One of the most refreshing things about Penny Dreadful is how patiently it structures every season. There’s no rush to get every series regular into every hour. There isn’t even a rush to make Vanessa leave her chair. The plot moves, but it looks in all directions at once, dealing in flashback and fallout as much as it does in present-day action, because it’s as interested in its characters’ internal lives as it is in the way they present themselves. What’s happening now is only part of the story.
In one of the most affecting scenes of this incredible, unrelenting hour, the orderly — and let’s call him that, because he isn’t the Creature yet — reads Robert Louis Stevenson’s “My Shadow” to Vanessa. It’s a poem about duality: a shadow that goes everywhere with the speaker but doesn’t always reflect that speaker accurately. “A Blade of Grass” strips away Vanessa’s shadow — the impression society has of her — and gets at the truth of what she’s going through by unlocking her memories. There is no forward movement here beyond her revelations. In a season that’s especially concerned with mental health, that’s a message in itself: Progress doesn’t have to look like progress to anyone else.
In real time, the talk-heavy episode takes place entirely in Seward’s office, where Vanessa, still under hypnosis, is working to recall her first encounter with the vampires’ master. From her perspective, the action never leaves a different room: her padded cell at the Banning Clinic. Within those walls, Vanessa’s only interaction was with the orderly who would become the Creature. The hour is essentially a one-act play carried by Eva Green and Rory Kinnear, whose chemistry is even more surprising here than it was in their handful of interactions last season — and while most of the episode’s biggest acting moments go to Green, it’s actually the orderly who’s changed more by their encounter.
At the start, he toes the company line. Vanessa calls her treatment torture; the orderly counters, “They’re making you well!” Vanessa refuses to eat; the orderly shoves a funnel down her throat and force-feeds her broth. He genuinely believes that he’s doing the right thing. He’s like the Creature in that sense. But while the Creature makes a show of his good intentions, using them like a weapon against anyone who questions him, the orderly stays open to the mounting evidence that suggests his employers aren’t completely on the side of the angels.
The first time he breaks the rules, Vanessa is wet and shivering on the floor of her cell after hydrotherapy. He brings her a blanket. When he comes back to retrieve it at the end of his shift, Vanessa cries, then leaps on his back and scratches his face — a choice that gets her confined to a straightjacket but, ironically, draws the orderly in closer, forcing him to take a more hands-on approach to her care. Does he question the fact that a procedure set up for his “safety” does little to protect him? He’s a cog in the machine as much as anyone.
Thanks to the straightjacket, Vanessa and the orderly start to get real. Vanessa complains that her torture is meant to make her “normal, like all the other women you know. Compliant. Obedient. A cog in the social machine.” Anyone who deviates is a “freak.” The orderly argues that he knows women who aren’t freaks or cogs, and Vanessa really should “think better of [her] sex,” but it’s not women Vanessa has a problem with. It’s the social structure that refuses to see women as people. She cries that she doesn’t feel like Vanessa Ives here; her identity and purpose have been erased. The orderly’s purpose is to feed her more broth — from a wooden spoon he brought from home so it wouldn’t hurt her mouth.
NEXT: Mirror, mirror