Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Character Appreciation Post: Vanessa Ives ("Penny Dreadful") [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

Vanessa Ives has superpowers. She can’t fly (yet) or read minds (that I know of), but the super-beautiful and super-witchy protagonist on Victorian thriller Penny Dreadful can master spells and fight evil better than any of the other members in her Scooby gang. What makes her so powerful, though, isn’t her incantations; it’s her compassion.

Vanessa and her companions have spent the last two seasons fighting evil in various forms, but none of them — except Vanessa — has conquered the evil in their own hearts. Vanessa’s father-figure, Sir Malcolm, spent his life as an explorer chasing after adventure and riches, and chasing away his wife and children. Their friend Dr. Frankenstein has challenged death by creating creatures from beyond the grave and sending himself ever closer to it with his addiction to morphine. Sharpshooter Ethan Chandler has crossed the Atlantic Ocean to escape his past, but being a werewolf is a condition that cannot be outrun. And Sembene, poor Sembene, was serving his friend to help atone for a life of slave trading.

Sir Malcom’s and Dr. Frankenstein’s demons almost overtook them in the season two finale, when the witches left them alone with ghosts of their families. Malcom’s family consisted of his dead wife, daughter, and son, all of whom he had a hand in killing, one way or another. Frankenstein’s ghosts were the creatures he created from corpses, who weren’t completely alive but weren’t completely dead, either. The ghosts urged them to take their lives and join them in death, and they almost succeeded. Neither Malcom or Frankenstein are at peace with themselves, and they can’t face their pasts without giving in to overwhelming guilt and uncertainty.

This is where Vanessa differs from the rest of her companions. She has faced literal demons, and she is at peace with who she is and the experiences that made her that way. That, in turn, makes her compassionate to others who struggle with themselves. Vanessa has been entangled with evil all her life, starting with the attraction to sex and secrets when she was younger (like almost every teenager, at some point). She was possessed by an evil spirit and obsessed with the evil humans could do to each other, and she knew she had something in her soul that allowed her the connection to this wickedness. So she fought to get the devil out of her body, and then she traveled to see the Cut Wife to help get the devil out of her mind.

The Cut Wife accepted Vanessa for who she was in spite of — maybe because of — the darkness inside her. With the support she found in the Cut Wife, the first person to see her for all that she was, Vanessa learned about herself and expanded her powers. She also learned more about tragedy and cruelty, as she watched the townspeople burn her friend at the stake for being who she was: a real-life witch.

Learning about her strengths and weaknesses, and the depths of cruelty and kindness people can possess, sent Vanessa on the road to becoming the strong, compassionate woman she is with her friends years later. She is both fierce to her enemies and unfailingly kind to even the most lost souls. (Every scene with her and John Clare is heartbreaking.) Her friends are drawn to her because of her strength, but they love her because of her empathy.

Each member of her group is there because Vanessa chose them, and they all would lay down their lives to help her. They are all a little bit in love with her in different ways — Malcolm in a fatherly way, Frankenstein in a brotherly way, and Ethan in an over-the-moon in love way. Vanessa is the center of the show — even the camera angles often place her in the middle of the frame. Her clothes are often buttoned up, as if she is trying to contain her power and her emotions.

And she expresses every emotion, from sadness to fear to love to silliness. She does not fall into a trap of being a woman who is only a caretaker, or only kind, or only afraid, or only anything. Vanessa has been shaped by many things, and she feels many things without apologizing for it. When the Cut-Wife is killed, she is revengeful. When Ethan says he can’t accompany her to a ball, she is crushed. When she goes shopping with Frankenstein, she is joyful. And being emotional doesn’t make her seem crazy. It makes her extraordinarily human.

Vanessa accepts all of who she is. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t struggle with guilt or that she doesn’t overstep boundaries on occasion. She is neither pure good nor pure evil, and accepting the dark and light parts of herself allows her to use both to fight for her humanity and the humanity of others.

She fights for Ethan, even if he won’t fight for himself. Vanessa knows Ethan’s heart, and she doesn’t give up on him even when she finds out he’s a werewolf. But Ethan has not accepted himself or his past, and when Vanessa offered to run away with him to create a life together, he couldn’t accept. Instead of letting Vanessa love him, Ethan chose to punish himself and turn himself in to the police. Now he’s getting further and further from Vanessa, and he’s trapped on a boat with his captors — and I hope they aren’t still on this ship when the full moon hits. She, of course, has already forgiven him. He didn't even need to ask.

It is Vanessa’s ability to accept the bad and good in people that gives her the power to defeat the devil. He tries to tempt her with a normal life full of love with Ethan and two adorable children. But Vanessa knows that she is not normal. What would she do with a normal life now that she has faced true evil? She knows who she is, and she knows she won’t be led astray from her life and her goals. Her soul is her own, she accepts herself, and she is strong enough to beat the devil himself.


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