As part of my forthcoming book project, I’ve been revisiting the Penny Dreadful series and comics. This included looking back at my online reviews of the show’s third and final season, which I will be posting here over the coming weeks. This post originally appeared on The Victorianist, 27 May 2016. It has been edited and corrected for reposting.
Last week I wished for a quieter episode that focused on one or two characters in a bit more depth. This week, that wish was granted. Seasons one and two both used an early episode to explore a part of Vanessa’s past, and this season does the same. ‘A Blade of Grass’ is a frame narrative that starts and ends as a hypnotherapy session between Vanessa Ives and Dr Seward, and the two women are attempting to discover where Vanessa first met The Master (a.k.a. Dracula).
To call the pacing of the episode ‘slow’, however, would be to undermine the tension in every frame. Most of the action is confined to the interaction between Vanessa and her attendant. Some of the most spectacular acting of the season can also be found in this episode. When putting together this post, it was actually extremely difficult to take a good screenshot, because so many emotions flicker across the faces of these two actors in a single second. We as viewers learn that before his death and resurrection at the hands of Victor Frankenstein, John Clare was an orderly at the asylum where Vanessa spent part of her youth. He and Vanessa developed a bond over the five months she was institutionalised there, but we never learn his original name (the show teases us about this). The bond that grows between them is platonic—despite an awkward, heartbreaking scene in which a distraught Vanessa attempts to seduce him.
Penny Dreadful is at its strongest when it’s a little bit uncomfortable. This episode excels in that regard. It is full of uncomfortable sounds (the scratching of the phonograph needle on the wax cylinder, Vanessa scratching the rubber padding of her cell, Vanessa’s animal noises), uncomfortable visuals (the bulk of the episode takes place in Vanessa’s padded cell, confining the viewer as it confines her, and is often shot from above to induce a sense of paranoia), and uncomfortable situations. Re-living this experience isn’t easy for Vanessa, and the show makes certain it’s not easy for the viewer either.
Last week’s episode may have been the one entitled ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’, but this week goes into a lot more depth. In fact, the episode deals with a series of dualistic concepts: good and evil, body and soul, the social and the supernatural. Oppression and empowerment. The key theme of this episode is an individualistic one, of personal empowerment against dominant structures of oppression, and of John Clare’s conversion to Vanessa’s point of view. Referring to the starvation, isolation, and ‘hydrotherapy’ Vanessa endures, John Clare argues: ‘It’s not torture, what they’re doing. It’s science’.
‘It’s meant to make me normal,’ Vanessa retorts. ‘Like all the other women you know. Compliant. Obedient. A cog in an intricate social machine… and no more.’ To her John Clare is clearly just another man – a kind man, but a symbol of the oppressor nonetheless, who thinks women can only be angels or whores. Slowly, however, the attendant comes to realise that institutionalised compliance isn’t helping anyone—including himself. ‘Better’ is a relative term that always suits the majority. Some people will always be different, both medically and socially, and the choice to comply or rebel should be theirs.
Throughout the episode, Vanessa’s future is also conflated with the future of women more generally, framed as a call to action. As John Clare gets to know the person behind the madwoman, his compassionate gestures amount to a kind of failed feminism, albeit one with utopian vision. ‘One day,’ he tells Vanessa towards the end of the episode, ‘no one will ever touch you when you don’t want to be touched… ever, ever again.’
‘A Blade of Grass’ also features some fascinating discussions about the relationship between naming, and perception or power. John Clare remains unnamed in his role as asylum attendant, and he has power over Vanessa because of it. Vanessa, likewise, is not herself in the asylum. She has lost her name. Without names, even time passes differently. ‘Is it day or night?’ asks Vanessa repeatedly. The attendant asks: ’Which would you prefer it to be?’ ‘Night,’ responds Vanessa the first time. ‘Then it’s night,’ replies the attendant. As the episode closes, Vanessa also reminds Dr Seward of the claims she made about naming the monstrous in a previous session: ’You once said we name things so they don’t frighten us. I’m not frightened. His name is Dracula.’
The plot’s conclusion returns to the heady pace of previous episodes. Dracula manifests in John Clare’s physical form (expertly acted by Rory Kinnear), and is revealed to be Lucifer’s brother. Both Dracula (the animal) and Lucifer (the spirit) want to conquer heaven. Both also want to conquer Vanessa. The one wants her body, the other her soul. Vanessa isn’t ready to give them either, however. ‘Why would the Devil be interested in you?’ asks John Clare when Vanessa first confesses the real reason she’s in the asylum. She is unable to answer him then, but when the brothers Dracula and Lucifer ask how she dares to refuse them, she responds with a show of power that is hidden from the viewer, but strong enough to drive them away immediately. What exactly is Vanessa, then? Unclear as yet, though she hints: ‘You think you know evil? Here it stands’. Whatever she becomes scares off both brothers, and I look forward to seeing that power manifested again against Dracula as the season concludes.
- The moment of connection between Vanessa and John Clare happens on Christmas Day. Does that make this a Christmas episode?
- ‘Don’t you like poetry?’ ‘Uh, no’. Death apparently brings out the poetry in John Clare—though one of the most touching moments of the episode is when the orderly reads a book of children’s verse aloud to Vanessa. I dare you to re-read ‘My Shadow’ by Robert Louis Stevenson after watching this without getting a little misty-eyed.
- The asylum attendant performs femininity for Vanessa at one point, brushing her hair, applying makeup, etc. He even holds up a mirror so she can see her reflection, stating: ‘This is who you are. Please don’t forget that’.
- It’s unclear how Vanessa survives her brain surgery ‘intact’. Perhaps, in the end, she doesn’t? Is this the root of her supernatural power? Is she not really herself?
- I was so sure Vanessa was going to kill the attendant in this episode, and that this would be the surprise twist, but it was not to be. How did he eventually die, then, that Frankenstein was able to use his body to construct Caliban, the Creature?
- I hadn’t realised how much I missed the slow tension and close character focus of season one until this episode. Penny Dreadful should always be like this.