Penny Dreadful 3.04: “A Blade of Grass” Review

The Brothers Grimm

A Television Review by Akash Singh

NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!

“My Shadow”

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—

Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;

For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,

And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,

And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.

He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;

I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,

I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;

But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,

Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

-Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century and one whose work is ostensibly one of the most influential in John Logan’s Penny Dreadful lore, wrote a poem called “My Shadow”, published most notable in his posthumous 1913 volume known as A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods. The poem opens with a child observing a little shadow that strays in and out of his being, a shadow that perhaps means and is more than he is capable of understanding at that moment. He sees his shadow as an extension of himself. When he jumps into bed, the shadow’s right there right before him. It’s funny, the child observes, that the shadow at times is tinier than a blade of grass yet at times as towering as the physical manifestation of Dracula. But he is also ashamed of the shadow, the shame of a young boy who sees the shadow as a nurse that holds him back, whose protection, whose existence is one that smothers his own. Yet there arrived an early dawn, when the withering clouds of night had begun to waft away yet the sun had yet to shine its golden rays through their edifices. The boy woke up that dawn and he saw the flowers glistening in the moonlight. But his shadow was not there. He turned around to his bed to see the shadow lying there, completely lost in his eternal sleep. The interpretations of Stevenson’s poems are as vast but I read it as a microcosm of coming of age. It’s not a traditional tale of coming of age as far as such narratives go, but it can also mean someone understanding something, realizing that what they imagined to be an inherent part of their being is not necessarily so. That’s a growth of its own and it mirrors perfectly the relationship Vanessa has had with God and the two halves of Satan battling to dominate her soul. Vanessa has gone through life, always with shadows in tow, but it wasn’t until she had seen Satan’s shadow outgrow that of God that her shadows began to battle in torment over her being. It feels like relief when she is able to cast that shadows aside, but it is cast away within the unmistakable guise of tragedy.

A Blade of Grass, aptly named for what Vanessa feels herself to be within that horrendous white room, is a bottle episode of Penny Dreadful centered as at least one episode every season does on displaying just how extraordinary Eva Green’s acting ability is. It never ceases to amaze me what physicality and emotional heft Green brings to a role that seems truly tailor made for her and one that really ought to grab the attention of every awards ceremony in existence. But here she shares her time with the effervescent Patti LuPone and Rory Kinnear, who has to be the man who becomes John Clare’s former existence, Lucifer, and Dracula all within one hour. It’s an extraordinary display of true acting prowess and it doesn’t hurt in the slightest that writing is so sharp and acutely felt that all of that raw acting power permeates through every frame. The production design’s acumen on this series is always notable but here it is notable for how minimalistic it is. There is nothing really to hope for within such mundane, empty chambers and there is no reason to believe that it wasn’t specifically designed to be thusly. All Vanessa can see are her shadows spilling out from her body and if she wasn’t insane before, no one could blame her for tilting towards that direction. Except she doesn’t. She doesn’t feel ill at all. She’s wallowing in a terrible amount of grief, of shame that the shadow of Satan she had seen grow long when she had caught Ser Malcolm and her mother having sex hasn’t let her go. She’s even more ashamed that the shadow touched her at all, that it came near enough for her to give in to the darkness and betray her best friend Mina the night before her wedding day. It eats away at her very soul and no matter how quickly she runs away from it, it never seems to truly leave. It stays as if determined to consume her in her entirety, devouring her in the name of protection.

The orderly’s relationship with Vanessa at the episode’s beginning was akin to a shadow, albeit one that was detached, lurking in doorway but never really entering the room. He would come in, drop off the food, and then walk off quietly. There was no reason for him to become attached but and all of his protocol called against it. He was simply doing his job. Then he noticed that Vanessa wouldn’t eat the food for days and in an extremely graphic sequence, he resorts to force feeding her as she sobs from defeat. Vanessa, as she notes to Dr. Seward, wished to starve herself to death and at the end of the hour, if she still wanted to resort to that, who could blame her? The orderly believes that Vanessa is mentally ill and that Dr. Banning is treating her, but Vanessa protests that Dr. Banning isn’t treating her at all. He’s like a shadow that is sucking the very life out of her. It’s torture, what they do to her, conducted in the name of scientific and medical inquiry. “They’re making you well,” the orderly notes, but the images of Vanessa recovering from hydrotherapy (a euphemism if there was one) speak otherwise. She’s shivering in the frigid room but when the orderly gives her a blanket so she could be warm, he’s reprimanded for his act. In a quietly heartbreaking scene, he takes the blanket away from her so she doesn’t hang herself with it. But she simply wants to be warm and without it, she might as well waste away in the lonely cold. The orderly tries to not form a human connection with a lonely woman who is convinced that she is not ill, but she has been touched by Satan, but he simply can’t help it. He doesn’t believe in a God and considering what he sees on a nightly basis, it’s understandable that he arrived at that juncture of personal faith but he never treats Vanessa as an oddity for believing what she does. It’s a slow build towards a mutual trust but it works surprisingly effectively within the confines of a single hour.

