Sunday, May 22, 2016

REVIEW: 'Penny Dreadful' - Vanessa Returns to Her Traumatic Past for Answers About Dracula in 'A Blade of Grass'

Showtime's Penny Dreadful - Episode 3.04 "A Blade of Grass"

Vanessa convinces Dr. Seward to use hypnosis to take her back in time.

Each season of Penny Dreadful so far has featured an episode-long excursion into Vanessa's traumatic and mysterious past. It's a device that easily could become formulaic and contrived. Each episode highlights a time in her life that brings much more clarity to the mystery she is dealing with in the present day. And yet, for the third time in a row, it still produces an episode that is captivating and thrilling to watch. These episodes continue to be fantastic spotlights for Eva Green's performance as Vanessa Ives. It is still so affecting to see her have to endure this trauma and pain over and over again. Her existence in this world is constantly being threatened by the supernatural threats that want to control her. Every day is a battle for her. But the show has found new and exciting ways to keep that as relevant as ever. The threat from Dracula this season has been just as dangerous and enticing as the forces of evil from the two previous seasons. And now, "A Blade of Grass" provides an even deeper look into the mystery that is currently consuming Vanessa's world.

Vanessa has lost her faith this season. Her belief in God had always been a constant for her. She believed he would always protect her from the forces of evil in this world. But now, that belief is broken. She has accepted that she needs to be the one to vanquish these threats from her existence. It's a devastating realization for her to have. One that has taken her awhile to accept. That's the reason why she is going to Dr. Seward now. She wants a way to cope with all of this monstrosity that defines her world. In order for to have that breakthrough though, she needs to understand this new threat she is facing. She can't embrace happiness in this world as long as she knows there's a mysterious entity out there hellbent on destroying her. She needs clarity on the situation as well as purpose. A new relationship doesn't bring her happiness right now. It allows for momentary amusement and pleasure. But that's it. Seward helped provide her with that. And now, Vanessa is asking a lot of Seward by wanting to be hypnotized to uncover the secrets from her past.

This venture into Vanessa's time trapped in a white padded room at a psychiatric institution began at the conclusion of last week's episode. She knew that was the time in her life where she came face-to-face with the monster that is now hunting her. It ended with the tease that Frankenstein's Creature was actually that evil in his life before dying and being brought back thanks to Victor's experiment. It was an effective tease because of the mystery surrounding the Creature's own past. He doesn't know anything about his life from before. He has been unraveling new clues this season that have shown him a family. And now, the audience gets a ton of crucial information as well as the meaningful relationship he had with Vanessa at this institution. Eva Green and Rory Kinnear carry almost this entire episode - with some key assistance from Patti LuPone as well. They show new depths between Vanessa and the Creature. It's not surprising at all that it's revealed he isn't the evil she's searching for. But the answers that this episode does provide are just as captivating and meaningful as well.

The Creature's true name is kept in mystery though. Vanessa asks for it and he refuses to give it to her because of the institution's rules. And yet, that doesn't affect too much of their dynamic together. Vanessa and the Creature had such a fantastic friendship last season. It's not surprising at all that the show decided to reveal an even deeper connection between the true characters. It comes as a surprise to both of them as well. The Creature only has select memories of his past. He only knows of Vanessa from their brief conversations last season. Meanwhile, Vanessa has blocked so much of her time in this institution. It was a dark place for her. The world around her didn't want to accept her version of existence. So they tried to force her into complacency and normalcy. It's a truly brutal process. No matter what the doctors do, Vanessa's life is still affected by the tragic and evil forces of the world. But they are scientists who need a rational explanation for everything that happens. So they keep pushing and pushing for worse and worse treatments to give to Vanessa. It's a brutal display of mistreatment and a lack of compassion for another human being's perspective of the world. And yet, this episode really isn't about the harsh treatments Vanessa is forced to endure. They have already been explored in previous peaks into her past. Instead, this episode is told through the friendship Vanessa forms with the Creature in that white room.

