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Penny Dreadful – S1E5 – Closer Than Sisters

Previously on Penny Dreadful, Demimonde

In “Closer than Sisters,” Penny Dreadful narrows down into a semi-solo flashback episode to explain the oft-mentioned transgression between Vanessa Ives and Mina Murray Harker, encompassing their intimate girlhood friendship, the price Vanessa paid, and the ultimate consequence which led her back to an uneasy truce with Sir Malcolm prior to the series start. The transgression is a doozy: after observing Sir Malcolm and her own mother’s post-expedition liaison in the Murray’s garden maze, a crack of darkness opens in Vanessa’s soul that, many years later, influences her to seduce Mina’s fiancé the night before their wedding, a discovery that destroys the families and Vanessa’s sanity.

In retrospect, I must subtract much guilt from Vanessa’s actions and question at what point she lost control to a dark passenger, its nature yet to be fully seen. There is a quality about her at the party, like Dorian observed in “Séance,” a desire to touch and an air of, shall we say, someone taking her body for a spin. A storm brewing when she leads Mina’s fiancé into the taxidermy parlor, Vanessa is much changed, darker and powerful, speaking of naming a thing to bring it to life, mirrors behind the eyes of the world, and compelling him with her voice and caress. My feeling is that this is no longer Vanessa, nor is Branson any more culpable than the man she enthralled on the street after the séance with a simple touch. Through the crack of jealousy, the dark passenger attempts to wrest control of her body, sending her into months of seizures and questionable treatments at the Banning Clinic, but the vessel is strong, strong enough for Lucifer to seek her out afterwards, an event that kills her mother but somehow brings Vanessa a sort of peace.

Images: Showtime

But there is more to this episode than Mina and Vanessa’s story. We observe Peter’s worship of Sir Malcolm, his all-encompassing desire to follow his father into Africa despite a weak constitution to the point that he ignores Vanessa’s flirtations and outright advances as distractions from his goal. There, too, is Malcolm’s rigidity with Peter and his wife, his gravity and distance, narcissistic in his own adventures and the sound of his voice, and his ability to manipulate loved ones into observing his passions. Devoid of children in the present, he deploys these skills easily amongst the Dreadfuls, bending them to his personal mission without the guilt of blood ties.

Each of the actors, child and adult, parent and friend, embodies their role admirably, from Vanessa’s unusually strong mother to the weak Peter and Mr. Ives, from the delicate, proper Mina-turned-vampire bride to the daring-then-tormented Vanessa. The sets are once again transportive and captivating, easily taking us from Vanessa’s privileged childhood on the brambled seaside to the horrors of a relatively “modern” mental clinic, with the episode framed by Vanessa’s self-imposed penance, a growing pile of daily letters to Mina. One feels the weight of the chest full of folded paper, guilt by the pound. The moment she asks, “Who’s Vanessa?” is perhaps predictable in the horror genre, but chilling all the same. Minus some small clunky moments that did not entirely strike true, like repetition of “a witch’s spell,” it is a beautifully crafted tale, beginning the trend of a single Vanessa-centric episode per season, each of which are quite amazing.

The Transgression

Vanessa writes, recalling the two young girls running on the beach. Vanessa, the daring one, wants to swim far out into the ocean, but Mina declines, their family estates settled on the wild cliffs behind, the gate between always open. The Murray house moves in a flutter in preparation for Malcolm’s return from Africa, the children busying themselves with taxidermy projects. Vanessa names her hawk Ariel to “give it life,” while Mina notes her proclivity for working on predators, sweetly joking that Vanessa is bloodthirsty. The girls titter about men, Mina suggesting Vanessa will marry Peter, but he’s determined to go to Africa. Upon Malcolm’s return, he offers only a hearty handshake and a serval skin to Peter and a stiff kiss to Gladys, but a big embrace for Vanessa and Mina.

At the feast, Malcolm relates an encounter with cannibals while Vanessa remembers the strangeness of her Catholic customs, the hidden attentions between Malcolm and her mother. That night she enters their garden maze and finds Malcolm and her mother having sex. Her enjoyment of this discovery opens a door. While she prays, a dark whispering haunts her.

“In me there was a change. I marked it from that night in the hedge maze. Perhaps it was always there.”

Thus begins “little acts of wickedness.” She again enters the hedge maze, singing “The Unquiet Grave,” transitioning to young woman Vanessa, finding Mina courting Captain Branson. She admires Mina’s pursuit of him, considering her own lack plans, growing envious of Mina’s “greatest of adventures.” Peter and she discuss this change in the hedge maze, and she presses a kiss upon him, but he retreats, holding fast to his purpose. Her narration laments not saying more to stop him, having seen the future.

“I tried to pray that night. God didn’t answer me. But another did.”
“Soon, child. What games we will have.”

At the rehearsal party, she possessively flirts with Mina, labeling the marriage a loss of self. The girls share a bed that night, but a storm wakes Vanessa, and, kissing Mina, she descends to find Branson drinking and invites him into the taxidermy room. She strokes Ariel’s feathers in the lightning, repeating her belief in naming a thing to bring it life, and explains how she put mirrors behind his eyes. She moves her hands to Branson’s face.

“I would put mirrors behind the entire world if I could.”

