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Penny Dreadful – The Nightcomers – Review

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I normally don’t enjoy flashback episodes since they are so heavy on the exposition and tend to dispel a lot of the mystery surrounding current plots, but “The Nightcomers” was fine Penny Dreadful installment. Evelyn, Vanessa, and the Cut Wife all carry this episode above and beyond what I thought we would see and each character shows a different aspect of witchdom within the demimonde that is Penny Dreadful. One could say the episode was a bit slow, but the way the character of the Cut Wife, who in my opinion stole the show, unfolded was on the mark. The use of music and sound, and even absence of sound, in this episode should be noted. The atmosphere built and built in “The Nightcomers” and that final scene hit me more emotionally than any other on Penny Dreadful so far.

The episode begins with Ethan checking in on Vanessa. He spots the scorpion she painted in blood on her floor and asks about it. After some coaxing Vanessa sits Ethan down and proceeds to tell the sharpshooter of a time in her past that she hasn’t told anyone of before, of her time with the Cut Wife, the first witch Vanessa ever met. The rest of the episode is a flashback to this time and I have to say I would have liked to have seen Ethan’s reaction to this sad tale.

We flashback to Vanessa on the moor, standing outside a lone cottage in the rain. The person residing within is aware of Vanessa’s presence, yet sees fit to leave her outside for quite a long time. Days pass as Vanessa grow weaker, yet still determined to gain an audience with whomever lives in the cottage. At one point, the cottage door opens, yet Vanessa cannot go farther than the gate. It’s as if some force is holding her back. This could be due to the rosary hanging from Vanessa’s clenched fist. I like the sound effect that goes with Vanessa pushing against the magic of this barrier, it’s not too dramatic or farfetched, just skirting the edge of reality. The person within the cottage cackles at this attempt. Later that evening, overcome with exhaustion, Vanessa falls to her knees. This causes the person within the cottage slam the door shut, even as Vanessa struggles back to her feet. At this moment the audience might believe that Vanessa has failed. This is not the case though, for the next morning a weather-beaten, hardened woman approaches Vanessa.
This woman has an odd way of greeting the medium, thrusting her hand in Vanessa’s downstairs department, as if learning something of her character from what she feels. She then pricks her thumb and anoints Vanessa’s forehead with an upside down cross, speaking another language. The cottage woman questions Vanessa on why she is there. Is the medium in search of some common spell or medicinal treatment? No, this isn’t the case, so the woman from the cottage tests Vanessa, roughly urging the medium to use her inner eye and tell how she came to have a scar on her back. After a bit of trying, Vanessa manages to uncover that the woman was branded. This gives the cottage woman pause and she eventually invites Vanessa inside. I love this rough introduction to the Cut Wife. I really was turned off by this character at first, which was the point. I was so surprised at how sympathetic I felt towards her by the end of the episode and that really shows the gradual unfolding of this character, how the writers are able to peel back layers and show us a multi-faceted woman within.

Inside the cottage we see various bits and bobs hanging from the ceiling, herbs and protective trinkets. It’s a proper witch’s hut. Though the woman has allowed Vanessa entry, she is still very harsh with the medium. Vanessa explains that tales of this woman’s powers are heard far and wide and to this the woman laughs. She is known as the Cut Wife since she performs abortions out of her hut, cutting the babies from their mothers. Abortions were illegal in Victorian times, making the Cut Wife a social pariah despite having a clientele. This, coupled with her suspected witchhood, would not have made the Cut Wife particularly popular and necessitated her hermit-like existence. Vanessa explains how she sees things and how Mina psychically reached out to her for help. The Cut Wife is less than sympathetic to Vanessa’s situation and it’s only when Vanessa turns the tables and dishes out some blunt honesty that the person who branded the Cut Wife was someone she loved, spitting out secrets I’m sure the witch had not told anyone that the Cut Wife begins to take Vanessa seriously. The Cut Wife brings Vanessa to a table and unearths that familiar pack of tarot cards. She instructs Vanessa on how to feel for the cards and after the medium choses one, the Cut Wife agrees, in her own way, to allow Vanessa to stay and learn. Vanessa turns over the card and it is The Devil.

