Penny Dreadful is trading the confines of Vanessa’s padded cell for the expanse of the American Southwest this week, but it doesn’t feel any less claustrophobic. The New Mexico desert cares about as much for Ethan as Dr. Banning did for Vanessa, and for all of the ground Ethan and Hecate cover in their travels, they never see anything new. The real difference between Ethan’s prison and Vanessa’s is found in the person they share it with: While Vanessa opened her companion’s eyes, Hecate corrupts hers.
If I’ve had trouble with anything this season, it’s that I haven’t been able to buy into the hand-wringing over Ethan’s potential descent into darkness. Lily, who’s so done with men that she’s killing them all, sets Ethan apart as “different” because he’s just that kind. It’s always been a safe bet that no matter how much he struggles with his darker impulses or how close he comes to the edge, he’ll find his way back. But I never expected him to get so close, and after this week’s hour, I’m ready to watch Ethan walk that line as long as he wants. He might not go over the edge, but he’s not coming back the same.
Ethan and Hecate have barely started into the desert before she’s begun tempting him to the dark side. When he suggests that his sense of shame is “the only decent thing” about him, Hecate appeals to Ethan’s self-interest, asking what God offers him in return for such torturous guilt. His reply: “Forgiveness.” But Ethan doesn’t feel especially forgiven, and Hecate pries into the part of him that’s dissatisfied with this endless cycle of repentance. Their sins, she argues, come from the same place. She and Ethan were both betrayed by their parents, enlisted at a young age to serve masters they didn’t choose. Hers was the devil; his was the American army. But in Ethan’s opinion, they’ve got something else in common: They could have deserted. (Could she? Once the devil literally has his claws in you, do you still have free will?)
As night falls, Ethan shares his story with Hecate, while Kaeteney, not far away, tells Sir Malcolm his side. Their stories line up, aside from the bloody twist ending that neither one of them is willing to speak out loud. Ethan and his regiment attacked and killed a band of Apaches. As he washed the blood off of his hands, his commanding officer dragged the body of a boy into the river, poisoning the water. He’d bashed in the boy’s face with a rock. (“He says he wasn’t worth the bullet.”) When the officer smiled, “They’ll give us medals for this, Ethan,” Ethan shot him in the head.
From there, he rode into the last Apache stronghold and begged Kaeteney to take his scalp. Instead, Kaeteney forced Ethan to fight against his own army — a task Ethan enjoyed a little too much. As the tribe dwindled in numbers, the men turned cruel. And here’s that twist: Ethan told the tribe where to find the stash of weapons on his father’s ranch. Kaeteney promised that not a shot would be fired, only to lead a brutal raid that left everyone in Ethan’s family, aside from his father, dead. It looks like Kaeteney himself cut out Ethan’s younger sister’s tongue and eyes, while her father watched, “so she would wander blind and mute in this place of death.” That would explain the rift.
But why did Kaeteney do it? And why would someone capable of such cruelty dedicate himself to saving Ethan now? Kaeteney says that he’s seen things — the world will descend into darkness unless Ethan stops it — but he seems more motivated by the desire to “save [his] son” than by any sort of apocalyptic practicality. He’s right about one thing: Ethan’s getting closer to the edge. Ethan joins forces with Hecate to help her cast a spell that brings rattlesnakes out of the earth, rising from the sand around the marshalls’ campfire just as Sir Malcolm and Kaeteney sneak up to steal horses and kill everyone, respectively. Kaeteney takes out a snake and slices a man’s throat with one incredibly cool twist of the knife, but he’s bitten by another snake in the process. The commotion leaves everyone in the search party dead aside from Rusk and Marshall Ostow. Sir Malcolm and Kaeteney escape on horseback.
Ethan probably won’t be losing any sleep over the fact that he’s responsible for Kaeteney’s rattlesnake bite, but that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. Rusk, faced with a campsite full of dead bodies, abandons his moral code and commits to killing Ethan no matter the cost. Ethan, meanwhile, is off committing another one of those willful murders Hecate warned him about, shooting his dying horse to end its suffering. The next night, he and Hecate camp out in a cave, the walls of which are painted with the story of the first Apache: a boy who faced the creatures of the night and defeated the darkness. “This,” says Ethan, “is the story of how the world was made.”
NEXT: Caving in