Penny Dreadful has burned through half its first season, weaving a gothic horror tale that draws upon classic characters from that genre, all the whie withholding much pertinent information from its audience. Tonight’s episode, “Closer Than Sisters,” finds Penny Dreadful in a generous mood, delivering us much needed background in the series’ most magnetic and enigmatic character, Vanessa Ives.
“Closer Than Sisters” delves deep into Miss Ives’ past, focusing on her connections to the Murray family, as told through those mysterious letters we’ve seen her scribbling away on. As neighbors, Vanessa grew up alongside the Murray children, Mina and her brother. Familes this close cannot be without their secrets, something Vanessa discovers one night touring through a hedge maze (Shining hoage, much?) and stumbling upon her mother’s affair with Sir Malcolm, fresh back from another African safari. It’s a turning point for young Vanessa, who is more intrigued than shocked. Although devoutly Catholic and praying for her mother, Vanessa also makes mention of feeling haunted by something just out of her sight.
As the kids grow older, Vanessa watches Mina step out of her shell to find a suitor and fiance. It awakens a jealously in Vanessa, who it seems has been relegated to marrying the Murray son who doesn’t really give her much attention. He’s too busy dreaming of traveling to Africa with his father. Of course, we know how that turns out from the seance in the second episode. Vanessa’s jealousy soon becomes so overpowering that she loudly seduces Mina’s fiance, drawing him into a near blind lust that he doesn’t notice when Mina walks into the room. Vanessa notices, but does nothing to stop her tryst.
With the pending marriage destroyed, Vanessa cones to her senses, desiring to mend her broken relationship with Mina, only to be barred from their house by Malcolm. She finally collapses in the surrounding forest, succumbing to the dark forces that have been shadowing her since she was a girl. While we don’t ever get much information, at least not yet, about the identity of this demon, there can be no mistaking Vanessa is possessed. She doesn’t eat, her eyes turn white, and she flips from catatonia to spewing information she cannot possibly know. Her mother exhausts all possible medical avenues before turning to extreme psychological helpthat culminates in a lobotomy.
We later discover Vanessa’s struggles to be her fighting the demon inside her. In the hour’s darkest scene, she confronts it as it takes the form of Sir Malcolm with creepy black eyes. He tells her she’s always been aware that she could drive the spirit away only she didn’t really want to. He promises to show her sights beyond our world if she only allows him in, and so she does in a sexual display that literally frightens her mother to death.
In the time following, Vanessa slowly regains her wits. As she walks along the beach, she comes face to face with Mina, who appears out of nowhere. Mina offers forgiveness and tells her of her new fiance, Jonathan Harker, but then Mina goes into vampire mode, raving about her master. Vanessa watches in horror as Mina is pulled into the sky, knowing her friend is lost to her. Vanessa’s guilt won’t allow her to let go, so she winds up on Sir Malcom’s doorstep offering her help to find his lost daughter. It’s in the final minutes where we learn Vanessa’s goal is at odds with Malcolm’s goal, and I wonder just who will prevail.
“Closer Than Sisters” fills in much of the important narrative gaps I’ve wanted since the show began. Knowing her past and the debt she owes Mina goes far in explaning both Vanessa’s stakes in finding Mina and the ferocious tension between her and Malcolm. There’s still plenty of questions, which is only a tad bit frustrating at this point. So, who is this spirit,if not Amunet, and what exactly is it doing to Vanessa? Where did it come from? Odds are these are the questions that will go unanswered. Possiblly we are to take it that the evil found it’s way to Vanessa out of the sins of her mother and Sir Malcolm. Still, “Closer Than Sisters” brings much of the chills and creepiness back to Penny Dreadful after the more soapy overtones of the recent episodes.
Eva Green is really given a chance to flex her acting chops this hour, and she shines in every minute. She captures Vanessa’s decent into darkness spectacularly. Her performance gives me reason to celebrate the renewal of Penny Dreaful for a second season, if only because it puts more Eva Green in front of my eyeballs.
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