They kiss, which turns to rough sex. Presumably his shock at her virginity passes when she kisses him again. He pushes her down on the table next to Ariel. Mina walks in. Vanessa only watches her. The next morning, Branson sheepishly leaves while Mina sobs. Vanessa’s mother screams that she should be ashamed, earning the reply,

“How dare you speak to me of shame? Get upstairs yourself and make amends to my father.”

Sir Malcolm denies her entry, displacing his own guilt onto her sin. Little whispers start, and Vanessa collapses, thrown into possession-like seizures for months. After local doctors fail, they move her to the Banning Clinic, but Vanessa speaks long enough to say they should let her die.

So Much Suffering

Vanessa sits with a snarl as Dr. Banning explains his methods to her parents: hydrotherapy, then surgery. At Vanessa’s sudden assent, he dismisses her parents. She speaks of longing for the ocean, lowly recalling having watched men drowning on a slave ship, something she could not have seen, then calls his entire time. He hits the panic button and asks her to sit. She turns, startled,

“Who’s Vanessa?”

She tries to bite him, shouting in an unknown language. Freezing hydrotherapy and tranquilizing treatments follow as she howls and gibbers, then a fire hose as she’s chained to the wall, then a rough haircut and razor shave for trepanation. The nurse gently kisses her beforehand. Her skull cracks and sinks horribly.

Her family returns home, and Peter comes to visit before leaving finally for Africa. Wheezing, Vanessa wonders if he’ll kiss her goodbye. In answer to his kiss, she declares he’ll die there.

Later, she is woken by Malcolm’s voice asking if she knows Keats, his eyes black. Realizing “Malcolm” isn’t really there, she names him “Serpent” (Lucifer). He counters that she could have shut the door at any time, but instead, speaks his name to give him life. Embracing her, he recites…

Darkling, I listen: and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath…
-From Ode to a Nightingale

Her mother, awoken by a noise, enters Vanessa’s room to find her being mounted by… nothing… her eyes totally white. The sight kills her.

Walking on the beach many months later, Vanessa spots Mina, who forgives her and says she’s married to a Mr. Harker. Peter now dead, Mina quotes Vanessa’s private thoughts from the hedge maze, her eyes turning red with the Master’s influence, then pleads for help before disappearing. This sends Vanessa to Sir Malcolm, beginning the quest. At his arrogance, she calls him a “weak, foul, lustful, vainglorious man” and begins to leave. Engaged by conflict, he instead binds them together in mission, giving her a room upstairs.

She completes the letter, saying her guilt has damned her beyond her lifetime and has no other purpose but to save Mina. Finishing…

“Your father loves you very much and would do anything to save you. But I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.”

Spoiler-Free Symbols, Flourishes, & Quotes

  • “Perhaps it was always there” = dark passenger has been inside of her from birth?
  • “The true knowledge of man’s virtue as well as his sin.” = Garden of Eden reference
  • Ariel: Vanessa’s hawk is named after a spirit in The Tempest, the magician Prospero’s eyes and ears who causes said tempest. Notice how Vanessa changes during storms.
  • “You’ve always been drawn to the deep ocean…” = water spirit continues
  • Vanessa and Mina are themselves opposites, mirrors, light and dark

Spoiler Discussion & Tinfoil for Rewatchers

Tinfoil, cont’d: Vanessa’s identity, some quotes from above, with additional meaning

  • “Perhaps it was always there” = literally “always there,” i.e. before the world was created
  • “You’ve always been drawn to the deep ocean, to the dark whisper, the mirror behind the glass eyes, to life at its fullest.” = underlines her identity as the Mother of Waters, creating life through a dark spark; her obsession with the ocean is repeated 3 times; the final phrase echoes Lilith’s rebellion.
  • Ariel: A spirit of the waters with ancient Hebrew connotations (the –el suffix means of God), emphasizing the spirit/Vanessa’s tie to God, not evil by nature.
  • Mirrors: Naming a thing to give it life was an action she observed at the creation of the world when Lilith was subverted and displaced. By cracking the mirror in “Séance” in response to Kali’s question regarding her identity while saying, “Amunet, girl? No, much older,’ Vanessa names herself the dark side of the mirror.
  • “this loss of self, perhaps I minded it for you” = resentment over her displacement
  • Wish to put mirrors behind the world: to bring dark life to the world, i.e. the apocalypse
  • “a witch’s spell” = her power is outside of the Christian establishment
  • Like Keats, Vanessa is wooing death
  • While Vanessa “consummates” her relationship with Lucifer, he is not actually there, which she confirms, so this is not the endgame-level consummation of S3E7.
  • Series finale answers the conversation between Peter and Mrs. Ives: Will she die? If there is a God. (Yes, according to Vanessa’s vision.)
Penny Dreadful S1E5 = 9.8
  • 10/10
    Plot - 10/10
  • 9/10
    Dialogue - 9/10
  • 10/10
    Action - 10/10
  • 10/10
    Performances - 10/10
User Review
5 (1 vote)
About Sarah de Poer (199 Articles)
Eminently sensible by day, by night, she can be found watching questionable scifi, pinning all the things, rewriting lists, pantry snacking, and not sleeping. She was once banned over an argument about Starbuck and Apollo, and she has to go right now because someone is wrong on the Internet.

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