UK TV review: Penny Dreadful Season 3, Episode 4 (A Blade of Grass)
Ivan Radford | On 24, May 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers.
All of the great shows have episodes that stand alone as perfect pieces of television. And make no mistake: Penny Dreadful is one of the great modern shows. It may not have won awards, not even for Eva Green’s repeatedly astonishing performance as Vanessa Ives, but that doesn’t take away from what creator John Logan puts on the screen, season after season. More often than not, these standalone pieces of art are what’s known as ‘bottle episodes’ – instalments that are set in a single, restricted location. They happen maybe once in a series’ run: Peggy and Don sitting in the office late at night in Mad Men; Walt and Jesse searching for a fly in the meth lab; a bus tour of the planet Midnight in Doctor Who. As if to prove a point, in three seasons, Penny Dreadful has now done three of them.
In Season 1, it was the exorcism of Vanessa in Malcolm Murray’s house – a montage of time passing in an unchanging limbo. In Season 2, it was The Cut-Wife (Patti LuPone) and Vanessa fending off the forces of Lucifer in her isolated cottage. Both were superb character studies and slices of horror in their own right. Season 3’s fourth episode is no exception.
After the second season’s interactions between LuPone and Green – and, indeed, after Episode 2 and Episode 3’s therapy session’s with LuPone’s Dr. Seward and Vanessa – we said we’d be happy to watch just those two characters for an hour. And that’s what we got, sort of; the whole episode takes place inside a memory/flashback/hypnotic vision during one of their sessions. But really, it’s a chance for the show to highlight another promising pairing: Eva Green and Rory Kinnear.
We found out last episode that John Clare (Kinnear) was the orderly at the Banning Clinic, where Vanessa was institutionalised – a fact that both of them have apparently forgotten, not to mention the fact that Vanessa was incarcerated for several months of her life, during which time she met both the Devil and Dracula. But that’s par for the course for characters in Penny Dreadful: Clare has since had his memories ripped from him, after Frankenstein’s resurrection of his dead body, while Vanessa has spent most of her interim life high on demonic possession, angelic exorcise and fervent repression. This is an exorcism for them both, in a weird kind of way – a peeling back of layers to reveal another part of their stories.
Vanessa, you may recall from Season 1 and 2, has just been committed after talking about the Devil and whatnot, but also having seduced the fiance of her best friend, Mina (Malcolm’s daughter). She’s now being treated through a variety of barbaric Victorian practices, from water to trepanning. Clare, meanwhile, has not yet died or been brought back to life. He’s married with a son, with his day job mostly consisting of bringing patients food each day and mopping up the proverbial (and literal) mess between sessions.
Over the course of these sessions, they begin to form a friendship – the classic nurse-patient bond we’ve seen countless times before. But, of course, Logan knows that all too well, using that dynamic to set us for our first shock: the introduction of Lucifer. He appears without warning, as Kinnear’s eyes suddenly go jet black. But we don’t need the contact lenses to feel the full fear of the moment. That stems from Kinnear’s slight smile, his change in voice, his physical stance – from timid, withdrawn helper, uncomfortable even brushing Miss Ives’ hair, to a confident man with arms open wide, asking Vanessa to embrace him of her own volition.
Kinnear has long been one of the best British actors around – and, with his screen work never giving the opportunity provided by the stage, one of the most underrated. What a thrill, then, to see him cut loose, switching between multiple personalities within one role.
Duality has always been a theme running through the heart of Penny Dreadful: that balance of good and bad, dark and light, man and monster. In the cell, science is meant to be cutting the line between them, to ‘cure’ Vanessa, but the waters are muddier than ever. Is it day or night? “Which would you prefer?” comes Clare’s answer. (The dialogue is as magnificently theatrical as ever.)
A more pressing question: Is Vanessa crazy? We already know she isn’t, after watching her wrestle with all-too-real demons. Miss Ives, though, can’t deny the Devil is after her. “Is it so important to be different, to have such specialness?” asks Clare. “Would you want your son to be anything but he is?” she retorts. “I’d want him to be happy,” offers Clare. “But what if he’s not?” she presses. “Would you want him to pretend?” (Green, it almost goes without saying, is in a class of her own right now, with another scarily dedicated physical turn.)
