Penny Dreadful (Showtime) Review “Possession”

Vanessa Ives does not belong. She exists, as Sir Malcolm points out, between worlds and that existence is a lonely one, plagued by the knowledge she can neither find love and safety among the living, nor refuge with her tormentor. Her identity is a fractured thing, part demonic, part pure strength and control. To live a guarded life is to live no life at all though, and therein lied the greatest tragedy of “Possession,” as it exposed the pain of Vanessa as well as Ethan, Victor, Sembene and even Caliban, who haunted Victor as he lurked outside the window. For one week, these men, along with the far less sympathetic Sir Malcolm, stayed inside the house of horrors as Vanessa fought for her soul, and each of them confronted the secrets that keep them living life in the shadows.

Eva Green continued to captivate as the demon took hold of Vanessa. The ease with which Green slips between a cognizant, increasingly desperate Vanessa and a Vanessa whose body is no longer her own was startling. There was no part of her possession that was easy to watch. Whether she was spewing ugly truths at Sir Malcolm, who raped his way across a continent and forced Peter to do the same in the name of proving his manhood, or begging Ethan to end her agony, Vanessa’s plight was haunting. There was poignancy in the moment she confessed to Ethan, the demon within was like a persistent scratching– while the demon shocked Sir Malcolm and Victor with knowledge of their secrets, it did not name Ethan as a werewolf. Instead, only the audience was privy to the knowledge of just how familiar Ethan is with the sensation of carrying an uncontrollable force within.

Beyond the walls of Vanessa’s room, Ethan upset the power balance. Seeing Vanessa writhing in pain and understanding that Malcolm cared nothing for her welfare, sent Ethan over the edge. “You want a daughter?” he asked Malcolm at one point. “Well, she’s right there.” Unlike Victor, Ethan has no interest in playing out the role of a de facto child for Malcolm. He sees Malcolm for who he is: a man who damned his children, Vanessa and himself long ago, and Ethan wants none of it. Instead, he stays because he cares for Vanessa and Victor.

More of Victor was revealed to us in this episode, including his morphine addiction, distrust of religion and virginity– all born out of a need to protect himself from pain. While he has spent much of the season looking to Malcolm as a father figure, Victor and Ethan finally found common ground. Under Ethan’s influence, Victor blossomed. He stood up to Malcolm when the subject of getting Vanessa a priest arose and he was downright gleeful as Ethan taught him to shoot in the basement.

As the week wore on, Malcolm’s team began to bond together and against him. We even learned a small piece of information about the silent Sembene. During a conversation with Ethan he suggested he was not with Malcolm because Malcolm saved him, but rather because he saved Malcolm. It was a small, but tantalizing morsel about a character who remains a mystery.

It was the final moments of the episode that thrilled, shocked and likely reminded many fans Vanessa drew the lovers card way back in the pilot when she first encountered Ethan. After a botched attempt by a priest to perform Last Rites for Vanessa, Ethan revealed one more truth about himself: at one point, he had to have been a priest because he performed one kickass exorcism on the fly when he decided he could not pull the trigger and end Vanessa’s life.

While the demon has likely not left Vanessa for good, Ethan drove it out of his friend, drawing on his own inner strength and trusting in a religion he no longer believes in, or believes he no longer has the right to believe. Penny Dreadful even managed to slip in two subtle references to The Exorcist as Ethan first entered the house standing under the streetlamps in his hat and as he walked away from the house into a cleansing snow and slipped his hat back on.

“Possession” trapped our characters within the house for an internal battle with themselves in an exquisite bottle episode that will lead into tonight’s final outing of the season. Will the finale be able to top the emotional intimacy of the penultimate hour? That may not be possible, but if I have learned anything from Penny Dreadful, it is that it will always exceed my expectations.

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