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Penny Dreadful - Closer Than Sisters - Review

What I am finding, as the Penny Dreadful episodes continue to air, that this show is more of a character study than anything. Vanessa Ives’s back story, a thing I have been craving since that infamous séance scene, raised more questions than provided answers for me. With only three episodes left in this first season, I do hope that any resolution isn’t crammed into the final episodes and that the announcement of a second season of this show allows for the mystery behind each character to unfold as patiently as we’ve seen so far. That being said, Vanessa’s back story left me unsatisfied somehow. Eva Green’s performance was quite remarkable, the highlight of “Closer Than Sisters”, but I feel as if knowing where she comes from, why she feels so indebted to Sir Malcolm and Mina, has done little to supplement the present day events of Penny Dreadful. It’s true that I am glad her past received as much attention as Caliban’s. Maybe that’s for the best that I still have questions, though knowing so much of the how of her situation and so little of the why leaves me dissatisfied.

The episode opens with a compilation of scenes involving Vanessa, refreshing the audience’s memory on the strange goings-on surrounding the spiritualist. This sets up an episode so heavy in back story up perfectly, as virtually no action takes place in the present day. We find Vanessa alone, writing a letter to Mina. She alludes to an illness and states that she has been writing these letters more and more frequently, hoping that one day Mina will be able to answer and the wrongs between the two women will be righted, something Vanessa knows can never come to pass. Given Mina’s current situation, these letters seem to be more of a comfort to Vanessa, a catharsis with which she works through her guilt towards her transgressions. And as we will see, Vanessa as a lot to be guilty about.
The flashback begins, narrated by Vanessa, during happier times. She and Mina were childhood friends, their families’ estates neighboring each other. Young Vanessa is portrayed as being more daring than her friend Mina, willing to explore the darkest depths of the ocean while Mina is more wary and obedient, fearing at what her father may think. Vanessa was also very close to Mina’s brother Peter, indeed the two are practically betrothed. The children engage in an odd hobby, taxidermy, which at the time was considered quite the rage. It was common for citizens of the Victorian era to create their own collects, exotic birds being a favorite. The art of taxidermy was still being fleshed out, pardon the pun, since early on it was difficult for taxidermist to recreate specimens that looked life-like. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a game changer, showcasing preserved wildlife in natural poses found in the wild and displaying a realism not yet seen in the field. There’s a Norman Bates joke in here somewhere.

Peter is struggling with this, complaining that the monkey he is working on seems to lifeless. Young Vanessa explains to him that one must name a thing for it to be real, and goes on to show off her stuffed hawk, named Ariel after a character Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the play, Ariel is a spirit bound to serve Prospero, and considering Vanessa’s fate, this name is quite apt. I really should brush up on The Tempest since we now have two back story episodes referencing the work and I feel that to be more than a coincidence. I also find it fascinating that Vanessa, at such a young age was already occupying herself with a resurrection of sorts, that she understood a form of art that blurred the lines between life and death so well.

The children’s creative endeavors are interrupted by the return of a sunburnt and travel weary Sir Malcolm, coming home from another excursion to Africa. He greets Peter warmly enough, bringing his son the pelt of a serval, a nocturnal wildcat found mostly in the southern regions of Africa. An interesting side note, the first real life western explorers to discover Lake Taganyika, the area Sir Malcolm retrieved the serval pelt, were in the area searching for the source of the Nile River (whose source is actually Lake Victoria I believe), one of the goals Sir Malcolm has said to hope to achieve with his many trips to Africa. It is well know that the Nile plays a huge role in Egyptian culture, both ancient and contemporary, as it is seen as the source of life. Considering the forces that Sir Malcolm is dealing with in his search for Mina, it’s apt that he may have been part of this first excursion to find the source of “life” itself. Despite Peter’s present, Sir Malcolm’s real affection is for the girls, scooping them up in his arms and appearing to be genuinely excited to see them both. This can’t be said for Mrs. Murray who receives a lukewarm greeting from her husband. Knowing what we do from the bombastic séance scene in episode two, I found myself giving this greeting and indeed all of Sir Malcolm and Mina’s encounters the side eye.

