While flaked out on my hard bedroom floor racked with sciatica and a fair number of other bloomin’ health issues, my mind wandered back to last night’s episode of Penny Dreadful. It was the fourth in season three and titled “A Blade of Grass”. Pretty much the entirety of the episode sees Vanessa (Eva Green) locked in a fugue state as she tries to gather intelligence from her memories of her stay in the asylum (the “treatments” were shown in “Closer than Sisters” season one, episode five).
The more I pondered, the more impressed I became with certain aspects of the episode, until it finally built into something that I felt compelled to take a closer, wordy look at. As a consequence, this review will be spoilerific, so please stop reading if that bothers you. I won’t relate much of the previous happenings of season three however, as I very much want to focus on this one episode in isolation, which is kind of fitting as Vanessa spends a lot of time being isolated herself, the padded walls and minimal furnishings of her cell doing well to ape the chasm inside her own heart.
There are times when she is not alone however, Dr Seward (Patti LuPone) appears at intervals to try to get Vanessa to the heart of what she is looking for. The asylum orderly also visits, taking the form of John Clare before he was The Creature (Rory Kinnear). I am still not really sure if this is just her memory serving up the orderly in this form, or if he really did work in such a place before he met whatever misery brought him into Dr Frankenstein’s hands. I’d like to think it’s the latter, but there are various other shenanigans later in the episode that just make me a little bit doubting on being certain of what happened.
It’s this relationship with John Clare that really brings this episode alive, the setup and location of the episode providing a padded white stage for the both he and Vanessa to bring some pretty intense, and at the same time, subtle emotions into play. Vanessa is on the look out for the “master that was with her in the padded white room” but her early reminiscences are of a kindly orderly who only wants to help. That is, until he asks her more probing questions and then reveals, as he is walking out of the cell and his eyes turn black, that he believes her. This is the first instance where I sat up and wondered what was memory, occult influence or some kind of mania. As any long term Penny Dreadful viewer will know, Vanessa is suffering from much guilt and depression from her past deeds, but the things she has faced and that still pursue her would be grounds for anyone to fall apart to some degree. Her problems are certainly somewhat external to her: it isn’t all the imaginings of someone who is mentally unwell. Satan really is after her.
When the orderly isn’t being all creepy-eyed, the “real” John Clare’s interactions with Vanessa are very touching, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Never a show that shies away from using prolonged silences and intense eye contact, Penny Dreadful produces a world-class display with this episode. Vanessa’s blank, tearful, enraged and other expressions crash against the calm and kindly Clare’s, almost making the viewer wonder what he is up to, he can’t be that nice surely! At one point, he has to feed Vanessa by holding a spoon to her mouth, a previous incident resulting in her now having to wear a straight-jacket. He talks as he feeds her, saying that he has to do this for his son too as he is unwell. He says something along the lines of “We used a metal spoon at first but found that it hurt his mouth, so we swapped it for a wooden one”. Vanessa takes note of the spoon and says something like “I’m surprised a place like this has wooden spoons”, to which, after a brief pause, he says something like “I brought it from home.” The recognition on her face was just beautiful, and to me, I felt the sensation of an “Aww” warming the inside of my chest.
There are other examples of the ways Clare tries to get through to her, another of which is in brushing her hair and applying some make-up (all very against the rules of the place) so that she can see herself in the mirror. She looks away the first time but he asks her to look again and to remember who she is. As someone with a mental illness and experience of depression, I can fully empathise with how hard it can be to look at your reflection, meeting your own sad eyes and not feeling anything but disgust. This is another beautiful moment in an episode with such grim happenings, and I guess goes to show that you might be better off judging your own reflection in the eyes of someone who cares about you, rather than a cold piece of glass. It’s little wonder that Vanessa throws herself at the kindly Clare, the one person that reaches her in a way that others haven’t or can’t.
Nearer the end of the episode, as her treatments carry on regardless of the slight improvement in Vanessa’s demeanour, John Clare becomes all satanic again, with doppelgängers and much moving of furniture and incantation. It’s really rather good and a fitting escalation to what has gone on beforehand. Vanessa finds out what she wants and exits the fugue state stronger and more determined than ever. I am glossing over this part as, compared to the intensity of the mental illness scenes, it didn’t quite compare. Also, I don’t want to give absolutely every outcome away, not when it isn’t warranted.
As an episode taken alone, or in the scheme of the narrative that has been playing out across many hours, “A Blade of Grass” is really quite special. I enjoy these kinds of episode in any series I might watch, the kind that have a largish cast but decide to focus on just a couple of characters for one episode. I like them even more when things take place in one location, it adds an extra intensity to any exchanges that might take place. What I most appreciate in this episode however, as is probably clear by now, is the portrayal of different kinds of imprisonment: the physical, mental and dare I say spiritual, that we can all suffer, whether dogged by the dark lord or not. Kudos to Penny Dreadful for twisting the tension into a compassionate place, where mental ill health doesn’t have to be yet another barrier between the ill and the healthy.
Images of Penny Dreadful © Copyright Showtime Networks
GS Rating: 5/5
GS Reviewer: Casey Douglass