Penny Dreadful is a prime example of shows that benefit from short seasons. For as much as I love the show, and for as much as I can savor pretty much every shot in it, from a plotting standpoint, its short seasons (running 8-10 episodes each) are around the right length for a reasonable arc.
If the first season has anything approaching filler episodes, they would probably be “Demimonde” and “What Death Has Joined Together.” Of the two, “Demimonde” at least does some work moving the characters around and placing them in interesting combinations. “What Death Has Joined Together,” on the other hand, has the unenviable task of trying to bring the audience back up to speed with the whole ensemble after the Vanessa Spotlight of “Closer than Sisters” while also laying the groundwork for the tour de force of “Possession.”
Along the way, it gives us the necessary progression of a few storylines. Caliban’s infatuation with a kind woman in the theater troupe sours when he spies on her talking with her actual lover in terms that make it clear Caliban won’t be on the receiving end of her romantic affections. This leads him to kill Van Helsing, with whom Victor has been spending time, as a warning to Victor. Fortunately for the young doctor, Van Helsing was able to give him a basic briefing and some reading materials on vampires.
Ethan returns to Brona after his night with Dorian, and his continued affection for her wins him the gift of her necklace with a token to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. (That probably won’t be significant later…) He’s then recruited by Sir Malcolm and Sembene into a raid on a vampire-infested ship. Unfortunately, Mina is not among the creatures on board.
And then there’s Vanessa and Dorian. Their flirtation – set up earlier and given attention in “Demimonde” – turns into a full-on date. When the date turns into sex back at Dorian’s, Dorian does the right thing by asking for consent before he kisses Vanessa’s neck. She turns the rest of the encounter into a much rougher scene, telling him not to ask for anything else and gradually escalating to knifeplay. Dorian, being Dorian, isn’t one to turn down any sort of interesting encounter and goes along with it. Once things get intense enough, though, a Scary Voice speaks to Vanessa and she abandons Dorian mid-coitus. When she returns to Malcolm, it doesn’t take long until she’s floating off the floor.
If it seems like I’m not providing much thematic analysis of the episode, that’s because I’m not. The characters more or less behave as we expect, advancing their storylines and setting things in motion for the last two episodes of the season. The show is, as always, beautifully produced and well acted; there just isn’t much added to what’s already been established.
“Possession,” however, is another thing entirely. Vanessa spends most of the episode possessed, and the episode largely consists of cuts between that and the rest of the characters biding time at Malcolm’s while they try to figure out what to do. Both sets of scenes do quite a bit of work.
The times between Vanessa-centric scenes give us Malcolm, Victor, Ethan, and Sembene bonding and bouncing off each other.
One of the more enjoyable bits pays off some character arcs set up earlier in the season. Back in “Demimonde,” we saw Victor display quite a bit of resentment toward Malcolm because Malcolm wanted Ethan, but not Victor, to accompany him on his upcoming expedition to Africa. This played into Victor’s ongoing father issues and insecurities about his own physical capability, and it wound up demonstrating Malcolm’s tendency to be the Worst Father Figure in the World, trying to play Victor against Ethan.
In “Possession,” though, Victor seeks out Ethan as an ally. After seeing Caliban standing ominously across the street, Victor asks Ethan to teach him how to shoot. They turn bottle into an impromptu shooting range in the convenient dungeon-like chamber where Fenton had been kept. Ethan walks Victor through how to shoot, and we watch Victor try and fail a few times before managing to hit his target. Exhilirated, he rewards Ethan with a moment of magnanimity, asking Ethan to demonstrate his sharpshooting talent. After a polite attempt to demur to protect Victor’s pride, Ethan obliges and finishes off the rest of the bottles with a bullet apiece. When Sembene comes to scold them on behalf of Malcolm, the two start laughing and Ethan jokes about making “Dad” angry. This sort of healthy bonding, especially combined with the recognition of the potentially toxic relationships Malcolm has been trying to forge with them, offers a refreshing and much-needed reprieve.
Of all the male actors, the real anchor of the episode turns out to be Josh Hartnett as Ethan. Given meaningful dialogue with each of the other characters, including both himself and a diabolical hallucination in conversation with Vanessa, he makes Ethan the heart of the group. It’s because of that work that the hallucination of him saying terrible things to Vanessa cuts so deeply. That in turn pays off at the end of the episode, when he manages an exorcism that seems to surprise even himself. (Key to the exorcism: That necklace of Brona’s from the previous episode.)
And, of course, Eva Green makes Vanessa’s torment viscerally affecting and her turns as mouthpiece of the Devil heartrending. The possession trope is well-established in film and television, and there’s little original about the show’s choices for portraying it. Instead, it trusts its characters and their actors to make the piece work, and they deliver admirably.
This work also builds on “Closer than Sisters,” expanding on Vanessa’s relationship with the Devil. Managing Dracula and the Devil, especially with an Egyptian mythology overlay and a whole separate Frankenstein storyline, is a lot to juggle in only eight episodes. Without strong characters and performances, it would not work. This episode shows what can be done when well-formed characters have been given time to grow and deepen while the audience watches before being thrust into an emotionally high-stakes encounter. The best episodes of television are able to manage this feat, and this is a standout from a generally impressive first season.
There’s only one episode left in Season 1, and it will get its own post with some closing thoughts. There’s still the hope that our intrepid monsters will find Mina, after all, plus some long-hinted-at character developments that need to be resolved. Before that, though, it’s time for a trip to Egypt to see Universal’s 1932 The Mummy.