The Ives and Murray families unite for a welcome back dinner later that evening, with Sir Malcolm telling tales of his encounters in the jungle, of natives shouting “inyama” which is Zulu for “meat”, or in this case, “flesh”. Sir Malcolm makes it point to emphasis in his story that to the cannibals, he and his guests were something consumable. This grisly dinner talk is juxtaposed with the Ives crossing themselves before they partake of their own meal. Vanessa mentions in her voiceover that to Mina, the Catholic faith was a mystery, which is common as most denizens of England at the time were Church of England, a branch of faith brought about by Henry the VIII that relies heavily on the teachings emphasized in the Protestant Reformation. However, we shall leave Martin Luther and his theses for another day. I only mention this schism between Mina and Vanessa’s faiths to emphasize the fact that while they were indeed as close as sisters, there was still an inherent gulf between the two girls, a gulf that would only widen as the dramatic events of Vanessa Ives’s past played out.

Later that night, Vanessa is found wandering about a hedge maze on the grounds. From what I’ve seen in movies, no good can come of hedge mazes. She hears noises and goes to investigate, thinking she would find Mina and Peter, but honestly how Vanessa thought that considering the moans and grunts we are hearing is beyond me. What she stumbles upon is Sir Malcolm and Mama Ives in flagrante delicto, getting it on amongst the hedges. And young Vanessa, despite herself, likes what she sees. I honestly thought that we the audience were going to see the startling incestuous act described by the demons possessing Vanessa in episode two and in fact I’m a bit confused (and thankful) since we actually see no evidence of Sir Malcolm taking advantage of Mina in this episode. I re-watched the séance scene, thinking perhaps I had misinterpreted it, which maybe the case as while the demon exclaims that “Mina is waiting” the demon never says it’s Mina that Sir Malcolm was having sex with when Vanessa caught him, only “her”. So perhaps we all got it wrong or this demonic entity was just messing with Sir Malcolm. Either way, stumbling upon Sir Malcolm and her mother in such a compromising position had an effect on young Vanessa, this sin she had witnessed opening the door to her own soul a few inches, allowing whatever eldritch being to sneak its tendrils in and take hold. Vanessa, from that day on, began to indulge in small acts of “wickedness” as she put it, but clearly the marks she was putting on her own soul were building up to something more.

Years later, an older Mina is seen garnering the attentions of a young officer. They are soon to be engaged to be married, though it is a forgone conclusion that Mina’s relationship with this man will not end well as Captain Branson is no Jonathan Harker. Vanessa envied Mina and that fact that this young man would whisk her away to India or some far off land while Vanessa was stuck with Patch Beard Peter. Vanessa claims to be jealous that Mina, always the careful one, would go off and have such great adventures before her. Adventures no doubt of the carnal sense as well, for on the day before Mina’s wedding, Vanessa puts the moves on Peter, who flees in terror at her aggressive advances. Vanessa prays for strength, only she doesn’t receive a divine answer to her troubles. No, it is another more sinister entity that comes to Vanessa’s aid. This demon used Vanessa’s own internal hungers and jealousy at the fact that it is she who should be having this experience before Mina to finally tighten its grip on her. Late on the night before Mina’s wedding, Vanessa seduces Captain Branson in the solarium amongst all the taxidermy animals. They are found by Mina, and Vanessa does not break eye contact with her best friend while making love to the captain. It seems to me that one could make an argument for the fact that Vanessa didn’t only want the adventure Mina was to have in her married life, but the sole focus of her friend’s attention as well. Vanessa’s betrayal ended Mina and the captain’s engagement, leaving Mina to remain Vanessa’s sole companion. However, the nasty side effect of this act is that it destroyed the relationship between the two families, cutting Vanessa and Mina off forever.

Shortly after this scandal with the Murray’s, Vanessa falls deathly ill. She is seen having many epileptic fits and is given to long stretched of catatonic behavior as well. One cannot help but be reminded of Regan in the movie The Exorcist as Vanessa thrashes about, foaming at the mouth and scratching her own face. Vanessa’s heath is in such decline that her mother takes her to see a specialist in London. Vanessa knows the score and quickly identifies the “women’s clinic” her mother is raving about as an asylum. Asylums are a standard in realm of horror, both due to stories of historical abysmal conditions, as well as medical practices we now perceive to be barbaric. Asylums were places where the Victorian elite could send their embarrassingly wayward youths so as not to be burdened with them anymore.

