The thing that’s wonderful about Penny Dreadful is its ability to pivot whenever things seem to be getting stale or convoluted. I hate to say it, but I was a little disappointed by last week’s episode. There was so much plot and so little story, I was afraid the show was on the verge of getting overwhelmed by it’s own mythology-a trap both Lost and Twin Peaks succumbed to.
Luckily, this week’s episode, “Possession,” was fantastic enough that it redeemed the whole series. The show starts with Vanessa, splayed out on the couch in harem pants and a bodice. She awakens, with Sir Malcolm Murray beside her. It’s clear that she’s unwell, but the nature of her possession has yet to be revealed.
One of the show’s great strengths is its actors. The premises are all ripped from other horror movies, but the ensemble is strong enough that they keep the material fresh, with Eva Green as the exceptional centerpiece. She’s so specific that the differences between Normal Vanessa and Possessed Vanessa are so clear that you know which state she’s in without her saying a word. Green somehow manages to change the way her eyes look, and she seems to literally be in command of the muscles that control the set of her brow without the assistance of CGI. Her whole face seems to transform. It’s really very frightening.
What “Possession” does very well is ignore all the external plot devices Logan has created. With a narrower focus, “Possession” was able to move the primary story line forward with a little more depth than “What Death Can Join Together.” There are brief nods to the Frankenstein subplot and to Brona and Dorian, but those are passing. “Possession” is mostly concerned with the relationship between Vanessa, Malcolm, Victor and Chandler.
One particularly nice moment was when Victor asks Chandler to show him how to shoot a pistol. Up until this point in the episode, we’d mostly been treated to shots of Vanessa screaming and tearing her skin off, so this little fraternal respite came as a much needed moment of pause in an otherwise kind of horrifying 60 minutes.
Given the obvious allusions to The Exorcist, the way Logan and Hawkes treat Vanessa’s possession is actually really interesting. There are many, many, many moments of violence and creepy demonic … business, but the pair also does a good job of demonstrating how tedious and exhausting the whole process is for everyone else involved. Logan and Hawkes use time lapse and static shots of different parts of the house to demonstrate that her possession seems to last for the better part of a week. Sure, it’s scary. But it’s also exhausting and sort of mind numbing and a little bit like (I’d imagine) waiting for a baby to be born.
Part of the show’s appeal is it’s moral ambiguity. You never quite know which characters you can trust. The main take away from “Possession” seemed to be that Malcolm Murray is a little more of a villain that we previously suspected. It seems that he’s using Vanessa as bait more than he is a partner. In the throes of her possession, after the devil appears to her in the form of Chandler with promises of a dark crown, Malcolm sneaks into her room and tells her that since she’s caught between our world and the nether world, she’s in the perfect place to reach out to Mina.
Malcolm’s shadiness, along with Frankenstein’s theory that Vanessa’s problems are partly due to sexual trauma, seem to imply that the half-answers given to us in “Closer Than Sisters” are just that: half-answers. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Closer” only revealed part of Vanessa’s relationship with Malcolm.
Though I’ve been critical of past episodes, with the season finale just a week away, I’m really excited to see how Logan wraps up this first season.