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.
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.”
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.
The next day, the orderly’s small kindnesses spark an outburst. Vanessa is lonely. His physical touch, without violence or agenda, has left her craving the other kind. She drops her gown and approaches. The orderly kisses Vanessa back for a second before he recovers himself. He covers her in the gown again and delivers the awful news. The surgery is the next step. Dr. Banning is going to lobotomize Miss Ives and there’s nothing the orderly can do about it. Vanessa isn’t bothered. She’ll sing as the scalpel digs in, in honor of her heroine, Joan of Arc. Vanessa wants dignity in death – she tells Dr. Sweet the same later – but the orderly has seen no dignity in what patients experience after this last ditch effort.
I see the results. That’s where my job starts again. You’ll have lost your ability to control your body. You’ll shit and piss on yourself and I’ll clean it up. If you’re lucky, that part will come back to you. But not much else, if I’m honest. It varies. But they are never the same when they come out. Sometimes they can’t walk. Sometimes they can’t speak. Sometimes they can’t open their eyes or hear. Do you know what they are? All of them? A broken thing. Not a tiger. Not a flower. Not a clump of earth. Not even a blade of grass. Miss Ives, you have to get better.
The orderly is frustrated that Vanessa won’t play the part. She’s lucid and able. Why will she not save herself? Vanessa asks if she’d like it if his son would simply pretend to be happy and normal. He wouldn’t. Hoping to shake her from this complacency still, the orderly sits down to listen to Vanessa’s story. The real one. “Why would the devil be interested in you?” he asks. “I don’t know,” Vanessa answers.” If you were Lucifer, why would you be interested in someone?” Then the orderly has left the building and Lucifer is in his place. “That’s easy,” he hisses. “Because I love you.”
Here’s where we meet the two opposing evil forces after Miss Vanessa Ives. And here’s where Vanessa stands in between them (both with the face of the orderly) while they fight over her body and soul. (“Too long have I been afraid…no longer.”) Lucifer wants to Vanessa to let go of her god completely – to stop mourning that loss and start working against the being who left her in this awful place. “Give yourself to me freely,” he commands. “Be what you are and always were.” Lucifer and Vanessa crawl towards each other on the ground like serpents. The moment they clasp hands in the promise of some unity, “the other” makes himself known. The yin to Lucifer’s yang is his “brother,” Dracula. They trade insults like a real family, so I’m inclined to think that’s meant in a literal sense. Basically, Dracula thinks Lucifer is a hippie demon, too wrapped up in the intangible and impractical to a fault. Lucifer accuses Dracula of dirtying his hands with the fruits of “this filthy Earth.” Counterpoint:
And so I am made strong and potent by the spoils of my domain. While you, anemic, feed on dust and superstition. The abject supplication of the weak and the ignorant. If they cease to believe in you, do you even exist? They won’t believe forever, brother. We live in a mighty age of science and faithlessness. You’re fading to insignificance even as I look at you.
Yas, Dracula, drag him.
Even as they try to seduce the dark goddess Vanessa Ives to their respective sides, BOTH demons mansplain her inner evil to her. “You are not a thing of the spirit, Vanessa,” Dracula says. “You are a thing of the flesh, like me.” I mean, really, there may as well have been an “actually” at the beginning of that sentence. “He appeals to your lust, your appetites,” Lucifer butts in. “You’re more than that.” Flattery will get you ALMOST everywhere, but no dice here. Having had enough of the bickering, Vanessa decides that SHE’LL define herself, thank you very much. “You seek my soul. You my body. But both are promised to another. He who vanquished you. He who is my protector and who stands with me even now.” Her point is this: BACK OFF BITCHES. Vanessa isn’t going to be the First Lady of hell, paper-dolled into designer dresses, having tea with the wives of the other dictators, and stuck with some lame platform like “Be Nice, 2016!” She’s going to be the MAIN SHOW. Vanessa sets herself up in the corner of the room and begins to snarl at her suitors in Verbis Diablo. (That’s devil-speak, for the n00bs.) She’s hovers above the ground in a creepy callback to the “Seance” episode from Season 1. Lucifer and Dracula are impressed, because as Leslie Knope once said, “Guys love it when you can show them you’re better than they are at something they love.”
Orderly: I’ll tell you what happened. I was at home, yesterday night past. And I was helping my son with a wooden ship model. That’s something we do. And he asked me about the ship. I said it was the kind of ship used for exploring the seas. And he said, “Where do they explore, Father?” And I told him, “Everywhere. The Orient, Peru, and even the frozen North.” And he says, “What’s that, Father?” And so I told him it was the places all covered with snow. North of Scotland and even beyond that. And he said, “Do people live there?” And I said, um…”No. It’s too cold and lonely all the time. No one lives there.” And I started to cry. And I couldn’t stop. My son took my hand. I…I couldn’t stop crying.
Orderly: Because I realized I was wrong. One person does live there, where it’s cold and lonely all the time.
He won’t quit until the following day, though. There’s something he has to do before he goes. “The last person you see before the surgery will be someone who loves you,” he says. Vanessa kisses the orderly softly on the mouth; they both cry. He says his goodbye, and she comes back to Dr. Seward’s office, in the present day.
That was the moment she needed. Not the conversation with the two hellspawn; not the surgery that may or may not have occurred. Vanessa needed to remember that a person gave up his livelihood because he could not stand to be party to her suffering. Dr. Seward offers Vanessa a drink, but Vanessa looks revived already. She remembers everything perfectly. “You once said we name things so they don’t frighten us,” she tells her doctor. “I’m not frightened. His name is Dracula.” LET’S GO.
- Fingernails on vinyl goes on the list of BAD SOUNDS.
- “What do you like?” “Not being attacked at work.” Fair.
- Dr. Seward has such faith in Vanessa’s strength already. Residual Joan Clayton feelings? Or is Vanessa’s heartiness just that obvious?’
- “What happened before is all that will ever happen to me.”
- Again, ALL THE AWARDS.
Did this episode floor you like it did me? Let’s discuss in the comments.