We later see Vanessa and the Cut Wife walking through the woods, gather herbs and plants for medicinal purposes. I like how the Cut Wife explains something I’ve been talking about in many of my reviews, that the meaning of the tarot isn’t always what’s on the card’s surface, that there are deeper meanings to the illustrations. In the case of The Devil, the Cut Wife has Vanessa work out that this card also means an irresistible terror approaching, something “ghastly and beautiful”. Also, it’s here that I noticed, upon my second viewing, that the Cut Wife has heterochromia or rather, two different colored eyes. In the past those with heterochromia were thought to be witches. Well, I guess in this case folk rumors were right. The Cut Wife points out various plants and their uses as she and Vanessa walk, including Nightshade, the plant that had captivated Vanessa all the way back in season one. I’m amused that the Cut Wife commands Vanessa to remember it and that does add a bit of depth to the medium’s contemplation of it in the botanical gardens. The pair also come across a rabbit in a trap and under the Cut Wife’s command, Vanessa breaks its neck with her bare hands. The Cut Wife runs a tough ship, no doubt, but this is necessary as we will see to survive with the gift that burdens them both.

Back at the cottage, the Cut Wife prepares the rabbit for a meal and needles Vanessa about her mother. She warns Vanessa that she is in danger. It’s interesting that the Cut Wife asks for the salt in preparing the rabbit and tells Vanessa she must learn to protect herself in the same breath. Anyone who’s seen Hocus Pocus knows that a circle of salt will protect someone from their enemies. The Cut Wife continues to lay in to Vanessa about her mother and is displeased with the danger hovering over them. The Cut Wife felt Vanessa approaching, but so did others. The Cut Wife quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth and declares “by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. Very apt for what happens next.

Later on in the evening, as the Cut Wife and Vanessa share their meal, it’s as if the witch is struck by something. There is a wonderful beat in the music to highlight this effect, like a string on a guitar being plucked suddenly or an invisible knock at the door. The Cut Wife senses something coming. She commands Vanessa to not move from her spot and goes out to meet whatever visitors have gathered. Outside we see three figures have gathered at the Cut Wife’s gate. It’s Evelyn Poole and her coven. Evelyn addresses the Cut Wife as “sister” and asks how the Cut Wife’s back is. Always twisting the knife, that Evelyn Poole. There is no love lost between these two, they speak as bitter enemies. The pair address each other in the Verbis Diablo, which Evelyn is surprised her sister remembers. The Cut Wife is less surprised at Evelyn's youth, remarking on how she gave up her soul for that. It looks like that Lady Bathory treatment we saw Evelyn indulging in earlier wasn’t just for show. I hope we get a scene, should Evelyn be defeated this season, of her rapidly aging to dust.

Evelyn demands that Vanessa be sent out for it is she who their master seeks above all. The Cut Wife stubbornly refuses and reminds her sister that she cannot pass the gate. However, Evelyn tries to put the whammy on the Cut Wife, enticing her with magic to step over the protective boundary. This almost works until Vanessa, who has been watching from the door, bursts out of the cottage and with a word breaks the spell. Her power is obvious here, to both the audience and Evelyn. The coven retreats and in a telling moment, the Cut Wife allows Vanessa to help her up. Clearly something of a bond has formed between she and Vanessa, one we will see strengthen throughout the remainder of the episode.

Vanessa takes the Cut Wife to her bed. As the witch undresses, Vanessa sees the brand on her back, a pentagram. The five points in this symbol have had many meanings, including to represent the five senses. It’s wasn’t until about the Renaissance when the symbol was associated with magic. The downward pointing pentagram was said to be exclusively associated with evil, however the one we see on the Cut Wife’s back is right-side up. As the Cut Wife is settled, she warns her student that they must prepare for battle.

In a field the next day, Evelyn Poole is casually cutting down a herd of cattle with that razor ring of hers, as simply as a child would go through a patch of wildflowers and kick the heads off of dandelions. That evening, as the Cut Wife and Vanessa prepare their dinner, the witch heavily salting it, perhaps for protection, the medium asks for an explanation as to their recent visitors. The Cut Wife names them as “Nightcomers”. She explains that they were her former coven and together were Daywalkers, learning the old ways of healing. That is until the coven and her sister followed another path, the path of the Devil, and cast the Cut Wife out as a traitor for not joining them, branding her. Their talk is interrupted by a knock at the door, but this is no enemy. It’s a local woman in search of the Cut Wife’s “skills’. The woman pays the Cut Wife in trinkets and lays down on a tarp so the process can begin. The Cut Wife is characteristically abrasive, but Vanessa, who insisted on assisting, kneels down and comforts the frightened woman.

