[This is a review of Penny Dreadful season 2, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Penny Dreadful is often at its best when the series' atmospheric handicraft is put to work rounding out the story of Vanessa Ives. These moments typically result in a dive deep into the character's history. Entire episodes are given over to flashbacks that demonstrate how the show handles these wonderful digressions into Vanessa's haunting past. In season 1, it was 'Closer Than Sisters,' an hour spent exploring the shattered bond between Vanessa and Mina Murray, and the emotional, psychological, and supernatural fallout that resulted from a devastating sexual indiscretion. It was the first part of Vanessa's coming-of-age story, a tale that continues to unfold in the dark, captivating 'The Nightcomers.'
If 'Closer Than Sisters' was about the breaking of bonds between sisters, 'The Nightcomers' is about those bonds being formed. Both stories intimate the deep, emotional connection between two women by illustrating pivotal moments in Vanessa's past that take her on a dark journey from which she returns a changed person. If the first moment hollowed Vanessa out, the second almost certainly filled her with a new sense of self and purpose.
It's no secret that Eva Green has been a force to be reckoned with during Penny Dreadful's now 11-episode run. But here, Patti LuPone joins Green in a tremendous guest-appearance that all but steals the show. LuPone plays The Cut-Wife, an isolated woman on the moorland who performs various unspoken duties for the neighboring villagers, offering them access to spells, medicine, and, as her name would imply, abortions. She is an outcast, spat upon by men as they pass her in the woods, and yet called upon to remedy their mistakes. She is also a witch who shares a past with the season's antagonist, Evelyn Poole, branded by Satan in the same way Poole's acolytes are, even though their paths diverted centuries earlier.
There are enough stories in the Cut-Wife's journey to fill up another season of Penny Dreadful, and the episode is so good it's a genuine shame we don't get more. From the first moment Vanessa is stopped in her tracks by a symbol drawn in blood outside the old woman's house, it's clear something special is about to happen. And from there, episode writer and series creator John Logan employs the same tricks he did in 'Closer Than Sisters' and 'Possession,' which is to play with time in such a way that we can assume a considerable amount of it passes. But rather than watch as pages on a calendar flip by, it moves as though in a dream, with only a vague sense that the world beyond the fog-shrouded moors continues along with the story unfolding here.
The same vague dreaminess is applied to Vanessa's interactions with the Cut-Wife, but they are not without purpose. Scene after scene fills in some blank about Vanessa that no one knew needed filled, and yet, when it is, the experience of the series feels somehow richer. Ethan Chandler only appears briefly in the episode, and yet his presence is felt throughout, after a powerful callback to the card reading Vanessa asked him to do way back in the series premiere.
This time, however, it is Vanessa being asked to "pick a card, any card." Naturally, she draws the Devil, which should bring about a requisite amount of dread, but instead, as the old witch tells her, the Devil card doesn’t have to mean evil precisely; it can mean other things, like a dark lover bringing a unique kind of terror, something irresistible. This exchange between the two women, wherein the old witch sets Vanessa on a particular path abandoned by the titular Nightcomers long ago and seems happy to do so offers the audience an understanding of Vanessa's importance. "I felt you every step across the moor," she tells Vanessa, before proclaiming the young woman's presence brings a welcome kind of danger, some "spice" to her last days.
What makes 'The Nightcomers' such a great episode is that it doesn't devolve into a training montage of how Vanessa became the woman she is now, or why she identifies with the symbol of the scorpion. Instead it speaks to her experience as a woman, demonstrating the various paths available to her, many of which inevitably lead to encounters with aggressive men – which are depicted throughout the episode as unfolding on an actual path.
One such encounter is with Sir Geoffrey Hawkes (Ronan Vibert), the man Evelyn Poole is manipulating, and through whom Joan Clayton (a.k.a. the Cut-Wife) eventually meets her demise. Hawkes acts as the lens through which the episode examines gender roles, as the wealthy landowner is stymied by the Cut-Wife and controlled by Poole, who, in a delightfully deranged scene, denigrates the man. She calls him a "mute, plaything, toy, slave, beast, f***ing man" before enticing him to finally act against the old witch and Vanessa with startling violence.
It is remarkable how the episode succeeds in focusing its energy on Vanessa and the Cut-Wife, and still delivers a series of great moments featuring Poole. So far this season, Helen McCrory and her devilish smile have themselves been a kind of wonderful digression, filling in the background of the story by giving the series' palpable sense of dread a face, a name, and an exquisite voice, dripping with malice. Here, just watching her walk through a pasture of grazing cattle, making them drop dead with the slightest touch, or seeing Poole tempt the Cut-Wife back to the darker path, speaks to the power and necessity of McCrory's presence so far this season.
In many ways, 'The Nightcomers' is the episode we've been waiting for. Although it takes place seven years in the past, the narrative makes the present all the more pressing and immediate. There're still questions about what Poole's master ultimately wants with Vanessa, but now there's greater context to the journeys of both women. And with that comes a better understanding of the paths they travel, and how close to one another they actually are.
Penny Dreadful continues next Sunday with 'Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places' @10pm on Showtime.