This review contains spoilers.
3.4 A Blade Of Grass
A Blade of Grass follows immediately on from the reveal of the last episode; John Clare was the orderly who worked at the Banning Clinic in which Vanessa was confined. The hypnosis with Dr Seward continues and it’s time for the traditional Vanessa flashback episode, here delivered through her therapy with the good doctor. During her hypnosis, she becomes trapped in her memories, unable to awaken from her state without first working through her trauma. The orderly is her only company and the pair form a past relationship that will have further consequences in Vanessa’s present.
There’s a nasty claustrophobia to A Blade of Grass, all close-ups and odd angles designed to disorientate and unsettle the audience. The score for this episode was perhaps the season’s best musical work so far, an elegiac and mournful undercurrent for the most part, flashing into life at the narrative’s more sinister moments and disappearing when necessary. All of this forces us, like Vanessa, to confront her traumatic experiences and witness them up close without the benefit of being able to shrink away from it.
The horror in Penny Dreadful is at its most powerful when operating on this psychological level. Vanessa’s ‘therapy’ is never seen, but the after-effects are keenly felt in Vanessa’s physicality or the orderly’s descriptions of the surgery she might face. Similarly, the orderly’s own feelings of entrapment bring with it a different kind of discomfort. He’s a man trapped by circumstance rather than willingly working at the asylum.
Rory Kinnear’s multi-character performance balances their relationship beautifully and his initial calmness offers the counterweight to Vanessa’s manic mood swings (another neat literary touch as he soothes her by reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s My Little Shadow). He also handles the distinct character switches excellently; he embodies Lucifer as a spitting malevolence whilst Dracula is a smooth and charming figure. Their squabble? It is over who gets to possess Vanessa.
She’s not having it though, of course, turning against them both beautifully. It’s the official starting point in Vanessa’s struggle and a moment of self-affirmation. Green is, once again, simply astonishing throughout the episode, a combination of fury and vulnerability that combines for a truly fearless performance. Rarely, though, does Vanessa feel like a victim here, even at her weakest. She’s operating defiantly within a system that seeks to tame her. She comments (confined within a strait jacket for added effect) that her therapy isn’t designed to heal her, but to restrain her.
The Vanessa episodes are often one of the strongest in their respective seasons, mostly because they serve to showcase Green’s complete embodiment of the character. But they’re also crucial for reiterating the show’s themes and moving the season forward. Here, it’s Vanessa remembering that the creature chasing her is Dracula himself as well as that Lucifer and Dracula are brothers is finally confirmed. Their respective designations of the soul and the flesh feeds into the show’s ongoing exploration of duality too, a theme that has been particularly focused on in the third season.
An episode revolving almost solely around an ongoing conversation between two(ish) people in a white room is a strong statement in the confidence that the show has in both the characters and their actors. Everything that the show is known for – the monsters, the production design, the gore – is stripped back for the majority of the episode. When the flourishes do arrive, they are brief but impactful; a snake slithering across the wall, a bat flapping in the background. It takes an inordinate amount of skill to pull it off and Penny Dreadful once again proves that it’s one of the best and most assured shows around.