[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 1, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
‘What Death Can Join Together’ is a remarkable installment of Penny Dreadful because even though most of the characters are off doing their own things, it still manages to tie them all together. ‘Possession,’ however, has the benefit of taking place in a single location with most of the main players fighting for the exact same thing yet the narrative feels more disjointed and plodding than ever.
As per usual, all of the performances are impeccable. Eva Green is disturbingly good at giving way to demonic possession, Timothy Dalton nails expressing both a desperation to save Mina and also regret for how he treated his son in the past, and Josh Hartnett emotes more than ever, convincing you that this isn’t just another mission - he deeply cares for Vanessa. Trouble is, even the best performances don’t amount to much when you’re working with a weak script.
‘Possession’ is a bunch of scenarios and story beats we’ve experienced before. The writers likely intended to introduce possession in ‘Séance’ and then give you a sense of how bad it can get in ‘Closer Than Sisters’ so that what happens to Vanessa in this episode feels like the utmost challenge. But the build-up fails and instead we just get scene after scene of Green losing it to her “dark whispers.” She is quite good at it, but the repetition leaves the episode with little to no forward motion.
It is fun seeing Sir Malcolm, Ethan, Frankenstein and Sembene unite to save Vanessa, but once the thrill wears off, the narrative just wades in lackluster side conversations. We know Sir Malcolm is a bad father. What did the talk about returning to Egypt to bring home Peter’s body do for the character? The revelation didn’t even seem to have an effect on Ethan. And why bring up Frankenstein’s drug addiction now? It's nice to learn a little more about characters you’ve come to know and like, but this is the second to last episode of the season. Every minute matters and at this point, not a single one should be wasted on throwaway details.
Perhaps the possession scenes and side conversations would have meant something had they led up to a mind-blowing ending to propel us into the season finale, but when you reach the end of ‘Possession,’ it isn’t even clear how you got there.
What was it that tipped Ethan off that Vanessa isn’t like a daughter to Sir Malcolm? And what about that necklace? Was it just a stroke of luck that he remembered he had it on him and that it wound up doing the trick? How’d he even know how to use it? There’s no need to spell everything out, but when so many elements of the solution are so difficult to wrap your head around, they can’t be tangible and that makes the big finish less rewarding.
The same is true of that last little bit of information regarding Mina’s whereabouts. Vanessa seems to have figured it out, but how and why now? Between the vision and the title of the final episode, ‘Grand Guignol,’ it’s almost a sure thing that Mina is at the theater, but the reveal means nothing when you haven’t participated in figuring it out.
Even if we’re not meant to know the answers to some of these questions and there’s actually some sort of major revelation on the way in the finale, we still need to be part of the process in some manner. In episode 7, the rules of the world are in total disarray, characters are coming up with ideas and doing things without much explanation or justification, and we’re just left to take it for what it is. It can’t work like that.
Half the fun of Penny Dreadful has been coming to know these characters and trying to figure out the Mina mystery right along with them. In ‘Possession,’ however, some characters are too far ahead. When you should be reveling in their new discoveries, you’re too busy trying to figure out how they achieved them and why they’re important, making it impossible to really appreciate them.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with the season 1 finale, ‘Grand Guignol,’ at @ 10pm on Showtime.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.