Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Penny Dreadful: The Nightcomers

There has been a strange – almost eerie – sense of concordance across the shows I'm currently watching, with various elements that reflect and contrast and mimic each other. Penny Dreadful and Salem are natural viewing partners on Monday nights, and though the latter is infinitely less compelling than the former, the difference in quality and the treatment of their subject matter (witches and demons) provide an interesting comparison.

Meanwhile, Orphan Black and Penny Dreadful are each making use of scorpion symbolism in regards to a specific character: while Helena is carrying on an internal dialogue with the part of her brain that manifests as a scorpion, Vanessa is drawing images of one in her own blood – and as we find out in this episode, such images are a reference to herself (having been nicknamed "little scorpion" by another character). In both cases, each scorpion initially appears as something threatening; something demonic – though on closer inspection they provide commentary on each character's moral ambiguity.
And though I don't watch Game of Thrones, I follow the storyline through YouTube clips, Tumblr GIF sets and on-line reviews, and I'm well aware of what happened to Sansa Stark this week (as it happens, the regularity of such things occurring is precisely why I keep that show at arm's length). And so it's telling that between Game of Thrones and Penny Dreadful, two shows that regularly depict horrific violence towards women, the former did so this week in a way that was met with disgust and defensiveness, and the latter did so to acclaim and captivation.
The portrayal and exploration of violence against women (up to and including rape) is not a subject that is (or should be) strictly off-limits. The problem lies in the fact that it's often so woefully mishandled, too often used for shock value or titillation, and usually done with such staggering ignorance as to its impact, its aftereffects, and in some cases what it actually is, that the constant discourse that ensues across hundreds of reviews, articles and outraged Tumblr rants is just plain exhausting.  
Which is why, when it's done right, it's a cause for celebration. Subdued celebration. Okay, maybe not celebration at all. Just relief.
And perhaps that reaction is an indication of the larger problem.

