Previously on Penny Dreadful, ‘Verbis Diablo’
Vanessa: “It’s something I haven’t told anyone.”
Ethan: “Then tell me.”
Vanessa finds Ethan looking at the blood scorpion on her floor and at his earnest insistence, she tells him of her encounter with her first witch, the Cut-Wife of Ballentree Moor.
Flashback: On the windy moors, Vanessa attempts to approach a broken-down home but is stopped by wards at the gate. She stands in the rain all night until she collapses. The next day the cut-wife (Patti LuPone) comes out, shoves a hand up her skirt, and then bites her own thumb. She draws a bloody cross on Vanessa’s forehead, speaking the Devil’s Tongue to release her, and demands to know her purpose—an unwanted pregnancy? a malady, like all the others? No, she’s there because she isn’t like any others. The witch tests Vanessa’s abilities by asking her to discern the origins of a scar on her back, to feel through her skin. As Vanessa’s mind reaches out, the cut-wife notes:
“You’re strong willed and agile, like the scorpion.”
Vanessa perceives the scar is a brand, earning an invitation inside. Named the cut-wife for providing abortions, the witch is hated by the community which nevertheless needs her services. But Vanessa is there for help with her other-worldly visions about Mina. The witch mocks her, unhelping, until Vanessa perceives the woman’s sister branded her. At that, the cut-wife lays out the tarot and instructs her on its use. Vanessa names Mina, thinking of their own sisterly bond, and draws a card. The Devil.
In the coming days, she teaches Vanessa to interpret the tarot and hunt for powerful herbs, noting Vanessa was born with her gift. She has Vanessa kill a rabbit, and then, as she prepares stew, reads the entire situation with Vanessa’s mother, particularly the part where Vanessa saw her affair and liked it. She urges Vanessa to learn how to protect herself from the legions of evil that will plague her life, both in future days and imminently; dark forces are already coming across the moor after her.
Vanessa: “You’re a terrible woman.”
Cut-Wife: “Not half so terrible as you…. By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes.”
Despite this, Vanessa is determined to save Mina, but the witch interrupts dinner, stunned, and goes to the door. Three women stand outside in the dark, one of them, her sister—Evelyn Poole. In verbis diablo, Evelyn demands Vanessa for their master, mocking the cut-wife’s aging face, which she herself has avoided by selling her soul. Using a hypnotic voice and talking of the old days, Evelyn attempts to lure her sister outside of the protective circle, but Vanessa breaks the trance.
Evelyn: “Do you really want this to be your last battle?”
Cut-Wife: “It is the only battle.”
The misty night conceals the coven’s faces from Vanessa as she helps the witch back inside and to get undressed; she sees the branded scar, a pentagram. The cut-wife tells her they must prepare for the inevitable battle, explaining that her coven used to be “daywalkers”—dabblers in herbs and healing. But after the others began to follow the Devil and “the great midnight arts,” they branded her as a traitor. She retreated to this home and set up wards through which only full humans can pass uninvited, which reaffirms Vanessa’s supernatural status. Speaking of full humans, a girl arrives with some small tokens to purchase an abortion. Vanessa assists, telling the girl that the Lord forgives all. The cut-wife serves up major cut-eyes at that.
Elsewhere, Evelyn blissfully promenades through a field, slaughtering cows with a wave. Later, she berates a lord, Sir Geoffrey, for failing to acquire the witch’s land, hushing his hounds with a glance. He replies that it’s no matter since the entire county will be ruined if the cattle keep dying. They go riding and come across an entire field of dead cattle.
During a forest walk with the cut-wife, Vanessa struggles with learning the verbis diablo, but the witch advises that the Devil’s language should never be easy in her mouth. A carriage passes by and the passengers jeer and spit. Those who do for women are always hated.
Cut-Wife: “Monsters all, are we not.”
Vanessa: “Some perhaps more than others.”
As long as Vanessa feels that is true, it is. Eventually the cut-wife falls ill and accepts that she is simply too old, asking Vanessa to occupy her home and help the many girls in need, not just Mina. How old? Oliver Cromwell himself granted her the land after she harbored him during battle in 1644 (roughly 200 years prior to our story). Not knowing if Vanessa’s heart is good or evil, the witch calls her “my little scorpion” and offers her The Poetry of Death, a book whose last-resort curse will completely cut her off from God.
