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Penny Dreadful – Possession – Review

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.

There is a change in Vanessa in this scene, she seems more liberated as she goes on and on about these unusual appetites, clearly making Sir Malcolm, her captive audience, uncomfortable. Suddenly, Vanessa’s voice changes to that high girlish tone we heard back at the séance circle and we know, even before Vanessa addresses Sir Malcolm as “father” that it is Mina she is channeling, though I’m inclined to believe it more likely that the devil within the spiritualist is messing with Sir Malcolm out of pure malice. This shade of Mina goes on to terrorize Sir Malcolm, mentioning his coldness toward his wife and how she resorted to laudanum as a way of numbing the pain. Laudanum was a popular cure-all in Victorian times, a mixture of opium and alcohol that was extremely addictive. This more than likely made Mrs. Murray a veritable ghost, a strung out presence that probably made it easier for Sir Malcolm to remain distant.

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.

Doctor Frankenstein soon arrives to perform a medical examination on the now calm Vanessa and perhaps give a scientific solution to their current problem. Sir Malcolm leaves the two alone, which I could already tell was not a good idea. While Frankenstein conducts the usual tests, he discovers that Vanessa doesn’t remember what happened after her encounter with Mr. Gray. Is this always the case or a new development since the dam has broken and the darkness has flooded forth? Vanessa begins to get touchy-feely with the doctor, remarking that Frankenstein is a virgin. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, but given how accurate the rest of Vanessa’s pronouncements are this episode, coupled with the doctor’s reaction, I’d wager she’s right. Then Vanessa repeats verbatim what Doctor Frankenstein admitted to Van Helsing in the restaurant, about the line from Shelley he couldn’t get out of his head, something she has no earthly way of knowing. Doctor Frankenstein seems to be wholly shaken by this, particularly when Vanessa alludes to knowing of a greater demon, namely Caliban.

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.

While they discuss the possibility that guilt and shame of a sexual act are the triggers for Vanessa’s complex, Doctor Frankenstein idly picks up one of Vanessa’s tarot cards from the table and begins fiddling with it. It’s hard to see, but the card he pulls from the deck is Death. Aside from the obvious connotations, this card also represents endings and beginnings, transformation and transition. Very apt considering the paces Vanessa is put through in this episode. Frankenstein is stopped mid-sentence as a spider appears on his fingers while he turns the card over and over. The other cards on the table, including the Moon card left from Vanessa’s last reading, which you might recall represents fear and anxiety, begin to move as hordes of spiders creep out from under them, appearing as if out of nowhere. There is no end to these spiders, providing the unsetting vision of a carpet of arachnids stretching out towards Sir Malcolm and the doctor, when suddenly Vanessa let lose a strangled scream from the bedroom. I loathe spiders, as do many, so I was squirming in my seat at this point. These spiders are similar to the one we saw in the pilot episode, they signify the presence of the darkness Vanessa holds at bay. And given that scream and the spiders’ numbers, it seems like she is losing this battle.

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.

Ethan approaches Vanessa, who is lucid for the moment, apologizing that her fight with the internal demon has caused her to not be herself. She then asks if it is permissible to inquire something of the sharpshooter, which anyone can sense is a set up for something unsavory to occur. Without much preamble, Vanessa asks if it was Ethan who had sex with “him” or the other way around. Ethan is shocked , even without Dorian being called by name, that anyone knows about his night with the immortal and Vanessa continues, bringing Brona and her shared past with Dorian to light as she shrieks out all she knows. As Vanessa grows more violent, it takes all the men in the room to restrain the spiritualist while she screams in Arabic, only calmed by a sedative injection administered by Frankenstein. It’s interesting that Devil Vanessa is so sure Ethan was not the one who initiated things with Dorian. I’m glad we got another reference to this event, but to what end? Is it still all for the titillation of the audience or is there a reason that Vanessa keeps bring Dorian Gray up? Her encounter with the immortal was the trigger for this demonic episode, but could Dorian’s continued mention point to a greater role or motivation in bringing out Vanessa’s darkness?

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.
I sensed something wasn’t right when Vanessa stayed herself for so long and expected her to take another turn and psychological attack Ethan once more. I should have been sharper in recognizing that the extended shot of the mirror was a clue that it was Ethan who was not himself. And there is something wholly unsettling about Devil Ethan’s deep dark eyes peering out of the sharpshooter’s jovial face, especially since Vanessa has been so vulnerable with him in this scene. Devil Ethan lays out his whole plan, to have Vanessa be his mother of evil and rule by his side while they sink the world into darkness and topple God from his throne. Vanessa doesn’t verbally agree, but instead kisses Devil Ethan. There is a saying that a deal with the devil is sealed with a kiss and if the content smile on Vanessa’s face is any indication, she has made her choice. I wonder what it is that made Vanessa give in. Was it the temptation of power once again, or that she finally sees an end to her suffering?

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.