The next day, a lord with some rather ill-behaved dogs is entertaining Evelyn. He speaks of trying to get the land the Cut Wife currently resides on, however the deed was given by Cromwell himself. As in Oliver Cromwell, Lord and Protector of the Commonwealth of England, a man who died around 1658. So this land has been in the Cut Wife’s family for generations. The Cut Wife won’t leave this land no matter the price offered. There is a nice creepy moment when Evelyn looks out the window and the hounds, who have been barking their heads off, freeze and look to her. Evelyn is playing mind games again, casually bringing up how weak it makes the lord seem that he doesn’t control this spot of land. They go out riding and discover the lord’s worst fear has come true; many of his herd have dropped dead “mysteriously”.

In the woods, the Cut Wife is schooling Vanessa on the Verbis Diablo, but cautions not to speak it too freely. Those words can become the Devil’s if she gets too comfortable speaking them. The Cut Wife also quizzes Vanessa on various plants they come across in their walk, showing how much the medium has learned in her time with the witch. A carriage passes by and the driver spits in the Cut Wife’s face. She has no love for these people and wonders why they hate what they do not understand. She and Caliban would get along quite well in that respect. Perhaps this is why Vanessa struck up such a rapport with the creature in the cholera colony.

In the cottage, the Cut Wife collapses and Vanessa rushes to her aid. The Cut Wife is dying and she accepts it despite Vanessa’s protests. The Cut Wife has simply lived too long. She also wishes for Vanessa to stay on her land after she dies, but Vanessa can’t do that since she is still focused on saving Mina. The Cut Wife insists that Vanessa can do more good staying here she is and serving as the next cut wife. Later on, as she is walking in the woods, Vanessa is assaulted by the lord, who tries to rape her. She fights back, spitting blood in his face and holding him at knife point, making him scream for his life. Vanessa sounds a lot like her teacher in this scene.

That night, Vanessa is sitting up with the weakening Cut Wife, who explains that Cromwell himself granted the land to her. This makes the Cut Wife a few hundred years old. Longevity without youth is the price she as paid for not turning to the dark side. Vanessa still has not decided if she will stay on the Cut Wife’s land. The Cut Wife takes an opportunity to show Vanessa a large book on her shelf, one must only be opened and used as a last resort as it is the most cursed. The pair listen to a horse stuck in the moor and remark that like them, one wrong step is all it takes to sink deeper and deeper until they are lost. This scene is remarkable in the fact that we now see the Cut Wife and Vanessa as close as mother and daughter, their relationship blossomed from here it started.

Unfortunately, it appears Evelyn has worked her psychological magic over the lord. In a private session between the two of them the witch dominated the lord sexually, planting the seed in his mind to drive the Cut Wife out by preying on his insecurities. So the lord flexes his muscle as primary land owner of the area over the local minister to gain help in driving out the Cut Wife. He has gathered the townsfolk in a tavern to form a mob and get rid the Cut Wife and everyone has now turned against the witch, even the woman we saw earlier going to the Cut Wife for aid. Evelyn cannot help but look pleased with herself.

And so, the mob arrives at the Cut Wife’s cottage. The Cut Wife insists on meeting the mob on her feet where, in the most dramatic and heartbreaking scene of the episode, this old woman we have come to understand is chained up to a tree, covered in pitch, and set on fire. The most striking shot are her eyes brightly peering out from under the tar as she accepts her fate. Vanessa is forced to watch and with much glee the lord brands a cross onto her back. Vanessa is broken and lays in pain until the morning. She then gathers her strength and gets dressed. With her she takes the deck of tarot cards and casts a lingering glance at the forbidden book. That will surely come up again. Then Vanessa says her silent good bye to the cottage. Before she leaves, however, Vanessa slices open her thumb and draws a scorpion on the gate. This was the Cut Wife’s name for Vanessa since she arrived and the medium’s way of leaving her mark on the land the Cut Wife bequeathed to her. I love that in a final gesture of acceptance and sealing their bond the Cut Wife told Vanessa her real name before she died.

And there you have it “The Nightcomers”. What did you think? Leave a comment below.

I’m very surprised we got this episode so soon in the season. I would have felt that “The Nightcomers” would have done better to have aired later in season two since it explains so much about the current mystery and situation. The answers are all there and while it does show how dangerous Evelyn Poole is, I would have liked a bigger built up for this emotional story.

Patti LuPone’s performance as the Cut Wife is by far my favorite in the history of Penny Dreadful. The way we start out loathing this woman, as Vanessa does, and then grow to appreciate and understand her. You feel Vanessa’s loss deeply in those final scenes. This is a character that is nasty, but not for the sake of being so. You end up rooting for her quite early in the episode and I would have loved to have seen more of her in season two of Penny Dreadful.

Tune in next week for “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places”!

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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