Penny Dreadful / Screen

Penny Dreadful: “Nightcomers”

Penny Dreadful‘s flashback episodes are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because they delve into the history of Vanessa Ives, and I’ve never not enjoyed Vanessa, especially if it means Eva Green getting a chance to showcase her abilities. But they’re a curse because they pull us entirely out of the present, stalling storylines and pressing pause on whatever forward momentum is being built.  Last season’s episode “Closer Than Sisters” was an interruption, but this week’s “Nightcomers” fits more into the show’s current place, and it’s early enough in the show’s season long narrative that it doesn’t feel as though we’re being stalled unnecessarily. the NIghtcomers are a threat that we don’t know much about, and Vanessa’s knowledge of them is shrouded in mystery. We have to learn something about them, and what Vanessa’s history of them, which gives us the mostly entrancing “Nightcomers”.

Vanessa goes to the Cut Wife (Patti Lupone) for answers about what she is. It’s right after her beachside chat with an image of Mina that she comes looking for help., putting us at a weird time in Vanessa’s life. It’s after her first encounter with the spirit that likes to take her over from time to time, and she’s still reeling from her realization that she isn’t as normal as she’d like to be. The Cut Wife, who service the nearby village with herbs and potions and the occasional abortion, takes Vanessa in despite knowing the danger that’s following her. Patti Lupone gives a nice performance as the Cut Wife, who occupies a fairly rote role as as a begrudging mentor who eventually warms to her student. Eva Green and Patti Lupone are a nice pairing, and most of the episode features the two of them as the Cut Wife passes on her knowledge to Vanessa.

The Cut Wife’s knowledge of the trouble following Vanessa is more extensive than it first appears as a nighttime village from the Evelyn Poole and other Nightcomers reveals that the Cut Wife was once one of them, or at least she was when they were good, and known as Daywalkers. Evelyn is her sister, who branded her back when the Cut Wife decided she didn’t want to work for the devil. By focusing so exclusively on the witch mythology, and the histories built among them, Penny Dreadful makes the Nightcomers into a more complex threat. This is the first time we get conformation that Vanessa is a witch, and the first time we learn that there’s potential for some kind of moral choice. Our first introduction to the Nightcomers was a cursory mention of them being witches, but the Cut Wife indicates there’s an opportunity for witches to be more than just evil.

And that’s the question surrounding Vanessa’s character. We’ve seen her in some fairly noble places, meeting her when she’s desperate to rescue Mina, but we’ve also seen her when she’s being not so great. Like when she sleeps with Mina’s fiance, is overtaken by a vicious spirit, etc. And even excepting those things, Vanessa is no angel. She’s pious, but how much of that is genuine belief and how much is her clinging to religion in the hopes that it will keep less godly elements from touching her? Vanessa comes to the Cut Wife’s cabin clutching her rosary but it eventually falls to the wayside as she learns more. Her relationship with the Cut Wife leads her to take action when Evelyn nearly pulls her sister past the stones to kill her and to confront the mob of villagers who come to burn the Cut Wife, also known as Joan Clayton, to death. She says she doesn’t know if Vanessa’s heart is good or bad, but there’s a case mad for Vanessa being a very decent woman. She comforts a girl who comes for an abortion and is heartbroken when the Cut Wife, already near death, is killed in front of her.  And Joan’s been working from the start, on behalf of the women of the small village, who she says need her, and she asks Vanessa to stay and take up her responsibilities after her death. Vanessa can’t, of course, not when she’s intent on returning to London and rescuing Mina. But she still gets the evil book of spells Joan tells her not to open unless she’s truly lost, and the cabin that now belongs to her.

We’re likely to see both of these things before the season draws to a close. With the Nightcomers presenting such a large threat, to Vanessa personally, it will be up to her to defeat them. Evelyn Poole orchestrates the events that lead to her sister’s death, unable to pass her spelled stones, she manipulates humans to do the dirty work for her. Killing cattle and blaming it on Joan, Evelyn pushes Sir Geoffrey to rile the villagers up and get them to burn Joan to death.

And with Joan dead, Vanessa is left once again unprotected. “Nightcomers” is a strong episode despite bringing things to a halt, but it also points to some narrative flaws. Last season feels like it’s being glossed over in many ways, and squeezing in the Nightcomers in the middle of what we already know of Vanessa’s journey feels like some scurrying was underway in the writers’ room. If Evelyn’s been so desperate to find Vanessa, and has been able to track where she goes, why has she waited so long to come after her?

That’s a nitpicky problem to find, though it seems to show the seams of the show in between seasons one and two. I said in the finale review that season one felt more like a prequel than anything else, and “NIghtcomers”, while functioning as a mini-prequel itself seems to fulfill this notion. Season one only mentioned the Master’s desire for Vanessa, and did so only briefly before recommitting to the quest to find Mina. Getting into the story the show seems to have really wanted to tell makes for better viewing and delving it into it entirely is even better. I may be in the minority, but i’m not all that excited to see Ethan wandering around asking questions or see Malcolm being seduced by Evelyn and I’m definitely not all that concerned with what’s going on in Victor’s lab, and Ethan’s werewolf troubles aren’t high on my list either. Vanessa Ives is at the show’s center, and the show knows it, but they keep fighting it.

Stray Observations

  • Evelyn was very careful to keep her face hidden from Vanessa, which accounts for Vanessa not recognizing her in the present day.
  • This episode is most explicit in its condemnation of the patriarchy, which is weird since Penny Dreadful doesn’t’ do so much of that itself and is way more likely to perpetuate it than to do anything else.
  • The Cut Wife’s name is Joan Clayton which is funny because that’s also the name of Tracee Ellis Ross’ character in Girlfriends.
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