Just give Eva Green all of the Emmys, right now. Rory Kinnear, too.
Their performances on Penny Dreadful Season 3 Episode 4 certainly warrant all that and more. Throw the show a couple for writing and direction, while you're at it.
Three seasons into this series, a clear pattern has emerged. One installment per season (always in the early half or at the midpoint) is a significant flashback, an Eva Green showcase hearkening back to a time from Vanessa's dark history.
This time, with Dr. Seward's help, the flashback was of a different nature.
"Closer than Sisters" presented the "origin story" of Vanessa's fraught history, the genesis of her falling out with Mina as a flashback, framed by the writing of Vanessa's unsent letter to Mina. "The Nightcomers" was framed as Vanessa telling the story of her time with Joan the Cut-Wife to Ethan.
"A Blade of Grass" is an immersive experience instead – Vanessa traveled back in time, with Seward's hypnosis projecting Vanessa's present-day mind back into her past body, while she was at Dr. Banning's asylum of horrors.
It's a really interesting concept, and the show was able to do a lot of interesting things by intercutting past-Vanessa's experience in the padded room with the interludes she has with Dr. Seward as her present-day self. As Seward put it, Vanessa's mind was "between both worlds" at once.
Virtually everything about this installment was flawless. The cinematography and lighting were incredible, especially given the fact that as a bottle episode (in the strictest sense of its definition – one in which all of the action takes place in a single location), it didn't have a lot to work with.
The wonders that the director and cinematographers worked with that single, bare, padded white room were astounding. That first shot of Vanessa, scratching at the padded wall in near-total darkness, was extremely cinematic in quality and excellently lit.
On a plot level, despite the fact that this was entirely a flashback, it was extremely useful and filled in a lot of gaps – in Vanessa's personal narrative and in the mythology of the show.
Of course, we've seen Vanessa in this clinic before, back in the first season. We knew of the depths of the torturous "treatments," but we never saw her "downtime" in the asylum (so to speak). "A Blade of Grass" succinctly filled in what happened there.
There were some remarkable scene transitions, too, indicating the passage of time in the room without day or night. One great example was the orderly's warning that the next day she'd have hydrotherapy treatments, followed immediately by the sight of Vanessa's wet floor, with a cold, dripping, and traumatized Vanessa huddled there.
As far as the show's mythology, that's always been (purposely) murky.
Much as evil's motives can't be entirely known to Vanessa and her cohort, those motives and their history have been obscured to the audience. With the physical appearance of both "brothers," Lucifer and Dracula, many of their motives (and how they relate to one another) were clarified.
For one, the two don't get along. At all. It was actually a bit humorous to see Lucifer cowering in the corner, clearly terrified when his brother, Dracula, showed up.
I can't say I was expecting one of the two brothers to be fearful of the other. I definitely wasn't expecting that the power balance would be tipped in Dracula's favor, either.
So I see you clear now. Two brothers fallen from grace. The spirit and the animal. You seek my soul. You, my body. But both are promised to another. He who vanquished you. He who is my protector and stands with me, even now.Vanessa
This line of Vanessa's was a bit on-the-nose, but it nicely distilled the central conflict.
Lucifer wants Vanessa's soul. Dracula wants her body. Lucifer embarked in complicated mind games throughout Penny Dreadful Season 2, but his time has passed since Vanessa (seemingly) defeated him in the Penny Dreadful Season 2 Finale.
Dracula, the current problem, wants her body – to bite her, turning her into one of his brides, a creature of the night – and he's coming right for it. Apparently, he cannot do so without her go-ahead. He seemed unable to just attack her and bite her. He needed her to agree to be his, as did Lucifer.
Dracula: Who are you to defy me?
Vanessa: I am nothing. I am no more than a blade of grass. But I am. You think you know evil? Here it stands.
Luckily, Vanessa is terrifyingly powerful.
One of my favorite moments last season was Vanessa's face off with Lucifer in the form of her puppet and Vanessa's face-off with both Lucifer and Dracula (in which they were both clearly scared of her and taken aback by her sudden floating and spouting verbis diablo) was amazing. Go, Vanessa!
The choice to have Rory Kinnear portray three entirely separate roles, in order to bring the physical manifestations of Lucifer and Dracula to life, was genius. He was Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black levels of amazing, here, with decidedly different mannerisms and enunciation depending on which role he was playing.
This brings his total role count up to four: Mr. Clare/the Creature, the orderly, orderly-as-Lucifer, and orderly-as-Dracula.
The transitions from Vanessa speaking with the orderly to the orderly suddenly transforming into Lucifer (which happened twice) were appropriately disorienting. They certainly took me completely off guard, each of the two times.