Back at Sir Geoffrey’s manor, it’s 50 Shades of Dreadful. Evelyn whips him, all the while spinning a tale of vassal disrespect if he doesn’t get this witch problem under control. Shortly afterward, he bullies the local minister into denouncing the cut-wife publicly, then runs across Vanessa on the way home. Still feeling himself, he grabs her by throat, determined to hear her scream, and starts to assault her. She bites his hand, pulls a knife, makes him scream right back, and spits his own blood on him.
That night at the local pub, the priest incites a mob into declaring the witch is cursed. Evelyn stands next to the girl whom Vanessa and the cut-wife helped earlier, the one who first yells, “Burn the witch!”
The ailing witch tells Vanessa she will leave something for her in a safe box once she’s dead, wondering if she will stay. Vanessa won’t, determined as ever to find Mina.
The cut-wife angrily denounces Vanessa as a selfish bitch, though she doesn’t really mean it. Outside, the mob arrives, and the witch stands to meet her fate willingly. As Vanessa helps her outside, she finally gives Vanessa her name, Joan Clayton, and has a last piece of advice: “When Lucifer fell, he did not fall alone. They will hunt you until the end of your days.”
Sir Geoffrey declares Joan guilty of necromancy, and a villager throws a stone. Vanessa screams, restrained and beaten, as Joan is hauled to a tree and manacled, smoking pitch poured over her. Her eyes watch Vanessa through the black murk, unflinching and silent, while the girl lights her on fire. As Joan’s body blazes, the priest heats a cross brand in the flames and brands Vanessa’s back, the same spot as Joan’s pentagram. “Go on, child. Scream for me,” Sir Geoffrey repeats.
They don’t seize the house immediately. Inside, Vanessa suffers and heals, eventually finding what Joan left for her—the deed signed by Cromwell and Joan’s name scratched out with Vanessa Ives in its place. Vanessa takes the spell book and leaves the house behind, manacles still swinging from the tree. She cuts her thumb and draws the blood scorpion on the stone gate before leaving for good, Joan’s words echoing in her mind, “…Be true.”
This was a fantastic episode for Penny Dreadful and its female actors. Besides short appearances by Ethan, Sir Geoffrey, and the priest, the entire episode was carried by Vanessa, Joan the Cut-Wife, and Evelyn. Patti LuPone absolutely killed it, and the writing was imminently quotable. After Vanessa’s other backstory episode “Closer Than Sisters” revealed her considerable powers breaking forth, we find in “The Nightcomers” a rich, moving tale of her first and only mentor, the one person who gave Vanessa choices and tools, not commands. Joan’s misgivings regarding the goodness or evil in Vanessa’s heart underline yet again how precariously she and our Dreadful team stand upon the knife’s edge.
Again we explore a dichotomy—horror originating in both the supernatural and human realms; after all, it is only a girl that lights the match. It is interesting that Joan was branded with a pentagram, yet held off from the “midnight arts,” while Vanessa was branded with a cross. Will she prove to follow the opposite path as well? I have no idea how this confrontation between Evelyn Poole and Vanessa Ives will proceed, but between this episode and the last, I am 100% here for it.
Editor’s Note: At the end of this season of Penny Dreadful we’ll be giving away a copy of *The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful, an official companion guide to the series.
Each week, we’ll end the recap with a trivia question from the episode. At the end of the season, you’ll be able to enter your answers into our Penny Dreadful leaderboard. We’ll randomly pick a winner from the entries with the most correct answers.
Here are the questions for episodes 1-3:
Episode 1: What percent did Victor say to turn the charge down to before the lightning struck?
Episode 2: Which institution has the largest collection of historical pornography besides their own museum, according to Sir Lyle?
Episode 3: Which herb, when hidden in the left pocket, serves for the protection of travelers?
*While the copy being given away was provided by Showtime, they are in no way responsible for choosing the winner. Project Fandom takes full responsibility for the contest, including winner selection and prize disbursement.