I’ve decided that the story of Penny Dreadful, in my mind at least, is better suited for a novel than television. The story remains intriguing, especially after the revelation at the end of this most recent episode, but I feel the same themes have been retread again and again. That being said, for a bottle episode, “Possession” as to be one of my favorite episodes in this latter half of the season. It returns to many of the striking visuals that caught my eye and I was genuinely creeped out for most of the 50 minute run time. Eva Green has succeeded in topping the séance scene, giving a performance here that kept both the audience and her fictional caretakers on their toes. While again we get very little plot-wise, the entirety of the episode being devoted to Vanessa’s internal battle with the darkness that has begun to seep through the cracks, I’ve come to realize that Penny Dreadful is living up to the serial novels that share its name. This slow slow burn is meant to draw us in as the penny dreadfuls of the past would their readers, making us ache for more and giving us just a taste of what’s to come. However, with the season finale looming ahead, I do hope the story takes a leap forward and builds on the mountains of established backstory for season two.
The episode begins with a very apt statement from Vanessa, that “to be beautiful is to be almost dead”. I enjoy this statement as it sums up perfectly one of the driving ideas behind the gothic literature movement; the balance of beauty in the macabre, the idea of that what intrigues us also frightens us and that what we are attracted to may also be something horrifying. Vanessa elaborates on this thought, going on in detail about a practice where photos of deceased women are used as pornographic material in some circles. It was very in vogue at the time to photograph the dead in life-like poses, as if to capture for a moment what these subject once were when they were alive. Perhaps Dorian Gray is on to something here.
Can I just say that possessed Vanessa in this scene is my favorite. This is before events get too dire for the spiritualist, but the unbridled aggressive sass Vanessa throws at Sir Malcolm here is entertaining. That is, until Vanessa goes on to catalogue Sir Malcolm’s long history of sexual conquest in Africa and how the explorer forced his son to participate as well in order to “make a man out of him”. At this point, the powers taking over Vanessa’s body really get on a roll, manifesting themselves in various furniture and objects flying around the room. This entire scene reminds me of being caught in a violent whirlpool as books and papers undulate through the air and tension rises. And at the very center of this chaos is Vanessa, her feral accusing gaze never leaving Sir Malcolm.
Sembene, ever the pillar of common sense, rushes into the room and ends the poltergeist activity by delivering not one, but two blows across Vanessa’s face, knocking the spiritualist out and causing the objects in the room to end their flight and fall to the floor. While his manservant carries Vanessa up to her room, Sir Malcolm remains behind to survey the damage. Perhaps he is reflecting on the power that can no longer be contained by the spiritualist, or the shambles of his sitting room are a stark reminder to the damage that has occurred in his own life, a visual representation of the wake of destruction his single-minded search for Mina has brought forth.
Frankenstein confers with Sir Malcolm who admits that this is the worst episode Vanessa has ever had, and yet he doesn’t know the cause of them. He hypothesizes that emotion is the trigger and the two discuss the possibility that sexual trauma is the cause of her possession. While it is true that Vanessa was made vulnerable to the allure of the devil’s power through her desire to end her sexual and emotional repression, something doesn’t sit right with me in this scene. The idea of these two men discussing this woman’s sexuality, pondering over questions like her virginity and sexual history that could simply be answered if they asked the party in question, bothers me. However, this mindset does go along with commonly held beliefs of the time. Human sexuality was a great source of anxiety for the Victorian citizen. In fact, a common belief is that the monsters found in literature of the time were meant to reflect these anxieties, the most common being the vampire who preys on young women.
