Penny Dreadful: The Art of Possession

Penny Dreadful’s penultimate episode underscores one irrefutable fact about the show: it belongs and has always belonged to one woman, Eva Green. Following in the footsteps of other great actresses in female-driven horror series (Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates among many, many others in American Horror Story and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel), Green so clearly dominates the Dreadful proceedings that her costars are often pushed to the sidelines, carriers of the subplots while she serves the main course.

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This week’s episode, Possession, deals with the aftermath of Vanessa Ives’s bloody sexual encounter with Dorian Grey. Being Penny Dreadful, that event naturally unleashed Ives’s inner demon, a creature that has haunted her since the cataclysmic separation with best friend Mina Harker. Her protectors stand idly by, dumbfounded and largely rendered impotent by this display.

Green spends most of the episode moaning, screaming, speaking in tongues, and clawing at her skin as if to free a creature lurking beneath. This is the latest example of one of the most highly committed performances in a television series I’ve seen. She writhes and contorts her body, which somehow appears emaciated and useless. Her eyes, however, drive her performance, giving the impression that there truly is another force within her. This is no traditional possession performance. It is long and drawn out. It is simultaneously painful and fascinating to witness. It is first class in every way.

The episode’s arc deals with Ives’s apparent demonic possession and the various reactions by the men as they struggle to save her. The demon within Ives refutes their attempts at salvation by confronting them with their innermost secrets using the popular horror trope of the threat of unrepressed female sexuality. Here, Ives ridicules Dr. Frankenstein, sensing his virginity and using it to disrupt his concentration. She also dangles Ethan Chandler’s homosexual encounter with Dorian Grey. Interestingly, the men never address her claims amongst themselves, largely focusing on the mysterious intentions of Sir Malcolm Murray who is revealed to have inadvertently caused the death of his son through abandonment and self-absorption. Ives does reveal that Murray also apparently harassed his son, Peter, and forced him onto prostitutes on their famed African expedition. This revelation coupled with Peter’s refusal of Vanessa’s earlier advances infers latent homosexuality within Peter and Sir Murray’s determination to stamp it out. The final revelation that Murray is using Ives to retain the link to his equally possessed daughter, Mina, solidifies him as one of the true villains of the piece.

After much discussion, the group finally decides to call the services of a priest. It’s a futile, doomed attempt to save Ives as she has often rejected the idea of God. The priest arrives and is, as expected, nearly food for the demon. She bites off his cheek and spits it across the room, Max Cady style. Finally, it all comes down to the connection between Chandler and Ives as she begs him to kill her. Instead, Chandler takes the necklace given to him by his consumption-ridden girlfriend, Brona, and performs an exorcism of his own. Ives collapses, seemingly freed from demonic possession.

This episode ranks as one of the best in the series thus far. While, for me, it doesn’t top Ives’s backstory spectacle, it wisely focuses on her, allowing Green to anchor the episode. It is a dense, claustrophobic episode filled with unsettling visuals and brilliant sound design. I do wish Logan had more elegantly balanced the material between Green and the rest of the cast who are given very little to do other than take drugs, shoot guns, and lash out against each other. Perhaps he uses these scenes to comment on the failures and fragility of men. The demon Ives ridicules not only their sexual insecurities but also their softer natures – Dr. Frankenstein’s soft, feminine hands and Chandler’s delicate handling of Ives. An amusing throwaway scene features Chandler teaching Frankenstein how to fire a gun – a comic and deliberately clichéd return to masculinity and power.

Like the best of shows, Penny Dreadful demands repeat viewings to discover its secrets. As with the flayed-open vampire earlier in the series, the surface only tells you half the story. Logan isn’t merely ripping off Victorian era horror – he’s repurposing it for a larger meaning. With next week’s season finale, I hope the series is able to resolve this plot, providing a clear, cohesive narrative to comb through for thematic treasures.

I suspect we still have a few secrets left to unravel…


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