Vanessa's scorpion gets an origin story.
Credit: Jonathan Hession/SHOWTIME

Most weeks, Penny Dreadful is a busy show. But when the theatrical incantations, literary love triangles, and supernatural thrills get stripped away, it’s a reminder that this show is a fun, overstuffed horror story because it wants to be, not because it relies on gimmickry as a distraction. Penny Dreadful is also capable of being an actual horror—an unsettling and sometimes devastating look at what people are capable of—and, because of that, a tragedy. Vanessa’s first flashback episode was a highlight of season 1 for that reason, and tonight’s outing might have topped it.

Ethan wants to know why Vanessa is finger-painting scorpions on the floor in her own blood (fair question), so she agrees to tell him what she’s never told anyone before: the story of her search for answers about what she believed to be her curse, which took her to a woman known as the Cut-Wife. We flash back to Vanessa standing outside a cottage on the moors, unable to get past a threshold marked by two piles of stones. The Cut-Wife (played brilliantly by a barely recognizable Patti LuPone) watches through a window in her door. After at least a day has passed, the Cut-Wife emerges, bites her own thumb—honestly, I think this show exists in a world where people have no nerve endings in their thumbs—and marks Vanessa’s forehead with blood in the shape of a cross. “You’re strong willed and agile like the scorpion,” she says. Nickname achieved.

Recognizing that Vanessa isn’t here for the usual cure, love potion, or abortion (hence the cutting), the Cut-Wife asks Vanessa to prove herself. There’s a scar on the Cut-Wife’s back; how did she get it? Vanessa feels a branding iron and flinches, which is enough for the Cut-Wife to let her inside, where she explains that she believes herself to be cursed. Mina comes to her in her mind, and she needs help. The Cut-Wife isn’t convinced until Vanessa says that the branding was done by someone she trusted—a sister. The Cut-Wife pulls out her Tarot cards and asks her guest to believe. Vanessa chooses the Devil. Now she’s allowed to spend the night.

Gathering herbs in the woods, the Cut-Wife tells Vanessa that Tarot readings aren’t always literal. Vanessa suggests that the Devil might mean “evil,” but she can do better than that. She tries again with what might as well be a summary of this show: “A dark lover approaching, bringing terror, irresistible. Part of you but not. The whisper of something ghastly and beautiful.” The Cut-Wife could feel just that kind of something inside Vanessa before she even met her, and she wanted to lock her doors and scream because of it. But she also feels Vanessa’s pain—while the Cut-Wife learned this gift, Vanessa was born with it.

That night, Evelyn and her coven show up outside the cottage. Evelyn is the Cut-Wife’s sister—it was her branding iron that marked the Cut-Wife’s back with a pentagram. The Master wants Vanessa above all, and the witches have come to retrieve her. (“Don’t be obstinate. There’s still plenty of flesh on you for burning.”) When the Cut-Wife refuses, Evelyn asks for a kiss, seemingly pulling her sister toward her against her will. This is a power we haven’t seen yet. It’s one thing to enchant someone with the Verbis Diablo, as Evelyn seems to be doing with Sir Malcolm. It’s another thing entirely to override someone’s will with plain English. What’s next? Silent mind control?

Just in time, Vanessa throws open the cottage door and cries out, and the Cut-Wife falls to her knees. She later explains that the witches used to be her coven, back when they were Daywalkers who dabbled in herbs and healing. But Evelyn took a new path, trading her soul to the devil to become a Nightcomer in exchange for what everyone wants: “Power, youth, beauty, love.” Their conversation is interrupted by a knock on the door—a girl has come for an abortion. Vanessa offers to help, comforting the girl and asking her to look into her eyes. “God forgives all,” she says as the Cut-Wife clinically grasps a knife.

It’s not an easy scene to watch, even as the camera cuts away—which is fitting, because the idea of the Cut-Wife looms larger over this town than her actual work. Men spit on her as they pass, hating her for the same services they rely on. Humanity sees its flaws in the Cut-Wife, and she can’t understand “why people in this world hate what is not them, why they fear all they don’t know, why they hate themselves most of all—for being weak, for being old, for being everything all together that is not godlike. Which of us can be that? Monsters all, are we not?” Vanessa believes that she’s more of a monster than most, but at least she doesn’t use her power to waltz through a field of cows and cut them all down with a smile on her face.

NEXT: Fifty Shades of the British Aristocracy

In order to fuel the town’s distrust of the Cut-Wife, Evelyn has taken to killing livestock and sexually dominating wealthy landowner Sir Geoffrey. She convinces him that the Cut-Wife is to blame for the blight on the land. Sir Geoffrey believes that there’s nothing to be done, because the Cut-Wife has a homestead deed from Cromwell himself, but Evelyn whips his naked body with a riding crop until he changes his mind. He then channels his fear of emasculation by attempting to rape Vanessa in the woods. Vanessa bites his hand, holds a knife to his neck, and makes him scream.

It’s no wonder that she doesn’t want to stay here. The Cut-Wife is dying, and she wants Vanessa to live on the land and take over her work when she’s gone. A lot of girls here need help. But Vanessa can’t let go of the idea that Mina needs her help, too, which the Cut-Wife sees as a selfish attempt to play hero for her own peace of mind. Despite the fact that she still can’t tell if Vanessa’s heart is good or bad, the Cut-Wife shows her a forbidden book—the poetry of death—and tells her to only open it if God abandons her completely. Vanessa’s life is already pretty bleak. How will she tell the difference?

By now, Sir Geoffrey has the peasants convinced that he’ll have to close the manor, leaving them all to die. The town surrounds the Cut-Wife’s cottage with torches, and she delivers her last piece of advice to Vanessa, who promises to face the mob with her: “When Lucifer fell, he did not fall alone. They will hunt you until the end of days. Be true. My name is Joan Clayton.” Joan and Vanessa go outside, where the minister declares her guilty of necromancy, and a child throws the first stone. As two men hold Vanessa back, the people take turns beating and kicking Joan before shackling her to a tree. They cover her with tar. Vanessa cries. They light Joan on fire. Eva Green makes a bid for an Emmy.

The fire engulfs Joan, but her eyes stay open and her toes stay on the ground, fulfilling her promise to Vanessa that she would meet these people on her feet. The minister brands Vanessa’s back with a cross as Sir Geoffrey tells her to scream. The next day, she opens Joan’s last gift for her: the deed from Cromwell. “Joan Clayton” has been crossed out, replaced by Vanessa Ives. This land is legally hers, but she isn’t staying. After lingering on the forbidden book, Vanessa packs the Tarot cards instead, then cuts her thumb and traces a scorpion on the stones outside. She walks away from the closest thing she ever had to a home as Joan’s warning about Lucifer echoes again. I need a hug.

But I also think Vanessa made the right call. Vanessa isn’t detached enough for a life of solitude punctuated by the occasional primitive abortion. She’s not the type to wield the knife; she’s the type to tell a frightened girl to look into her eyes. Vanessa found a home in that cottage only because she had Joan to devote herself to. Being the Cut-Wife requires embracing humanity’s monstrousness, but the monster in Vanessa isn’t just human weakness. It’s a literal demon. Who would she be without that fight?

Bits and pieces:

  • I’m nostalgic for the innocent days in the first quarter of this episode, when I thought snapping a bunny’s neck would be the most upsetting visual of the hour.
  • “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” is almost too on the nose.
  • If “only them that’s full humankind” can cross the stones, then does the demon in Vanessa make her something other than fully human?
  • Evelyn with a Tumblr insult: “God, sister, how you speak. Like a talking potato.”
  • “We’re not courting. I don’t want your name.”

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