Vanessa meets with the specialist in London, who despite Mama Ives’s insistence that her daughter is being “tormented”, diagnoses Vanessa with a form of hysteria. We the audience know better. The doctor prescribes a treatment of hydrotherapy, a popular practice at the time said to change and ultimately improve the circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids resulting in restored health. I’m surprised that Penny Dreadful didn’t showcase the other route for curing female hysteria. When surgical options are brought up, Vanessa breaks her silence. The doctor immediately shoos the parents out of the room, wishing to get a better read on his patient. Vanessa quickly begins creeping the doctor out, speaking with enthusiasm about watching slaves ships sink with all hands on deck, chains souls writhing in torment. What sets the doctor on high alert is Vanessa’s use of his middle name, something she has no way of knowing. As the doctor not-so-subtly presses a panic button on his desk, he insists that Vanessa sit down, to which the spiritualist replies “Who’s Vanessa?” and tries to bite his face off. It is at this moment that we clearly see Vanessa has not been in control of her body or actions for a long time.

The audience is treated to scenes of Vanessa’s therapy at the asylum, and while they seems barbaric, some of these practices are still used today. Obviously there is the cold-water immersion hydrotherapy mentioned before, as well as a method known as the Scotch Hose, where high pressure jets of water are used stimulate circulation as well. You can actually still get a Scotch Hose hydrotherapy treatment to this day, though I’m sure it’s dispensed much more comfortably than what we see Vanessa Ives go through.
Finally, we see the surgical option mentioned as Vanessa is strapped to a table, her head shaved and a hole bore into her skull. This is known a trepanning, a practice older than civilization. Holes are punched into the skull, or in some cases whole sections of skull are removed to relieve pressure to the brain. This is not to be confused with a lobotomy, which is the destruction of brain tissues through a small hole in the skull or eye socket. While I can’t say for sure that a lobotomy didn’t take place, I feel confident that the doctor didn’t scramble up any brain matter in his procedure. Also, there was a belief that this direct conduit to the mind allowed for better communication with the spirit world, which may be why the spirit trying to dig its clutches deeper into Vanessa perked up when it heard the word surgery.

Jump to a later date, where Vanessa has been returned to her parent’s care. Peter, bearing a much fuller beard, comes to call, as he is about to set off for Africa with his father. He wishes to see Vanessa one last time and is taken to her room, where she spends most of her hours silent, staring off into space. As Peter says his good-byes, Vanessa manages to whisper out that Africa with be the death of her childhood friend. This shakes Peter to the core and makes no mention of it to Vanessa’s mother as he leaves the house.

While Mama Ives sits melancholy downstairs, Vanessa it seems is receiving another visitor. She sees the reflection of Sir Malcolm in her mirror but knows that the man is not in the room with her. It’s something else wearing his skin. The shade of Sir Malcolm calls back to what Vanessa said as a girl, that you have to name a thing in order to bring it to life, and while Vanessa accuses her visitor of being the devil there is a brilliant subtle visual here. Watch Sir Malcolm’s eyes when he refers to himself as being the spiritualist’s “old friend”, they are an inky black, sclera and all. In a moment the effect is gone and yet every time I watch that part, and I had to rewind to be sure at what I was seeing, it gives me the chills. Such a small detail that speaks volumes towards the entity now in the room. It’s only a few seconds and yet it’s my favorite part of the episode, so more of that please. Devil Malcolm refers to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”, saying it always struck a chord with him, reminding Vanessa that Keats was dying when he wrote it. This poem is an exploration of human mortality, the speaker feeling numb and longing to leave this world and join the nightingale, not unlike how Vanessa must be feeling after all she has been through.

Devil Malcolm goes on to tell Vanessa that all that has happened is her doing, that she always had a choice whether or not to embrace this darkness. He dangles the temptation of power and sigh beyond this world in front of the spiritualist, and when she claims to not want any part of it, he knows that the desire is still in her heart, the adventure and thrill she found as a child while daring to swim out to the endless depths of the ocean. Devil Malcolm seduces Vanessa with this offer, quote lines of Keats all the while. Mama Ives is alerted to something being amiss by odd banging and grunts coming from Vanessa room. And what she finds literally shocks her to death, causing her to drop lifelessly where she stands. It is Vanessa, stark naked, seeming to be engaged in a sexual act with an invisible partner, her eyes a milky white. In some witch trial, those accused of witchcraft were said to have had sex with the Devil to receive their powers. This is more than likely the case for Vanessa Ives and whoo boy is it graphic.

