Penny Dreadful has always been between two worlds: fantasy and reality, television and literature, genius and boredom, Vanessa Ives and the Creature. But in its last episode both realities, the malignant witches from fairy tales and the proto-feminist witches from the medieval times, have come together and create a wonderful piece of TV.
In ‘Nightcomers’, the third episode of the second season, we find out a little bit more of Vanessa’s past: the origins of her magical skills. In this case, the story focuses on her struggle to unveil her true nature with the help of a mysterious woman known as the Cutwife. This old woman lives in an isolated house in the middle of a bog and has dedicated her life to soothe the pain of the women around her: abortions, love potions, healing herbs, etc.
Nonetheless, her relation with femininity goes further. As Vanessa will discover, Joan (Cutwife’s real name) had a deep relationship with her sister, the evil witch and main antagonist of this season: Madame Kali. Joan is a Daywalker, a type of witch who only uses her powers with good purposes, and has nothing to do with the Devil as her wicked sister seems to do. Even when we actually see her spells –like when she let Vanessa cross her magical barrier– this is purely a feminist manifesto: with Vanessa’s blood and the taste of her vagina, obvious symbol of femininity, she recognized her as one of her own: a powerful but lost woman seeking for answers. Hence, we have a woman (probably homosexual or bisexual) socially marginalized and demonized, who fights against the power of patriarchy by helping innocent girls, and that will risk everything ir order to protect Vanessa.
As I said in the beginning everything has two faces in this show, and Joan’s reverse is Madame Kali, the soulless witch and ruler of a sadist, unholy coven. She is the mythological version that we are used to see everywhere: the seductive siren, the creature without moral, the one that destroys hierarchies (as we see with her husband), kills poor little babies and has a connection with the Devil. But when we look closer we observe that, in the end, she is just and archetype that men, such as the ones who kill Joan, create to protect themselves against female empowerment.
The success of Penny Dreadful is to combine both characters, make them sisters, and coexist in the enjoyable cruelty of the mythological and gothic side of the tale, while untangling what really was behind all that: suffering, “always for those who do for women.”
The Homecoming Queen