Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Penny Dreadful 3x04 Review: “A Blade of Grass” (The White Room) [Contributor: Rae Nudson]

“A Blade of Grass”
Original Airdate: May 22, 2016

Penny Dreadful’s biggest asset has always been Eva Green, and this episode shows why. In a flashback that focuses entirely on Vanessa’s inner life, Green shows off her skills and carries the episode on her performance. In Dr. Seward’s office, Vanessa undergoes hypnosis to learn the first time she met Dracula. Vanessa becomes trapped in her own mind, and the viewer is trapped with her. It’s claustrophobic and terrifying in the white room that has no day or night, and the only salvation comes from a familiar orderly.


Vanessa is remembering her time in an insane asylum after she betrayed Mina and became possessed. Season one had an episode that focused on Vanessa’s memory of this time, which seems to be where all of her trouble with the underworld began: from the loss of her innocence when she slept with Mina’s fiancé and lost her best friend.

She is depressed and feels unworthy of life because she has been touched by evil, and no treatment from the hospital will help. It won’t help, of course, because it’s torture disguised as science in an age that treated anyone outside the boundaries of normal just as they would treat a rat in a lab. Vanessa is held in solitary confinement in a room with no windows. She is fed by a man who isn’t supposed to speak to her. She has no blankets or pillows, and she has no way to change her situation. The same doctors that put her in there are the ones in charge of allowing her out, and they won’t deem her healthy until she becomes a meek, compliant woman who fits into her role in society.

But Vanessa will never fit in — even if she tries, even if she pretends to do as they ask.

Her only contact with the outside world comes when the orderly enters her room and gives her a meal. In a brilliant bit of storytelling, the orderly is John Clare, from when he was alive, before Frankenstein turned him into what he is today.

John Clare has always had a sensitive heart, and he has always had a strong connection with Vanessa. Now we see it’s because their relationship began long before they met under the streets of Victorian London. Over his time feeding Vanessa, he begins to see her for the person she is. This is Vanessa’s story, but John Clare’s journey is important as well. Through Vanessa, he comes to realize that the hospital isn’t treating her with science, it’s using barbaric methods to torture a person deserving of love and respect.

In touching scenes, he sits with her. He gives her the honor of conversation. He feeds her with a spoon he brought from home. He brushes her hair and reminds her of what it feels like to be cared for and to be respected. Vanessa and John Clare find themselves in each other, and their friendship changes both of them for the better. In each other, they find grace.

John Clare’s backstory was a delight to finally learn, and it makes all his previous actions have more impact. He told Vanessa how he explained to his son about explorers in the Arctic, which puts his journey at the beginning of the season in a new heartbreaking light. He also tells Vanessa that his son is sick, and he fed him with a spoon. (I’m guessing that the people he was watching last week were his wife and son, since the woman fed a sick child with a spoon.) To learn what John Clare had in life makes his afterlife mean more.

John Clare was also the conduit for both the devil and Dracula. Lucifer makes frequent visits to Vanessa in the hospital by speaking through her only friend. It’s cruel that the one person that gives her hope is also the person that brings her greatest fear. But the devil is pretty effective like that.

As he visits Vanessa, he makes it clear why he is so interested in her: he loves her. The devil himself has chosen Vanessa as his beloved and wants her to give her soul to him. This is made all the more complicated when the devil’s brother, Dracula, decides he wants Vanessa as well. (A bit of sibling rivalry, I expect.) Dracula says he doesn’t need her soul, just her body. But Vanessa says her body and soul are promised already to God.

In telling Lucifer and Dracula no, Vanessa takes control of her power and begins speaking the language of the witches. She forces the evil brothers to leave, and God’s power is working through her — God has not abandoned her.

Vanessa’s faith has always been a large part of her life, and this season she is coming to terms with her loss of faith in God. Under her hypnosis, she goes back to a point in her life where she felt distant from God and then reaffirmed her commitment to him. I don’t know if her hypnosis will make her feel closer to God in the present time, but remembering a difficult time she overcame seems to wake her up with more faith in herself.


There were only three actors in this episode, and all of them were just amazing. Eva Green is chilling, powerful, and heartbreaking. She communicates so much with her movement and with her eyes, and she portrays emotion even when her arms are in a straightjacket and her mouth in a gag. She is amazing to watch.

Rory Kinnear as John Clare also got to stretch himself, and it was wonderful to see him not just as Frankenstein’s monster, but also as a wonderful (alive) human and two evil brothers playing off each other.

Patti LuPone as Dr. Seward was Vanessa’s only friend in the present. Their connection has grown stronger, and Dr. Seward draws on Vanessa’s relationship with the cut wife in the past to be a good friend to her now. When Dr. Seward realizes she can’t wake Vanessa up from the hypnosis, she says she won’t leave her for anything in this world.

Two of the biggest players in the underworld want Vanessa, and Vanessa will fight them with everything she has. But she can’t do it alone. Vanessa needs her friends, and her friends need her. Now that Vanessa knows what she’s fighting, hopefully she gathers her loved ones once again to do battle.

Post Script:
  • I want Eva Green to be in everything. 
  • Traditionally bottle episodes, where the episode is in one place with one or few actors, were created to save money on sets and keep from paying extra cast members. But this episode used an entirely new set, and a gorgeously creepy one at that. (I don’t expect this episode was a money-saving tactic, but rather a way to explore Vanessa’s mind.)
  • Vanessa scratching her legs in the hospital the way she is scratching her hands now was a great touch.
  • I cannot tell you how relieved I was that when Vanessa kissed John Clare, he stopped her.
  • We also learn more of Vanessa’s love for Joan of Arc.


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