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Penny Dreadful, Ep. 2.03: “The Nightcomers” is a gothic delight

Penny Dreadful, Ep. 2.03: “The Nightcomers” is a gothic delight

Penny Dreadful S02E03

Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 3, “The Nightcomers”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airs Sundays at 10 pm (ET) on Showtime

Vanessa Ives is cursed. That’s well established by now in Penny Dreadful, but this latest episode digs into the moldy, damp crypt of Vanessa’s past to show us just how cursed she is. Eva Green’s performance has and apparently always will be the best aspect of Penny Dreadful and the latest episode, “The Nightcomers”, knows this and exploits it to its fullest.

It might seem reductive to have a flashback episode so soon in the second season, especially since the first two episodes of the show did such a good job of setting up forward momentum with a clear, concise plot. But it doesn’t matter, because this episode is all about Vanessa’s origins, and that’s something worth taking a step back to explore. This is an origin story to rival any other before, as we see Vanessa travel to meet with the Cut-Wife, played splendidly by Patti LuPone. The Cut-Wife performs secret abortions for local girls who don’t want to have a baby, but she’s also a powerful witch who doesn’t mince words. When Vanessa first encounters the Cut-Wife, the witch hisses at Miss Ives, “Take your pretty cunt elsewheres.” LuPone is a spitting, vulgar delight, whether she’s schooling Vanessa in witchcraft or ordering the troubled young woman to snap an adorable bunny’s neck.

Director Brian Kirk allows a dull morning light to filter in through his scenes, creating an exquisite gothic atmosphere. Indeed, the entirety of “The Nightcomers” is steeped in a gothic tone that would make Lord Byron and Percy Shelley swoon while draping themselves over stone-carved urns in a foggy graveyard. “The Nightcomers” may rob us of Penny Dreadful‘s other main characters, but it has such dreary nightmare-charms that we don’t miss them at all. Who needs Ethan Chandler when we can have the Cut-Wife?

That witchiest of witches, Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), shows up in this flashback narrative, because she and Vanessa are even more intertwined than Penny Dreadful has let on. Director Kirk frames Poole’s first appearance magnificently, with Poole flanked by two of her fellow witches/daughters while a dead, twisted tree looms, as torrents of swirling, endless mist flow like a churning sea behind them. The following scene with Poole involves her casually strolling through a field of cattle as they drop dead one by one. It’s hilariously upsetting. No disrespect to James Hawes, who directed the previous two episodes of Penny Dreadful, but Bran Kirk is able to find such lovely, twisted poetry with his visuals here that one wishes he would settle in and direct the rest of the season.

All her harshness aside, it’s of course expected that the Cut-Wife forms a sisterly bond with Vanessa, which then of course means the Cut-Wife is doomed, since after all Vanessa is cursed and those close to her have a habit of ending up in dire predicaments. By episode’s end, we discover that there’s a lot more history between Vanessa and Evelyn Poole, and that there will no doubt be a reckoning between the two before season’s end. The question one has to ask here is, Do we need a flashback episode at all? Could all of the material here have been easily summed up through a brief bit of expository dialog that Vanessa tosses off to someone? Sure, but to lose the richness of this episode to a simple smattering of exposition would waste the wonderful glimpses we get into Vanessa’s history here. While Penny Dreadful is obviously an ensemble show, it’s also really about Vanessa. She’s the key piece to the majority of the plot lines Penny Dreadful stitches together, and what happens to Vanessa is what really drives Penny forward. “The Nightcomers” works as an episode because learning who (and what) Vanessa seems to be the key to this season’s overall arc.

It would be easy to shrug off “The Nightcomers” as a distraction, taking away from the current narrative, but this backstory is a perfect little short story of its own. Perhaps the placement of the episode is wrong–imagining this as the first episode of season two makes a bit more sense. But if this is a diversion, it’s a wonderful one. In fact, this might be the best episode Penny Dreadful has ever produced. Indeed, if this is a diversion, I daresay we should have more of them.

Chris Evangelista