Penny Dreadful S30E04 “A Blade Of Grass” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on Tuesdays on Sky Atlantic, 10pm
Writer: John Logan
Director: Toa Fraser
Essential Plot Points:
- Vanessa has been hypnotised by Dr Seward, taking her back to the five months she spent in an asylum so that she can find out what happened to her there.
- Over time, she strikes up an awkward friendship with her orderly – who we know as Caliban, aka John Clare (his name pre-monster still isn’t known).
- The pair bond, and John comes to love her – not in a romantic way (he is married and loves his wife) but platonically.
- Vanessa is treated horrendously over her stay as the doctors try to treat her psychosis, and the treatments wear away at both her and John.
- Meanwhile, in the present day, Dr Seward can’t wake Vanessa up – she’s fallen into a fugue state. The doctor appears in Vanessa’s flashback and tells her she won’t be able to leave until she’s found what she came for.
- Vanessa and John grow closer, but demons are circling… Lucifer possesses him and tries to persuade her to join him, but then his brother turns up, too, also possessing John’s body. Vanessa plays along with them both until she finds out the brother’s name: Dracula.
- She tells both creatures that she’s more evil than either of them and starts chanting, banishing them.
- Vanessa doesn’t leave, however; she has one last thing to do – find out what happened to the orderly. He visits her the night before she is given her brain surgery to say goodbye, as her plight has prompted him to quit his job.
- And, of course, she forgets him after the surgery… and when he’s reborn thanks to Frankenstein’s machinations, he doesn’t remember her, either.
- But at least Vanessa, when she wakes up in the present day, knows Dracula’s name.
Every season so far Penny Dreadful has brought us a Vanessa-centric episode that practically begs the Emmy judges to notice Eva Green; why they haven’t showered her with statues yet is a mystery. This season’s tour-de-force performance is no exception, with Green proving she’s a cut above 99% of actors working today as she loses her mind, finds it, loses it again, screams, writhes, cries (boy, does she cry) and, eventually, finds a sort of peace. It’s utterly mesmerising to watch. For all of Penny Dreadful’s daftness – see last week’s bloody orgy for proof – these are the scenes that bring us back, as the bizarre concept of this show is delivered as though it’s some deathly serious Shakespearean drama. Astonishing.
Before you think we’re selling Rory Kinnear short, however, we also have to say that’s he’s bewitching here too – his final soliloquy, as he tells Vanessa about how he suddenly understood her plight as he spoke to his son, is heartbreaking to watch. The way his voice breaks when he says, “I’m sorry,” earlier in the episode is devastating, too. You can totally understand how Vanessa, even in her terrible state, comes to trust him… and possibly, in her own way, love him as much as he comes to love her during the course of their time together.
Kudos also goes to the make-up team, who make Vanessa look like something that crawled out of a TV set in a Japanese horror movie, and even more kudos goes to director Toa Fraser for turning a wordy, single-room story into something dynamic and absorbing – this could have been boring without some inventive edits, shot-framings and angles. Yet these don’t take away from the fact that this episode feels as though you’re watching a play. An off-off-off Broadway one, naturally.
But what of the revelations? That idea that both Dracula and Lucifer are fighting over Vanessa (body and soul, respectively) would be almost hilarious if it wasn’t for the fact she’s so horrified by the whole thing, not to mention the fact they both come to visit her in lovely, friendly John’s unsuspecting body. She outwits them, though, claiming to be more evil than they are – she certainly looks more powerful. Dr Sweet/Dracula had better watch out when she sees him next…
- Nobody speaks in tongues quite like Eva Green. She’s electrifying.
- The attention to detail with the way Vanessa looks is, as always, extraordinary. The bruises on her arms right down to the way she curls her toes when John force-feeds her is so visceral it’s almost as though you can feel everything along with her.
- There are little moments that work beautifully, too, such as John having to take back the blanket he’s so thoughtfully given her (in case she hangs herself with it), or the wooden spoon he brings from home to feed her with.
- And him spending Christmas Day with her – clearly with the permission, and possibly even the urging, of his wife – is a chin-wobbling sequence. Who would’ve thought that the sight of a burly hospital orderly brushing a patient’s hair could mean so much?
- “The last person you see before the surgery will be someone who loves you.” Hold us, dear reader. We need a hug.
- Nails down a blackboard: bad. Nails down the padded walls of a cell: almost as bad. What a thoroughly unpleasant moment that is.
- It’s a very quiet asylum, isn’t it? Compare it to Bedlam, where you can always hear some poor bugger screaming in the background. This one’s pin-drop central.
- “For too long I have been afraid – no longer!” cries Vanessa as she, er, squeezes herself into a corner as though she’s terrified. Actions speak louder than words and all that, luv.
- Were we the only ones wondering how on Earth you arrange yourself to go to the toilet while wearing a straitjacket? And when she’s gagged it’s even worse – she can’t even call for someone to help out!
- Vanessa has always felt an affinity with Joan of Arc (“Did you know she sang as she burned?”). Like Vanessa, Joan had her head shaved before being tortured, and she also had visions. Will we discover that Vanessa is some kind of descendant? Not directly, of course, as Joan was supposed to be the “Virgin Saviour” of France. But perhaps her spirit lives on in Vanessa after jumping through a procession of bodies over the years?
- Vanessa’s mentor, Seward’s ancestor, was called Joan as well; perhaps Joan’s spirit is simply following her around. We wouldn’t put it past her. She was a right weird one, that Joan.
- Best Quote: John: “It’s Christmas today.”
Review by Jayne Nelson