Sunday, May 17, 2015

REVIEW: 'Penny Dreadful' - More of Vanessa's Past is Explored as She Deals with the Power of the Witches in 'The Nightcomers'

Showtime's Penny Dreadful - Episode 2.03 "The Nightcomers"

In a flashback, Vanessa learns from The Cut-Wife how to harness her powers.

Last season's "Closer Than Sisters" took the Penny Dreadful audience into Vanessa's past as the connections between her and Malcolm and Mina were more clearly established as well as the scope of the pain the evil forces who want her soul have brought. It was a very effective episode that cemented Eva Green as the true standout performer of the show. It's easy to understand why the show would think it's a good idea to travel back into Vanessa's past once again. This time it's to explain how she learned all of these skills connected to her vast powers. Once more, it is a fantastic episode that showcases the intimacy and the tragedy that has been Vanessa's life.

Vanessa traveled across the country to seek guidance from The Cut-Wife - played by a terrific Patti LuPone. She had heard about this woman's fame and was hoping that she could bring some clarity and answers to the mysteries surrounding her life. Vanessa has been broken by her life. She believes that it would be better to know the truth about her existence now. No matter how dark and dangerous it is, she sees value out of having that knowledge. The Cut-Wife and the other witches of the land can sense Vanessa. They know just how powerful and important she is - both in this world and to the Devil. And yet, Vanessa is still a broken woman at the start of the episode. She's desperate for The Cut-Wife's assistance but The Cut-Wife is content going about her days aiding travelers with abortions, finding love, etc. Vanessa has to earn her way into this house. Her power is known but now she has to channel it in a way that shows her value.

This episode deeply grounds the emotional reality of the narrative this season. The Cut-Wife does take Vanessa in and shows her the power of the cards, the medicine in the plants and the danger of the Devil's tongue. And yet, that journey is also plagued with great peril. The Cut-Wife also happens to be Evelyn Poole's sister. Evelyn has sworn her allegiance to the Devil in exchange for youth, power and beauty. That's a typical trade-off to make. However, there is still pain in the words that Evelyn delivers to her sister. She may still be young and beautiful but her words are her most powerful weapon. She can allure so many people in with nothing more than her words. Even for a brief second, The Cut-Wife is drawn into her charms. Vanessa is able to break off that connection. But that only helps establishes the stakes of this story both in the past and in the present.

Evelyn Poole has been tormenting Vanessa for years. And yet, Vanessa still doesn't have a glimpse of the human face who has caused her all of this suffering. Throughout all of these past traumatic experiences, Evelyn is working from behind-the-scenes. In the shadows, she works to manipulate events that will lead to the destruction of this new bond between Vanessa and The Cut-Wife. Evelyn has been doing that for years now. The Cut-Wife warned Vanessa that she will be hunted and haunted by this witch coven until the end of days. Despite that though, Vanessa is still fully committed to her mission of saving Mina. She has learned all of these skills and The Cut-Wife is desperate for her to continue her work in this house after she is gone from this world.

The Cut-Wife is dying. She is falling victim to old age. And yet, things take an even more tragic turn as Evelyn has whipped the surrounding community into a frenzy desperate to kill the witch who plagues their land. They are violent people manipulated into tearing this new bond between Vanessa and The Cut-Wife apart. It's all a part of Evelyn's plan to control Vanessa and bring her to her master. The community is disruptive to all the progress Vanessa stood to make in this place. They violently need to kill The Cut-Wife because of their narcissistic desires to oppress everything which they do not understand. They need to burn The Cut-Wife as a witch because that's the easy solution they have to the problems that plague their land. Evelyn is a master manipulator. All of that comes to a head in a tragic and disturbed fashion. The Cut-Wife and Vanessa stand firm outside the house. The Cut-Wife is ready for death. She has never feared it for a moment since Vanessa entered her world - even though she knew it was coming for her. She accepts the pain and torture these people inflict on her. It's an even more tragic moment for Vanessa who has to stand idly by and watch as her teacher is burned alive. She is then branded with a cross on her back. A constant reminder of all the pain that has occurred on this day.

All of that pain is just one of the reasons why Vanessa chooses to leave the house at episode's end. She has not been dissuaded from her mission to save Mina. The house will still be there to protect her. It could stand as a place of peace for Vanessa in the future because of the constant torture Evelyn will inflict on her. But in the moment in these flashbacks, Vanessa leaves the place to truly begin her journey with Malcolm, Ethan and company to save Mina. Of course, that mission meets a tragic end as well. And now, Vanessa is fully dealing with all the pain that comes from being haunted constantly by these witches. Evelyn has plagued her for years now. All of that is now coming to a head. And yet, this episode is so vital to the structure of this season because it simply but still tragically establishes the history and the pain shared between these characters. The Cut-Wife was very important to Vanessa. And now, things are returning to that point in her life because of the threat that Evelyn poses once again.  

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Nightcomers" was written by John Logan and directed by Brian Kirk.
  • Because the episode is framed by Vanessa telling Ethan about her experiences with The Cut-Wife, it is a little awkward to get so many scenes from Evelyn's perspective. And yet, those scenes are also incredibly necessary to painting the totality of the story that reaches a very emotionally connected resolution in the end.
  • The image of the scorpion created in the blood is incredibly personal to Vanessa because it's the image The Cut-Wife associated to her. It's the mark that stands outside the house on the rocks that protect it from the demonic spirits trying to get in.
  • There's also some very powerful symmetry in the tragedy of both Vanessa and The Cut-Wife being branded on their backs. It unifies them in a way that is oppressive and tragic which is just so devastating to watch.