Eva Green, Patti LuPone/Showtime

As it did in its first season, Penny Dreadful puts a hold on its developing storylines just as they’re picking up momentum in order to devote most of the third episode to a flashback-heavy deep dive into one character’s back story. This time the focus is on Vanessa, but while an Eva Green-centric episode is always a welcome event and “Nightcomers” has valuable intel to impart as a basis for the rest of the season, the result is a less than fully satisfying hour of Penny Dreadful.

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Part of the problem is the episode’s central relationship between Vanessa and the Cut-Wife, played by Patti LuPone. Tantalizing as the prospect of Green taking on LuPone in a scenery chew-off may be, the mentor-trainee dynamic presented here is too grounded in traditional archetypes to really soar the way this show can when it follows its own muse. Put another way, the wizened Cut-Wife is Vanessa’s Yoda right down to sartorial choices and fractured syntax; even the setting, a dark and misty fairy-tale forest, calls to mind echoes of “There is no try.”

The story of Vanessa’s education in the dark arts unfolds after Chandler discovers her blood drawing of a scorpion and asks her about it. (Strictly speaking, what follows can’t be Vanessa’s flashbacks as they include people and events about which she would have had no knowledge, most notably her new nemesis Evelyn Poole.) Vanessa recalls a time long ago and far away, a cottage on a spooky moor in which the Cut-Wife dwelled. So named because she performed illegal abortions on the local girls (a process we see play out in grisly detail rivaling The Knick in the old-timey surgery department), the Cut-Wife is also said to be a powerful witch, something Vanessa learns is true upon her arrival when she is unable to pass between two spell-cast stones to reach the cottage.

As we eventually learn, the Cut-Wife’s name is Joan Clayton and she has been alive a very long time, having been granted the land she lives on by Oliver Cromwell in 1644. Clayton belonged to a coven of Daywalkers that also included Poole until, in another Star Wars parallel, she turned to the Dark Side. It is Clayton who dubs Vanessa “my little scorpion” after she proves her ability to view the unseen world by correctly identifying the source of the scar on Clayton’s back as a branding iron. As these things usually go, the gruff, profane Clayton grudgingly warms to Vanessa as their training sessions progress, even as she grows more frail and vulnerable.

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Poole and her Nightcomers already have their eye on Vanessa, the Master’s favorite, but as they are unable to pass the spell-protected cottage entrance, they require human intervention. Poole puts a frame-job in motion, using her powers to kill the cattle on neighboring land and letting the blame fall naturally on the weird old lady of the moor. When that blame doesn’t fall quickly enough for her liking, she nudges it along by goading the primary landowner, Sir Geoffrey Hawkes, into organizing the townspeople into a torch-bearing mob. Poole’s methods of coercion are, in keeping with one of the season’s recurring themes, sexual in nature; she is not only Sir Geoffrey’s riding companion but his dominatrix, using the horsewhip to humiliate him into doing her bidding. In the end, the Cut-Wife (already at death’s door anyway) is burned alive, and Vanessa, although branded with the cross, is free to go (and to mark the cottage as her own for future use).

We now know there’s a personal component to the struggle between Vanessa and the Nightcomers, even as Vanessa herself doesn’t realize the extent of it (namely, that “Madame Kali” is responsible for her mentor’s horrible demise). But even though much of the background divulged in “The Nightcomers” will likely become important as the season progresses, the derivative nature of much of the episode keeps it from achieving the heights of which Penny Dreadful is capable. LuPone delivers her performance with authority, but the Cut-Wife remains more plot device than fleshed-out character. The familiar rhythms of the central arc left me longing for a glimpse of, say, the goings-on back at Frankenstein’s lab. Now that this groundwork is laid, here’s hoping the season can really cut loose.

Stray observations:

  • Even less than stellar episodes of Penny Dreadful are usually good for at least one bizarre nightmare image unlike anything else on television, and this week’s cow-tipping sequence definitely fit the bill.
  • The Big Book of Evil that the Cut-Wife gifts to Vanessa calls to mind the Necronomicon, particularly the version seen in the Evil Dead movies. For now it’s Chekov’s Necronomicon, but there’s no chance it gets through the season unopened.
  • As promised, I took a look at the 1971 movie The Nightcomers on the chance there might be some connection to this season’s new villains. I didn’t see much similarity aside from a very general Gothic air to the proceedings, but Marlon Brando’s blarney Irish accent gives Billie Piper a run for her money in that department.

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