Lemony Snicket’s (Daniel Handler) next-to-last Series of Unfortunate Events books, The Penultimate Peril, managed to get nearly every single character from the previous books all checked into the same hotel. I was thinking of this during the penultimate episode of Penny Dreadful’s first season, not only because so many unfortunate things happen on this show, or because most of the characters remind me of Brett Helquist illustrations from the Snicket books, but because like so many penultimate installments of a story, all the characters get shoved into one room. Here in the land of the Dreadfuls, it’s to deal with Vanessa Ives’s demon possession, and the results are both horrifying and homage-ridden.
Last week, Vanessa wound up getting it on with Dorian Gray, which lead her back to Dreadful manor where she then levitated off the ground. Picking up there, Sir Malcolm is freaking out and telling all his compadres that this is way different than other possessions Vanessa has experienced, which seems a little on the not true side since we’ve already seen her freak out everyone at a party earlier in the season. But all hands are on deck here to help stay by Vanessa’s bed side through her dark night of the demon-soul situation.
Pretending like he’s from different TV show all together, Dr. Frankenstein oddly tries to suggest that all of this has possibly been triggered by sexual trauma in Vanessa’s past and present, and that perhaps nothing supernatural is going on at all. While it’s absurd for Frankenstein to briefly be playing the voice of reason, this quick jab into the world of harsh reality seems to relate to a kind of Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle hybrid insofar as Conan Doyle believed in the supernatural, but his fictional hero firmly did not. Or, looking at it another way, Frankenstein is now embodying both the text of the novel Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s hand-wringing about how she didn’t really endorse the stuff she wrote about one way or another.
Frankenstein’s crack-pot normal-person theory is quickly thrown out when Vanessa comes into the room and with Darth Vader-zeal starts using the demon-Force to throw books and tables around, and generally make the place look like the library from the first scene of Ghostbusters. Sir Malcolm’s Timothy Dalton-ness is registering at a full Dalton this episode—his reactions to his desk almost smacking him are priceless. Soon, Sembene runs into the room and lays out Vanessa with a ruthless punch. The next thing you know, the episode becomes essentially an homage to The Exorcist.
Since we’ve come to believe Vanessa is under the control of a scary-end-of-the-world-god-creature, Amunet, most of what she says while possessed generally follows the classic demonic taunting style of saying stuff a normal polite person would never say, even if a lot of it is actually true. She calls Sir Malcolm out on his racist and terrible crimes perpetrated while he was in Africa. She reveals that she knows Ethan Chandler slept with Dorian Gray. She throws quotes from Frankenstein’s monster, Caliban, back in Frankenstein’s face, and says nothing about Sembene. (I still think Sembene is going to reveal himself to be an 11th hour badass. When asked in this episode if he believes in God, Sembene just says “I believe in everything.”)
As with the faux-Sir Malcolm appearing to Vanessa earlier, this time, an ersatz Ethan appears to her, initially as a comforting figure, but soon reveals himself to be a mental manifestation of whatever demon is fighting for control of Vanessa. Here, she makes mention to the demon inside her feeling like an animal “clawing to get out.” Do we need anymore references to the fact that everyone knows Ethan is really a werewolf? Is not revealing Ethan’s werewolf mode too soon Penny Dreadful’s way of trying to not jump the wolf-shark?
At this point, Dr. Frankenstein is shooting up morphine, and then later, shooting up a mixture of cocaine (in another subtle Sherlock Holmes reference.) Looking all strung-out and sad, there’s a noticeable channeling of Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting, now remade as Demonspotting. Jarringly, there wasn’t much warning on Frankenstein’s drug addiction tendency, but with all the stuff he’s been dealing with (including Caliban now just standing outside the window watching him 24/7) it sort of makes sense. It also renders the character more flippant and jerky than previously, and when the demon/Vanessa accuses him of being a virgin, you can see a sort of switch go off in his head—a jerk switch. He suddenly gets an interest in shooting guns and swearing at the poor priest who the Dreadfuls bring in at the 11th hour to maybe phone in an exorcism. All of this, of course, is hiding the fact that Frankenstein is totally hoping Vanessa will die, so he can use her body as the bride for his vengeful monster, Caliban. But, because he’s basically a good person, this guilt is turning Frankenstein into a downer, a druggie, and an asshole.
As before, the only person who seems to be coming off as any sort of hero is Ethan Chandler, who, almost inexplicably saves the day at the end of this episode. After a lot of hemming and hawing over what to do about Vigo the Carpathian the demon inside of Vanessa, the lame, almost after-thought exorcism seems like the best way. This goes horribly and results in the priest’s cheek getting bitten by demon-Vanessa. BUT, like a gun from Chekov, a random medallion given to Ethan by Brona Croft last week suddenly seems to give him spiritual powers and sends him into a Latin-murmuring fit. By applying this medallion to Vanessa’s forehead and chanting like he’s in The Temple of Doom, Ethan seems to cure Vanessa and then promptly saunters out into the snow, not even bothering to shut the door behind him.
Now rested, and having been paid a visit from the Showtime make-up team, Vanessa comes to Sir Malcolm and tells him where his daughter really is. Vampire game on!
This one was a little bit of a slow-burn for me, but I really, really loved the creepy flip Frankenstein goes through here, and thought Harry Treadaway showed chops previously unseen. Let’s get this kid into everything! Does the next Bond film need a bad guy? Could he have a shot in being in that possible adaptation of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? Everything about him in this episode exuded not only the complete character of his version of Frankenstein, but also an angsty young person dealing with stuff that would crack pretty much everyone. As with the start of the series, the journey of Frankenstein seems to be the most compelling narrative here.
And yet, there’s only one more episode for Penny Dreadful to wrap up (or at least slightly reconcile) some of its plotlines. Will Caliban get his monster bride? Will Brona survive her illness? Can Vanessa ever not be in touch with the spirit world? Is Josh Hartnett a werewolf? And most importantly: will Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm every be nice to anyone ever again?
Penny Dreadful season finale is next week!
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.