As it did in each of the previous two seasons, ‘Penny Dreadful’ takes a step back from its globe-spanning storylines this week to spend an entire hour focused on backstory. This time, the show strips itself down to just a couple of people in a room acting their asses off. And it’s amazing.
Technically, episode ‘A Blade of Grass’ has three characters, but only two interact at any given time. Very brief bookend scenes set inside Dr. Seward’s office set the scene. Vanessa, eager to recover memories of the time she spent confined to a loony bin (discussed and briefly shown in Season 1 Episode 5), asks Seward to hypnotize her. The doctor does, and the rest of the episode is spent as a flashback.
Out of her mind and locked in an asylum cell, Vanessa spends her time scratching at the white padded walls. Her only visitor is an unnamed Orderly who brings food that she refuses to eat. We in the audience recognize that the Orderly will later become Frankenstein’s Monster (currently going by the name John Clare), but it’s unclear whether Vanessa has made that connection yet. He seems to be kind, patient, and concerned about her. He encourages her to, “Please eat.”
Dr. Seward periodically inserts herself into Vanessa’s vision to interact with her in the memory, but disappears whenever the Orderly returns.
Because Vanessa is suicidal and wants to starve to death, the Orderly has to force feed her with a hose shoved down her throat. The process looks terribly unpleasant, and he is stern and methodical when performing the task, but he doesn’t do it maliciously to torture her.
Without any windows in the room, Vanessa loses all sense of time. She can never tell whether it’s day or night. Her only sense of time progressing is the Orderly coming in and going out of the room. Day after day, he changes her piss pot, mops the floors, and brings her food. Although it’s against regulations for him to speak to the patients, he does anyway and warns her that if she doesn’t show any signs of progress, her treatments will get more aggressive. After a session of so-called “hydrotherapy” (which involves soaking her in icy water and leaving her to shiver uncontrollably in her cold room), the Orderly takes pity on Vanessa and brings her a blanket. Unfortunately, he returns later and has to take it back from her.
Vanessa lashes out and attacks the Orderly, scratching his face. For that, she’s put in a straightjacket. The Orderly has to feed her soup. This time, she’s more agreeable and eats it. The Orderly says that her treatments will get worse. Vanessa tells him that she was touched by Satan and didn’t fight hard enough. At this, the Orderly’s eyes go black and he speaks to her as the Devil, chastising her for fighting him at all. Vanessa is terrified.
Still in the dream, Vanessa begs Dr. Seward to wake her up. She doesn’t want to do this anymore. The doctor tells her that she’s been trying to wake her up for hours, even going so far as to burn her hand with a cigarette. Vanessa is trapped in a fugue state and will have to see this through until she can get out of it on her own.
Vanessa is next seen not just in a straightjacket, but gagged as well. The Orderly returns, gentle and caring again as if nothing had happened. He removes her gag, brushes her hair, and puts a little makeup on her face to help her feel somewhat normal and healthy again for a moment. Because she had mentioned that she likes poetry, he brings a book and reads some to her, even though he doesn’t care for it himself. This brief respite is all too short, sadly. He has to remove the makeup and muss up her hair before he leaves.
Vanessa drops her robe, stands before him nude, and kisses the Orderly. He picks her robe up and puts it back on her, then tells her that unless she shows clear signs of improvement soon, the next step is surgery. At first, Vanessa is defiant. She invites martyrdom, like her hero Joan of Arc. But as the Orderly describes exactly what will happen to her in all its primitive and barbaric detail – the doctors will crack her skull open and cut out parts of her brain, leaving her vegetative afterwards – it sounds utterly fucking horrifying.
The Orderly offers Vanessa a sympathetic ear to tell her story to. As she does, she says that she doesn’t know why the Devil is interested in her. Suddenly, the Orderly’s eyes go black again and he announces, “Because I love you.”
Vanessa retreats to the other side of the room. The Devil projects the shadow of a snake across the wall toward her. She demands that he say his name: “Lucifer.” As he speaks, the two of them are both drawn to the floor and crawl toward each other.
They’re interrupted by a scary laugh and furniture moving around the room on its own. Both Vanessa and even Lucifer are frightened. A second, duplicate version of the Orderly appears in the room, darker and more imposing even than the one possessed by Lucifer. He calls himself the “Father of Beasts.” He’s Lucifer’s brother, and they obviously have a contentious relationship. He says that Lucifer wants her soul, but he just wants her flesh. He intends to marry her, and their children will become the Dark Ones (vampires).
As she did with the first one, Vanessa demands that he say his name. When he reveals that he’s Dracula, she pushes him away. Recovering some backbone, Vanessa stands strong before both devils. Dracula rages, “Who are you to defy me?” Vanessa then begins chanting ominously in the Verbis Diablo until she levitates off the ground, scaring both Lucifer and Dracula.
Vanessa snaps awake in her cell. The Orderly is still talking to her. Was anything that just happened real, or just a delusion in her mind?
Vanessa then hears from Dr. Seward again, who urges her to come out of this memory. Vanessa says that she’s not ready to leave.
The Orderly returns with more food. Vanessa’s head is shaved. She says that she tried to be good and act normal again, but it didn’t work. The Orderly informs her that her surgery is scheduled for the next day. She asks, “Will there be anything left of me?” The Orderly tells her that he will be there for her the next day, but is quitting after that. This job has taken the last of what he has to give.
Finally, Vanessa comes completely out of her memory and wakes up in Seward’s office again. She says that she remembers everything. She’s no longer frightened, and knows now that her enemy is Dracula.
I can hardly describe how outstanding Eva Green is in this episode. For as great as she’s always been on this show, this is a real tour de force performance. If there were any justice in such things, she’d be an immediate lock for an Emmy. (I’m not counting on it.)
Standing toe-to-toe with her is Rory Kinnear as the Orderly. His John Clare has never particularly been one of my favorite characters on the show, but here he creates three distinct and richly drawn characters in a very short amount of time. I’m very impressed.
Besides being an actors’ showcase, this episode does a tremendous job of clearing up a great deal of the show’s confusing mythology regarding Lucifer and Dracula, who they are and how they’re related.
Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about this episode. It’s the best one the show has ever aired. I would be amazed if the series ever tops it.