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Penny Dreadful Reviews: "A Blade of Grass"


          “A Blade of Grass” is a sequel of sorts to “Closer Than Sisters” as well as “The Nightcomers” in that they’re all episodes that devote the full hour to exploring an area of Vanessa’s backstory. Rather than introduce a whole new period in her past, most of what we see in this episode takes place in between a handful of moments from “Closer Than Sisters”; possibly due to that episodes’ popularity (it still may be the series’ best), but also to allow for a more intimate story being entirely set in one room with only three actors (and even then, Patti LuPone only appears a couple times). The result is a stupendous episode that ranks among the shows’ finest.
          Beginning where the last episode left off, Vanessa is in a state of hypnosis recalling her time in the madhouse, where she was held the entire time in one room with the only visitor being the orderly who fed her; the man who would one day become Caliban. The goal of this procedure as we know from the last episode, is to find this demon alluded to by the vampire who cornered Vanessa in the Hall of Mirrors, a second demon other than the Devil Vanessa believes she met while imprisoned. So the episode showcases not only her descent while in captivity, but her relationship with Caliban that far pre-dates her meeting him at the beginning of season two. She is also tested and tormented by the devil while imprisoned and we see her struggle to not be seduced by the darkness.
          This is the textbook definition of a bottle show. Up till the final moments, we never leave this one room and so we fully feel the claustrophobia of Vanessa in this situation. This episode does mood better than any episode of Penny Dreadful in a while. All throughout there’s a gloom in the air and an unsettling suspense sets in despite the fact we know the end result from “Closer Than Sisters”. We know Vanessa will be left catatonic by this experience, and we know Caliban is a dead man walking, but we’re still invested. It’s really quite marvellous. And it makes clear the fact that we are seeing these events siphoned through Vanessa, complete with her perceptions. Despite the fact we’re seeing Vanessa once again at her lowest of lows (she occasionally tries to tear her way out of the room during which attempts she comes off as wretched as Smeagol), we latch onto the heart of the show in the form of Caliban, who like the audience feels immensely sorry for Vanessa. I’m somewhat glad that the more we see of him the more of an upstanding figure Caliban’s former self was. It’s a good contrast to literally everyone else in the show, that here we have a family man who has a good sense of right and wrong in spite of the miserable nature of his job.
          The best moments of the episode are the tender ones between Vanessa and Caliban, and the building of their relationship is the drive of the episode with the demonic revelations almost feeling like an afterthought. I don’t even think Seward needed to appear in the visions herself; she doesn’t offer anything vital and Green and Kinnear can more than carry the story themselves. At first Caliban’s fairly reserved, merely encouraging Vanessa to eat and taking measures as ordered to prevent her from committing suicide. A good idea, considering she tries a few times. At one point he’s even driven to restrain her physically and force food and water through a tube into her mouth. Eventually though he begins to talk to her. He’s convinced himself they’re trying to make Vanessa well, that the processes are “science” rather than torture, and refers to upcoming treatments that we saw her undergo in “Closer Than Sisters: like hydrotherapy and shaving her head. After the former he comforts her by giving her a blanket only to later take it away in case she hangs herself with it. At this point she attacks him but he gains the upper hand (in the process receiving the scar that Caliban still bears on his cheek). She’s put in a straitjacket after this, but Caliban still reaches out, revealing more about himself: that he has a family, his son is ill (which is quite depressing considering he still seems to be ill years later), and that he doesn’t like poetry (oh how Caliban would weep!), but never revealing his name as it is against regulations. Perhaps the nicest moments are when Vanessa asks if its night or day, having no way of knowing in her cell, and his response is dictated by which she would prefer. It’s a small touch, but one that’s beautifully sweet.
          It’s when she relates her experience with Satan that the ends of the experiment begin to unravel. As he leaves following this revelation, his eyes turn demonic proving to Vanessa the Devil can still get to her in this room. Seward pops up at this point to inform her that what she’s seeing may not be true (though we have seen the Devil come to her in the forms of Sir Malcolm and Chandler before), but also to exposit that Vanessa’s falling into a fugue state and thus she cannot wake her. The one interesting thing Seward contributes here is her referral to her ancestor Joan Clayton, the Cut-Wife, who I still suspect has a stronger connection to Seward than we presently know. It can’t be a coincidence that both are clearly mother-figures to Vanessa.
