On the surface, “Closer Than Sisters” is another frustrating episode of Penny Dreadful in terms of jump-starting the narrative momentum that started to stall a couple of episodes ago. It’s an episode-long flashback, so by its very design, it does little to advance the various storylines. Anyone who tunes in hoping to see the aftermath of Chandler’s absinthe-fueled romp with Dorian Gray is in for disappointment. In terms of fleshing out one of the show’s most prominent yet enigmatic characters, however, the episode is generally a success.
It helps that said character is played by Eva Green, who gets to cut loose once again. Vanessa’s backstory emerges as she writes a letter that will never be mailed to Mina, and a number of questions raised by the seance in the second episode are answered. Vanessa grew up next door to Mina, and their families were extremely close. Vanessa discovers just how close when she happens upon Sir Malcolm and her mother getting it on in the hedge maze. (That clears up one bit of confusion from the seance. Not that having an affair with the next door neighbor is admirable, but it’s definitely a relief that Malcolm wasn’t having incestuous relations with his daughter.)
It should be a traumatic incident for a child, and in a way, it is. But in another way, Vanessa tells us, “I enjoyed it.” And in that wicked moment her demon slips in… or perhaps was there all along. Not everything is cleared up, but the nature of Vanessa’s betrayal comes into focus. She first tries to recreate the moment in the maze with Peter, but it’s “the season of Peter’s inadequate beard” and other inadequacies as well. Peter is a disappointment to pretty much everyone; he’s not the fearless adventurer his father would have wanted as a son and partner in exploration (as we already know, Vanessa fills that role better than Peter ever could), and he chickens out on hedge maze sexytime with Vanessa.
So Vanessa (or the demon within, if they are even separable) sets her sights on Mina’s fiancé Captain Branson and his luxurious mustaches. (In the world of Penny Dreadful, a man’s potency is directly proportional to his facial hair.) The form her betrayal takes isn’t especially unexpected, but it does explain why both Sir Malcolm and Vanessa feel responsible for what has happened to Mina. It’s a direct chain of events: Sir Malcolm’s tryst in the maze leading to Vanessa seducing Captain Branson in the solarium (before the watchful, mirrored eyes of Ariel, the stuffed bird named after a Shakespeare character as is the custom on this show), resulting in Mina marrying Jonathan Harker and eventually falling under the spell of her Master.
After her romp with Branson, Vanessa falls victim to a mysterious illness that is first diagnosed as epilepsy but which we recognize as demonic possession. What follows is everyone’s favorite segment: Wonders of 19th-Century Mental Health Care! Vanessa is bathed in icy water and drenched with a high-powered hose and finally has a hole drilled into her head, which is only the second worst thing I’ve seen happen to a human head on television in the past week. This extreme treatment works, in that Vanessa is able to function in society again, but it’s not that easy to get rid of a demon.
While the Frankenstein-centric episode a couple of weeks didn’t really work for me, “Closer Than Sisters” was strong enough that I didn’t miss the absent characters. It provided some much-needed emotional grounding to the search for Mina, which has been fairly perfunctory up to this point. Eva Green once again brought feral energy to her freak-out scenes (the shot of her writhing naked on the bed will stay with me a while), but also excelled in quieter moments like her reunion with Mina on the beach. Olivia Llewellyn finally got to do more than suddenly appear out of nowhere, and Dalton did some of his best work of the series to date, both as Sir Malcolm (I particularly enjoyed the relish with which he told the story of his encounter with the cannibals) and the Sir Malcolm-shaped demon who visits Vanessa. With only three episodes remaining in the season, however, now would be a really good time for Penny Dreadful to stop look back and start moving forward.
- The hedge maze recalls The Shining, obviously, but I also detected a hint of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in Vanessa’s bottomless trunk of letters. If she’s just getting around to telling Mina this story now, what has she been writing all this time?
- Elsewhere in horror movie references, The Exorcist is evoked again in Vanessa’s possession scenes. Specifically, her telling Peter “You’re going to die there” recalls Regan’s words to the astronaut just before she pees on the floor.
- The relationship between Vanessa’s mother and father was nicely sketched in just a few a scenes. It’s clear that Mrs. Ives is the dominant figure in the household, and it makes sense that Vanessa would take after her mother (and not just in terms of inappropriate sexual relations with the neighbors).
- There will be more Penny Dreadful! Showtime has renewed the series for a second season.