In an episode destined to be equally loved and loathed, this week’s Penny Dreadful provides a compelling backstory to the show’s most mysterious character, Vanessa Ives. Narrated by Ives (Eva Green) in a letter to her missing friend Mina Harker, this chapter features none of the beautifully photographed gore we’ve come to expect. Also missing are the colorful supporting cast save Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton).
What remains is Vanessa’s descent into madness, spawned by her sexual awakening, and her curious journey back to a form of sanity. That may seem like a tall order, but writer John Logan and star Eva Green convincingly deliver in an odd yet memorable outing.
We begin with the innocence of Vanessa’s youth and days spent racing the shoreline with her best friends, Mina and Peter Murray. Aside from a curious obsession with taxidermy, the children seem to experience the expected life of the privileged. In a nod to the famed children’s novel The Secret Garden, Vanessa takes to exploring a vast hedge maze on the Murray estate. Here, she discovers her mother engaged in wild acts of passion with Sir Murray. The event is cataclysmic in Vanessa’s life as it awakens in her both sexual awareness and a deep, mysterious voice that calls to her from the darkness.
Fast-forward to Mina’s wedding day where a seemingly possessed Vanessa seduces Mina’s fiancée, allowing Mina to fully witness the act of carnal pleasure. This forever severs not only their friendship but also the relationship between the two families. Vanessa quickly devolves into either grief-stricken madness or demonic possession. The cause of her madness is never explicitly stated. Unsure of how to treat their daughter, the Ives decide to commit Vanessa to a London asylum, setting into motion a series of excruciating Victorian-era torments designed to cure female hysteria.
Vanessa is dunked into a tub of ice water. She is chained to a wall in a Christ-like stance and relentlessly hosed with water. Worst of all, her head is shaved and her brain lobotomized. This scene provides the only source of blood in the entire episode – a single drip that protrudes from the remaining hole.
The treatments render Vanessa near catatonic, and she awakens only to tell her former love, Peter Murray, that he will die on his pending trip to Africa with his father. Now clairvoyant, Vanessa is wakened from this state by a visit from the demon that has been tormenting her since that first day in the maze. The demon takes the shape of Sir Murray and seduces her, the shock of which kills her mother who walks in on a cloudy-eyed Vanessa dry-humping the air.
Finally, Vanessa, now somewhat functional, meets the possessed/vampiric Mina Harker on the beach between their estates. Mina speaks of her husband, Jonathan Harker, and of the Master who has shown her terrible things. This brief encounter sets into motion the agreement between Vanessa and Sir Murray as they plot to rescue (or, as Vanessa puts it, kill) Mina Harker.
This dramatic shift in tone and gore will be off-putting to the biggest fans of the show, I suspect, but I found it a nice change of pace. Logan manages to gradually build dread throughout the episode without providing expected release, and the lack of vivid carnage is almost a daring move in a series of this nature. The star of the episode is undoubtedly Eva Green who again displays a fearlessness seldom seen in actors. Her vision of madness/possession is extreme but contained. She shows Vanessa’s catatonic state without omitting the vitality within her eyes. And she fully commits to the scenes of brutal torture, making me wonder just how far Green would go for her craft. It’s Green’s hour to carry, and she delivers in spades.
Make no mistake, though, this is still Logan’s tale to tell, and he pulls it off expertly as well. Here, he manages to weave together Catholicism, female sexuality, demonic possession, clairvoyance, Christ imagery, allusions to The Secret Garden and its undeniable sexual imagery, and Victorian era medical treatments in an insane asylum.
And, honestly, how could you not love a combination like that?