This week on Penny Dreadful, it was time for the annual get Eva Green an Emmy episode. Dollars to donuts, this will be actresses submission piece for this year in the tradition of “The Nightcomers” and “Closer Than Sisters”, by delving into Vanessa’s backstory and revel in her eternal struggle between the good and the evil within her; the pious and the decidedly less than pious aspects of her soul. Sure, the pronounced point of the episode was to reveal when and how Vanessa and Dracula first crossed paths, but let’s be honest “A Blade of Grass” was all about Green showing her range.
Now that’s not a bad thing, of course. Green is a tremendous actress, and John Logan clearly likes giving her meaty stuff do, and “A Blade of Grass” is no exception. The episode was prefaced last week with Vanessa going into a hypnotic trance, back to her days in the asylum where she not only met Dracula for the first time, but met the man that would eventually become Frankenstein’s first creature as well. The majority of the hour is set inside Vanessa’s padded room, and focused on two actors, Green and Rory Kinnear. And, not to put too fine a point on the situation, it was glorious.
For Green it was the chance to prove that there’s nothing that she can’t do as Vanessa runs the gauntlet from defiance to despair, and from poetic melancholy to animalistic ferocity. The effective combination of Green’s body language and some zombifying make-up paint a very potent picture of a woman at the end of rope. She’s stung out, and hopeless, and she has absolutely no idea who she is or what she’s supposed to do. Although it’s been mentioned before, this is the first time we’ve seen Vanessa at the worst of the worst. She’s never been this low.
And then there’s the pre-Creature Creature. He never gives his name, so the Creature’s usual alias of John Clare will have to do when speaking about him. It takes a while to learn anything substantial about the human John, as rules for orderlies in the asylum prevent him from getting to personal with the inmates, he can’t even give her his name. Still, John reveals himself to be a kind man, encouraging Vanessa to eat, offering her a blanket though they’re banned, and encouraging her to get better lest her therapy gets worse. Despite that, Vanessa therapy continues to get worse, as does her disposition.
Still, what little we learn of John is informative. We know he’s not an educated man since the orderly job is one of the only ones he can get. He mentions that he’s not a fans of poetry either, though he does end up reading Vanessa a few verses from the one poetry book he does own. And we know that he’s kind and empathetic. In the end, he tells Vanessa he’s leaving the asylum because he can no longer stand to watch her suffering; he doesn’t need the job that badly. It all painted an interesting picture of how the man when he lived informs the man brought back to life. Were the qualities of John Clare as the Creature rooted in how he was as a man, and were they made better by making him more learned and inquisitive?
Along the way though, you wonder if John Clare as Vanessa remembers him is an illusion. At certain points, Clare’s form is borrowed by both Lucifer and Dracula, as they tempt Vanessa to one side or the other. Lucifer is after her soul, but Dracula wants her body, which can be read as kind of commentary about Victorian attitudes towards women, as in they’re only desired for two things and not taken as the sum of the whole as human beings. Vanessa notes that the men at the asylum want her to be normal, with normal being “compliant” and “obedient” like “all the other women you know.” Despite all they’re talk about freeing Vanessa, he supernatural suitors are still all about controlling her in the traditional definition of times when having a woman was about owning her no small way.
Vanessa’s commentary in that regard brings her inline with Lily in the present, who is taking the treatment of women by men beyond the mere discussion stage and is trying to do something about it. It’s the first time the show’s suggested who those two very different storylines might end up coming together in at least a philosophical way. Vanessa has expressed previous fascination with Dorian Gray, so might being forced to confront Dracula, who only really wants her for her body, might push her to consider other extremes, especially since she’s been more or less abandoned by all the men in her life? Or might John Clare return to offer her some kind of peace and counsel again?
More to the point, does Vanessa need anyone’s help? In her darkest moment she defiantly casts off the advances of both Lucifer and Dracula using the devil’s own tongue against them. “You think you know evil, where here it stands,” she tells them. It wasn’t hard to read some sense of fear on both their faces, and as the music swells in such an epic way, you know that this is Vanessa’s turning point. It’s such a powerful moment, it makes you wonder why Lucifer and/or Dracula would want anything to do with her after that. Perhaps resistance makes the heart grow fonder.
Directed by Toa Fraser, who’s as an accomplished director on stage as he is on film, brought the best of both worlds to “A Blade of Grass” which at times felt small and intimate, but was also bold and cinematic. It had atmosphere and tension to spare, while still essentially being a character piece, and at times almost a one woman show. These are the moments that Penny Dreadful lives for, and honestly they’re the moments we keep coming back to the series for even though its predictable as night follows day that we’re going to get an episode like this at some point in the season. Still, Eva Green definitely hit another home run, which is why the show likes to throw her these easy pitches across the plate in the first place.