The good news for fans of ‘Penny Dreadful’ is that Showtime is thrilled with the show’s performance and has officially renewed it for a second season. This week’s episode, meanwhile, takes an unexpected detour from the main storylines to fill us in on some backstory that had been a little ambiguous until now.
Earlier this season, I found myself pretty confused by the events of the séance in Episode 2, and had to be corrected by a reader who rewatched the scene with subtitles to make some sense of it. Episode ‘Closer Than Sisters’ finally clears that up (mostly), and spends an entire hour delving into the connection between Vanessa (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm’s daughter Mina.
The episode is framed as a flashback, bookended by scenes of Vanessa writing a letter that she knows Mina will never receive. We jump back to their childhood, where the two girls are the best of friends, and Vanessa is expected to be romantically paired up with Mina’s brother Peter. Malcolm returns from an expedition in Africa to dote on the girls and tell stories of his exploits. Desperate for his father’s approval, the frail Peter dreams of joining him on an adventure. Wandering through the elaborate hedge maze on the Murrays’ estate one night, Vanessa spies on her mother having sex with Sir Malcolm. Knowing that it would ruin the relationship between the two families, Vanessa elects not to tell anyone of what she saw. Also, she’s kind of turned on by it.
Jumping forward to their young adulthood years, Mina is engaged to a captain in the British army who will bring her with him on a posting to India. Peter, meanwhile, is finally getting his wish to go to Africa with his father. By this time, Vanessa has started to hear voices in her head. One of them tells her that Peter will not survive the trip.
The night before Mina’s wedding, Vanessa seduces her friend’s fiancé. Of course, Mina walks in on them having sex, driving the two girls apart forever. (This would be the “transgression” that Vanessa has talked about in previous episodes.) Malcolm refuses to let her see or apologize to his daughter.
Distraught at what she’s done, Vanessa falls ill and acts like she’s possessed. She’s committed to an asylum, where she attacks a doctor and seems to channel a former dead patient of his. He tortures Vanessa with a barbaric water treatment for her alleged “hysteria” and eventually lobotomizes her.
Prior to his trip to Africa, Peter visits the catatonic Vanessa. She becomes lucid enough to tell him, “You’re going to die there.” She’s right. Among the information buried in the earlier episode’s séance scene was the revelation that Peter dies on the expedition and blames his father for abandoning him.
One night, Vanessa is visited by a vision of Sir Malcolm. But it’s not really Malcolm. It may be the Devil, tormenting her. Vanessa’s mother walks into the room to find her naked daughter being fucked by an invisible demon. The mother has a heart attack and drops dead.
After the funeral, Vanessa wanders down a beach, where she encounters Mina, who doesn’t seem so angry at her anymore. Mina tells her that she’s married a nice lawyer named Jonathan Harker, but Vanessa can tell that something is wrong. Mina is a vampire. She begs Vanessa for help and is suddenly yanked away through the air and vanishes. Was she ever really there, or was this just a vision?
Vanessa goes to Sir Malcolm to explain what has happened. He says that he won’t forgive her, but he has use for her talents.
The episode ends with the adult Vanessa completing her letter, and filing it away in a box filled with dozens more just like it.
This episode stands in stark contrast to those that preceded it in many ways. The framing device of Vanessa’s letter is reminiscent of the epistolary style of Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ and other famous works of Victorian literature. The pacing slows down considerably and focuses on only the one story, rather than jumping between several. For the most part, the episode plays as a straightforward melodrama, with only a few intrusions of overheated shock tactics. Vanessa’s treatment at the asylum and later demon-rape are even more disturbing for occurring in the midst of otherwise mundane happenings.
Despite sidetracking us from all of the show’s other storylines for an extended period, I liked the episode. It adds a lot to our understanding of the show’s mythology, and Eva Green’s performance takes her on quite an emotional journey from naïve debutante to harrowed abuse victim to strong-willed survivor.
Lovely as she is, however, Green just does not look 18. I had a hard time buying her as a young girl barely out of school. Fair or not, that aspect of the episode continually strained my disbelief.