One night he talks to Vanessa quietly about what his life is like. He’s not supposed to talk about his personal life with patients, to prevent exactly what was occurring from happening in the first place. He loves his wife and she loves him back. They have a child who is sick. Sometimes the metal spoons would pain his teeth too much and they would use a wooden spoon to feed him. He smuggles in that wooden spoon to feed Vanessa after she had attacked him and her hands were tied, a sign of his trust in her even after that event. Another night he arrives with his wife’s makeup. He quietly applies it on Vanessa’s face, quietly holding up the mirror so she could see what she looked like, whom she was. It seems ironic in a sense for makeup to bring forth Vanessa’s self, but it’s presented as act of painting away the trauma the clinic has inflicted upon her being. She jerks her head away at the onset, not wanting to look at an image of what she felt she had become within those terrifying ivory walls. But then she looks at the orderly’s request and she’s shocked to see what is before her. Vanessa still exists. A semblance to the Vanessa she remembers her being still exists and the identity she was losing in the clinic began to matter just a little bit less. The orderly began to have a personal investment in seeing Vanessa recover, in having her avoid the fate of so many other patients whom underwent surgery and then lost their identity and their mind as a result. As long as the orderly wasn’t involved with the patients, he didn’t have that personal investment, he didn’t see the treatments as torture. The regulations were kept for a reason but Vanessa manages to unlock that shadow of authority from behind the orderly’s eyes through a simple connection of humanity. That makes their final scene, the one in which the orderly where she is sitting before him, her hair shaven off, that much more gut-wrenching. She did everything, she became the submissive woman Dr. Banning wanted her to be, but she kept her faith in God and her touch by Satan intact. The former was something Dr. Banning couldn’t accept, that loss of power he couldn’t get beyond. The orderly, having resigned from his position, offers to be thee with her in those trying moments before she went under the knife.

The most frightening segment, the one that instills the most meaning within Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem is the one in which the two halves of Satan come forward. The first to manifest in the orderly’s body is Lucifer, Kenner’s consummate performance embodying him with sinister overtones that hinted at the belief of ubiquitous power. The second to manifest is Dracula, not naming himself until Vanessa pulls a trick on him to get that information out of his being. Lucifer immediately begins to fade as a shadow as Dracula appears and in that fading of his shadow lies the power of faith. Lucifer makes a note that Dracula is the Dark Lord of a sad, old world, the grime making him the King of Beasts. Dracula is unfazed by this considerably darker version of a traditional sibling rivalry. “If they cease to believe in you, do you even exist?” he asks calmly. In his mind, there is a greater degree of power in the here and the now and not in what may be. He believes that his brother is an anemic being, who feeds on superstition, the weak, and the ignorant. It’s a fallacy of logic in a sense, but it is a pertinent question going forward for a story so obsessed with various concepts, interpretations, and acts of faith. Vanessa’s faith in her own being was restored in finding a common humanity in such an inhumane place and that wasn’t what Lucifer and Dracula were counting on being so powerful. For a moment it seems that Vanessa, at least temporarily as this is a flashback bottle episode, was succumbing to Dracula’s fangs but she pulls back after he reveals her name, affirming that her God had never left her. Vanessa begins chanting the Verbis Diablo, her tempo rising with each moment. I’m not quite sure why this happened, but Lucifer and Dracula both backing away in horror from Vanessa’s might was a powerful moment. She is out of her hypnotism as the truth is finally before her but more importantly she is no longer within the grasp of the shadow of that white room. She has gotten up, looked through the window, and then looked back only to see the truth.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:

+I didn’t think nails scratching anything could sound as uncomfortable as nails on a chalkboard, but leave it to Penny Dreadful to prove me wrong.

+“The injections never end. And the questions.”

+“Is it day or night?”

+“A cog in an intricate social machine, no more.”

+The orderly not being fond of poetry but then coming back with Stevenson’s poem

+There was a great directorial moment where it looked like the camera was searching the orderly’s eyes

+This is the Penny Dreadful Christmas special, then?

+“Everything was the last.”

+“Not even a blade of grass. They are broken things.”

+“Would you want him to pretend?”

“No.”

+The sequence where Vanessa tries to have a moment of sexual intimacy for what she believes then is her last time was haunting

+The serpent’s shadow

+“I was the woman he wanted me to be.”

+Wooden ship model

+“It’s too cold and lonely all the time. No one lives there.” The parallelism between Vanessa in the room and John Clare in the Arctic is simply brilliant writing.

+“The last person you’ll see before the surgery will be someone who loves you.”

+Dr. Seward’s post-hypnotic treatment is whiskey. I approve.

+“I’m not frightened. His name is Dracula.”

Magnificent

10/10

Episode Title: A Blade of Grass

Written by: John Logan

Directed by: Toa Fraser

Image Courtesy: Inverse

Poem Courtesy: Poetry Foundation

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