Penny Dreadful Goes To The Asylum In 'A Blade of Grass' 

A Vanessa-centric episode reveals her past with Caliban and Dracula.


Penny Dreadful is gorgeously gothic, bloody, strange, literary, and occasionally messy. Each week, we break it down. Let’s dive into Season 3, episode 4: “A Blade of Grass.”

“I am no one. I have no name.”

Vanessa-centric episodes are some of Penny Dreadful’s strengths and sins all at once. While they often carry gorgeous and intimate character moments — and “A Blade of Grass” is no exception — they can also be indulgent. Eva Green is a magnificent actress who is exceptionally good at writhing and speaking in tongues, but in the past, the show has had a tendency to lean on this gift too often.

A few minutes of it is impactful; a drawn-out sequence writhing and nonsense-speech feels like Penny Dreadful’s version of filler. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t contribute anything to our understanding of her character or move the plot in any way. There’s only so many times we can watch Vanessa succumb to the throes of madness before the novelty wears away.

Luckily, “A Blade of Grass” is successful on the madness front, waiting until a full 45 minutes into the episode for quality Vanessa-speaks-in-tongues time. And even then, it’s mercifully short. Eve Green’s performance is as knockout as ever, alternately pitiful, frightening, and tragic — her attempt to seduce the orderly is a particular standout (“What happened before is all that will ever happen to me. Every dance was my last dance, every kiss was my last kiss…I’ve only been with one man…”). It’s the setting that is the largest drawback, because although the asylum is a gothic delight as usual, we start to feel as claustrophobic as Vanessa must feel, stuck in a padded white room the entire hour. This is no doubt intentional, and the camera-work keeps it feeling as fresh as possible — but it also doesn’t make for the most dynamic viewing experience.

Among the Vanessa-centric episodes, then, Season 2’s “The Nightcomers” remains superior for that reason and for the fact that it reveals new information in a way that “A Blade of Grass” doesn’t — which we’ll get to shortly.

“This is who you are. Please don’t forget that”

Because we don’t know what the orderly’s human name was, for the purpose of clarity, we’ll call him Human Caliban. Human Caliban’s interactions with Vanessa were an all time-high for Penny Dreadful. This episode stands as a shining moment for Rory Kinner’s performance. Human Caliban could have come across as unrealistically saintly in his tender, clumsy care of her — his brushing of her hair; his scolding her to “not think so low of her sex” — but he remains grounded and tragically human in his reluctant attraction to her, and his admission that he has no taste for poems.

The bond they forge is a strange one, as are all relationships in Penny Dreadful, but it never feels anything but natural and human — an unlikely blade of grass sprouting in a stark white room. Though he’s different as a human, he’s also entirely recognizable. When Human Caliban tells Vanessa he’s leaving and speaks of the frozen North, saying, “One person does live there, where it’s cold and lonely all the time,” we see that even as a man with no taste for poetry, he’s always had a Byronic spirit.

“Oh my dear, we have so much to catch up on”

The Dracula element is the weakest part of “A Blade of Grass” — not because Dracula isn’t an intriguing foe, but because we don’t learn any new information. I can’t have been the only one who thought the episode would end with the revelation that Vanessa killed Caliban-the-human and is therefore indirectly responsible for his current fate. Everything in “A Blade of Grass” — her attack, their doomed bond, her volatile shifts from despair to hope, her end words to Dr. Seward that she isn’t done with the asylum yet — seems to be building to that.

But instead, we get the revelation that Vanessa now knows Dracula’s name. It’s not new information to us as viewers, and it’s not even particularly new to Vanessa, who has always known there are two demons after her. “A Blade of Grass” could have ended with a bang, but instead, this ensured that it ended with a whimper.

Stray Trinkets

  • Guys, we’re four episodes in to the season and we’ve only seen Ferdinand Lyle in one scene. This will not stand.
  • Each time Vanessa asks if it’s day or night and Human Caliban replies, “What do you want it to be?”, softly conceding to her choice, it’s a brilliant shorthand to conveying both of their emotional states.
  • Vanessa: “I didn’t counterfeit normality well enough.”
  • Human Caliban: “The last person you see before the surgery will be someone who loves you.”
  • On the one hand, Penny Dreadful still hasn’t quite addressed the question of why the devil wants Vanessa. It shows awareness by having Human Caliban outright say, “Why would the devil be interested in you?” but the devil’s response (“because I love you”) doesn’t quite give us a satisfying answer. On the other hand, do we really need a satisfying answer? This has always been a show where the why is secondary, and the web it weaves is so fun, the series mostly gets away with it.
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