It’s hard to believe, but the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful is already drawing to a close. Strangely, despite that, “Possession” doesn’t feel like any penultimate episode that I’ve seen lately. Instead of setting the table for a climactic battle between Malcolm’s group of misfits and the Master’s army of vampires, it almost exclusively focuses on the struggle for Vanessa’s soul (which, to be fair, has also been a huge part of the first season, though it certainly wasn’t what worked to bring the characters together).
“Possession” is perhaps the most ghastly and disturbing episode that the show has done to date, exploring just how vicious and punishing the demon inside Vanessa can be. It all hinges on Eva Green’s acting, and the actress gives another go-for-broke performance in this episode, providing what may just be the most convincing portrayal of a possession victim since the original Exorcist. If Green doesn’t get some awards love for the amazing, terrifying stuff she’s been doing on Penny Dreadful, something’s horribly wrong with the world.
We start out this week as Vanessa awakens hours after totally freaking Malcolm out by levitating in front of him. “To be beautiful is to be almost dead, isn’t it?” She asks him, going on to describe a “brisk trade” for erotic photographs of dead women. Whatever force took her over at the end of the last episode is still evidently in control, so when he asks Vanessa if she can hear him, the question’s quite justified. She dodges his inquiry, instead asking whether he dressed her and then, in a childish voice, calling Malcolm “father” and reminiscing about how she always failed to track his expeditions on a map in the solarium. He’s startled. “Mina?” She smiles at him and snaps back, “Somewhat,” before mocking Malcolm’s deceased wife as a “poor fat thing” and hissing at him to “tell [her] about the other women.” Apparently, Malcolm took his pick of the natives in Africa, sleeping with as many of them as he pleased across various tribes.
As Vanessa screams the names of the tribes, a tea cup on the table begins to quiver. Then, sheets of paper fly up, followed by whole books, hurtling past Malcolm’s head at high speeds. A large bookcase is dragged forward and thrown, becoming part of a maelstrom of flying objects. Malcolm, petrified and flabbergasted, can only watch the chaos. Luckily, Sembene is outside and steps in to knock Vanessa unconscious. The objects clatter to the floor, the wind gone from their intangible sails.
Realizing that the situation is beyond them, Malcolm calls in Victor, who examines a seemingly normal Vanessa for signs of physical injury. All her vital signs appear normal, but the demon inside her soon reveals itself once again, mocking Victor’s chastity and quoting the same section of Shelley’s Adonais that Victor told the late, lamented Van Helsing last week. “You think you know a greater demon? Tell me!” Vanessa cries. “Or shall I tell you?” He leaves the room quickly, no doubt afraid of what Vanessa is going to say next. He diagnosed her condition as being something psychosexual, a past trauma brought to the surface by unrestrained sexual activity (they both guess that her date with Dorian had something to do with it). As they speak, Vanessa’s cards inexplicably lift to reveal hundreds of spiders underneath, which quickly overrun the table – a callback to the first episode, when identical spiders desecrated Vanessa’s cross.
By this time, Ethan has popped out of the woodwork, ready to swoop in and save the woman he respects so deeply. When he comes to her side, Vanessa is finally back in control. She apologizes for not being herself and accepts Ethan’s outstretched hands graciously. However, it’s not long before the demon jumps back behind the wheel, forcing her to ask Ethan, “Did you fuck him, or did he fuck you?” He recoils as if slapped, and she gleefully screeches that “he fucked you,” adding that, “I think we’ll tell Brona.” As she torments him, Vanessa crawls around on the floor like an animal, her eyes wild, and curses in a foreign language. I’ve lost track of how many points that is for the demon, but Vanessa’s clearly losing her battle.