Penny Dreadful season 3 episode 4.
This Penny Dreadful review contains spoilers.
Penny Dreadful gives us another duet performance in “A Blade of Grass.” Sure, Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone) sets the episode in motion with the new therapeutic aid, hypnosis, but then the episode belongs to Vanessa (Eva Green) and John Clair (Rory Kinnear).
I’ve applauded the chemistry between LuPone and Green several times, we barely missed the rest of the cast in their duet performance last season, but Green’s scenes with Kinnear are transcendent. Vanessa’s desperation is matched by the gentle kindness of her caretaker. The orderly is the only person Vanessa has any contact with at the Banning Institute where she spends her days dragging her nails groaningly against the fabric of the rubber walls.
Vanessa is being devoured by guilt. And there are other forces wanting similar snacks. She is doing penance because she betrayed Mina, who the world will soon know through the Bram Stoker novel Dracula. But did Vanessa commit those sins because she is evil or ill? Or just because she won’t be a mere clog in a social machine? Miss Ives truly treasures her independence and all that makes her different from the rest of the world. Her institutional rebellion comes in the form of a passively aggressive hunger strike.
Clair is the picture of perfect patience. You can see the urgency in Kinnear’s eyes that Vanessa get well and not be alone in the world. He would change her world, if he could. He even tries to trade day for night, according to her preference. He has a way with inmates, much like the character his father, Roy Kinnear, played in the Beatles movie Help. Algenon had a way with animals. They trusted him. He should have gone into vivisection.
I didn’t want to see John Clair be cruel and it comes as a shock when he manhandles his ward after he warns about consequences. The scene where he force-feeds Vanessa is heartbreaking more for the audience than it is for the inmate or the orderly. It hurt to see him have to hurt her even if he believed he was saving Vanessa’s life. But deeper than that, we suspect that there is a bit of masochism in the future Frankenstein monster and we automatically reject that. That is, until the first time he turns around with those Dracula eyes. The two scenes come together in the audience’s head for a subliminal shudder.
I was very relieved when Clair didn’t punch Vanessa, even after she scratched up his face. I’m sure it felt justified, if only to make her stop. But the kindness wins out. I’d believed that the creature became more empathetic to the world around him after he was reincarnated and had a deeper understanding of fate, but this is a truly kind man who was born that way. He may not have liked poetry until Vanessa introduces him to it, but he is already a conscientious atheist with a gentle heart. Atheists don’t have the comfort of faith in some kind of afterlife so their kindness really does come from within. They are not looking to make points with any god and any charity they do, even if it is merely their job, is for the momentary pleasure of making some kind of difference without expecting any kind of reward.
Hydrotherapy is a nightmare. Clair can’t write that off as science after he gets to empathize with Vanessa. Hydrotherapy was an early version of shock treatment. An inmate is immersed in freezing cold water in an attempt to reboot the system.
The orderly even has a sly and shy sense of restrained humor. I loved it, absolutely, when he chided Vanessa with the simple line reading of “no more of that. It was very funny and understated. But his best comic delivery, which was also worth its weight in pathos was when Vanessa asked what he wanted in life and he told her he would most appreciate “not being attacked at work.” Penny Dreadful isn’t always dreadful and it is a great exhale and relief when they throw in a little humor.
Vanessa Ives is also heartbreaking, but we’re used to that by now. She’s had a sad existence and the very idea that she wants to revisit some of the more traumatic times requires bravery. She risks a fugue state, which is kind of a like a psychological coma, in order to keep exploring the darkest times of her past. She even looks into a mirror, something she is on record as saying she is not a fan of, when Clair gives her a minor makeover for her mood as well as her face.
Clair stays faithful to his wife, who we learn is named Marjorie, even though Vanessa shows a desperate desire to make contact. She’s not looking for sex as much as a human connection and the Frankenstein monster is the most human character in Penny Dreadful.
The scene where Vanessa finally dislodges the demonic force from her consciousness through the chanting of the old words is cathartic more than frightening. It is a triumphant moment but the joy of conquest is cut as short as Vanessa’s hair in her prep for the looming lobotomy.
Does Joan Clayton make sense in the timeline? I’m not that good at math, but if Vanessa knew her in this lifetime and Dr. Steward acknowledges that she is an ancestor, how long would that be? How long was the cut-wife alive?
This was an exquisite episode. Penny Dreadful isn’t afraid to mix things up in their presentation. Last year’s probable best episode was one that only featured Green and LuPone, it was followed by what might have been the second best episode, which featured everyone else in the cast except the star herself. That shows a scary confidence.
“A Blade of Grass” was directed by Toa Fraser and written by John Logan.