Penny Dreadful pulls off another Vanessa-centric flashback episode with this week’s episode. In season one’s “Closer Than Sisters,” we learned about Vanessa’s childhood and her relationship with Mina as present-day Vanessa penned a letter to her missing friend; in “The Nightcomers,” Vanessa tells a worried Ethan the story of her first encounter with witches.
Sometime before all that vampire-y business with Mina, Vanessa came to a desolate, secluded place in the marshes to ask a witch known as the Cut-Wife of Ballantrae Moor for help with her curse. The Cut-Wife — so called because she performed illegal abortions by “cutting” the fetuses out of desperate women — agreed to teach Vanessa witchcraft, but only after making her wait outside for days through pouring rain and then forcing Vanessa to use her gift to sense the origins of a scar on the Cut-Wife’s back (branding iron, wielded by a woman the Cut-Wife had once loved and trusted.)
“Leave everything you were outside this door. Everything you are, bring with you.”
Vanessa was taught how to read tarot cards and the uses of different herbs found in the woods around the Cut-Wife’s house, and in one instance, assisted with an abortion procedure. Though the Cut-Wife had to learn her craft, Vanessa was born with her gifts, which marked her as special and very dangerous.
“I knew it the first time I felt you. This danger. I wanted to scream and bolt the door, curl up in my little bed and sleep and sleep, but you came closer. I felt you every step across the moor. They felt you too. They’ll be here soon.
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
And come they do, right up to the Cut-Wife’s gate: Evelyn Poole and her Nightcomers, who sold their souls to the Devil for eternal youth, beauty, and power. Turns out Evelyn had been the Cut-Wife’s coven sister once upon a time, and she was the one who literally branded her a traitor for not going along with the plan.
When the Cut-Wife refused to hand Vanessa over, Evelyn used her power (likely a combination of both magical and sexual) over the lands’ gross wealthy owner to have the Cut-Wife thrown out and burned alive. In her final hours before her horrific death, the Cut-Wife gave to Vanessa the deed to her house, a book containing a curse described as so dark and forbidden that it’s clearly this season’s Chekov’s Spellbook, and her true name: Joan Clayton.
“If ever the day comes when my little scorpion is crushed and beaten, if her God deserts her completely, only then does she open it. And on that day she will never be the same. She will have gone away from God, forever.”
Finally the torch-bearing townspeople arrive to murder Joan, forcing Vanessa to watch before holding her down to brand a cross on her back and leaving her in the mud.
The episode ends with Vanessa heading back to London, spurred on by her need to rescue Mina, but not before painting a bloody scorpion on the stones outside Joan’s house — marking it as hers.
Comments (Questions, Concerns)
- If Vanessa saw Evelyn’s face at all during the two big showdowns — the witches coming to the house and then at Joan’s burning — why didn’t she recognize “Madame Kali” at the seance in season one? And since Evelyn saw Vanessa’s face during all this, then she definitely would’ve recognized her. Basically, I need an explanation for why the Nightcomers waited so long to attack when a Nightcomer/Vampire team-up in season one would have totally overwhelmed the team. Someone fill this plot hole for me.
- I thought Patti Lupone did a great job in her reluctant mentor role, and Eva Green was as flaw-free as ever. I’m still not 100% sold on the Nightcomers as Big Bads since I’ve mostly just been hearing about how terrifying they are rather than seeing it (still not all that wowed by the dolls, guys) but Helen McCrory was in top “evil smirk” form in this episode. The slowly-walking-through-the-meadow-killing-cows scene was gorgeous. (That was a weird sentence to type out.)
- Seeing Vanessa be so determined that she was going to find and rescue Mina was a little heartbreaking. Even in the midst of all of her searching in season one, Vanessa had somewhat realized that saving Mina might not be possible (remember the “I love you enough to kill you” bit?). Here she’s all hope… but we already know how it ends.
Check out the promo for next week below.