The journey from Daywalker to Nightcomer is not an easy one. The allure of magic, no matter the motivations, carries many choices: stage or occult; dark or light; left-hand or right hand paths; glory or service. Penny Dreadful season 2 episode 3, “The Nightcomers,” opens with Vanessa telling a bedtime story to the wild wolfman of the west, the only other regular cast member to appear to hear her origin story. It is the story of a powerful witch. A witch so strong she stopped Vanessa in her tracks.
“The Nightcomers” is almost the Penny Dreadful version of Waiting for Godot. Two actors playing off each other, but not against each other like Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine in the cat and mouse thriller Sleuth. There are other characters that pass through, but they might as well be furniture because they are just a backdrop for the development of the relationship. The story line is important, telling how Vanessa came to understand her place in a serious game of tug of war that has gone on for ages. But as much as there is a fair amount of action in this episode, it still takes a back seat to the intimacy of the performances.
Patti Lupone plays the role of the Cut-Wife with equal parts menace and regret. Her eyes may blaze, but there is a history of pain behind them. It is obvious, but in check. At their first encounter, the Cut-Wife considers Vanessa with an aggression born of fear. Lupone is a master. She doesn’t need words or even a voice to project what she wants to the other actors and the audience. Watching her intone the words of the old language, the audience feels the blood in their brows.
Vanessa has to have a thick skull to take lessons from the crone. With every clipped answer she gets a crack on her forehead. When she’s asked a question, the Cut-Wife stabs a finger into her forehead. Essay questions would probably cause a cerebral hemorrhage. Maybe this head trauma is what turned Vanessa psychic, rattling her brains until it could snakes out on its own. I have to say, Lupone brings a touch of running gag to this invaluable teacher’s aid.
“Leave everything you were outside this door. Everything you are, bring with you,” the Cut-Wife tells the exchange student at admissions. Vanessa uses her mental scorpion claw to pick at the Cut-Wife’s branding iron scar, in lieu of SATs. Vanessa comes on screen in full grief and pain. She’s suffered the tortures of the damned and it shows. She makes the kid in The Sixth Sense seem like a cruise director.
Vanessa certainly is earnest, something Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) knows the importance of. She softens as grows harder under the older witch’s tutelage. Eva Green starts at such a pitched level of tortured existence, she has nowhere to go but down, which makes for an interesting arc. There is little underplaying in this episode until Evelyn Poole shows up.
Helen McCrory brings a low-key sexuality to Evelyn Poole, whether she’s putting a spell on Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), as she did last week, or a curse on her own sister. She betrays with a kiss and she makes the kisses look sweet. She rewards loyalty and ambition with a whack on the ass.
Satanism and S&M have been connected as far back as the original Gardnerians. One of the first things you have do with a demon after you conjure it is kiss its ass. Britain’s landed gentry class could afford to indulge in their favorite degradations in the sexually repressed era in ways that would baffle the working class. Poole is a Machiavellian mistress, topping from below, far, far below, and tipping cows on her way. The sophisticated Evelyn Poole didn’t strike me as a cow-tipper. When she milks them of their hemoglobin with a passing touch, all I could think was those were some very clever cows. The special effects were effective and subtle.
Penny Dreadful cameramen are having fun this season, framing shots at odd angles, mirroring frames of mind while always keeping the shots classic and sophisticated. They opened the season with a sequence showing Ethan (Josh Hartnett) come into bleary consciousness. Tonight the cameramen aim their lenses between death masks and earth magic fetishes, enclosing Vanessa within the confines of the Cut-Wife’s hut. This serves to make it more claustrophobic when the two witches are surrounded. It is also a comforting image where witches can be safe. But when Vanessa has to make the decision to get on with her life and escape the much-needed life of the local abortionist, the audience still feels the phantoms of the earlier closed-off atmosphere. It becomes as liberating as it is sad.
We finally see where the Cut-Wife gets her name. The Cut-Wife sees Vanessa as her successor and the student is willing and surprisingly able. The abortion scene was brutal without being graphic. The mere proximity of the knife to the thigh before the cutaway was enough to burn the rest into the audience’s imagination without having to belabor the point. Seeing that very woman later betray the Cut-Wife laid bare the hypocrisy the witch bemoaned earlier. Pagans were early feminists. The Cut-Wife points out that amenities such as medical care weren’t freely given to the women-folk.
I’m not sure why the star that The Cut-Wife was branded with depicted female magic. If the Cut-Wife were branded by her Satanist sister, shouldn’t the point be facing down? Vanessa and Evelyn encounter each other at the stand-off at the Cut-Wife’s gate. Vanessa should have been able to see enough of her that she would have recognized her as Madame Kali at the dinner party last season. At the very least she should have recognized her energy. After all, she did give her a matching psychic wound in the form of the branding.
Vanessa Ive’s teacher, the Cut-Wife, is a salty witch, observe the look she gives Vanessa when she tells her to mind her spices. Lupone is intensely focused on everything going on inside and out. She is wary and aggressive at all times. She has no patience and yet, she warms to her cursed visitor pretty fast. The pair grow familiar, and not in the way of a black cat or spotted toad. They are an ad hoc family. Neither character has any family to speak of and neither wants to talk about it. The closest thing the Cut-Wife has had to family since maybe 1644? If the lease, in perpetuity, was signed over in 1644, that would make The Cut-Wife, Joan Clayton, very old.
The scene where Sir Geoffrey Hawkes (Ronan Vibert) riles up the locals in the bar reminded me of the pre-catharsis scene in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. He may think he’s exacting revenge for his humiliation in the woods when he tried to molest Vanessa and she bit him, drawing blood. But she really drew that knife because he poked his finger on her sore spot, the forehead, just one too many times.
Vanessa learns all the basics of witchery: herbal teas, flower remedies and intuition. But Vanessa takes a special shine to the Tarot, which is more an art than a science. Magic is a combination of the two, which is why they keep all their most sacred work in a book called The Poetry of Death. It is only a matter of time before Vanessa will have gone away from god forever by opening it.
“The Nightcomers” was written by John Logan and directed by Brian Kirk.