Previously on Penny Dreadful, “Good and Evil Braided Be”
There comes a time in every Penny Dreadful season when an episode comes down to Vanessa and one other person, and every time it just gets exponentially better. You might know that I haven’t been a huge fan of the Frankenstein’s Creature story, if only for the nonstop emo, but now… The tragedy of what John Clare once was, an orderly who cares too much, who so gently leads Vanessa through her 5-month treatment if only to be used by Satan and Dracula as their mouth piece (or did they?), who leaves the Banning Clinic the day of her surgery to his eventual, still-unnamed death because he loved her… Ugh! Straight to the heart. This review would be a 12/10 if I could figure out the settings.
The story is framed by Seward facilitating Vanessa’s hypnosis, which reaches a fugue state because Vanessa doesn’t want to leave. But, wisely, gently, almost lovingly, she invokes Joan Clayton’s name and guides Vanessa through remembering her treatment to reach the heart of her trauma. We still don’t know what happened after that, but Vanessa now knows the prince of darkness stalks her once more. It is perhaps less of a mystery how Lucifer could reach Vanessa in the cold, empty room, but Dracula… What exactly are his powers? Perhaps they mirror his brothers’ in ability to reach through the hole in her soul and project himself into her mind, embodied by the kind orderly. And yet, Vanessa makes her mark on them all.
Almost a secondary star, the sound in this episode set my teeth on edge in the most exquisite way, from Vanessa endlessly scratching her nails down the cell padding, to the gagging when the orderly must force feed her, to the rattling snakes and flapping bats when the brothers of darkness face off, and of course finishing with Vanessa’s otherworldly growling through the verbis diablo. Is it weird to miss that?
In review, the man we know as John Clare solely cares for Vanessa between her treatments/torture at the Banning Clinic. She gradually loses her confrontational defiance, but he must force feed her. As is her way, she slowly breaks down his professional barriers. First he admits to the start of hydrotherapy, then brings her a blanket, which, when he must remove it for suicide risk, spawns their first fight. She scratches him across the cheek, leading to straight-jacketing “until she’s not dangerous.” For Vanessa, that’s never. Her confinement births an even closer intimacy as he spoon feeds her with a wooden spoon thoughtfully brought from home because it’s easier on her mouth.
In here, she believes, God cannot find her, but she can’t be just a “cog in an intricate social machine” like most women. Resisting his encouragement to get better, Vanessa finally tells him that she isn’t ill but beset by the devil. Leaving, he turns.
“I believe what you said about Lucifer. After all, I was there.”
His eyes turn to shadow.
When her treatment evolves to worse things, like gagging, the orderly arrives armed with a brush, makeup, and tips from his wife to help her remember herself. Holding up a mirror, he says,
“This is who you are. Please don’t forget that.”
For a few hours until his night shift is up, he reads her simple poetry, starting with, “I Have a Little Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Oh, how many shadows Vanessa has. Though he must remove it at the end of his shift, he swears that soon nobody will touch her without her permission. Vanessa cries. He cries. I cried.
As Vanessa is wont to do, she reaches a low point and acts out through her sexuality, stripping down to her bruised skin and clinging to him. He kisses back a moment but breaks it off, as she says darkly that none of them are heroes. Desperate, he pushes her to give up this uniqueness or face trephination, spelling out the horrible results: broken things. She refuses. Lucifer reappears in his eyes, wanting to love her.
“Be what you are and always were.”
A shadowy snake crawls across the wall as John-Clare-as-Lucifer throws open his arms for her to embrace. She holds out a moment for God’s mercy, but soon they crawl, belly to the floor, to meet in the middle, hands clasped, foreheads pressed. Another presence interrupts, a second John Clare with bat shadows on the wall, backing his weakened brother into a corner. He seduces Vanessa, saying she is the wolf and the scorpion, but she lures him into the one thing the orderly never did: giving her his name, Dracula. That is all she needs to gather her strength.
“I am no more than a blade of grass. But I am. You think you know evil, but here it stands.”
Levitating, she cites the verbis diablo, scaring them both away, and comes to with the orderly still mid-question.
Upon his next visit, she is shaven for the trephination. Despite her resistance, she admits that she did try to appear normal for the doctor, but when pressed about her faith, she had to speak the truth. The orderly feeds her one last time, having given his resignation after an emotional moment building ships with his son in which he realized that this treatment was indeed torture and left her only cold and lonely. Wrapping their hands together, he promises to see her through to the surgery.
“The last person who sees you before the surgery will be someone who loves you.”
Vanessa awakes crying in Seward’s office, a burn on her hand from the doctor’s attempt to revive her, and they share a drink. She remembers it all clearly, not like a dream, and names her pursuer: Dracula.
If I didn’t stress it enough at the beginning, let me say it again: Rory Kinnear and Eva Green were at their acting best this episode. I was left exhausted with emotions and affection for the orderly and Vanessa, as well as questioning my feelings in previous episodes. Beautifully done, and beautifully written. Thank you, John Logan, and #RenewPennyDreadful
Flourishes, Symbols, & Questions
- Wait… Vanessa is the wolf, too?!
- “I am” is what God calls himself in the Bible
- Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote Kidnapped from the previous episode
- Scratches on JC’s face from Vanessa remind me of the Mark of the Beast on the witches. Is he her creature?
- JC worked the night shift, making him a sort of night creature even then.
- “Not a tiger. Not a flower. Not a clump of earth. Not even a blade of grass.”
- Trephination was indeed originally the Middle Ages way of giving demons a door out of the body through the skull.
- “I am the Dragon.” – Recalls the Chinatown Dragon dance in two episodes this season already.
- Question I heard posed on The Demimonde and Penny Earful: Could Kaetenay either be or be based on Geronimo? Homework for next time.
Penny Dreadful S3E4