So far, Penny Dreadful’s flashbacks exist to be as Gothic as possible. But while “The Nightcomers” is definitely that, it’s also one of the best superhero origin stories on TV this year.
Sometimes you get to see an episode of a show that feels like it cuts right to the heart of the series. This show glories in assembling its cast of misfits and letting the actors bounce off one another. It adores its Victorian Gothic trappings – sometimes the screen can barely contain them all. But “The Nightcomers” sets those things aside in a flashback episode that’s payoff for some of the show’s mysteries, an exploration of questions that don’t yet have answers, and the missing origin story for Vanessa Ives I always wanted.
There’s no time wasted in getting to the meat of the matter, either: Ethan’s worried about the scorpion sigil, and Vanessa – after a glance at him that makes me wonder if she was checking him for the Devil’s pupils before she admitted anything – launches into the story of her time with the Cut-Wife of Ballantrae Moor.
First things first: In case you’re worried this episode isn’t Victorian Gothic enough, it has:
Moors. So misty it was almost impossible to screencap anything! The most Gothic scenery of all, except maybe:
Suspicious manor houses. Surrounded by:
Witch-sensitive dogs. (This show really knows how to soak an atmosphere with horror; those dogs turning and falling silent was chilling.)
Suspiciously kinky gentry. There’s been plenty of sex on Penny Dreadful, and it has so far avoided most kink-shaming, up to and including “Definitely cough up more blood on me I’m 800% in,” but it’s worth noting that the submissive gentleman here is also the evil, easily-manipulated gentleman.
General pastoral greenery. So much of this episode concentrates on the connection Vanessa feels to the land; the everyday cruelty of living off what you can hunt, the cataloging of plants and herbs that brings me a new appreciation of her trip to the botanical garden (and makes me wonder if she was feigning ignorance of the deadly orchid just to see what Dorian would do, which....would be weird). Director Brian Kirk does great work framing Vanessa against nature, whether unsettling in the rainy moors or welcoming amid the forest:
It’s the sort of establishing background beat that makes you assume she’ll be coming back here long before the third act ups the specific stakes.
Superstitious peasantry, complete with torches and shackles.
Witches! Admittedly a gimme. Helen McCrory and her henchwitches show up outside the Cut-Wife’s door, and even in Evelyn’s scenes with her husband where she’s more evil gentry than evil witch, we get a glimpse of her ability to utterly ruin the lives of everyone around her without breaking a sweat.
And animal blight, which affects at least 47% of Victorian literature, caused by witchcraft, affecting at least 62% of the Gothic literature subset.
But even more than the Gothic – and sadly harder to screencap – this episode did a yeoman’s work grounding Vanessa in what we know of her past, and setting up the process by which she turned from the wrecked young woman who’d been seduced by the Devil to the woman who sat down with Ethan in the pilot and handed him his own number.
There’s always a danger in a story with one woman set apart for her specialness walking among a sea of dudes; this exceptionalism might start to substitute for story, and her reason for being so special becomes, at some point, an accidental metaphor for femininity. (It’s the old “the only woman on the bridge is an empath whose power is her intuition, we did not think this through” gambit.) This was never a serious problem with Penny Dreadful: Vanessa got so much narrative emphasis that she built a whole person rather than a shortcut – she could freeze a vampire at zero paces, sure, and she seemed to be awfully canny about seeing through people’s bullshit, but she could also be kind and funny; she could be peacekeeper but had moments of brittle weakness. Crucially, she is as boggled by what’s happening to her as any of the men. The show has its faults, but it tries to give Eva Green as much breathing room as possible to make Vanessa a full person.
There was, of course, some exceptionalism, simply because, with the exception of Mina, her world was so male. But that also carried an undercurrent of commentary that this episode proves is deliberate: Vanessa surrounds herself with men because she’s well aware, by now, of how many men you need to protect you from other men. When she coldly dismissed them all in the season premiere, saying they couldn’t help her, she was speaking from grim experience; she is fighting this alone, and men, right now, have nothing to do with it. It’s kind of great.
“The Nightcomers” is a mixture of character-based procedural and superhero origin story, and it works. By the end of this hour, you understand her fear of the witches and why it’s orders of magnitude greater than her fear of the vampires. The vampires were an obstacle, something she knew she had to defeat to save her friend – and she had some resources that we, at the time, couldn’t define. (Outside of her thousand-yard stare, of course; she’s been packing that thing all along.) The former, we now know, robbed her of her peace of mind, and she’s never quite gotten it back; the witches have fundamentally shaped her in a way the vampires never did.
“Leave everything you were outside this door. Everything you are, bring with you.” (Superhero as heeelll.)
Like every superhero, she has her archetypes in place. The Cut-Wife is her exacting mentor, and Patti LuPone is honestly one of the best performances this show has seen, which is a fairly high bar to clear with this cast. (Eva Green does a scene in the Cut-Wife’s house after three days of standing outside with such palpable exhaustion it seems she could faint any second.) Alternately brittle and hilarious, otherworldly and deeply human, you know the Cut-Wife’s destiny from the moment we meet her – and she knows it, too. It doesn’t lessen the power of spending time with her. She effortlessly inhabits this episode, and you can see the influence she has on Vanessa with an organic weight that takes this mentorship from exposition flashback to some of the best character work yet.
