The highlight of the first season was a Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) flashback, episode 5's "Closer than Sisters", which provided much needed backstory to the ongoing story around it. The same could be true of this year, as "The Nightcomers" was likewise focused on Vanessa's past, and was quite a wonderful hour of spooky chills and heartbreak. It further enriched Vanessa's enigmatic character, deepened our understanding of her prickly nature and steadfast resolve, but also hinted at Penny Dreadful's long-term plan for her story, and created a fantastic, personal connection to season 2's villain.
One has to wonder if creator John Logan is better at writing hours of television that are set slightly apart from the demands of an ongoing narrative (seeing as his background's in feature-films), or that Logan's Penny Dreadful scripts only truly come to life when focusing on Vanessa—excited by the prospect of seeing muse Green perform and elevate his text. Whatever the reason, it's hard to pick fault with "The Nightcomers", which has certainly rejuvenated my interest in the show more than the previous hours—although, unfortunately, it only strengthened a feeling Penny Dreadful would perhaps work better as a Vanessa-focused supernatural drama, rather than a horror ensemble of literary characters and genre archetypes.
In this hour, Vanessa recounted to Ethan (Josh Hartnett) her past experience with a witch living in the moors of the West Country—the so-called 'Cut-Wife' (Patti Lupone), on account of the fact she helps pregnant villagers abort their unwanted pregnancies. Vanessa required help understanding the strange visions she's had of kidnapped friend Mina (a storyline since resolved), and the Cut-Wife essentially became her mentor in matters of witchcraft, Tarot, and psychic readings. There wasn't much about their relationship that felt wholly fresh, as the show loves to riff on genre clichés and tropes (which is part of the fun), but it was nevertheless a relationship that visible grew and developed into rather exciting and touching ways. The Cut-Wife began to see Vanessa (her "scorpion" as she affectionately labelled her) as a daughter-figure, echoing how Sir Malcolm came to see Vanessa, too. But their bond actually felt much stronger, because they had a shared gift, and the elderly Cut-Wife even bequeathed her centuries-old cottage to Vanessa after her death.
Unexpectedly, despite taking place before the events of season 1, it transpired that the Cut-Wife's evil sister was none other than Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory), who's since stepped forward as a later menace. This gave Poole's position on the show greater authority and context—now she's the enemy of Vanessa's mentor, who manipulated local landowner Sir Geoffrey (Ronan Vibert) into cajoling the villagers into marching on the Cut-Wife's cottage with pitchforks, and setting her ablaze dangling from a nearby tree. Although it's worth remembering that Vanessa was never aware of Evelyn's identity as her mentor's devil-worshipping sibling, and in the present-day doesn't think anything's remiss about Evelyn either—which means the big reveal of their connection will presumably have to come from Evelyn doing a villainous monologue at some point. Can't wait. Genuinely.
Overall, while "The Nightcomers" was another instalment that reheated lots of corny ideas (remote English moor, reclusive witch, vigilante justice), it hurried them along very entertainingly and achieved its aims. The season has a sudden legitimacy regarding its villain and her small coven of witches (who've been chasing Vanessa for years), and I'm anxious for Vanessa to realise the truth and exact vengeance for the Cut-Wife's (real name Joan Clayton—note the initials) tragic murder. Plus, we've pointedly seen the existence of a magic book of dangerous spells, which should only ever be used as a last resort when you believe God Himself has forsaken you, because reading from it will damn you forever... and you just know that tome's going to be cracked open before this season's over.
written by John Logan • directed by Brian Kirk • 17 May 2015 • Showtime