What They Say:
The Nightcomers – Vanessa learns how to harness her powers from The Cut-Wife in a flashback.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
As much as I enjoy Penny Dreadful, I was definitely wary of coming back into the show after last week with the disturbing things that we saw Evelyn doing in her sacrificial chamber. A lot of the previous episode was about getting the group together again, and working through some of the dynamics of it, but it also layered in a lot of other things as the show definitely has a lot of storylines in the air. I really liked seeing the twisted way things are going with Victor and those that he’s created as there’s some disturbing elements to it, but the best stuff for me was just in watching how the witches are operating in this world and the really fun subway sequence that gives us a look at something that’s familiar new but has such a neat feeling from this time period and perspective.
With so much going on and the big bad of the season, so far, revealing herself to be, this episode wants to do some of the needed exposition material that’s very much a part of its fabric. While info dumps of sorts can be problematic in some series, it’s done well here in providing the flashback aspect with Vanessa as we get to see it happening, from her point of view, rather than just talking about it. Going back to such a stark period in her life and having her understand certain things of how a side of the world works is fascinating, particularly with the wards around the house she’s trying to get into making it so that she cannot cross the entry. It’s stylistically haunting, beautifully stark and overdone, but kept simple in its own way. What it reinforces is her patience and what she’s willing to go through in order to get what she wants. And what indignities she’ll suffer because of just how far gone she is. Eva Green, and the makeup artists, go the distance here to really make it clear the toll events have taken on her at this phase of Vanessa’s life.
The dialogue with the old woman, the Cut-Wife that she seeks help from is intriguing, since there’s such a snark and intensity about her that’s wonderful in a big scenery chewing way, but as it becomes clear to her that Vanessa truly is possessed by something evil, that begins to change things. That initial skepticism is certainly understandable considering who normally comes to her for light and silly things, but that realization is well played that Vanessa might very well be the real thing, and that’s both scary and exciting at the same time with what she represents. Vanessa’s desire to learn all that this woman knows in order to know herself is the kind of path that makes sense for her, since she’s also driven to help Mina, puts her on a really dark path here with a teacher that will hold nothing back, which we see plainly. It’s a really tense series of moments across it as we see Vanessa beginning to grasp this new reality.
With the episode showing a good bit of this training, there’s some really intriguing moments along the way that presents things in a great way to show just what Vanessa went through with the Cut-Wife. But it takes an even more interesting turn later in the episode when Evelyn arrives on the scene here, looking for Vanessa, with a pair of beautiful young Nightcomers alongside her. What’s revealed by Evelyn is just what value there is in Vanessa at this stage as Evelyn’s master truly desires Vanessa for what she represents. There’s an obvious family dynamic at play here with what Evelyn and the Cut-Wife are all about, and as interesting as it is, it’s seeing the kind of power Evelyn has at this point in time and just how well she uses it to get what she wants. But it also makes clear the presence and power that Vanessa has when she steps between things and saves the Cut-Wife from being taken by Evelyn. It’s so stark and haunting with how it plays out, providing a great sense of old school creepiness about it that just delights me so.
There’s a lot of good material as they move past this part of it and we see Vanessa and the Cut-Wife together as Vanessa really begins to find her confidence and self-assurance, which is definitely becoming noticeable by the Cut-Wife. The first half of the episode does a really good job of bringing so much of this into focus with the Nightcomers and their past through the fog of history, and the kinds of connections Evelyn has and a clearer purpose for her towards that of Vanessa in regards to her Master. Tying all of that into the story with Geoffrey at this time where we see the kind of long term plan Evelyn has as she brings a plague to the countryside in order to acquire land by reducing its value, you can practically see her doing her best to restrain her grin over what she’s done. Her manipulations are subtle in the moment for those around her, but for the viewer it’s oh so transparent.
The mixture of past and present generally works well here as we see the way Evelyn sinks her teeth into Geoffrey in order to get what she wants from this particular lord, and the kind of dominating aspect of her. She definitely enjoys power and has the larger goals in mind, but we also see that Geoffrey has his own awareness of what she’s doing and is attempting to figure out a way out of it. But it takes an odd turn later when he’s riding in the woods and comes across Vanessa and attempts to rape her, since all in the area are his vassals to do with as he pleases, but Vanessa is the type that really doesn’t let things like this happen to her. What it does lead to though is Vanessa’s understanding of how this area came into the Cut-Wife’s possession, and the deeper connection to the past there as the Cut-Wife is close to her life ending after all this time.
As it moves towards the final act with the blame being set for what Evelyn has done towards the Cut-Wife, there’s a great kind of relationship that we see come to its conclusion with Vanessa. There are chilling words to be said here, about what the Cut-Wife thinks of life, the world and the way that she sees how Vanessa wants to be the hero in her own story, and it’s brutally cut down in front of Vanessa. Evelyn has certainly put things together in a big way here to really deal with her sister opponent here, and playing to the time and those involved, it doesn’t hold back with the beating, the brutality, and the hanging itself for those accused and found guilty – in the same moment – of witchcraft and necromancy. It’s barbaric and brutal as they usher her out of the world in such a graphic way, and with such a young innocent bringing the final piece of it into effect, and having Vanessa watch all of it just adds to the torture of it all. It’s not played to be uplifting in the slightest, though the swell of the music certainly takes it to an unusual place. Working through all of this, with so little said as it progresses towards the end of the episode, puts much of the focus just on the expressions we get from Vanessa and the payoff is immense here, making it a weighty sequence of events that culminates in some real sadness, but also the path forward for Vanessa.
Dedicating an entire episode to a story out of Vanessa’s past doesn’t feel unusual for this show, even in just how few episodes there are overall, simply because it adds so much to the show and really sets the tone for what kind of stakes are involved and the depth of which events are tied. There’s some fantastic performances here overall, with a lot of it put on Eva Green as Vanessa once again. But this time around she gets to play against Patti LuPone as the Cut-Wife and the two of them could provide hours worth of character dialogue, education and dressing downs here and it would be endlessly enjoyable and fascinating to watch. Bringing a deeper connection between Vanessa and Evelyn is intriguing and expanding on what the Master may be, and the narrative overall of what fell with Lucifer, raises the stakes here in a way that hopefully is just setting up the larger picture that won’t be resolved in this season, but rather has more time to be explored. Overall though, this is a fantastic episode that really lets the atmosphere of the series establish itself as one of the best out there.