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.