What Penny Dreadful‘s penultimate first season episode “Possession” taught us above all is that Sir Malcolm is essentially a Victorian Professor X. (I’ll let you all fill in the blanks as to who that makes Ethan, Victor and Vanessa). The main thing is, what has saved Penny Dreadful again and again from swinging too far into camp (a la True Blood) is its commitment to the integrity of its characters, and a sense of them as family. Hit the jump for why “fat mother wept!”
“Possession” created a reason and a space for Sir Malcolm, Ethan, Victor, and Vanessa to all come together under one roof for several weeks together. That allowed the characters to really settle in to the family dynamic that has been building all season. Ethan is the rebellious older brother, who is protective of his “siblings,” to the point of even threatening violence on their “father.” Victor is the needy youngest, who loves and respects father Malcolm, but also will side with Ethan on certain matters, ganging up with whomever is showing him the most attention. Vanessa is the troubled sister who everyone cares for, but they don’t know how to save.
Penny Dreadful is a character-driven drama above all else, and like I have said about Game of Thrones, the show is at its best sometimes when it’s just a conversation between two people. “Possession” allowed for this in spades, pairing everyone up in almost all possible permutations so as to better explore their stories (even Sembene had a chance to be questioned about his past and association with Malcolm, which finally elevated him out of the position of just a servant: he’s a major part of the team, too).
What makes the show so good is how these quiet character moments played out in tandem with Vanessa’s demonic possession. People talked, shared fears and stories, drank tea and shot up morphine and cocaine in between her Exorcism-esque fits. Yet, all of it connected. And ultimately, those conversations led to the decisions made in the final moments of how to save her, and why. Ethan accused Sir Malcolm of treating her like a hostile ward instead of a daughter (which is completely true), while Malcolm admitted his narcissism and shortcomings to Victor, which allowed him to acknowledge that they were right to want to save Vanessa by any means necessary, and that his intentions were tainted.
And then there was Satan. Those familiar with their Bible will know that the Hebrew for Satan means “accuser” (he goes by many other names, but this one is referenced several times in the New Testament, including Revelation). Satan stands before God and accuses all humans before the throne of Heaven. And, this is exactly what has been happening on Penny Dreadful whenever Vanessa is possessed: those she interacts with are accused of their crimes, which unsettles them and unleashes more chaos. This makes it all the more confounding though, from a theological perspective, about why there was such a hesitation to invoke God into the proceedings. Satan, disguised as Ethan (like he was with Sir Malcolm in “Closer Than Sisters”) tells Vanessa he seeks to rule over a destroyed Earth and unthrone God. It seems clear that there is a battle being waged — why only acknowledge the one side? Or is it just because these characters have all only ever experienced an Earthly hellscape?
But then something very interesting happened: Ethan, who most of us have presumed to be some kind of lycanthrope, suddenly seemed possessed himself. By God? Or someone from that side? He ferociously recites a kind of incantation over Vanessa while pressing Brona’s medallion of St. Jude on her head, which seemed to free her from the demon, at least for now. Because he stormed out silently afterwards, there’s no sense of what on Earth that was, or who the heck Ethan is. But it was an incredible moment that provided exactly the kind of twist that Penny Dreadful has so excelled in creating all season.
Of course, at the end of the hour, “Possession” brought things back around to the series’ main goal: the search for Mina. Despite everyone’s response that Sir Malcolm was cruel to allow Vanessa to suffer so as to find Mina, Vanessa wants to find her, too. And she did. The game’s afoot! Tragically, there’s only one more episode left. Chicanery!
Episode Rating: A
— Vanessa talking about posed corpse photography sounds like something Hannibal Lecter would be into.
— That was a very poltergeist-y episode, was it not? Great, creepy effects. The spiders, though: oh GOD NOOOOO. I would have called a priest just for that.
— I know Victor was really weirded out by Vanessa’s possession (when he initially encountered it), but why not check her vitals when she’s in that state? You know, for science, man!
— Vanessa: “It’s cold!” Victor: “Sorry, I always forget that with the living.” They’re whole dialogue in that scene was great and quote-worthy. The entire episode was so well-written.
— “I have a father, I don’t need another one. You had a son, but you killed him — did I miss anything?” – Ethan.
— I loved the tragic reveal that Sir Malcolm didn’t even honor his son’s dying wish, and named a range after himself instead. What a dick!
— The men rushing to Vanessa’s aid during her fits, set to a luscious soundtrack was a highlight of the episode. So dream-like.
— Sembene: “Sir Malcolm is inquiring about the noise …” Ethan: “Uh oh, we’re in trouble with dad.”
— I didn’t know actually that the Catholic Church had banned exorcisms. I don’t watch scary things that often!
— I laughed out loud that Victor just shot up in front of Malcolm. Malcolm’s Home For Wayward Youths is a place of non-judgement, though.
— Sir Malcolm: “She’s been possessed by the devil.” Ethan: “Well fuck me!”