‘Penny Dreadful’ 2.03 Recap: “The Whisper of Something Ghastly and Beautiful”

About halfway through its first season, ‘Penny Dreadful’ took a break from all of its ongoing storylines for an extended flashback to the Vanessa character’s youth. It was an odd decision for a show with such a short season. The series does it again even earlier this year.

Episode ‘The Nightcomers’ opens with an awkward framing device where Ethan finds Vanessa in her room with the scorpion image painted in blood on the floor. He asks her about it and, though she resists at first, she tells him the story of her first encounter with witches. That’s the last we’ll see of Ethan this week.

Unlike last year’s flashback, this one takes place in the relatively recent past when Vanessa is already an adult, so we don’t have any issues with the 35-year-old Eva Green pretending that she’s a teenager. Believing herself cursed by the Devil, Vanessa searches for answers about her predicament from an old witch known as the Cut-Wife (Patti LuPone) who lives in a ramshackle house in the English moors. The witch got this name because she performs illegal abortions to girls in desperate situations. This makes her the provider of a necessary service, but leaves her hated by much of the local populace.

The witch has a mean, bitter personality, and refuses to speak with Vanessa at first, leaving her to stand outside in bad weather for an entire night. Eventually, she brings her inside, and agrees to teach her how to read tarot and how to cast basic spells using herbs. However, she warns Vanessa that something evil is following her.

Indeed, the witch we know as Evelyn Poole shows up with two of her daughters, looking for Vanessa to bring her back as a prize for their Master (presumably Satan), who wants her above all others. They can’t enter the house due to the protection of magic stones at the threshold (only regular humans can cross), but make it clear that they’ll be back.

The Cut-Wife tells Vanessa that they must prepare for battle and teaches her how to speak the Devil’s Tongue. She also explains that Evelyn is her sister, and that they’re both much older than they look. The Cut-Wife has been around since at least the 17th Century, when she was granted exclusive ownership of her property in perpetuity by Oliver Cromwell. She’s now dying, and wants Vanessa to take her place when she’s gone. Vanessa insists that she must return to London to help her friend Mina.

Never one to give up easily, Evelyn seduces a wealthy lord named Sir Geoffrey who’s quite into S&M before there was even a name for such a thing. Because he has no legal standing to evict the Cut-Wife, Evelyn kills cattle throughout the county so that Geoffrey can blame this blight on a curse from the nasty old witch that people already dislike. Geoffrey raises an angry mob that storms the house, hangs the Cut-Wife from a tree, pours hot tar over her, and burns her alive while Vanessa is forced to watch. For her punishment, they brand Vanessa’s back with a hot iron in the shape of a cross.

Although the Cut-Wife bestowed her property to Vanessa before she died, Vanessa leaves to return to London. She takes with her a tome known as the “Book of Last Resort.” By opening and reading it, she will forever give up any connection to God.

With a focus on just one storyline, the episode has a much simpler narrative than most from the show. Although it helpfully fills us in on the backstory of Vanessa and the witches, we still don’t know why Satan wants her so badly. What’s so special about Vanessa? That question hasn’t been answered. Perhaps it will be at a later date.

The episode is interesting, but I feel like it comes too early in the season for such a lengthy diversion, and that all of the important information in it might have been better conveyed in a series of briefer flashbacks interspersed within other normal episodes.

8 comments

  1. Ryan

    2 Questions
    1) Was the cut wife supposed to be a reference to Joan of Arc (I know her first name was Joan, but I missed the last)? Complete with being burned at the stake.
    2) I need to rewatch it, but this episode complete changes what we saw in Season 1’s seance (spelling). Evelyn should have 100% known who Vanessa was then, but I didn’t think it felt that way

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I thought about the Joan of Arc connection as well, but wasn’t sure enough to mention it in the recap.

      Not only should Evelyn have known who Vanessa is, Vanessa should have known who she is too. This does seem like a contradiction.

    • agentalbert

      The Evelyn we have in season 2 (and probably at the end of S1 when she appears) seems completely different than the Madame Kali at the seance. I was thinking that something happened to her between the seance and now, as the witch we’ve seen lately shouldn’t have been shown up by Vanessa or unnerved by what was happening. Unless perhaps she was playing a part and pretending to be a simple charlatan that doesn’t really communicate with the dead. Maybe it was a test to get a sense of how powerful Vanessa was or how important to her master she was.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        At the end of the first season, Evelyn presented herself to Sir Malcolm as an actress who had been hired to play a psychic at Ferdinand Lyle’s party. So, yes, at the party she was pretending to be a simple charlatan. And now, she’s pretending to be an actress who played a simple charlatan.

        Even if we presume that she was also just pretending not to know Vanessa at the party so that she could keep tabs on her, we’re still left with the problem that Vanessa should have known full well who Evelyn was. This episode tells us that they knew each other long before that.

        The only way this would make sense is if something happened to Vanessa that caused her to forget Evelyn – which might explain why she claims not to know what she said when she instinctively spoke the Verbis Diablo. However, she clearly does remember everything, because this flashback is framed as her telling the whole story to Ethan.

        • agentalbert

          I’ll have to re-watch the seance episode to see if Vanessa gives any hint of recognizing Evelny/Madame Kali. I don’t know why Vanessa wouldn’t recognize her, or if she didn’t remember what happened to her before but does now, wouldn’t at least now understand that she’s come into contact with Evelyn more than just the once.

          I get that Madame Kali was pretending (or rather, pretending to pretend) to be a simple charlatan who was exposed by Vanessa as not being the real deal. I just wonder if it was her intention that everyone (including Malcolm) see her that way or if the point was to test Vanessa somehow.

          I hope the writers had this all planned out from the beginning and have it worked out.

  2. Ryan

    Is it possible that Vanessa never never got a good look at Evelyn? I don’t recall them ever coming face to face…and Evelyn (I think) always had her hood on. Plus it was dark.

    Evelyn should definitely know Vanessa though….perhaps not the other way around?

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      The problem with this theory is that the flashback is framed as Vanessa telling the story to Ethan, so she must have known who Evelyn is in order to tell Ethan about her.

      On the other hand, the flashback includes private scenes between Evelyn and Sir Geoffrey that Vanessa couldn’t have been witness to. So, perhaps this is just sloppy writing.

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