Ethan arrives at Sir Malcolm’s house and there is what I’d like to consider a neat little homage to The Exorcist, with Ethan standing on the street, his back to the camera, in a fashion similar to famous shot of Father Merrin from the 1973 film. The sharpshooter rushes up to Vanessa’s bedroom while she continues her inhuman wails and we see the strain of fighting darker forces is taking a huge physical toil on the spiritualist. The room is dark, with bloodied bedclothes strewn about, Vanessa herself crouched at the foot of the bed, pale and in pain. Her hair looks lank and thinned out, as if she has been tearing clumps of it out herself. She honestly bears a striking resemblance to Gollum from Lord of the Rings, which is interesting due to the fact that Gollum’s change into the creature most are familiar with was the result of being consumed from the inside out by a dark force beyond his comprehension, his obsession with the One Ring.
Down in the sitting room, over generous tumblers of whiskey, Sir Malcolm clues Ethan in on Vanessa’s possession. He also explains about Amunet and the fact that they are teetering on the brink of an apocalypse. I have to agree with the expletive Ethan utters here and couldn’t help but mutter under my breath “I’m a doctor, not a demon hunter” as the sharpshooter implores Frankenstein to help Vanessa. Ethan also seems a bit testy when his suggestion of fetching a priest is lumped in with the idea of resorting to witch doctors or “old gypsy women” for help. If you are familiar with the 1941 version of The Wolf Man you’ll know why the mention of old gypsy women has his hackles raised. A plan is formed to keep Vanessa alive as long as she fights the demon trying to claw its way out, even despite the revelation by Sir Malcolm that the Arabic words Vanessa spoke earlier translate to “let me die”.
What we have next is a wonderful bit of cinematography to represent the passage of time. It’s almost like a time lapse movie, we see the light growing and fading through the windows of Sir Malcolm’s home, night ebbing and flowing forth like the tide of some great, dark ocean. Sprinkled within these shots are scene of Frankenstein, Ethan, and Sir Malcolm all taking turns restraining Vanessa, sedating her, or cleaning up the evidence of her possession. We find that a week passes and it is clear that our protagonists are all being brought to the brink of exhaustion in their efforts.
One night, Vanessa wakes and is profoundly lucid, finding Ethan keeping watch at her bedside. She likens her struggle to keep her demon at bay as animal scratching to get out. I’m sure that’s something Ethan can relate to. Vanessa then asks that when the moment comes that the sharpshooter pull the trigger and end it all. Vanessa knows that she is fighting a losing battle and yet she continues to keep the darkness in check. The talk of ending Vanessa’s life leads to mention of heaven and hell and a revelation I was not expecting.Ethan is not in fact Ethan and as is eyes turn inky black we see he is in fact a manifestation of the devil come to taunt Vanessa.
While this is going on, Sir Malcolm and the real Ethan Chandler are down in the sitting room. The explorer once again asks if Ethan will join his expedition to Africa, to which the sharpshooter responds with hostility, seeing futileness in this journey. Sir Malcolm confesses that his goal in going back to Africa is to retrieve the body of his son that he abandoned. Both Ethan and I are skeptical that the explorer would have such noble intentions. Sir Malcolm also confirms that his business at Lake Tanganykia was part of the original expedition to find the source of the Nile, as I suspected in an earlier review. Their discussion is once again interrupted by Vanessa howling from upstairs. Perhaps it was talk of the Nile, the source of Egyptian life that brought about this latest manifestation, for we see red veins coursing over Vanessa’s body, centralizing at her chest where bright red hieroglyphics of Amon-ra and Amunet appear, similar to those found on the vampire corpse.
When Ethan returns to the sitting room, he confesses to Frankenstein the belief that Sir Malcolm is not being honest with them, that perhaps they are keeping Vanessa alive for unscrupulous purposes, insisting that Sir Malcolm, despite all appearances, does not see Vanessa as a daughter. Ethan then goes on to tell of Native American children, who when their tribes are pacified, lose their culture and become outcasts straddling two worlds, condemned to roam and die. Ethan must see Vanessa the same way, someone who is between two worlds, who without their help will be lost forever. Ethan also invokes two famous names in his story, John Smith and William Sherman, however, their mention while a nice reference to the idea of conquering other peoples, seems inconsequential to the plot.