After Vanessa is settled down, Doctor Frankenstein gives himself an injection. We have seen him do this before earlier in the episode and now get the explanation that the good doctor is addicted to morphine. Frankenstein explains to Sir Malcolm, who is on his way to relieve Ethan of his watch, that he is cursed by pain, though this may refer to that of the psychological variety, as we and the doctor can see Caliban lurking across the street. While Doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s work was known to partake in laudanum, the fact that Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein is a narcotics addict seems like a sudden revelation. This has not been alluded to in any of the previous episodes, there has be no sign of dependency or an altered state of mind, and while we the audience have not been privy to the doctor’s personal life, we have seen Frankenstein with his shirt sleeves rolled up and there has been no sign of track marks. It just seems almost random with one episode left in the season reveal such a weakness without any prior reference.

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.

More time passes and Vanessa still isn’t well. Sir Malcolm is on watch duty again, though we finally see his motivation to keep Vanessa alive. Since the spiritualist is teetering between the land of the living and that of the dead, Sir Malcolm thinks it is a fine time to coax the spiritualist into contacting Mina. He is found out by the rest of the household who are furious that Sir Malcolm would use Vanessa, who trusted all of them, in this way, that he would allow her to suffer so greatly so that he could reach his ends. Ethan even goes so far as to threaten to rip the explorer’s throat out (with his teeth? This wolfish imagery continues to surround Ethan), telling Sir Malcolm that the daughter he is seeking is right before him, in the form of the ailing Vanessa.

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.
However, the priest steels himself and begins to perform the Last Rites on Vanessa. Here is where Vanessa does my job for me, after asking what the priest’s name is, she recalls Dr. Christopher Matthew Banning from her past, the doctor who prescribed hydrotherapy. She then goes on to speak of another Matthew she knew from the ancient days. Uh oh. This Matthew was a tax collector who was crucified upside down. Clearly the demon is referring to Saint Matthew, one of Jesus’s disciples, though it was Saint Peter who was crucified upside down, as he felt unworthy to share the same fate as Jesus. In church tradition Matthew was supposedly very hard to kill when he was martyred, and he was hung upside down and lit on fire, though it is said this did not harm him. Could this confusion of saints be an error in the writer’s room or something else? This imagery reminds of the tarot card of the Hanged Man, a card that represents surrender and martyrdom. Perhaps this is Vanessa’s way of giving a final message that her will has succumbed.

Using the priest’s momentary confusion at the mention of Saint Matthew to her advantage, the possessed Vanessa lunges forward and tears a huge chunk of the priest’s face away with her teeth, Hannibal Lecter-style. She then breaks free of her bonds and skitters about the room. Vanessa leaps on the ceiling like one of those many spiders from before. The spiritualist’s movements and facial expression are entirely unsettling here. There is also a great shot as the demon flexes its power, causing the windows to shatter and cascade down on our protagonists in a manner similar to the snow falling outside. It looks sharp (pun intended). Vanessa’s rampage is finally quelled as Ethan is able to get a hold of the spiritualist and shake her to her senses. Vanessa begs the sharpshooter to pull the trigger, to be killed, but instead Ethan grasps the pendant of Saint Jude, the patron of lost causes, and presses it to Vanessa’s forehead. Ethan begins chanting in italian or latin I think and seems to be exorcising the demon from Vanessa. I have to ask, where did this come from? It seems so sudden to me and not really in line with anything else we know about the sharpshooter. Was this why Ethan was so hesitant to take the pendant when Brona initially offered it? Was Ethan possessed by another force, a force for good that he channeled through his faith in the spiritualist? Or does all this have to tie into Ethan Chandler’s now mysterious back story? Whatever the case maybe, Ethan succeeds in bringing Vanessa out of the darkness and back to her normal self. With barely a word the sharpshooter abruptly leaves the house, walking alone in the newly fallen snow.

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?

This episode, now that I’ve had a chance to recap it, seemed to go around in circles for me. We would get a scene of Vanessa cruelly taunting her companions, then her being restrained while suffering some unnerving body horror. She would be sedated and then her protectors would retreat to the sitting room and mull over the events and the whole thing would repeat. This was the cycle until Ethan and Frankenstein stood up to Sir Malcolm and brought in the priest. I understand that to present all of what Vanessa went through during her possession in one steady stream would be like receiving an emotional sledgehammer to the face for the audience, and there is the fact that this repetition did mimic what our characters were going thought. However, I feel the same message could have been portrayed in a more succinct manner, elevating an already entertaining episode.

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.

It bothers me a bit that Brona and Dorian tend to disappear when they are of no use to the plot. Yes, both were referenced in this episode, but each seem to be on screen only when they are supplementing the storyline of their lover. The same thing goes for Sembene, though his relationship with Sir Malcolm isn’t romantic. I actually found it funny that he tells Ethan he has no story, considering we the audience haven’t even heard a whisper of his past, and I like that Ethan himself was theorizing as to why Sembene was in England and chose to stay with Sir Malcolm, even with all of this supernatural drama occurring. Which theory of Ethan’s do you think it right, did Sir Malcolm save Sembene and now the latter is in his debt, or is it the other way around? Or, as I am inclined to believe, their relationship is not that simple.

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?

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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