As with last season's Closer Than Sisters, this was a Whole Episode Flashback, shedding some light on the period before Vanessa came to stay with Malcolm, but after her stint in the asylum. Just to get it out of the way, I have to admit that I still prefer Closer Than Sisters, simply because it gave us more raw information about the Ives/Murray family dynamics, the demon that haunts Vanessa, and some answers about what the heck was going on throughout the first season (such as the voices Vanessa channelled during the séance).
By comparison – though it's an excellent story – The Nightcomers did not provide any meaningful intel on Vanessa's condition, which seems an odd omission since obtaining answers was precisely why she went to the Cut Wife in the first place.
By my reckoning, this episode does three plot-relevant things: shows us the origins of Vanessa's tarot cards, explains the significance of the scorpion symbol, and introduces a book that is almost certainly a Chekhov's Gun.
I was hoping for more concrete answers regarding what exactly is haunting Vanessa. Is her inner demon the same entity as Lucifer? (The Cut Wife's words "when Lucifer fell, he did not fall alone" suggest otherwise). What about the whole Amon-Net/Amon-Ra deal? How does that link the vampires and the witches? And is Evelyn's "master" the same being as Mina's "master"? (Obviously the former's master is Lucifer, but is Mina's the same, or is it the as-yet unmentioned Dracula?)
I guess I'd just really like some clarity on this issue, and though I'm content to let the story unravel at its own pace (and despite the fact that ambiguity is twice as unsettling as straightforward exposition) this seemed like a perfect episode to give us some better understanding of the forces at play here. All things considered, I'm quite surprised that Vanessa's demon didn't manifest to confront the Cut Wife at some point.
What we do ultimately learn is more Doylistic in nature, and concerned mainly with world-building. First, that witches in this world are not inherently evil. In fact, they are divided into two groups: Daywalkers and Nightcomers, the former best described as herb-wives, and the latter as willing servants of the devil. Key word willing, as this is not the first time the show has emphasized the importance of free will and choice when it comes to dark dealings. These types of witches are also very long-lived (the Cut Wife had the land granted to her by Cromwell himself), can speak the Verbis Diablo regardless of what side they're on, and have rules and restrictions that must be adhered to.  
There is some question though as to what (or who, or if anything) the Daywalkers worship. The Cut Wife speaks of the days in which "the gods roamed the earth", and her home is filled with totems and other magical paraphernalia, but she also had two crucifixes positioned either side of her bed. 
Like Vanessa's own feelings toward Christianity, I suspect the relationship is meant to be deeply ambiguous. Although the Cut Wife could not even remotely be described as Christian, she clearly differentiates herself from the likes of Evelyn, and on acknowledging the existence of Lucifer and demons, must also be aware of their opposite number.
On that note, I noticed some annoyance from others that Evelyn's character seems to be motivated primarily by her desire to remain young and beautiful; not only a cliché but an obviously gendered one at that. But it is personal incentive that works for me. After all, the Cut Wife talks about power, and for a woman in Victorian England, beauty and eternal youth is power. By having it, she can control her husband, and through him, control the village and its people. Is it uncomfortably gendered, especially with the dominatrix scene thrown in? Sure. But it makes sense, and it's a nod to the dark fairy tale element that permeates this entire episode.
Another lingering question that seems to have been resolved is: where did Vanessa's powers come from? Are they innate or did the devil give them to her? I was always struck by what seemed like an incongruity in Closer Than Sisters in which the devil promises Vanessa psychic powers, even though it appeared to be very clear that she possessed them from childhood. Was this a deliberate trick on his part to make her believe her "specialness" came from him?
Because after watching this episode, I was left with the very distinct impression that her powers belong to her alone – a conclusion derived from the Cut Wife's words to her and her inability to cross the stones without permission (demonstrating a supernatural quality). As Genevieve Valentine said in her fantastic write-up (I always write my own reviews first so as to not be too coloured by her insights) this could either be a Super Hero Origin Story ... or a Start Of Darkness tale. Either way, I think John Logan understands that in order for Vanessa's story to have real power, she must have a) autonomy over the choices she makes, and b) a power that is not rooted in evil.
(As an aside, I also love the idea that the devil is entranced by Vanessa because of her innate darkness rather than anything he's given her – her fascination with deep oceans, dark whispers, the mirrors behind glass eyes – it's a refreshing change from what usually happens in these sorts of stories, in which the devil is obsessed with some pure virginal maiden instead).
Right, where was I?