          After the trial in which she was gagged, Caliban comes in to brush her hair. The only reason he continues to work there apart from the meagre income, is for her. After this, he reads to her the same story he reads to his son and it too is a really powerful moment. Vanessa’s emotional response has to be one of Eva Green’s best moments in any film or TV show. As heartbreaking as it is to see her in this state, it’s heart-warming to see there’s one person at least who appears to care about her (remember this was during the period Sir Malcolm was a complete dick to her and was partially responsible for her committal). The scene ends with him promising her that one day no one will touch her when she doesn’t want it and promises to pray for her even though he doesn’t believe in God. To make the scene even better, he tells her its Christmas. What happens next wasn’t a great scene to follow, even if it works in the context of the episode. Believing that it’s the end, she attempts to seduce Caliban, purely so she can have sex before she dies. While Caliban is clearly tempted, possibly having even fallen for her, he stops it. In his next visit, he urges her to get better well aware that this road will ultimately lead to a lobotomy. Having witnessed it happening to other patients before, he details the horrors of it and how people never come out the same calling what’s left “a broken thing”, and he’s afraid of this happening to Vanessa.
          We then get the demon stuff again and the whole point of Vanessa’s hypnosis. Lucifer takes Calibans’ form again and maybe sensing her hopelessness, tries to seduce her with the power to smite God. Before he’s able to succeed, he’s repelled by another shadow in the room, and another demonic Caliban appears (due to there being no one else presently in her life to take the form of). He even appears to have power over Lucifer, introduced as his brother, the father of beasts -somehow I have to think there’s a Chandler connection in this, particularly when he says to Vanessa, “become the wolf and the bat and the scorpion” suggesting she, Chandler, and Dracula may be inextricably linked. And yes, this is Dracula asking her to be his bride and almost succeeding in his persuasion before she rebukes them both. It’s worth noting the “blade of grass” line poetically worked into Calibans’ earlier description of the consequences of a lobotomy, the writers really liked, as it’s awkwardly overused in this confrontation. She promises that both Lucifer and Dracula will be smitten before going into her earlier exorcist-mode and breaking free of their influence. This whole sequence is played out fine, with the right level of over-the-top penny dreadful style. But because its bereft of the emotion and soul of the rest of the episode, despite clearly being the most plot developing sequence, it’s not as interesting. Thankfully the show appears to realize this, because Seward reappears to bring her back now she has the information she needs, only Vanessa insists on staying just a little longer.
          Her head has been shaven now and the lobotomy has been scheduled. The scene plays out appropriately as someone on death row awaiting execution. Caliban informs her he will be leaving this job. He tells her he was helping his son with a wooden ship (no doubt the same one we’ve been seeing in Calibans’ present flashbacks); their talk of adventure on the seas led to his telling his son about the North where no one lives because it’s cold and lonely all the time. But he realized that metaphorically that’s where Vanessa lives and as he breaks down telling her this, reveals it led to his resignation. He tells her he’ll stay until her operation, assuring her “the last person you see before the surgery will be someone who loves you”. It warms her heart, warms the audiences’ heart, and surely in just one episode, invigorated a Vanessa-Caliban ship in the fanbase.
          There’s not much more to the episode. Though it should have ended there, it’s required to conclude with her coming out of her trance remembering everything, declaring she’s no longer frightened, and naming Dracula to Seward, setting the course of more connections to Bram Stokers’ novel. “A Blade of Grass” is one of Penny Dreadful’s most powerful episodes, easily among its best five. And somehow I don’t think we’ll see a better episode before the end of the series; they can’t afford with all the storylines and only five episodes left to do another like this. The relationship between Vanessa and Caliban though non-romantic, has been by far the best on the show, and this episode really went to lengths to expand it. That and the tone, the bottle show format taken advantage of to showcase character, the writing, music, and powerhouse performances from Eva Green and Rory Kinnear make for an utterly unforgettable piece of television.

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