It feels a little redundant to pronounce each successive episode of Penny Dreadful a difficult watch but that doesn’t make it any less true. In “The Nightcomers,” we learned that Vanessa’s struggles at Evelyn’s hands have been a REALLY long time in coming.
The only scene set in the present timeline is the opener, where Ethan asks Vanessa about the blood scorpion she’s drawn on her bedroom floor. She says it’s none of his concern, but he’s not deterred. He sits down on the bed beside her (and I was thrilled at the familiarity there) and pleads with her to let him help. She says she hasn’t told anyone. “Tell me,” he asks. And so she begins.
In the timeline, we flash back to after she saw Mina on the beach, and came out of her initial possession. She’s traveled all the way to the West Moors, and stands in the rain and cold outside a foreboding little cottage until she quite literally drops in the mud.
The door finally opens and out comes an old woman (Patti LuPone), who walks straight up to Vanessa and throws her hand under her skirt and inside her as some sort of test. Then bites her own thumb and marks Vanessa’s forehead with her blood so she can pass through the pillars at the entrance and tells her to come inside.
She asks Vanessa why she’s there, since her primary function in the area is a midwife (or Cut-Wife) and Vanessa explains she’s not pregnant but she’s searching for answers to help her friend. When the Cut-Wife tells her to throw the tarot, and Vanessa does, her resulting card rattles her enough and she lets Vanessa stay.
Over a period of time (we’re not told how much), Vanessa apprentices with her, learning herbs and the Verbis Diablo, and spells. Early on, Evelyn comes, flanked by two other witches, to the stone pillars that cannot be passed and calls the Cut-Wife out. We learn that the Cut-Wife is Evelyn’s sister, and although they are both quite old, centuries old, Evelyn has not aged because, in choosing Lucifer, she changed from a Daywalker to a Nightcomer.
Because the Cut-Wife did not choose him, she was cast out. Evelyn tries to enchant her sister to come through the pillars to her, and very nearly succeeds until Vanessa yells out and the Cut-Wife snaps back. Vanessa never sees Evelyn’s face.
Evelyn works her plan another way — as the wife (or lover) of the local lord who owns all the land except the Cut-Wife’s. She starts killing his cattle and planting the seed that it’s a blight from the Cut-Wife, who is a witch, and that if he doesn’t do something, he will look weak and be weak. She makes her point first in a conversation before they head out for a ride and later when he’s kneeling naked in front of her and she’s thrashing him with a whip.
Separately, the Cut-Wife starts to fail, and while Vanessa wants to call a doctor, she won’t have it. She tells Vanessa she’s merely dying from living too long. She asks Vanessa to stay after she’s gone, and serve the local women, but Vanessa says no. This all has still been about saving Mina. The Cut-Wife doesn’t respond well, raging at her. She also tells her the land she’s on was personally bequeathed to her by Oliver Cromwell in 1640, and she cannot be moved from it, despite the local lord’s best intentions.
This is soon all for naught as the townspeople, including Evelyn and a girl the Cut-Wife and Vanessa helped, the lord, and pastor arrive with torches. The Cut-Wife insists on going to meet this fate, and Vanessa says she will walk with her. They go outside, and the Cut-Wife is stoned and then cuffed to a tree, doused with hot oil and burned alive. She never screams, and never takes her eyes off Vanessa, who is held back and then branded with a cross from the flames.
Afterward, Vanessa recovers while Evelyn and her two witches wait outside, still unable to pass. When she’s well enough, she packs up and leaves, taking the tarot, and the deed to the land, which now bears her name, and on her way out, she marks one of the stone pillars in her own blood, in the scorpion that the Cut-Wife christened her.
Before her death, the Cut-Wife tells Vanessa her name is Joan Clayton. Vanessa later sees that name crossed out and replaced with her own on the land deed signed by Cromwell (which makes me think we will see this plot of land again, perhaps as a series finale?).
Joan shows her a book of profoundly dark spells that she tells her she cannot open until she literally has abandoned all hope, because she cannot return to God after she does so. Earlier she warns her to not be too familiar with Verbis Diablo because speaking the language will soon have her speaking in a voice not her own.
Finally, Joan warns Vanessa that when the evil coming for her comes, it will come fully. The last thing she tells her is that Lucifer did not fall alone, that “they” will search for her until the end of days and she must be true to herself.
If I processed all of that correctly, Vanessa is / was Lucifer’s companion when he fell, and Joan and Evelyn have searched for her for centuries . That made no sense to me after the opening scenes when Joan still made her wait, and wait, and then basically assaulted her when she arrived, only to later tell her she could feel her coming across the moors to her,. That seemed a disconnect to me.
It also felt out of place that if Vanessa really is marked for something so dire, or is a reincarnation of Lucifer’s companion, all of that was much more important to know than midwifery or herbs. Joan seemed hell-bent on training a successor despite Vanessa’s larger path.
It seems like there also should have been some sort of conversation where Joan gave Vanessa Evelyn’s name, so that the folks in the current timeline would be aware of who was driving everything. But then that would cancel things out, right? I know, overthinking. And I reiterate what I said after the premiere — I don’t know how Vanessa’s body hasn’t just said, “F-ck it, I’m out.”
Regardless, it was extremely well done, and it was such an intense episode for what was for the most part a two-woman play. LuPone was very, very good. If Showtime doesn’t put Eva Green and LuPone forward for Emmy consideration with this episode, shame on them.
I missed having everybody else this week, but I look forward to seeing where we go with Vanessa and Ethan know that he knows everything — including who she is, who her soul is.
Photos courtesy of Showtime