Ethan decides the need to keep Vanessa safe means he can snoop in her rooms and is a little disturbed that her prayer ritual includes paintings of scorpions done in her own blood (I’m going to have to ask the genre to stop using scorpions as the go-to-creepy creature). That has to be bad for the hardwood floors. He asks her about it and we get some exposition of her back story, to when she went to the moors to find herself and came across her first witch – the Cut-Wife of Ballantrae Moore.
So to a beautiful Scottish summer’s day (yes there are several holidays’ and weekends of bitterness there) and a warded threshold Vanessa can’t pass. But being the stubborn, determined woman she is, she remains, day and night, until she collapses from exhaustion. Then gets up again.
The witch finally comes to see her, greeting her with a grope and smearing blood on her forehead, as one does apparently, then runs through a laundry list of why she thinks Vanessa is visiting. Vanessa claims she’s like no-one else and the witch drives Vanessa to use mystical insight to tell her how she gained a scar on her back – which Vanessa does. It’s all twisty and dark and gloriously gothic and what Penny Dreadful does so well.
Vanessa is there to learn from her and the Cut-Wife earned her name because she performs abortions. The witch speaks about how she’s loathed for what she does – yet they still come to her because they’re desperate and need her. The witch is harsh and demanding and kind of awesome – telling Vanessa all she has for her is knowledge she doesn’t want but Vanessa impresses her with more mystical insight
The witch still tries to discourage her but teaches her – and shows Vanessa the tarot, the same one we see her use in season 1. Again Vanessa shows her power and the Witch lets her stay. The card Vanessa pulled is the Devil
Though the witch, in her harsh awesome way, teachers her the Devil can mean many things – or demands that Vanessa realises her own insight, in between teaching her about herbs and trapping bunnies.
The witch continues to be creepy, awesome and insightful about Vanessa’s past and the danger in her life and how powerful and terrible Vanessa is – and how that’s going to attract others. That night (In between the witch mocking Vanessa’s quest to save Mina) three other witches visit. One of them Evelyn Poole, who calls the Cut-Wife sister and reveals she was the one who branded her. They note that the cut-wife is old, bit Evelyn is not; Evelyn demands Vanessa for her master. Evelyn nearly enchants the cut-wife past her ward stones – but Vanessa breaks the spell.
Vanessa helps the old woman to bed, seeing the pentacle branded on her back. The Cut wife talks of preparing for battle
And Evelyn goes and magically kills a herd of cows while the cut-wife tells Vanessa about her sisters, her former coven who turned to the dark side for all the usual promises.
A young woman comes to her seeking an abortion and Vanessa helps, comforting the girl during the whole dark and grizzly operation.
The Cut-Wife continues to teach Vanessa, including the Devil’s Tongue (only to be used as a last resort) or it will lure her into becoming a Nightcomer – she mixes this with lessons about herbs. The locals spit on The Cut-Wife as they pass – again The Cut-Wife notes that they send their girls to her but they then despise her for it – “so it is always for those who do for women.” She reflects on the many wrongnesses of people, hating themselves for not being perfect – then chiding Vanessa for feeling she’s a monster because that will make it so.
The Cut Wife also falls ill, something she puts down to old age.
Evelyn seems to be in a relationship with the local peerage, sir Geoffrey. She is trying to get him to evict Jon but she won’t be moved and legally he can’t force her. She taunts him over that one patch of land he doesn’t have. He mentions his blighted cattle in passing – but when they go riding they find an entire herd dead.
They also entertain themselves with kinky sex games, Evelyn dominating him while also pushing him against The Cut-Wife. The Cut-Wife invites Vanessa to stay after she’s gone – because the poor, forgotten girls of Ballantrae moor need her. Many girls, rather than the 1 girl, Mina.
He goes to the local priest to stir up hatred against The Cut-Wife, relying on hatred, superstition, religion and his power and position. While riding, Geoffrey also finds Vanessa, threatens her and sexually assaults her – only to have her bite him hard enough to draw blood and hold him at knife point. She makes him scream and spits on him.
On her sick bed, The Cut-Wife shares more of her history (revealing she has lived far beyond her mortal span). She also shows Vanessa her darkest and most terrible spell book for Vanessa to use only if she has no other choice because it will inevitably change her (with an extra metaphor about slipping into the mire). The Cut-Wife criticises Vanessa harshly for choosing to save Mina – calling her selfish, choosing peace of mind and heroism, of saving her friend and assuaging her guilt over helping the many
In the in the priest and Geoffrey rally the people against the Cut-wife – and the first to yell “burn the witch” is the girl who The Cut-Wife helped with an abortion.
The villagers arrive at The Cut Wife’s house, with torches. She goes to her death, having an awesome goodbye scene with Vanessa and finally telling her name – Joan Clayton
Joan goes out to the gathered crowd. They beat Joan and burn her to death – the girl she helped being the one holding the torch. It’s tragic, painful and amazingly powerful. They then brand Vanessa with a cross – she refuses to scream for Geoffrey.
Joan leaves everything to Vanessa, including her right to the land in perpetuity. Vanessa takes a few things (including the tarot) and leaves, but not before first drawing a scorpion on the ward stone in her blood.
I liked Evelyn’s insistence that Sir Geoffrey not be ashamed by his desires – but it’s all rather undermined by her being the villainous dominatrix and him being the obviously manipulated submissive man. It follows the trope too easily to challenge it
There is always so much in and suffering in Vanessa’s story – but that, ultimately, is the core of her character’s conflict. Turning evil is not just about the temptations that it offers – but because being good is HARD. It’s hard and it’s painful and it’s thankless. Just like The Cut-Wife on the moor, helping those who desperately need it (especially in a society so uncaring of women and the poor) and receiving nothing but hatred in return – even from those she herself has helped (which is not unknown among the anti-choice movement to this day). She is relied on, she is needed she even has compassion for them and desperately tries to get Vanessa to fill her shoes – and she gets only pain, hatred and death in return.
Which is Vanessa’s story as well, really made plain here. She has power, she has the devil’s tongue, she has The Cut-Wife’s cursed book – and she is faced by beings that torture her, torment her and drive her to the very edge of breaking point. She could embrace the dark side at any time and not just gain power but make the suffering that has permeated her character for so long. Being good is hard and harsh – just like The Cut-Wife and it’s why Vanessa is always one step into the darkness. This is an absolutely awesome development of her character, her history and who and what she is. Every time Vanessa suffers it isn’t just more torture porn inflicted on a character who is abused for constant titilation – it’s a character who is making a conscious choice not to fall to the darkness.
The relationship between Joan and Vanessa was amazing. Every single element of it, the love, the harshness, the power – every second was awesome. All sold by some truly amazing acting and a brilliant setting.