Previously on Penny Dreadful, “A Blade of Grass”
There’s something very unsettling about the mini-Western that is “This World Is Our Hell.” Perhaps the multitude of questions, anxiety, and lack of resolution it leaves us with is a good thing for the mid-season peak. Leaving Our Ladies of Darkness behind, the episode focuses on the prodigal sons, Ethan, Victor, and Jekyll, moving them and their raging inner monsters into position to make their final major plays of the season. Ethan and Hecate are hounded (pun!) across the desert to his father’s domain, where he’s confronted literally by the carnage he left behind. Jekyll steps back for Victor to attempt his electrified dosage on Balfour, while they both fantasize about how to use their twisted pseudoscience to perfect their pathetic lives.
Along with the prodigal son comes a faulty father. Jared Talbot mocks Sir Malcolm’s condescension with comparison, “like looking into a mirror,” and indeed all three fathers, including Kaetenay, are reflections to varying degrees. The mirror imagery is compounded by the exaggerated gleams in everyone’s eyes, capturing the “spark of life” and “nocturnal danger” so coveted by Vanessa and her Dr Sweet. A secondary theme comes thanks to Talbot Senior when he wonders about the nature of innocence, which we see pop up in Jekyll’s lab regarding post-treatment Balfour and pre-evil Lily… That Victor perceives this innocence while we do not yet know if it was ever there only reinforces the point.
The secondary actors shone in all of their scenes. Wes Studi’s physical acting was disturbingly inhuman; Sarah Greene expertly channeled Evelyn Poole; and Brian Cox was the perfect father Talbot, full of sorrow and gravity and hate. The Western-ness of it all was true to form if a bit cliché, right down to the rustlers, black clothing, dusty church, and frothing, dying horse.
After last week’s theatrical tour de force, this episode faced a challenge, particularly in a setting that Anglophile viewers perhaps care least about. Despite exposition-heavy scenes to fill in the blanks, some blanks were deliberately left empty. It was well done, but at episode five, I am more than ready for Ethan to explain himself in full sentences. Unlike when it comes to Eva Green, I question whether Ethan is talking out of both sides of his mouth or truly struggling. Obviously we must save the wolf to save the world, but the missing pieces are bothersome.
Ethan and Hecate race through the desert ahead of the marshals and Rusk, with Malcolm and Kaetenay behind. Ethan gradually explains that his father enlisted him into the Army against his will, his commanding officer forced him to kill the Apaches, and then the Apaches forced him to fight back against the Army. Hecate in turn shares how her mother gave her to Lucifer at 5 years old.
“It’s something, isn’t it? To be betrayed by the person who’s supposed to protect you?”
When Ethan says darkly that his shame is the only decent thing about him, she urges him to embrace his sins and give up his guilt. As the marshals settle in around a campfire for the night, Hecate uses Ethan’s blood and verbis diablo to summon rattlesnakes against them. Simultaneously, Kaetenay sneaks in to slit throats while Malcolm steals their horses, both at a cost–Kaetenay walks away with a snake bite and Malcolm shoots the never-named junior inspector. RIP That Guy.
Having escaped the camp carnage, Rusk solidifies his badassery status with backstory. Caught in an ambush, he self-cauterized his severed arm, hunted down the assassin alone, and hauled him to Cape Town in chains. Now finding his lieutenant’s body, he disavows his moral code to hunt Ethan down as the Marshal gawps.
“If given the chance, I will shoot him in the back and butcher all his kind.”
In case he dies, Kaetenay reveals to Malcolm that a vision inspired his pursuit of Ethan: a world cast into darkness (London streets), rats, vampires feeding in Chinatown, Ethan’s mouth red with blood. If they lose Ethan to evil, the world will be lost in Endless Night.
Ethan and Hecate hole up in a cave full of paintings which illustrate the first Apache. A coyote opened a bag of darkness, filling the world with night creatures, but then a boy was born to face them and won back the day. This cave is home to his third layer of guilt, where Kaetenay once schemed to raid his father’s ranch and weaponize against the Army “without a shot.” Ethan swears to stop being good and has sex with Hecate (doggy style… really?).
