Penny Dreadful Review: “Séance” (Season 1, Episode 2)

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That blood-soaked scene is far from the weirdest part of this week’s episode, which is filled to the brim with strange, horrific, thrilling stuff. First and foremost in the “oh-my-god-did-that-just-happen” category is a brilliant, terrifying, completely riveting scene in which Vanessa and Sir Malcolm attend a séance overseen by Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), as part of a deal to get a stuffy, preening historian (Simon Russell Beale) to translate Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs found on a particularly nasty-looking creature Malcolm dispatched in the first episode.

Quickly, things go from bad to worse when the spirits that Kali conjures up aren’t the ones she’s expecting. Instead, the séance draws out something residing inside Vanessa. In an Emmy-worthy performance from Green, the possessed Vanessa, distorting her body and voice in horrific ways, verbally assaults Sir Malcolm. First, she recounts a tale of woe from Malcolm’s past. Apparently, he left his son Peter behind to die a horrible death from dysentry while Sir Malcolm went off on one of his expeditions. “Name a mountain after me, father,” pleads the possessed Vanessa, and judging by the look on Sir Malcolm’s face, that’s not a promise he ever kept. However, Vanessa isn’t done being evil and demonic.

No sooner than has she reenacted the death of Malcolm’s son in agonizing detail (and the way in which we see the character’s face crumble in this scene speaks to just how great Timothy Dalton is in the role) than does another spirit emerge from within her, something more ancient and primordially evil. The possessed Vanessa has a lot of vitriol for Sir Malcolm, viciously accusing him of coveting his daughter, Mina, and also of sleeping with someone, though it’s unclear whether she means Mina or perhaps Vanessa.

Whatever’s inside Vanessa either leaves her or retreats further into her mind, leaving a crowd of shocked partygoers and one very disturbed Sir Malcolm. The historian, however, dismisses it with a wave of his hand, saying, “If one is going to engage with the primordial forces of darkness, one must expect a bit of social awkwardness.” Indeed. He then follows through on translating the hieroglyphs for Sir Malcolm, revealing that what is foretold in them amounts to a doomsday prophecy in which the Ancient Egyptian deity Amunet (hinted to be inside Vanessa) is captured by her consort Amun (aka the Devil), causing the world to collapse into darkness. Got all that?

The acting on Penny Dreadful is just miles above what I expected, particularly from Green. She’s asked to go completely crazy in this episode, and the actress jumps to the task with zeal. She’s definitely the highlight here, and I’m looking forward to exploring what makes her tick down the road, especially given that she responds to her possession by going out and having sex with a random passerby in a rain-soaked London alley (while a curious Dorian watches, natch).

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