The dynamic between Vanessa and the Creature starts very procedurally. He is simply the orderly who brings her food. Every day he walks in with a plate and tells her that the food is there for her to eat. That's it. It's simple but very effective in showing just how broken down Vanessa is in this place. It only gets more traumatic and manipulative over the course of the hour. The Creature is a part of that as well. He has to force feed her food down a tube just to get her to eat. It's a brutal and horrifying sight. It's simply a part of his job. She needs to survive in order to get better. He's just doing his part in that endeavor. But over the course of months, intimacy starts to form between the two of them. The Creature is the only person who seems compassionate to the person who is forced to stay in this room. Vanessa no longer sees herself as a human being. She is a monster who betrayed her best friend because she wasn't strong enough to avoid Lucifer's temptation. That makes her seem like a crazy person to much of the world. But the Creature wants to see Vanessa like a person. He wants to comfort her and help her through this grueling process. He is willing to listen to the tale she has to say about her life. It forces him to question the normality of his own existence as well. He is happy with his family and his job. It's a brutal and harsh world but he has found happiness. He doesn't need to embrace anything larger than what he can understand. He has his purpose and he's content with that. Vanessa comes to rely on him for support. Yes, it does get sexual after awhile. He makes her feel like herself again. She wants to act on the intimacy they have formed together.

But the time between Vanessa and the Creature is also defined by the darkness and monstrosity also present in this room. Vanessa wants to be happy. She wants to live a normal life where she doesn't have to worry about Lucifer trying to claim her soul. She can't just pretend to be happy. She needs to be happy. That's ultimately what gets her to the grueling surgery to cure her of her illness. But that doesn't happen before she comes face-to-face with the true evil. The Creature is nothing but a vessel for the evil to possess. Lucifer does it to show Vanessa just how much control he still has over her. He can make his presence known to her at any time. He can do that and her God cannot. He wants to seduce her and bring her soul into an everlasting rule by his side. It's a very tempestuous moment for Vanessa. She can cave in at any moment. She can stop fighting and give this evil what he wants. But Lucifer isn't the only one who wants Vanessa. In the previous seasons, it was learned that he has a brother. A demon who fell from heaven as well who is plagued with ruling the Earth. He's a part of this dynamic as well. He wants Vanessa's body as his own. He wants to warp her reality to make her just like him so that they can rule over the world. This evil's name is Dracula. That's such a crucial turning point in this hour. Lucifer and Dracula are brothers who both want Vanessa for their nefarious purposes. They aren't working hand-in-hand for the same goal. They want her for different reasons which sets up an epic battle to come.

Vanessa is seduced by both of these evils. They present a reality free of the pain she has known for all of her life. And yet, she has the strength to cast them both aside. She still has her faith and her powers to rid them of this room and from the Creature. She's still frightened of what Lucifer and Dracula can do. They are powerful beings. But so is she. She went into this hypnotic state for answers. She was trapped in that reality until she retrieved all the memories she came for. She ends the episode with a newfound confidence with recognizing the threat and monstrosity she faces this season. But she isn't able to pull herself out of this state after vanquishing Lucifer and Dracula. No, she can't leave until she recalls just how things ended with the Creature. He was but an innocent bystander in all of this. His life changed because of Vanessa. He couldn't save her from the surgery. But he also made sure that she had a loving face who saw her everyday. He was there for her during this difficult time. Sure, leaving the institution would put him on the path towards his death and his current anguish. Vanessa now understands the role she played in his current existence. She knows far more than him. That promises to be a very enticing thing for the future. These two characters will meant again. When that happens, they could become vital allies and friends during this very troubling and uncertain time.

Some more thoughts:
  • "A Blade of Grass" was written by John Logan and directed by Toa Fraser.
  • Seward helps guide Vanessa through these memories of the past. And yet, so much of it plays as Vanessa experiencing all of these things over again instead of narrating them to Seward. It's also significant that Seward can't do anything to get Vanessa out of this state. That shows just how powerful Vanessa's need for answers really is.
  • The Creature shares a story about his son who asks if anyone lives in the North Pole. At first, he doesn't believe anyone could because it would be cold and lonely. And then, he realized that described Vanessa's life in the institution. But it also has a second meaning because that's where the Creature wanted to flee to at the end of last season.
  • Seward may not believe Vanessa knew and had a relationship with her ancestor. But she is still able to use that to help stabilize Vanessa as she experiences this traumatic and trying time all over again.
  • This episode makes it clear that Vanessa and the Creature are headed to a big reunion. But how are they going to react when they realize they have a mutual friend in Victor Frankenstein?
  • Seriously though, Eva Green needs to win (or at least get nominated!) for more awards. She is so spectacular on this show. Plus, Rory Kinnear is fantastic here as well. He has always been great as the Creature. But here, he is asked to paint the picture of a completely different man and does so flawlessly.