Penny Dreadful Season 3, Episode 4
“A Blade of Grass”
Posted by Sage
Say you’re the showrunner of a period pseudo-literary horror drama in its third season on a premium network and you play your “blood sacrifice orgy” card in episode THREE. Where do you go from there?
In “A Blade of Grass,” Penny Dreadful follows up three plot-heavy episodes with an hour-long character study of Vanessa Ives and the man who becomes Caliban after his death. John Logan did something similar at the same point last season, setting an entire episode in a flashback to Vanessa’s friendship with Joan Clayton, the Cut-Wife. “A Blade of Grass” is a one-act, off-Broadway play with its television hat on, and I was breathless for about 80% of it. Obviously, this is the episode that both Eva Green and Rory Kinnear should submit for awards consideration. If only the Emmys recognized genre shows not produced by Ryan Murphy.
Last week’s episode ended with Dr. Seward acquiescing to Vanessa’s demand to be hypnotized. The Lead Familiar told Vanessa in the Hall of Mirrors that she’d met his master before – in fact, they’d been “bosom companions.” It happened in the white room where time stopped. Dr. Seward warned Vanessa of the danger of messing with the brain’s built-in defense mechanisms and digging up memories that must have been shoved down for good reason. But Vanessa is no stranger to pain; she’d rather be informed than protected. Know thy enemy, and all that.
Besides a bumper at the end, the entire episode takes place in the white room. Some of it is scored, but some of it isn’t. In the moments after the orderly leaves, for example, Penny Dreadful lets the silence suffocate Vanessa for a while. As 21st century viewers, we’re not used to spending an entire hour in one location when we watch TV. That feeling of light claustrophobia makes Vanessa’s announcement that she spent five full months in that terrible place as disquieting as a conversation with the devil. Did you feel uncomfortable during this episode? Good. That was the point.
I took 1700 words of notes for this recap. And that’s a lot, considering that only a fraction of the episode was plot. The real story is seeing Vanessa at her lowest point and experiencing the kindness that she finds there. When her consciousness buried Vanessa’s traumatic conversation with two fallen angels, it also buried that sliver of hope in the form of a human who is anguished to watch another human suffer. It’s just as important that Vanessa recovered THAT memory. Dracula’s name is useless if she thinks herself unworthy of saving.
Okay, back to what actually happened in Vanessa’s cell in Dr. Banning’s clinic. (Who is this asshole, and will we ever see him?) The orderly has no authority. He brings Vanessa her meals and her bedpan and cleans when necessary. But he’s troubled by her refusal to eat and engages, in spite of what regulations might have to say about that. “You have to eat, miss,” he says, knowing what happens if she doesn’t. “Please eat.” Vanessa wants to die. She’s been abandoned by her god and her family for betraying her friend. But no patient does anything on their own terms in that place, even die. (“They’ll be consequences.”) Finally, she’s force fed, and it’s the orderly who has to do it. And that’s when he decides that something must be done.
Untrained and uneducated, the orderly gives Vanessa the only valuable treatment she receives in that facility. The next time he brings her her meal, he places it on a chair three feet from her. Vanessa is sedentary and perturbed; she demands that he put it on the bed. “I’ll collapse,” she threatens. “No, you won’t,” he answers. Vanessa deflects: “You think I’m a spoiled bitch.” The orderly demures. Maybe he does, but at least she’s displaying some fight finally. After “hydrotherapy” the next day, she sits in the middle of the cell, shivering. The orderly drapes her in a contraband blanket. Later, he comes to retrieve it to keep both of them from getting into trouble. Before he can make it to the heavy door, Vanessa leaps onto his back and scratches at his face. He gets the upper hand quickly – she’s emaciated and weak – and very nearly punches her. Disturbed by his own actions, he leaves without another word.
“I’m surprised they have wooden spoons here.”
Vanessa is in a straight jacket the next morning – it’s the first and last clean garment she wears in the episode. The orderly has to feed her by hand. The intimacy of the act prompts Vanessa to explain herself. “I’m not ill!” Vanessa says. “Then what are you?” he’d like to know.
Orderly: It’s not torture what they’re doing. It’s science. It’s meant to make you better.
Vanessa: It’s meant to make me normal. Like all the other women you know. Compliant, obedient. A cog in an intricate social machine, and no more.
Orderly: I couldn’t say, Miss.
Vanessa: Couldn’t you?
Orderly: Not all the women I know are cogs.
Vanessa: Then they’re freaks.
Orderly: My wife’s not a freak and she’s not a cog. You should think better of your sex.
