Published on June 22nd, 2014 | by Dapper Dan0
Penny Dreadful – Episode 5 “Closer Than Sisters”
After last week’s episode gave us some character work but little in the way of plot development, this week’s episode of Penny Dreadful helps answer many of the questions we have asked since the very start of the show. Sadly, however, this comes at the cost of continuing the glacial pace of the main plot.
Almost the entirety of this week’s Penny Dreadful is flashbacks, framed by a present day sequence of Vanessa Ives writing a letter to Mina Murray to apologise for soon-to-be-revealed events. Over the course of the next hour we find out pretty much everything we wanted to know about the enigmatic Ms Ives and more than a few things about Sir Malcom Murray, to boot.
Opening during her childhood, we learn that the Ives and Murrays were neighbours and good friends. The children grew up together and as the title of the episode suggests, Mina and Vanessa were closer than sisters.
Poor doomed Peter Murray (Remember that we learned his fate during the second episodes séance) is introduced as an amateur taxidermist and wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps as an explorer. The exchange between Vanessa and him could easily be between adult Vanessa and Victor. “You have to give them names, or they’ll never come to life” being a particularly memorable line, and one which will prove portentous by the end of the hour.
Sir Malcolm returns from one of his many long trips to Africa and it’s abundantly clear that Mina, and Vanessa oddly, are those he has missed the most. Peter is given little attention but at least he qualifies for a gift, Mrs Murray is merely given a chaste peck on the cheek and told not to cry.
After a dinner between the families to celebrate Sir Malcolm’s return, Vanessa is in the hedge maze and catches Sir Malcolm and her mother having sex. This is a catalyst for her, as the dam breaks in her good Catholic upbringing and she starts to understand the temptation of sin. It’s what makes her such an enticing vessel for the spirits that have inhabited her by the time we see her in the present day.
We then flash forward several years to Mina’s wedding day. Vanessa, Min and peter have gone from 12 to 19/20(?) in the blink of an eye. I suppose it meant they didn’t have to cast more than one set of actors for the children. Mina’s happiness irritates Vanessa, but her attempt to seduce Peter serves only to terrify the poor chap and leave her fuming over the rejection. In a terrible act of betrayal, (Hinted at last week) Vanessa and Mina’s fiancée have sex the night before the wedding, but are caught in the act by a horrified Mina. The shot of Vanessa holding her friend’s gaze is chilling. Mina rooted to the spot, unable to speak, her fiancée oblivious to being caught and Vanessa silent, staring at her “sister”.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the wedding is off and the circumstances surrounding it break the two families apart. Vanessa is very much shut out by those around her, including a very unsubtle, locking of a gate in her face by Sir Malcolm. Penny Dreadful is many things, but subtle is not one of them. Refused access to Mina, Vanessa is confronted by her mother who is shocked to find out her daughter knows about the affair with Sir Malcolm. Golly, Victorian England was a hotbed of filth, wasn’t it?
The emotional stress, of being shunned by everyone around her, causes Vanessa to develop a mysterious illness. Initially diagnosed as epilepsy, it starts to bear the hallmarks of the same kind of possession she suffered in episode two’s séance. Sadly, Victorian medicine wasn’t quite on a par with modern BUPA in those days and the root cause goes unnoticed. Her mother, played by Anna Chancellor, has changed from being a stereotypical Victorian wife into a contrite and guilt-ridden figure desperate to see her daughter cures and blaming herself for Vanessa’s illness.
If you’ve any knowledge of Victorian London, and gothic horror, you’ll be familiar with the name Bedlam. The Bethlem Royal Hospital became notorious for allowing members of the public to pay an entry fee and come and gawp at the poor unfortunate souls who had been committed there. I shan’t go into much detail about it but if you want to hear horror stories of how hopelessly we dealt with mental health back then, Google “Bedlam”.
As is standard with Penny Dreadful, the scenes showing Vanessa’s treatments are graphic and unsettling. Restrained constantly, dunked in baths of ice, tied to a wall and hosed down and the final, most awful treatment of all; trepanning. As I watched the catatonic woman have her hair sheared off, I hoped it was merely a hygiene measure but, no, I was mistaken. Her head shaved and immobilised in a metal clamp, Vanessa has a drill used against her temple. I’m not normally squeamish about gore in horror films, but this looked so real I found my stomach churning.
While convalescing at home, the still catatonic Vanessa is visited by Peter Murray to say farewell before he journeys to Africa with his father. Peter touchingly forgives Vanessa for what she did and is told of his impending death, for his troubles. If you thought things had got as disturbing as they could, this episode, you were in for a hell of a surprise.
Finally after night on 50 minutes of build up, we get to the real meat of Vanessa’s secret. She has a vision of Sir Malcolm and deduces that she isn’t awake and that this is a devil (penny Dreadful is very clear not to explicitly call him THE Devil here) trying to tempt her. Strangely, she appears inclined to reject his offer, but the next thing you know, Mrs Ives walks in to find her daughter buck naked and writhing around as if she’s having sex with the invisible man. Having watched this episode at work during my lunchbreak, this was NOT the scene to have on as my boss walked past behind me. #FACEPALM
After another vision of Mina, Vanessa realises the peril her friend is in and seeks out Sir Malcolm demanding she be allowed to help. There’s obvious friction between them and a handful of lines that gave me the impression that Vanessa has seen Sir Malcolm’s death but isn’t going to tell him. A détente is reached and the pair begin their quest to help Mina.
We return to the present day, Vanessa finishes recounting her story in the letter, seals it, and places it in a large chest, along with hundreds of other letters, presumably the same details, told over and over, but never sent. Between the hedge maze earlier in the hour, and this obsessive repetition, I got a bit of a The Shining vibe.
As always; Eva Green puts in a wonderful performance alternating between the coldly aloof Miss Ives of the present day, and the wild, raving, troubled younger Vanessa. Timothy Dalton continues to play the bluff explorer with relish and seems to be having the time of his life in Penny Dreadful. I don’t think he’s appeared to enjoy a role this much in years. Olivia Llewellyn finally does more than appear and utter a cryptic one-liner. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her in the finale.
So, now we know why Sir Malcolm and Vanessa each blame themselves for Mina’s current predicament. Everything seems quite linear in terms of cause and effect; Sir Malcolm’s affair launches Vanessa on her dark path. Vanessa seducing Mina’s fiancée leads to Mina marrying Jonathan Harker and coming under her Master’s influence.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Penny Dreadful so far, I find myself coming back to the same criticism I’ve levelled at it for the past few weeks; it’s plot is painfully slow and with only two episodes left in the season either the denouement is going to be rushed, or we’re not going to get a satisfying conclusion. I hope that I’m proven wrong, but I fear the former may well be the case.