More than anything, this episode sought to give Vanessa some grounding in the ways of magic, and it certainly brings some context to that unforgettable moment in the show's premiere in which she stares down a vampire. After enduring all this, it's easy to see why she would not be so easily cowed. If anything, this episode (and the Cut Wife's influence) fortified her for everything that's followed.  
It's also important to note that this takes place after her time in the asylum and her mother's death, (this is a Vanessa that's already been through the crucible) and before that scene in which she ends up on Malcolm's door in the pouring rain. This doesn’t quite mesh with the original desperation Vanessa felt on seeing Mina's spirit on the beach, which initially led us to believe she went straight to Malcolm's doorstep – but hey, there's always going to be a certain amount of retcons in a long-running series.
What most interested me was that Vanessa never saw Evelyn's face, presumably to maintain the continuity of them never meeting until that ill-fated séance at Ferdinand's house. This presents two questions: firstly, why is Evelyn harbouring such hateful feelings toward Vanessa? And why is Vanessa so terrified of the witches? What little she saw of them here did not explain how she recognised them in their "nude" form in the premiere, nor why she was almost beside herself with terror at the sight of them. Unless she figured out they were somehow behind the Cut Wife's death...? That still feels a bit of a stretch, so for now I'm predicting another confrontation between them that Vanessa has not yet divulged.
But this show's skill at storytelling efficiency is on full display when Vanessa launches into her story to Ethan by beginning it right outside the Cut Wife's house. No explanations, no real idea of how she got there – just the sight of her standing before the threshold. It's all we need to know.
Was anyone else reminded of Fight Club?
The heart of this episode is the relationship that forms between Vanessa and the Cut Wife, an old hermit living in a dilapidated house on the moors, providing the usual services to village girls: cures, poisons, herbs, love charms – and (it's tempting to use the word "inevitably") abortions. She's hardly pleased to see Vanessa, but as she later reveals, her arrival is not wholly unexpected.
The bond between mentor/student is one of my favourite types of relationships, though I've never seen it done like this before. That it exists between two women is rare enough, that it involves an older woman who (at times) seemed in over her head when it came to Vanessa – unable to give her all the answers, reluctant to divulge too much information, ultimately powerless in the face of her sister – made their spiky, unfriendly, brutally honest rapport all the more fascinating.
Naturally Vanessa is forced to earn her way into the Cut Wife's house, but once she's crossed the threshold she's in a position to unleash her own weapon: intimate knowledge of how the old woman got the scar on her back. Of course, the Cut Wife soon enough responds with her own knowledge of Vanessa's mother's eyes, that Vanessa enjoyed watching her in the hedge maze with Sir Malcolm, that Vanessa is in considerable danger – not to mention all the knowledge derived from the tarot and inherent throughout nature.
Both women are marked by their knowledge of each other, and this is what makes up the crux of their relationship. Total honesty exists between them. Heck, the relationship is fraught with total honesty. Even when they lie, the other is well aware of it, which is the same thing as always telling the truth.
(And of course, knowledge is the original sin – there's so much to unpack here!)
We learn reasonably quickly that the Cut Wife's sister is Evelyn, and that she branded her after she chose not to join her in league with the devil – obviously a reflection not only of Mina's eventual betrayal, but also of the crucifix that is soon to be branded on Vanessa's own back. I suspect we won't get any more backstory concerning these sisters and their long-ago parting, (though Evelyn will no doubt partake in a little evil gloating to Vanessa in time) but some things should remain opaque.
From this point out, the storyline follows a familiar trajectory. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but – well, let's face it, from the moment we met the Cut Wife we knew what her fate would be. That Evelyn stirs up the simmering animosity in the village via her husband was a given. That said husband would attempt to rape Vanessa in the woods could also be seen coming a mile away (however, that she draws his blood with her teeth and forces him to scream at knifepoint is something that Game of Thrones could have never dreamed up). 
There's not much to say about the final act – I almost feel that trying to dissect it would only lesson its impact – though it has to be pointed out that neither woman gives the crowd the satisfaction of screaming. Even when they're powerless, they wield power.
Miscellaneous Observations:
So as I asked earlier, what did Vanessa learn from Joan? Some things she already knew – that dark forces were hunting her, that people could be misguided and cruel, and some things she didn't – how to read the tarot, how to speak the Verbis Diablo, and what remedial uses plants have. Of all the ominous warnings that Joan threw her way, none of them particularly stand out – though I suppose the fact that the repetition of the words "when Lucifer fell, he did not fall alone" (along with its prominence in the trailer) suggests that in particular is key.