And Vanessa’s training is less about harnessing her powers than it is about self-knowledge and choice. She’s strong and agile (like the scorpion, conveniently!), but at a loss. The Cut-Wife herself made the choice to leave her coven when they turned to the dark, and has been fighting them since, on behalf of people who hate her, and it’s this Vanessa has to face. We get a poultice here and an incantation there, but the Cut-Wife reminds Vanessa again and again that intent is everything and that compromise is both necessary and a harbinger of disaster. She teaches Vanessa some of the Verbis Diablo (which lends a new reading to the carriage scene in the season premiere), but warns her not to let it feel comfortable; she teaches Vanessa how to follow someone’s thoughts back into their own head under pressure and then is surprised how well Vanessa can do it; and she teaches Vanessa the tarot cards we’ve come to associate with her, staring when she asks Vanessa to draw a card that reminds her of her love for Mina.
No wonder she seemed so prepared all last season.
But some of the most interesting moments of Vanessa and the Cut-Wife are of conflict: how much the Cut-Wife worries Vanessa will give in, how much the Cut-Wife despises Vanessa’s quest to help Mina (it’s horribly selfish, she thinks, given all the peasant girls who need help). Making it even harder for Vanessa to come to easy decisions, the episode is explicitly about how the choices ahead of her are lose-lose: at one point, a girl comes to the Cut-Wife for an abortion, and through the terrifying process and the judgmental aftermath from the locals, Vanessa gets to see the cost of doing business as a Victorian woman. As the Cut-Wife says, “So it is always for those who do for women.”
(Great shot; the two of them against the world, the Cut-Wife wiping spit from her face as Vanessa tries to decide why any of these people are worth saving and comes up blank.)
Vanessa can give in to her power and turn to evil – she can do that easily – but she knows that’s turning away from God, with whom her relationship is tortured but very present. The other option isn’t to triumph; it’s just to...not give in. “Truly I don’t know if your heart is good or bad,” the Cut-Wife admits on her deathbed, and thanks to Patti LuPone, that’s both a chillingly pragmatic statement and a loving admonition – for someone who suspects too often that she’s already a lost cause, it’s palpably galvanizing for Vanessa to hear that someone believes she can still turn the tide.
Their nemesis, though Vanessa never really gets a good look, is Evelyn. And watching Helen McCrory and Patti LuPone facing off is one of the best scenes this show has ever had. (Keeping their eyes open on the windy, smoky moor is an achievement by itself.)
It’s campy and arch: at one point McCrory positively purrs the line: “God, sister, how you speak. Like a talking potato.” But it’s also as powerfully Gothic as anything this show has given us; when the Devil’s tongue doesn’t work to lure the Cut-Wife past the threshold of safety, Evelyn uses the sort of sensual pleas that would make “Goblin Market” proud, and the Cut-Wife gives in (anyone would). What saves her? Vanessa, disobeying orders and making herself seen.
Evelyn’s first response, very interestingly, is fear. Her second: “Oh, she is wasted on you.”
It’s no coincidence that the only man any of them really interact with this episode is the local lord (Evelyn’s husband) and he’s as entitled a rapey, bigoted powermonger as the Gothic can provide us. He is, of course, manipulated into killing the Cut-Wife, but even before he has murder on his mind, he’s out to try a little rape. “I’ll make you scream for me,” he disgustings as he reaches for her.
Vanessa deals with him.
“Scream for me.”
Even later, as he’s branding her with the inverted cross, she doesn’t give him the satisfaction of a scream. One of my favorite things about this show is the ways Vanessa’s strength is tempered alongside her suffering; she’s benighted, as Victor would say, but never powerless against the evils that visit her. We always believe she has more resources than anyone – even Vanessa herself – imagines, because we see how much she’s able to struggle against her demons.
But she also struggles with them; that’s at the core of what makes her such a compelling character. It’s why no one can be sure of her loyalties; it’s why she’s so horrified whenever her piercing observations suddenly open up and make room for the Devil. It’s why she sought the Cut-Wife in the first place, so desperate and imperious that the Cut-Wife accepted her as her last great cause, even if she’s a lost one. The saddest moment for them both might be when the Cut-Wife asks if Vanessa truly feels the Devil has hold of her. Even knowing what it means, Vanessa answers honestly: “Yes.”
Not that it stops the Cut-Wife from protecting her: “We must prepare for battle. When it comes, it comes fully, and to the end.”
It’s an episode full of dual rituals. One arc is the prescriptions of the folktale: Vanessa stands outside the Cut-wife’s house until the morning of the third day; there’s a faithless maid; the witches gather at night to plot and scheme. The other ritual is the prescriptions of the theater that are all over this episode, from dialogue even more stylized than usual to the use of the rickety cottage as the stage in which these two women come to know, accept, and respect each other.
The end, when it comes, is devastating (aided by Abel Korzeniowski’s haunting score). It made it clear she couldn’t stay – above and beyond the obvious that since this is a flashback, of course she left – but also reinforces that she’ll be back to settle the score. Vanessa has a sense now of what she’s capable of. We know she puts it to use. When she draws that scorpion in blood at the gates of the house, it’s a promise.
This episode answers so many questions about Vanessa’s abilities, about what she controls versus what takes control of her. But given the cost of doing business, it also leaves us with a question about whether she’ll be able to save herself in the process; as the Cut-Wife (Joan, her name is Joan) warns her, one wrong step is all it takes.
And here the episode ends, as it should. While it matters that Ethan’s the one she told, it doesn’t matter right now what Ethan thinks. It doesn’t matter what his worries are about the scorpion, or how concerned he is for her, or whether she’s actually told him about the brand on her back, or whether it still hurts. The episode ends exactly where it should: the moment Vanessa left behind something she still carries with her.
If you haven’t seen Penny Dreadful before, you don’t need to in order to see and enjoy this episode for what it is. However, I can’t think of a better episode to convince you that amid all the Gothic hilarity, this show is beginning to have a larger, deeper conversation with its characters and its tropes; if the season continues like this, we’re in for some amazing TV.