Well, wasn’t that a strange little play within a show? “A Blade of Grass” is a fascinating pas de deux curio that works not just as its own story, but also as a surprisingly ripe part of Vanessa’s origin. Shame on me for not acknowledging that last week’s cliffhanger, in which a pre-Creature creature stepped into Vanessa’s padded room at the Banning Clinic, could portend such drama. It’s like I had a hole in my head. Let’s get to recapping!
Upon informing Seward that she was in that padded room for five months, Vanessa is transported by the (good?) doctor’s hypnosis back to her darkest period. “A Blade of Grass” does finely calibrated work leading us into that nearly hourlong flashback, using Seward’s new role as a recurring character to reintroduce the main details surrounding Vanessa’s history. “I had betrayed my friend Mina. I was ill,” Vanessa explains when asked how she wound up committed. “No, I was evil. Satan had touched me.”
I don’t remember every callback in “A Blade of Grass” with complete precision, but from here on out, we get a backstory that fills in the missing parts from season one’s “Closer Than Sisters,” which itself explained the connections between the Ives and the Murrays (i.e., Mina and her dad Malcolm). “Closer Than Sisters” revealed why Vanessa seduced Mina’s fiancé the night before their wedding: When she caught Malcolm in the throes of passion in that hedge maze with her own mother, it caused her to unleash her dark side. (Oh my God, this is like Inception levels of stories-within-stories.) The fallout from that catastrophic incident propelled Vanessa into the asylum, where she was lobotomized — or at least had a hole drilled into her head.
I’ll also admit that I’m still puzzled as to how the Creature/Caliban figures into this chronology. He was supposedly the Creature before everything went down in “Closer Than Sisters,” right? Apologies if I’m missing something; key plot details may have seeped out of that aforementioned hole in my head.
Nevertheless, that chunk of maddening plotline is nearly beside the point. I would’ve still loved “A Blade of Grass” if I knew nothing about any of these characters, even if were the first episode of Penny Dreadful I’d ever seen. It’s like a mashup of Blackbird, Oleanna, and Death and the Maiden, a cat-and-mouse game between two souls who are supremely decent at their core, despite basing their actions on less-than-pure intentions. Vanessa knows she’s not crazy, yet can’t bring herself to show her sanity. Her orderly crosses numerous lines (or at least breaks numerous clinic regulations) in what he claims is an attempt to help her, yet he does so to assuage his own guilt over her circumstance. (“I’m not to engage in conversation, Miss. […] They didn’t torture you. They’re making you well.”)
Their tête-à-têtes over nourishment (“Bring me the food”), blankets, whether it’s day or night (“Which would you prefer it to be?”), and the elemental basics of a civilized life drew me in more than any story line has this season. And that was another thing about this starling standalone episode: My only complaint about the season so far is that it hasn’t found a balance with its characters cast hither and yon, chasing one another, if not their own uncertain destinies. Of course, this episode would appear to be the most one-sided … but were you not enthralled? I didn’t miss any other story line while the whole thing happened.
There were two other characters present in “A Blade of Grass,” albeit in a sort of netherworldly absentia: God, who has remained Vanessa’s source of strength even after she swore he would have abandoned her. (“God has forgotten me. He can’t find me here.”) And Dracula (mwah ha ha!). Our cliffhanger is Vanessa’s newly resolute declaration to Seward, “You once said we named things so they do not frighten us. I am not frightened his name is Dracula.”
Oh. My. GOD. I sure as hell won’t give short shrift to this ending — it sent chills down my spine. Your expectations for next week? Other callbacks or imagery I missed? Please fill me in while I recuperate. I’ll be over at Seward’s burning myself with a cigarette and nursing a stiff drink.