling entry.
– more Wolfman evidence: they spend juuuust about enough time for another full moon to arrive (about a month passes while they’re in the house), and Ethan threatens to rip Malcolm’s throat out, hardly a normal threat.
– “I nailed him to the cross upside down so he would reach me faster.” Whoo boy, that is a creepy line.
– “I think she’s been possessed by the Devil.” Ethan’s response is classic: “Oh… fuck me.”
– Viktor basically tells Malcolm that “cocaine is a helluva drug.”
– Okay, we get it: if I don’t hear the phrase “psychosexual” again on this show, I’ll be fine.