Once more the protagonists retire to the sitting room, this time it is Sir Malcolm and Doctor Frankenstein who are taking their break together. Sir Malcolm asks for something to help him stay awake and gets a needle full of a cocaine derivative to do the job. Frankenstein, having asthma in his youth, uses the cocaine as a medicine, which is accurate to the times. Cocaine was used for a number of medical purposes, including eye medicine. While being administered the drug, Sir Malcolm admits to Frankenstein that the Murray Mountains mentioned all the way back in the pilot episode were not named for Peter, whose dying wish you will recall from the séance scene was to have a mountain named after him, but for Sir Malcolm himself. With Peter, the explorer constantly put his own interests ahead of his son’s. Forcing him to sleep with native women because that’s how he, Sir Malcolm, though one became a man, abandoning Peter’s corpse to continue his search for the source of the Nile, and selfishly ignoring his son’s last wishes by naming his great discovery after himself. History is repeating itself for Sir Malcolm here as he puts his own goals ahead of Vanessa’s well-being, ignoring the daughter surrogate right in front of him and focusing on Mina, who may be too far gone to save. He could very well lose them both now.
Whether it was this realization or the pressure of his house mates, Sir Malcolm has finally allowed a priest to enter the home. Considering no one in the house seems to believe in a high power, this is a final act of desperation to be sure. The priest’s name is Father Matthews and normally this is where I would dissect the meaning and symbolism behind his name. Fortunately, Vanessa saves me the trouble. As tense as this moment is I had to laugh since Frankenstein pretty much says what we are all thinking as the priest waffles regarding whether he will perform an exorcism or simply Last Rites. Ridiculous man, indeed. Father Matthews is brought to Vanessa’s room and the word "nope" is written all over his face as he almost turns around and flees, horrified by the woman tied to the bed wasting away before him.
As Vanessa rests for the first time in a long time, it seems as if her dreams are not entirely untroubled. Flashes of the play she attended at The Grand Guignol flit through her mind and a quote from it keeps repeating over and over. “There cannot be a happy end, the claw will slash and tooth will rend”. Very foreboding. We hear Mina’s voice as well, so perhaps Sir Malcolm was right that the spiritualist would be able to make contact while straddling the line between life and death. Because Vanessa now knows where Mina is.
And there it is, the penultimate Penny Dreadful episode for this season. What did you think dear readers?
The scene where Ethan teaches Frankenstein how to shoot a gun was a nice bit of levity in an otherwise heavy episode. More than likely this newly found skill will come into play during the finale and the scene itself reinforces the dysfunction family dynamic that has grown between the characters, especially with Vanessa being referred to as practically Sir Malcolm’s daughter. I especially like that Ethan makes reference to the brotherly bond forged in fire between he and the doctor when he remarks to Frankenstein that they are “in trouble with dad”.
There were so many references to the film The Exorcist in this episode of Penny Dreadful. I already pointed out the one with Ethan on the street, but there’s also the imagery of Vanessa being tied to the bed, the self-harm that was occurring as she clawed at herself. There were also the reference to messages appearing on the possessed person’s skin, though in this case those messages were in hieroglyphics. There’s the fact that the devil was playing mind games, telling half-truths while invoking the memory of loved ones and even mimicking their voices. All of these events are quintessential to demon possession because they were brought to the forefront of our pop culture knowledge through the movie The Exorcist.
Readers, I am actually a bit worried that the finale is going to hammer us with events. I fear the episode is going to be 50 minutes of constant action that will tie up all the loose ends in a neat, though contrived, little package. While it will be satisfying to have something happen to progress the plot, having every event I’ve hoped for occur all at once would be disappointing. I’m actually rooting for a nice juicy cliffhanger, one that will make me shout “What?!” at my screen and hook me into season two.
Next week’s episode is “Grand Guignol” and the Penny Dreadful season one finale. What answers, if any, do you think we will receive?