Penny Dreadful 1.07 Review: “Possession”

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The episode “Possession” is, rather overtly, a filler episode of Penny Dreadful. That word has picked up an almost insurmountably negative connotation when it comes to media–especially music–but I see no good reason to use it in a demeaning way. In fact, more often than not, penultimate episodes in seasons of televisions (of which “Possession” is one) necessarily “fill” themselves with material that can’t be expected to be paid off until the season’s finale. The joy of “Possession” is that its material, which stalls in nearly every strand of story that has been introduced this season, is as entertaining to watch as anything this series has done so far.

A huge part of that is, of course, Eva Green’s performance as Vanessa Ives, which has gone beyond mere acting into (to borrow the episode’s title) a kind of possession that does that rare sleight of hand where you forget you’re watching Eva Green. What, or who, you’re actually watching is Vanessa Ives. Even Matthew McConaughey in True Detective earlier this year wound up being so utterly captivating by virtue of all of us looking on and thinking “Wow, McConaughey is killing it right now.” I’m sure there are plenty of viewers out there who are saying similar things about Green in Penny Dreadful, but the performance works so well for me because, at a certain point, Green stops and Ives begins in a way that I could never quite fully separate McConaughey from Rust. She is, within just this hour, terrifying and heartbreaking. And these seems to be the two things Penny Dreadful is most interested in exploring. Not quite the horror series it maybe promised it would be in its early press stage and not quite a Victorian drama, Green’s Ives embodies (in an unfortunately literal way) both of those characteristics by being torn to pieces by her demon and Mina, both of which are sometimes indistinguishable from each other. At this point, I just throw my hands up in the air if I’m the person in charge of submitting one of these Penny Dreadful episodes for a lead actress in a dramatic role Emmy, because…well, what would you pick? You could make a case for this, “Closer Than Sisters” (the Vanessa backstory episode) or “Seance,” which featured the first of the several possessions we’ve seen her go through on-screen. To have that kind of problem–too much good material to pick from–is a blessing and a curse, which suits the show beautifully.

Again, here is an odd-numbered episode that does not feature Dorian Gray, whose presence might have provided something interesting while everyone is trying to figure out how to help Vanessa. He’s mentioned by name, and putting him between the demon and Ethan Chandler would certainly create some issues, but that’s all stuff we should be expecting from this kind of series that isn’t shy about turning the energy in the room up to eleven. That said, the material with Chandler is among the best “Possession” has to offer, and it’s at this point in which I kind of have to scratch my head because of how impressed I am with Josh Hartnett this late in the season. This has to be a perfect marriage of content and performer, because Hartnett has been acting well beyond his usual range and ability in a way that has allowed Chandler to be both sympathetic and compelling even more than characters played by Green and Timothy Dalton, both of whom have more highly decorated CVs. He’s not quite the star of the whole thing, but he holds his own in every scene at this point, making the late addition of his strange powers to expel the demon from Vanessa and how out-of-nowhere it is not as bothersome as it should be.

Even Caliban’s presence in this episode avoids being a nuisance (I like to think he spends much of his time standing in the snow until children mistake him for a snowman). Keeping Victor locked up adds to that effect, since we see him (and the other characters) at their most stressed and exhausted. He even gets angry (rightfully so) with his employer, showcasing wonderful shades to another personality that is somehow just as big as everyone else on this show without even trying, seemingly.

Now, the question becomes how Penny Dreadful decides to go out, and I mean that less by thinking about what happens and more about the tone of the whole thing. If you go back and look at the trailer for Penny Dreadful, you see a horror series that isn’t quite the same thing you’ve been watching on Showtime for seven weeks. Sometimes, that show appears. But only rarely. So, if Penny Dreadful is determined to be this weird mixture of genre and period drama, I’d be a bit frustrated with an action-packed, spook-filled finale instead of one that takes the time to include these longer bits of dialog we’ve seen all season that can be devoid of tension while being just as interesting and engaging as when guns are going off or people are levitating (the spider scene in this episode, for instance, while fun, was kind of pointless outside of aesthetic). When it comes to writing and the different aspects that make it up–point of view, syntax, tone–instructors will often encourage picking a style and sticking with it. Even though that advice can be rather limiting in certain circumstances, I still think it’s one this series would benefit from taking.

[Photo via Showtime]

Sean Colletti received his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. He writes television criticism for @Sound on Site and at his personal blog, There is nothing on. His current favorite shows are Mad Men, Louie and Parks and Recreation.
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