Even if “Possession” were merely another showcase for Eva Green to raise the roof (or at least bounce off the ceiling), it would be an hour well spent. It would also raise the question of just how often Penny Dreadful can go to this particular well before draining it dry. Fortunately the episode amounts to much more than that, sharpening the show’s focus and matching up its characters in various combinations in order to flesh out their personalities and strengthen their relationships with each other. It’s crisis management that turns into a team-building exercise, and at times it’s downright thrilling.
Green is the central figure here: as Vanessa, as her demon, and as the various personae her demon takes on. “Possession” builds on both “Séance” and “Closer Than Sisters,” stretching Vanessa’ struggle for control of her body to the breaking point. It’s a genuinely suspenseful struggle because it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Chandler will be forced to kill her by the end of the episode. (I don’t know anything about Eva Green’s contractual situation, but it wouldn’t be the first time a prestige drama knocked off a character played by a high-profile actor early in its run, as Ned Stark and Wild Bill Hickok could attest.)
It doesn’t come to that, thanks to the patron saint of lost causes, but if this had been Green’s last episode, it would have been one hell of a sendoff. She can turn on a dime between Vanessa’s vulnerability and her demon’s insinuations and deceptions, but the physicality of her performance is perhaps even more impressive. With the help of the effects team, Green turns her body into a battleground, powerfully conveying Vanessa’s terror of being trapped inside herself with forces she cannot control. As a metaphor for madness it’s not a particularly subtle one, but it is brutally effective.
Her struggle stretches on for several weeks, allowing for plenty of “getting to know you” time with the other characters. In the case of Sir Malcolm, the more we know about him, the more distasteful he becomes. His carefully constructed facade of the Great White Explorer doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, especially since nobody has any secrets as long as Vanessa’s demon is around. His tall tales of being captured by cannibals may be fun at dinner parties, but the truth apparently involves a lot more raping and pillaging than Sir Malcolm lets on. His motive for keeping Vanessa alive is far from fatherly, as well; he sees her as a conduit for reaching out and finding Mina, which doesn’t sit well with Chandler at all.
Chandler’s secret (or one of them, anyway) is out too, as the demon reveals not only his tryst with Dorian Gray but the fact that Brona had already fallen prey to Gray’s seductive powers. That’s gotta hurt. Hartnett still hasn’t brought as much to this party as most of the other actors, but he does nice work in the scene where the devil appears to Vanessa in the guise of Chandler. Hartnett plays up the Southern-boy charm to a point that doesn’t quite reach parody, but it’s noticeable enough to suggest Satan or Lucifer (or whatever he wants to call himself) having a little fun with the role.
The most unlikely but purely enjoyable pairing comes when Chandler agrees to teach Dr. Frankenstein how to shoot. (The Creature is hanging around outside, staring at the window from across the street, but at least he’s not actively murdering anyone.) It’s one of the few lighter moments in a claustrophobically intense episode, and I got a kick out of the buddy-picture mismatch of the cowboy and the scientist. Several of Chandler’s comments tonight make it clear that he truly sees the group as a family unit, dysfunctional though it may be, so it’s nice to see him and Dr. F bonding over the possibility of pissing off “Dad.”
After biting the cheek off the priest summoned to perform the last rites on her, Vanessa is restored (temporarily, at least) when Chandler performs an impromptu exorcism using Brona’s St. Jude necklace. Sir Malcolm gets what he wanted as Vanessa reveals she knows where to find Mina. The stage is set for what will no doubt be a bloody finale (the title is “Grand Guignol,” and I’m guessing that’s not just because of the theater), and it still wouldn’t surprise me if one of the regulars didn’t make it to the end.
- Did Chandler even check in on Brona during all this time? It appeared that no one ever left the house, but surely he could have slipped out for a brief visit.
- One thing the finale must accomplish is to clear up this werewolf business once and for all. Chandler hinted at it again tonight (threatening to rip Sir Malcolm’s throat out), and if the events of “Possession” took four weeks (as the Showtime press site states), it’s about time for another full moon.
- I still can’t quite wrap my arms around the mythology here, but I gather that Vanessa is a reincarnation of Amunet and the demon inside her is a separate entity brought about by sexual trauma. Amunet is the reason every evil thing in the world, including Dracula and apparently the devil himself, wants a piece of Vanessa. Or something like that.
- The reason Sir Malcolm is planning an African expedition is because his son is buried there and he wants to bring his body home. Maybe while he’s there he can rename those mountains in Peter’s honor. Seems like the least he could do.