Ethan and Hecate nearly die of thirst but Malcolm, hauling the near-unconscious Kaetenay, arrives just in time with water and a weak standoff over the possibility of killing the witch, moments before the Talbot men pack them all off, leaving Kaetenay to die. Hilariously, Hecate awakes in a room full of creepy dolls, just as Jared Talbot hints to Malcolm that he has a dead daughter as well and notes cruelly that he at least still has one child to save.
At last the confrontation between father and son. Admittedly bound for hell himself, Jared cannot forgive Ethan, determined to save his soul by forcing him to confront the results of leading the Apaches to their homestead. Hauling him into the blood-stained chapel, Jared tells how Ethan’s brother Paul, “like a good shepherd,” led his mother and sister into the chapel before being stabbed to death, followed by his mother being scalped, and his sister having her tongue cut out and blinded. He pulls a gun to make Ethan repent of his sins or be sent to hell.
“I’m done repenting, and I belong in hell.”
An Innocent Man
Victor and Jekyll strap in the appropriately terrified Mr. Balfour to try out the electrified version of the serum. The wires snap menacingly as Victor croons, his eyes gleaming.
“Every moment that has benighted your life and set you on this dark course I will take from you. You will re-enter this world an innocent man. It is our memories which make us monsters, is it not?”
While Balfour is catatonic, the men argue over college slights, revealing that Jekyll was dismissed for assaulting a racist faculty member. He waxes romantic about trying the serum himself, while Victor recalls how “perfect” Lily once was. After Balfour awakes seemingly as promised, Victor returns home, crunching across syringes to sniffle into Lily’s nightgown. Hope renewed, he launders it and cleans the lab as best he can, which is to say, not much.
Flourishes, Questions, etc.
- Who is the coyote that opened the bag of darkness? Kaetenay?
- Night creatures in the cave: bats and scorpions
- William LaRue Weller wheat whiskey… actually from Kentucky
- Ethan says of Kaetenay, “He ain’t worth the bullet,” repeating the words of his commander who killed a boy to poison the water. A setup for him to come back and finish off someone critical?
- The Audubon in Jared’s office: White American Wolf
- Parallel: Jared dragging Ethan into the dusty chapel calls back to Sembene throwing Malcolm into the dusty dance hall, screaming, “Know who you are!” to fight the devil inside of him. This has the opposite effect.
- Another Joan of Arc shoutout: his sister Mary “suffered like the saints.”
- Eye damage: Balfour is injected through the eye to smother his evil self and Mary’s eyes were put out
More Thoughts on Vanessa’s Nature
Forgive the length, but in the last week, I’ve done more research on who or what Vanessa might be. There is an older Sumerian version of Lilith who is a dark-mother goddess pre-existing mankind and gave birth to it, then mated with the first man to populate the earth (Source). It would stand to reason, then, that if the brothers wanted to shake God off his bloody throne, remaking mankind in their own image would necessitate mating with the Mother of Darkness. In legend, she is a shapeshifter herself, including into the wolf, which Dracula mentioned, so this might explain her shift through time into different bodies and goddess iterations.
Because she is a primordial being, there is an innate darkness to this Lilith. In fact, she could be the embodiment of the actual darkness covering the earth in Genesis 1, before God separates the light from the dark.
This begs the question, is darkness actually evil? Or is it merely the counterpoint to the being that created those fallen angels? In that case, Lilith’s natural darkness seems a fair weapon against God’s light-born flunkies. Perhaps the verbis diablo was of Lilith’s own design, which would explain why it can control the actual devil and why she was able to use it unconsciously in the cell before learning to wield it at the Cut Wife’s home. By allowing Lilith to speak through her, then, it is not so much that God turns his back on her, but that Vanessa becomes the dark side of the deity coin, a necessary half of the whole, which is, by the way, this season’s theme.
Penny Dreadful S3E5 = 7.5/10