It also begs the question: how much of each conversation took place with the orderly and how much with the devil? When Vanessa de-robed and kissed him, was he at that point the orderly or Lucifer?
Do you know what they are, all of them? A broken thing. Not a tiger. Not a flower. Not a clump of earth. Not even a blade of grass. Miss Ives, you have to get better.Orderly
Rory Kinnear's portrayal of the conflicted, empathetic orderly was wonderful and heartbreaking. Despite the fact that we only had one installment to see the entirety of their relationship develop and their bond grow, I fully believed that the orderly would grow to love Vanessa over this period of time.
Rory Kinnear and Eva Green have always had fantastic chemistry as Mr. Clare and Vanessa, so it was unsurprising that they'd spark as the orderly and Vanessa.
This is the first time we've really met this particular character, this pre-death incarnation of Mr. Clare. It's incredible how much I grew to care about him and his emotional well-being after only one installment.
I can't even begin to choose which among the many encounters between Vanessa and the orderly was my favorite. The above moment, when he warned Vanessa of the upcoming lobotomy and passionately tried to convince her to feign wellness, was so powerful.
Their final goodbye, when he explained that he'd had an epiphany and could no longer be party to her suffering, was remarkable and heartbreaking. It's super long, but it was so good that I'm including the exchange as a quote here:
Orderly: I'll tell you what happened. I was at home, yesterday night past. And I was helping my son with a wooden ship model. That's something we do. And he asked me about the ship. I said it was a kind of ship used for exploring the seas. And he said, "Where do they explore, father?" And I told him everywhere. The orient. Peru. And even the frozen north. And he says, "What's that, Father?" And so I told him. "It's the places all covered with snow. North of Scotland and even beyond that." And he said, "Do people live there?" And I said to him, "No, it's too cold and lonely all the time. No one lives there." And I started to cry and I couldn't stop. My son took my hand, and I couldn't stop crying.
Orderly: Because I realized I was wrong. One person does live there. Where it's cold and lonely all the time. So I tendered my resignation. I'll stay long enough to see you tomorrow. The last person you see before the surgery will be someone who loves you.
Finally, Eva Green's performance. Whoa, boy.
It's been said, time and again, that Eva is a remarkably talented actress. We've seen it numerous times on this series already – Vanessa's possessions in the first season (the seance of Penny Dreadful Season 1 Episode 2 and the exorcism of Vanessa during Penny Dreadful Season 1 Episode 7) were each fantastic.
This, however, was on another level.
It truly didn't feel as though she were acting in a role. Her body language, the physicality of her acting, was so raw and realistic.
She went from animalistic when she attacked and scratched the orderly to desperate attempts in being chatty and friendly when she asked him about his wife's cooking. She was powerful and confident and terrifying when she confronted Lucifer and Dracula. She was heartbreaking and emotionally bare when the orderly combed out her hair and put on her makeup, trying to bolster her strength and her ability to fight through her trials.
In short, Eva Green ran the gamut of human emotions in this installment. For that, she must be rewarded. Seriously, if she doesn't win an award for this performance alone, the awards system is more broken than I thought.
- Did Vanessa recognize the orderly as her old friend Mr. Clare? For some reason, in my last review of Penny Dreadful Season 3 Episode 3, I assumed that she had recognized him but actually it doesn't appear that she did. Is it just a thing with this show that once someone is reanimated they can't be recognized? Like how Vanessa met Brona as Brona and as Lily and didn't realize she'd met her already?
- The bulk of the emotional exchanges occurred between Vanessa and the orderly, but we can't discount the power of that scene between Vanessa and Dr. Seward, when the doctor convinced Vanessa she would make it out and assured her that she wouldn't leave her. This developing bond is so interesting.
- Vanessa learned Dracula's name and told Dr. Seward. What will be her next move, now that she's begun to identify her pursuer? Will Seward want to (or be able to) help her?
- For a moment, I thought that perhaps the orderly had just taken Mr. Clare's form in Vanessa's mind, for some inexplicable reason. But then he mentioned his son's cough. It was definitely the same man. Will Mr. Clare find out about this, now that he's poking around in his old life?
- Tellingly, Vanessa's confrontation with Lucifer and Dracula was not the root of her trauma, as Dr. Seward assumed when she appeared and beckoned Vanessa out of her fugue state. Instead, Vanessa was only able to emerge once she'd re-experienced the orderly's farewell, when she learned he'd be leaving her behind at the asylum. Interesting and significant. This bond was clearly a formative one for Vanessa, and its termination traumatic.
What did you think of "A Blade of Grass"? Leave me a comment below with your thoughts and watch Penny Dreadful online here at TV Fanatic to relive Eva Green's glorious performance!
Caralynn Lippo is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.