Much later, as Vanessa’s hair as grown back to the length we usually see it, the spiritualist is seen walking on the beach she played on as a child. She is approached by none other than Mina, dressed all in white, a stark contrast to Vanessa clad all in black. Now more than ever it is obvious that these two women are two sides of the same coin, lightness and darkness personified, one woman embracing the forces beyond her comprehension, barely in control while the other is ensnared by them, complete under another’s whim. For we see that Mina is not herself. She knows of Vanessa and Peter’s encounter in the maze, her eyes changing to a sinister red hue as she proclaims that her master has taught her much. Quickly, Mina regains control long enough to beg her former friend to save her and is whisked away in the blink of an eye. Cut to Sir Malcolm’s London residence, where Vanessa appears on the explorer’s door step claiming Mina needs their help. Sir Malcolm still holds his grudge against Vanessa, willing to only entertain the spiritualist for his daughter’s sake. Vanessa throws the explorers claims at seeing blood and hardship back in his face, alluding to her own difficult past and Sir Malcolm’s sins. The two vow that they will follow death to Mina and when they find her they will be done, never to darken each other’s doorways again. Considering their history and animosity, the two do seem to get on rather well in their present day scenes.

The episode ends with Vanessa completing her latest letter, adding it to a box filled with hundreds of the same. Who knows if they all contain the same message or different tellings of their shared history. Vanessa ends the latest letter with a post script, saying that while Sir Malcolm loves his daughter enough to save her, Vanessa loves her enough to let her die.

So, what did you think of Vanessa Ives’s back story, be sure to let us know in the comments!

Eva Green gave an amazing performance in this episode, there is no doubt about that. She carries the entire 50 minutes and expertly leads us through Vanessa’s fall from grace, torment, and rebirth. Her back story I think may have felt lacking to me due to the hype we all put upon it. This was the story we’ve been waiting for, we the audience have projected our own expectations and theories upon it. I just feel that things that didn’t need as much explaining received more screen time than those that did. I wish more time had been spent on Vanessa’s illness and less on her relationship with Peter.
Oddly, I thought the version of Peter that would go off to Africa would be a young boy, yet we see Peter about to leave as a grown man. This inconsistency bothers me. Could it be that his weak nature made appear child-like in Sir Malcolm’s eyes, that the demon at the séance purposefully involved this to further taunt the explorer on the time he wasted in Peter’s youth, the time never spent paying much attention to the boy? Or that in his final hours Peter did cling to his father as a dying child would, scared and in need due to his weak nature? And I see only a slight resemblance between Peter’s demeanor and that of Doctor Frankenstein. True they are both men of a more delicate nature, not explorers but thinkers. However, Frankenstein seems more tenacious and driven that the Peter we seen in these flashbacks. Perhaps Sir Malcolm sees in Frankenstein an idealized version of Peter.

Mirrors play an important role in this episode. Obviously, we use them to reflect, pun intended, upon ourselves, which is what Vanessa does with her letters. Mirrors have also been thought to be portals for demons and spirits to enter rooms, like with Bloody Mary or the Candyman. It’s no coincidence that mirrors are always present when Vanessa is visited by her demon. Some superstitions state that a mirror in the room of a dying person will trap their spirit. This feeds into the mirrors behind the eyes of Vanessa’s taxidermy hawk that make it seem life-like. If this sounds familiar, Francis Dolarhyde aka the Tooth Fairy from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon replaced the eyes of his victims with shards of mirror so it looks as if they were alive and watching his evil deeds. When the demon-possessed Vanessa says she wants to put mirrors behind the eyes of the world, this could mean that the demon wanted to taint the world to such a degree that it could pass freely, that the world would become a hospitable place for evil to inhabit. Surely a nod to the impending apocalypse involving the ancient Egyptian deities, where darkness will engulf the world.

The pacing again feels lopsided. It seems that in Penny Dreadful episodes there is a lot of inaction during the first half of the episodes, with a large amount of establishing occurring to bring the viewer to the newest conflict, which usually plays out quickly in the second half. I find myself looking forward to the second half of each episode more and more. The promises made during the first two episodes of Penny Dreadful seem to me to have so far gone unfulfilled. While it is enjoyable to have these interesting, conflicted characters fleshed out, the plot of the show seems to be expanding along so many different tangents, like spirals on a spider’s web, it’s easy to get caught up in the web and forget the tighter story telling that was present in the pilot.

Next week’s episode is entitled “What Death Can Join Together”. I’m interested to see with so few episodes left where the present day story will turn next. I hope you can join us next week!

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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