What's Worth Watching: A Spellbinding Penny Dreadful

Matt Roush
Jonathan Hession/Showtime

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful, "The Nightcomers," (Sunday, May 17, 10/9c, Showtime)

Even if you don't regularly watch the stylish Gothic monster mash-up that is Showtime's wonderfully strange Penny Dreadful, this week's stand-alone flashback is very much worth a look as it casts a ferocious spell—embodied in an astonishing guest turn by Broadway star Patti LuPone, shed of all glamour as an unsmiling village witch known as "The Cut-Wife" (a reference to her sideline of terminating unwanted pregnancies among the fearful locals). As Vanessa (Eva Green) tells the story of her encounter with this unyieldingly tough taskmistress, we see how Vanessa was taken under the crone's grubby wing, the better to school her in the occult arts and to awaken her to the dangers around her.

The old witch is under no illusion that she is anything but despised by those whom she serves. In an eloquent soliloquy that is awfully relevant to today's world, she bleakly observes: "Old as I am, I know nothing. Why people in this world hate what is not them, why they fear all they don't know, why they hate themselves most of all: For being weak, for being old, for being everything altogether that is not Godlike. Which of us can be that? Monsters all, are we not?" Which is an ongoing theme of this often horrific yet always heartfelt series of lost, tormented souls seeking some sort of connection in an atmosphere of Victorian Grand Guignol.