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'Penny Dreadful' recap: 'A Blade of Grass'

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Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Penny Dreadful

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
seasons:
2
run date:
05/11/14
performer:
Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton
broadcaster:
Showtime Networks Inc.
genre:
Suspense, Thriller, Drama

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[pagebreak]

He won’t tell Vanessa his name, but the orderly starts to open up, sharing that he learned the kindness of a wooden spoon when his son was a baby. As far as confessions go, it isn’t really a match for, “I have been touched by Satan,” but it’s a start. His son is sick; he thinks that Vanessa is ill, too, but she insists that her situation is different: “My faith was not strong enough, and Lucifer came to me. I didn’t fight him strongly enough. I don’t know that I fought him at all.” On his way out of the room, the orderly tells her that he believes her — then turns to face her, black in the eyes: “After all, I was there.”

Did the devil actually speak to Vanessa through the orderly, or is she just using the orderly’s face to make sense of that experience now? Either way, it’s more than Vanessa wants to relive. She asks Seward to pull her back to the present, but the doctor can’t do it. Vanessa has entered a fugue state, and there’s nothing left to do but keep going with Seward at her side — or across the desk. At least she has a friend.

Even at Banning, Vanessa wasn’t entirely alone. Sorting through her drug-muddled memories, she finds one she can cling to: During a time when her treatments have robbed her of the ability to speak, the orderly cares for her. In an effort to restore her sense of dignity, he takes out her gag, brushes her hair, applies some makeup, and tells her about his wife, whom he’s also told about Vanessa. All of this is against regulation, but when torturing patients isn’t against regulation, the rules become relative. The orderly fantasizes about a day when he and Vanessa can walk out of here together — then, even though he doesn’t like poetry (rich, coming from the man who will become the Creature), he pulls out a book of children’s poems and reads to her.

There’s something in this interaction that buys into the system Vanessa rallies against. Her humanity and identity are still being linked to her appearance. But there’s something in Vanessa that, maybe despite her wishes, buys into it as well. When the orderly holds a mirror to Vanessa’s made-up face, she flinches at first, but she needs to know that she can still be that person. Vanessa likes to dress to send a message — Seward saw that in 10 minutes — and she stopped caring about her appearance when she fell into depression. Her looks and her sense of agency are linked. There’s no shame in wanting to present yourself to the world on your terms.

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But the really stunning thing about this scene is that the orderly is just as aware of his own limitations. He’s doing what he can to restore her personhood, but he can’t give Vanessa the ability to present herself on her terms; these are still his terms, even if they’re closer to hers than knotted hair and a gag will ever be. “I’m sorry,” the orderly says as he wipes off her makeup before he goes. “One day soon, no one will touch you when you don’t want to be touched, or put makeup on you or take it off, ever, ever again.” With tears rolling down her cheeks, Vanessa opens her mouth so he can insert the gag again, and it’s like the pain of everyone who’s ever been victimized is in that room. Ready for this? As the orderly opens the door, he turns back: “It’s Christmas today.” We linger on Vanessa, still crying (Vanessa, but also me), after the door has closed.

NEXT: O brother, where art thou?[pagebreak]

The bond between Vanessa and the orderly deepens over time, until eventually she finds herself untying her gown and standing before him naked. “I’ve only been with one man,” she says, pulling him into her arms. She kisses him, and he kisses back, but just as it looks like we’re about to find out that Vanessa and the Creature had sex, the orderly pushes Vanessa away and ties her gown. Not for the first time, he begs her to get better before the doctor resorts to surgery. He’s seen the aftermath of Banning’s crude lobotomies. “Do you know what they are, all of them?” he asks. “A broken thing. Not a tiger, not a flower, not a clump of earth, not even a blade of grass.” Either he’s been reading more poetry (Blake? Whitman?), or he should be a poet. The orderly argues that being “different” isn’t worth this, but Vanessa can only be what she is.

The orderly pulls up a chair, ready to hear what makes her so different, but as soon as she brings up the devil, the devil takes over. Black in the eyes, the not-orderly introduces himself as Lucifer and tells a praying Vanessa that God has already abandoned her: “You’re not even a blade of grass to him.” He tempts her with the promise that they’ll rule the earth together, but before he can seal the deal, a laugh echoes through the room. Lucifer himself cowers in the corner. The devil’s brother, who also wears the orderly’s face, appears to Vanessa, taunting his brother that science and faithlessness are already taking hold on humanity. “I’m only concerned with the faith of one,” Lucifer replies. That’s a lot of pressure on Vanessa.

The brothers’ domains are clear; Lucifer appeals to the spirit, while his brother caters to the flesh — and blood. Sound like anyone we know? Dracula is the devil’s brother. That explains his obsession with Vanessa. “One kiss and you’re free of all this,” he says. “In this mortal world you’ll always be shunned for your uniqueness. But not with me.” He knows how to speak her language. Vanessa is ready to give herself over, but as soon as Dracula says his name, she snaps out of it. Her soul and body are “promised to another.” Anyway, blade of grass or not, she’s banished the devil before. Vanessa recites the Verbis Diablo until she levitates, coming back to reality with the orderly by her bed.

Against her instincts, Vanessa takes the orderly’s advice and pretends to be “normal” the next time she sees the doctor. But because she refuses to deny her faith, she can only take the illusion so far — and faith is “lunacy to a man like Dr. Banning.” He shaves her head in preparation for the surgery that we already know he’s going to perform. The night before it’s scheduled, the orderly comes to Vanessa to tell her that he’s tendered his resignation. He doesn’t have another job. He just can’t do this anymore. But he won’t leave until after she’s gone under. “The last person you see before the surgery will be someone who loves you,” he says, and I literally reply, “Wow,” to an empty room. Vanessa deserves to hear that she’s loved. She takes his face in her hands and kisses him. Everyone’s crying.

Vanessa comes to in Seward’s office opposite the startled doctor. How long has it been? It feels like days. Seward, unprompted, pours Vanessa a drink and apologizes for the burn she gave her patient when she tried to wake her up. After everything we’ve seen, the absurdity of the apology is almost funny. Vanessa remembers everything she just relived, and not like a dream — all of it. Seward is terrified. I love it when Vanessa terrifies people. “You once said we name things so they don’t frighten us,” she says. “I’m not frightened. His name is Dracula.” Give this play a standing ovation and walk it out.

In the cards:

  • On top of the countless tragedies in this hour, it’s a shame that Vanessa and the orderly never got to know each other outside the confines of the clinic. Will the Creature’s memories ever fully come back to him?
  • Vanessa’s dry hands were a warning sign — at Banning, she scratched her whole body raw.
  • The sound design in this episode is intense. There’s almost no music to relieve us from Vanessa’s torture. Sounds echo. Dracula’s voice in particular is great: earthy and rich. It almost sounds like Christian Camargo’s voice was layered on top of Rory Kinnear’s at times, but even if it was, Kinnear deserves praise for his voice work. Every character has a distinct sound.
  • “None of us are heroes,” is a far cry from, “We’re not made from such stuff as our heroes, are we?”
  • “I’m a stupid man. Very bad at my lettering and my figures, no gift for words, but I’m here now, and I’ll listen.”
  • “I realized I was wrong. One person does live there, where it’s cold and lonely all the time.”
  • “Be true. You will come out of it when you’re at the heart of your trauma, when you’ve found what you’re here for. I’m not leaving you for anything in this world.”

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