Penny Dreadful S02 E03: The Nightcomers

As I’ve been making my way through Penny Dreadful, I’ve noticed that my ability to write meaningfully about an episode dips is less connected to the episode’s quality than I’d assumed would be the case. Acknowledging that even the “worst” episodes of this show are still very good, I’ve certainly been able to pull lots of analysis out of episodes that are basically just moving characters around to set up future events.

And then there are truly great episodes like “The Nightcomers,” where I find myself struggling with what to write because they’re operating at a level of quality I find hard to dissect. Still, I shall endeavor to do my best!

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

“The Nightcomers” is a Vanessa Spotlight episode, with Ethan Chandler appearing for only the briefest of framing sequences before moving into the past. Unlike “Closer than Sisters” in Season 1, we get none of the main series ensemble in the flashback itself. However, we do get plenty of season regular Helen McCrory as Madame Kali / Evelyn Poole.

We also get the legendary Patti LuPone as the cut-wife of Ballentree Moor, who provides the center of gravity for this episode.

The story of the episode can be summarized briefly enough. Vanessa appears at the cut-wife’s cottage, seeking help understanding herself so that she can better help Mina. The cut-wife eventually takes her in and begins training her, but Vanessa draws Evelyn Poole’s attention. Poole, who has already insinuated herself into a position to control the nearby Sir Geoffrey Hawkes, tries to gain access to Vanessa’s power. Poole succeeds in getting Sir Geoffrey to lead the townspeople to the cottage and kill the cut-wife, but this only drives Vanessa further away from Poole.

The episode’s true success comes from the layers it’s able to build into each interaction between the principle characters in service of its core theme about what we accept or reject in the pursuit of what we need.

This is also the most woman-centric episode of the show to date, including “Closer than Sisters.” The only real male character of note in this episode is Sir Geoffrey, and he is distinctly ancillary to the core trio of Vanessa, the cut-wife (whose name we learn at the end is Joan Clayton), and Poole. In a show that often struggles to pass the Bechdel test, this episode gives us a wide range of complex exchanges between women.

It’s rare on this show for there to be a scene with Vanessa Ives where she isn’t the most magnetic character, and to be clear, Eva Green is as compelling as ever in this one. However, as mentioned earlier, it is Joan, the cut-wife, who becomes the focal point for every scene she’s in, including her many scenes with Vanessa. She buries kindness beneath gruffness, masks sophisticated wisdom with crude rusticity, and pursues her self-appointed mission despite the flashes of resentment she feels for the ungrateful community she serves.

It is that last point – the tension between her mission and the way she’s treated for it – that elevates her past Yoda-on-the-moors status. For all the knowledge and power she possesses, she spends her days as a despised recluse because she feels compelled to aid other women even when no one can publicly acknowledge the good she’s done for them. She can trace her home’s history back to Cromwell, but the tension between her and the community remains relevant today.

The link between womanhood and motherhood is deeply baked into most human society. At some level, this is understandable, as the biological ability to bear children is a necessity for humanity, and thus any society made of humans, to continue. Of course, not all women can bear children, not all women want to bear children, and not everyone who can bear children identifies as a woman. Societal pressures and norms, though, often don’t care much about those facts.

To help a woman avoid motherhood is therefore a massive violation of a social norm. To do so on purpose, and even to offer it as a specialty, is to become in the eyes of that society a Monster by Choice. The need to end a pregnancy (whether that need comes from medical threat, fear of social sanction, a sense of psychological or emotional self-preservation, dread for the life a child would face, etc.) is always important to the individual seeking to end the pregnancy, but society as a whole often struggles to accept that, even to this day. In Victorian times, it is no surprise that a woman who helps end pregnancies would be treated as an exile, with no one admitting to using her services.

Joan accepts these consequences because she knows that what she does is good and necessary. That she bears resentment toward the community which rejects her even as its individuals seek her out is perfectly understandable, especially given how long she’s been doing her work.

She also illustrates another tension when trying to define who is a monster. From society’s perspective, she intentionally helps others violate the “natural” order of things, which makes her a monster. From her own perspective, she clearly draws a line between the type of magic she practices, which is used to help others who seek her out for good purposes, and that of Poole, who calls upon the Devil in order to manipulate, coerce, steal, and kill for her own selfish purposes. Joan is a monster to society, but not to herself.

Poole, by contrast, uses her magical abilities and connections to install herself close to power in society and pursue less visibly transgressive ends. As a result, society never sees her as a monster, even though she is a Monster by Choice in her own eyes. She knows that what she does is evil, and she accepts that.

By the end of the episode, Poole has won, Joan is dead, and Vanessa is left with a choice. She can use the knowledge and power she’s learned from Joan to continue the cut-wife’s work, or she can return to society. We know from the outset that she will choose to resume her place in society, but she does so with her initial goal of helping another woman (Mina) rather than to pursue her own ends like Poole. In this way, she at least carries some of Joan’s ethos with her.

This post may not have done total justice to the strength of this episode, but I hope it does at least draw some connections between this phenomenal story and some of the broader ideas this blog has discussed.

Next up, to complement The Bride of Frankenstein, another movie about a man-made woman: Ex Machina.

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