I think the show would have us believe that Joan has prepared Vanessa for the battles to come, yet without some clarification (and as such, narrative momentum) on what exactly is hunting Vanessa and how she can combat it, I still feel as though Vanessa is at too much of a disadvantage when it comes to handling her foes.
There are so many screencaps I could have taken of the wonderful Patti LuPone's face, but I'm going with this one:
It's in the moment after she's told Vanessa to pick a tarot card and responded that there's "no need" for her to turn it over. This is because she knows damn well what's underneath it (the devil, naturally) and what it means for them both. And it's all written there on her face.
We discover in this episode that Vanessa is the scorpion, named so for her strength and cunning. Amusingly though, the scorpion that's depicted here – and in most media that features a scary scorpion – is actually fairly harmless in real life (it's the small ones you've got to watch out for). Perhaps that's a deliberate commentary on Vanessa, who is more than capable of kindness, gentleness and humour – as here, when we saw her assist Joan with her clothing and refused to leave her side when the mob came.
But having learned that the scorpion represents herself, what are we meant to make of the fact she paints it in her own blood. Is it for protection? Is it a signature? Is it just a random thing she does, or is it connected to the Amon-Net/Amon-Ra business that's still brewing?
Also, I initially wondered why the scorpion was still on the floor at the start of this episode, thinking that the servants should have cleaned it up. But of course, there probably isn't a single servant in London who would want to set foot in that room.
I was excited to see Mina in the "previously on..." segment, though her lack of appearance here only serves as a reminder of how terribly underused she was in last season's finale.
So Vanessa DOES know some of the Verbis Diablo, as taught to her by Joan. Surely that means she was lying when she told Malcolm and the others she didn't know what the witch in the carriage was saying.
I'll admit, I was very nearly close to tears when the Cut Wife revealed her name to be "Joan". It reminded me of two things: first that it was the name Buffy chose for herself when she was hit with the amnesia curse, and second of Joan of Arc (which I've always believed was the inspiration behind Buffy choosing it). It's a name of strength and sacrifice and saints and witches and heroes, so it was the perfect fit for Penny Dreadful.
So where were the other two members of Evelyn's coven? She was flanked by two, but in the premiere she had four in total (before immediately killing one). Also, the hissing has GOT to go.
So many beautiful and spooky little details, from Joan's mismatched eyes to the way Evelyn quietened the dogs with a look.
I found it interesting that during Mr Evelyn's rousing speech in the tavern, it was a woman who yelled out "we fight!" and the girl who went to Joan for an abortion that cried "burn the witch!" and later lit the fire (though from the way Evelyn was staring at her, I wonder if perhaps she had a hand in her betrayal). She reminded me of Judy from that Angel episode (you know the one), but it was an interesting choice to add women's voices to the witch burning that follows.
Perhaps to mitigate the idea of man versus woman? To add an extra bit of tragic irony? To demonstrate that it is women and women alone who are controlling events here? Not sure, but it's telling that soon after this Vanessa gets the line: "I'm nothing but a woman who must do something."
I questioned whether witch-burning was legal over on Outlander, but I know it's illegal to the point of absurdity to have it play out like this here. Sure there were supernatural forces pulling the strings, but all these people would have been hurled in jail for murder for what they did!
One other quibble – why did Evelyn's coven let Vanessa leave the moors unmolested? I mean, the whole point of their plan was to have Joan executed so they could remove her protection from Vanessa, and they were definitely standing outside the house after her death – so why the delay?
But all in all, I pretty much loved this episode – loved the atmosphere and suspense, loved that it concentrated on the relationship between two women, loved that even when the two of them were attacked they still somehow had the upper hand (or at least the moral high ground), loved Helen McCrory waltzing through the fields and leaving a paddock of dead cows in her wake. My main point of contention is that there were too many vague premonitions instead of concrete answers (Joan and Vanessa's entire conversation about animals stuck in the mire felt too on-point) but as with most episodes of this show, it felt like a mini-movie. Forty eight minutes? It felt so much longer than that.


  1. Why be sooo involved withe world?
    Why cant you be involved with Heaven?
    Lemme x-plane our conundrum, dear...

    Let this be your catalyst to Seventh-Heaven:

    'The more you shall honor Me,
    the more I shall bless you'
    -the Infant Jesus of Prague
    (<- Czech Republic, next to Russia)

    Love him or leave him or indifferent...
    better lissen to the Don:

    If you deny o'er-the-Hillary's evil,
    which most whorizontal demokrakkrs do,
    you cannot deny Hellfire
    which YOU send YOURSELF to.

    Yes, earthling, I was an NDE:
    the sights were beyond extreme.
    Choose Jesus.
    You'll be most happy you did.
    God bless your indelible soul.