Ever since Season 1’s finale, it’s a question Vanessa has already answered: she likes being different and marked out from the rest of humanity. It’s part of what makes her who she is. Clare, meanwhile, also knows she’s not crazy, but he can’t bring himself to admit it. Their resulting relationship is packed with nuance and the quiet moments to allow it to breathe – a gentle exploration of the humane and the horrific, even in the most confined settings. Clare, on the one hand, is showing kindness to his patient, but on the other hand, is once again surrounded by monstrous people – specifically, another barbaric doctor. (Between Banning and Frankenstein, Jeremy Hunt probably loves this show.)
Toa Fraser shoots all this with a frankly incredible amount of tension and tenderness – given we spend almost the whole hour (save for a short return to Dr. Seward’s study) between four padded walls, it’s extremely impressive just how varied, gripping and moving the claustrophobic set piece is. The Dead Lands proved Fraser’s visual skills with action, but this confirms the director’s equal knack for finding action in words. There are striking flourishes, nonetheless, including the notable sight of a serpent crawling the walls. (It’s telling that an episode set within a single room proves how well Penny Dreadful’s production values compare to Game of Thrones.)
A smart use of red contact lenses, meanwhile, helps to differentiate Evil Kinnear 2 from Good Kinnear and Evil Kinnear 1. Evil Kinnear 2, naturally, is Dracula – because we already knew he would have to make an appearance too. Dracula, you may remember, is the brother of Lucifer – and both of them are fighting over Vanessa. Vanessa, while we’re playing Basil Exposition, is still possessed by Amunet, the Egyptian goddess of creation with the power to procreate like nobody’s business. (Remember that heated bedroom scene in Season 1 between Dorian and Vanessa? You don’t know Simon Russell Beale’s Ferdinand Lyle to explain it all again to remind us how bad things might get, were Miss Ives to copulate fully with either of those forces of darkness and bring their nasty little offspring into the doomed world.)
What we’re left with, then, is essentially two identical twin brothers with different coloured eyes bickering over who gets to impregnate a woman and give birth to the anti-Christ all within the confines of someone’s mind palace. It’s ludicrous and it’s overblown, but it’s part of Penny Dreadful’s stupendous spell that we take all of this seriously – not only that, but we’re hooked and moved by it all. There are layers upon layers to these characters by now, which gives Logan endless opportunities for emotional weight and thematic pondering, even in the shortest of speeches. Theology, identity and feminism are all on display here – Lucifer mocks Dracula for living in the base, physical world, but the Count also appears more powerful than the Devil, whose ethereal existence relies upon belief and faith (a fascinating contrast that could be the basis of a whole series in itself). Most of all, though, A Blade of Grass brings to fore the universal fear of loneliness.
Eventually, Clare cracks and decides – just as Vanessa appears with her head shaved, ready for a lobotomy that we know won’t save her – that he’s quitting, so he’s no longer part of her cruel treatment. It’s a brief hint of romance, of companionship amid the constant threat of isolation that the show’s outsiders face – but it’s one that unnerves, rather than satisfies. You wonder whether Clare will remember any of this later in the season, or whether Vanessa will end up having any role in his eventual death. And we know that, at any moment, Lucifer could pop up again behind those gentle eyes; connections, in Vanessa’s existence, are fraught with peril. After all, it was only last episode that she was swooning over Dr. Sweet – and look how that’s turning out.
“You once said we name things so they don’t frighten us,” declares Vanessa, as her reconciliation with Clare seems to snap her out of her “fugue state” (something that Dr. Seward could not wake her from). “I’m not frightened. It’s name is Dracula,” she declares. In Episode 5 of Season 1, though, Vanessa also said: “You have to name something to make it come to life. Like a witch’s spell.” What, then, will her naming of Dracula will bring? Fear? Courage? More power to the beast? Whatever Penny Dreadful has in store, it’ll have to work some real magic to top this, one of its best episodes to date.
Season 1 to 3 of Penny Dreadful are available on Sky On Demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of a £6.99 Sky Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are also available on DVD, Blu-ray and pay-per-view VOD.
Where can I buy or rent Penny Dreadful online in the UK?