Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) finds Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) studying the scorpion sign of blood on the upstairs wooden floor, at Sir Malcolm’s, that Eva had created previously. Ethan understandably wants to know what it is, only to be met with the standard Vanessa line of “It’s no concern of yours” (which is an idea that clearly isn’t going to fly). He wants to help, so Vanessa reveals that years before she went in search of answers as to who she was on the moors of the West Country where she encountered the first witch she’d ever met: the “Cut Wife” (Patti LuPone). Cue rainy flashback scene to a little cottage on the moors that screams: “witch lives here”, especially when Vanessa can’t approach as there are mystic signs pained on the gate posts, leaving Miss Ives to spend the night in the rain before passing out (she just seems to have no luck in this series).
Morning comes and the Cut-Wife finally comes out of the cottage and somewhat unceremoniously checks out Vanessa before biting her own finger and marking a blood cross on Miss Ives’ forehead, enabling her to pass the mystic protection that surrounds the witch’s home, but first demanding to know why Vanessa is there and then seeking proof of her abilities (claiming Miss Ives is strong like a scorpion) by way of a test in which Vanessa must tell the witch how she got a scar on her back. Protesting, but facing no option if she is to enter the cottage, Miss Ives focuses her medium skills (powers that it seems forever since we’ve actually seen in action, replaced by a weak state of victimhood which is actually creating a particularly dull character rather than the more interesting one we first saw at the beginning of Season One) and reveals that the witch’s scar was as the result of a branding iron. That correct answer is the route into the cottage.
The miserable witch (as though there’d be any other kind in this relentlessly dour series) is known as the Cut Wife as she is also an abortionist reputed to have special powers. Vanessa believes that the witch can tell her how the medium came to be how she is. The initially disagreeable and cynical witch changes her tune when Vanessa is able to reveal who it was that branded the Cut Wife in the past. Vanessa wants to learn the arts so that she can self-discover, believing herself cursed. It’s classic tough teacher as Vanessa’s wrong answer gets a slap. As Miss Ives talks of Mina and chooses a card from a spread, face down, Tarot deck, without turning it over, the Cut Wife is now convinced of her visitor’s abilities and allows her to stay. Vanessa turns the card over: it’s the Devil.
A young girl arrives at the cottage, seeking an abortion, in which Vanessa helps the Cut Wife, Miss Ives trying to soothe the scared girl’s mind. In a nearby country estate, the Lord of the Manor Sir Geoffrey Hawkes is entertaining Evelyn Poole (minus her Madame Kali appearance) as she seductively tries to provoke him into throwing the Cut Wife out of her cottage. He doesn’t think the land’s much use as his cattle keep dying (oblivious to the cow killer in his midst). As they go riding, they come across a field of dead cattle, the reason behind Madame Kali’s actions now becoming clear: blame the Cut Wife.
In the woods, the Cut Wife teaches Vanessa the arcane language of the Verbis Diablo, warning her of using it lightly. The teaching continues until peasants on a horse and cart pass by and spit at the witch (because that’s what peasants do). Meanwhile at the country house, it’s bedroom entertainment time and Evelyn Poole is the dominatrix to the submissive aristocrat, working on him that his workers are simply superstitious peasants in her plan to get to the Cut Wife.
At the cottage, the Cut Wife is sick, an old woman that time is catching up with. She wants Vanessa to stay there and take over her work when she is gone. The country gentleman Sir Geoffrey, meanwhile, is convincing the local Priest that the Cut Wife is responsible for the death of his cattle and that will mean the death of the area as well as the Priest’s job. As Sir Geoffrey rides home, he comes across Vanessa walking in the woods and recognises her as the witch’s assistant he’s heard of, but is still attracted to the ‘pretty’ woman, but his aggressive nature sees him grab her by the throat. It’s his land and she’s a poacher. His perverse nature comes through as he manhandles and threatens Vanessa. But, she sees him off in a nice show of strength and a rare reminder of Miss Ives at her best: in control and dangerous rather than the relentlessly victimized character that’s been too much on show for too long.
In the cottage, a sick Cut Wife believes that her home is safe, given to her in law by Cromwell, who she aided (but that was back in 1644 and it’s unlikely anybody would actually believe her claims now). Vanessa is committed to going back to London to try and help Mina (we know from season One how that turned out). The witch gives Miss Ives a book – the poetry of death – only to be used when Vanessa is beaten and the price is that she will be lost to God forever.
In the village, Sir Geoffrey and the Priest warn the villagers what must happen to the witch and what will happen to their dead land if nothing is done. It’s a mob easily convinced and bribed with drink. “Burn the witch!” Madame Kali watches with a smile, her plan almost concluded.
As Vanessa prepares to leave, she sees the burning torches of the mob of villagers approaching (probably a good job The Creature wasn’t in this episode or they’d have gone for him also). The proud Cut Wife (referring to Vanessa as her “little scorpion”) warns her that Miss Ives will be hunted by evil until the end of days and revealing that her own name is Joan Clayton. She is ready to die.
In the strongest scene of the episode, the Cut Witch is beaten and then burned at the stake. Vanessa is branded with the sign of the cross by the Priest, a smug Sir Geoffrey revenged; watched by a triumphant Madame Kali.
Come the morning, Vanessa finds the deed to the cottage and land left to the Cut Wife by Cromwell, but now with Vanessa’s name on it. Taking the tarot cards, she leaves the cottage, cutting her finger and painting a scorpion with her blood on the gates to protect the cottage. Her journey back to London and the fight against evil begins.
The Nightcomers felt like the training episodes of Yoda and Luke Skywalker or The Karate Kid. It was an origin story of sorts and basically a well-played two hander (LuPone particularly good), and refreshing to see a stronger Vanessa Ives rather than the victim of late.
Despite the good performances, increasingly the tone of “Penny Dreadful” is mono and funereal. John Logan’s origins as a playwright seem to dominate more and more in a series that is becoming dialogue heavy, static and wooden. Less is happening and more is being said. “Penny Dreadful” is becoming, at times, dreary and dull. Hopefully the first three episodes will be leading up to things happening and characters doing. Show, don’t tell.
David Paul Hellings
Images provided by author & denofgeek