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here. Vanessa isn’t wrong; women in her day were institutionalized for post-partum depression, stress, infidelity, and even for enjoying sex too much. Check out this nugget from a Daily Mail piece on the diagnosis and treatment of “mental illness” in Victorian times:
Women’s sexuality was a prime focus of male Victorian physicians. Erotomania (hypersexuality) was considered a constant danger in female patients and could accompany hysteria. Physician Thomas Laycock noted that ‘the cold bath, the shower bath, the douche and cold applications to the regions of the uterus have all been employed with advantage’.
Vanessa thinks she’s been locked up because society can’t handle her acquaintance with the devil. But it’s more likely that she’s been imprisoned in a windowless room to shit into a pot and be waterboarded every other day because she slept with another girl’s boyfriend and liked it. The orderly’s comments are well-meant, but his wife doesn’t bear the same type of scrutiny that Vanessa – a wealthy young woman active in a high-profile social circle – does. Still, the orderly has seen insanity and he knows Vanessa is capable of at least appearing better. And she must, he says. Soon. The treatments will become more stringent and frequent if she doesn’t exhibit improvement to Dr. Banning’s specifications. What’s the point of playing the part of the kind of woman Dr. Banning likes when Vanessa is already promised to the devil? The orderly feeds her with a wooden spoon that he brought from home; his son didn’t like the feeling of a metal one. Vanessa asks his son’s name, seeking connection. The orderly can’t tell her, but he does admit to believing her story about Lucifer. His eyes turn black. “After all, I was there. Oh, my dear. We have so much to catch up on, do we not?”
Well, fuck. Dr. Seward materializes in the room to hold Vanessa’s hand through the tough part of this journey. Vanessa is manifesting the demon through the orderly, Dr. Seward says. Or, Lucifer is using Vanessa’s only point of human contact to get his messages to her. Dr. Seward says that she’s been trying to pull Vanessa back to the present, but Vanessa has entered a fugue state. Her brain will not let her leave this place until she retrieves the memories she came for. She has to finish this, but she’s not walking alone. Seward asks Vanessa what Joan Clayton would have said to her if she were there. (Reincarnation or not, Vanessa will draw strength from that.) She repeats that mantra and strokes Vanessa’s hair. “I’m not leaving you for anything in this world.”
Then Seward is back to her plane, and the orderly is back to himself. The treatments have gotten worse, just as he promised. Vanessa has a ball gag held in her mouth by a metal device. When he delicately removes it, he has to shut her jaw for her by hand. It’s devastating. Lucifer may still be lurking, but human kindness is at work in that room too. The orderly opens a bag that he brought in with him; more “fuck yous” to the regulations. He chooses a hairbrush first, and gently brushes it through Vanessa’s hair. “I’m not good at this,” he apologizes. Vanessa can’t even speak. In fact, she doesn’t speak throughout this entire scene. Hair finished, the orderly reaches into the bag and pulls out his wife’s make-up. “She told me what to do,” he says. “I tell her about you. That’s against regulations too. She said to use a light hand and spare the heavy for the lips.” Vanessa sits obediently while he applies powder and rouge that will have to be wiped off minutes later. “Jobs are scarce, I’ve to feed the family, you understand,” he says. “And I wouldn’t leave you in any case. Not until you’re better. And maybe we’ll walk out of here together. Wouldn’t that be a day?”
He holds up a mirror to Vanssa’s face. It’s probably the first time she’s seen herself in months. Her parents have abandoned her, and her god too, per Vanessa. Everything she knows of life is gone. She’s not only lost her possessions but also her routines, her friendships, her quirks. The orderly doesn’t put make-up on Vanessa to make her feel beautiful. He does it so that she’ll look more like herself when he reminds her that she is STILL THERE. Everything else is gone, but she remains. Eva Green is a master of the passive cry. Not many actresses can do what she does here when Vanessa sees what the orderly has done for her – she weeps like you when you’ve been crying so long you hardly notice anymore.
The orderly reads to her then, from the only book his family owns. It’s a poem for children by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s about a child making sense of his shadow; something that is him and is not, at the same time. It follows him everywhere but he struggles to control it. The orderly must know something of Vanessa’s background. She is educated and her family is respected. He mops floors and cleans shit and has probably never read to anyone but his own son. Vanessa’s situation is the ultimate leveler. In another life, she wouldn’t have noticed him passing on the street. Here, he’s her sole link to humanity. He wipes off the makeup when it’s time and musses her hair so the “day people” won’t suspect that someone’s been treating the patient like a person. “I’m sorry,” he says. “One day soon, no one will touch you when you don’t want to be touched.” Shit. Does John Logan get it, or what? The orderly doesn’t feel proud of himself for what he’s done for Vanessa. He’s ashamed of being complicit in his small way. And he’s angry that the only hands she can use are his own unpracticed ones, even though her own are perfectly good. That’s empathy that goes beyond shared sadness. The orderly sees what’s truly wrong about the way this works.