Penny Dreadful: “Closer than Sisters” Review

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This week we were promised the backstory we’d been waiting for. What was Vanessa’s enormous betrayal that brought dark forces into the lives of Mina Murray, Ser Malcolm, Peter, and Claire? Now we know. In “Closer than Sisters,” viewers were given grand scope of the Murray and Ives families, their passions, their sins, their flagrant hypocrisies. We also watched Vanessa go through bouts of mental illness, replete with the most horrible “treatments” of the day. It was a grotesque and disturbing episode of Penny Dreadful. As always, episode spoilers after the jump.

“Closer than Sisters” opens with Vanessa writing what we learn are now daily letters to her best friend, Mina Murray. Van has a heavy heart and a spiffy fountain pen. Via flashbacks and overhead narration, we learn that Mina and Vanessa have been friends since they were very young, maybe forever. Vanessa has always been more adventurous, more willing to tempt fate. Mina was reserved, not quite docile, but almost. The Murray and Ives families lived side by side on enormous estates. The Murrays were protestant, the Ives, Catholic—back in a time when that distinction meant a lot to some people. We learn most of what we need to know about these families when Ser Malcolm comes home from another African excursion.

Taxidermy is the hobby of all well-adjusted children. (I’m looking at YOU, Norman Bates!) Peter, Mina, and Van discuss their futures over various animal corpses. While it’s expected that Vanessa will marry the sickly Peter, the boy is confident that he’ll be too busy traveling and having adventures to marry anyone. When Ser Malcolm arrives, it’s clear that he favors Mina and Vanessa to his wife and son. I wondered if maybe there was something untoward happening there—but no. We find out after dinner that Mina’s father, Ser Malcolm, has been getting jiggy with Claire Ives—Vanessa’s mother. Yikes. Actress Anna Chancellor plays Claire Ives. She’s a formidable screen presence. Claire totally wears the pants in the Ives family, when she’s not taking them off, anyway. I hear we’ll be able to see Chancellor in Private Lives soon—my most favorite Noel Coward play. Vanessa never actually reveals the affair to Mina.

Penny 1.5 Children

Glass eyes are dead eyes, right? Vanessa talks of placing mirrors behind the glass eyes so they’ll retain a glimmer of life. Still pondering the symbolism in the mirrors behind the glass eyes. Is this an allusion to Frankenstein, and trying to find where the spark of life lies? That flicker between life and death? Is it more about Dorian Gray, and finding the truth of life inherent in the art? Dracula doesn’t like mirrors. Will that factor in?

After discovering the affair, Van starts acting out. Vanessa seems like a devious girl, almost conniving, and sure she’s smarter than everyone else. Given her surroundings, she may have been. Mina was sweeter, more likely to do what was expected of her. Peter was weak, often ill, desperate to please his father, and probably gay. After Episode Two, “Séance,” I got the impression that Peter died much younger. But we see him as a man. Vanessa grew jealous of her best friend’s prospects, her handsome mustachioed husband, her happiness. Peter was leaving for Africa, Mina for India—leaving Vanessa alone with her adulterous mother, a distant father, not much else. Finally, Vanessa makes an advance toward Peter, which he adamantly resists. She knows that if he goes to Africa, that he’ll die there. She also believes she loves him, but I don’t think it’s a romantic love. Later, she prays to her god. In response, she hears the monster’s voice for the first time.

Penny 1.5 Betrayal

“Soon…what games we will have.” Ominous, right? The night before Mina was to be married, Vanessa committed the most trite and predictable sin imaginable—she and her best friend’s fiancé had sex. Note to adulterers everywhere: close the damn door. This transgression leads to an unhealable rift between the families. The fiancé leaves in shame, and the gate between the Murray Manor and that of the Ives family is closed. Ironically, the people with the least room to talk are the most vocal about Vanessa’s actions—Claire Ives and Ser Malcolm are both pretty heartless toward Van. Have you no shame, indeed! Ser Malcolm calling her “cruel” is also out of line—especially given his own treatment of his wife and son. Vanessa’s actions weren’t cruel. I can’t justify them or explain what they really were—but there was no cruelty present.  They were “Closer than Sisters,” after all.

Then the illness comes. Anyone who read my American Horror Story reviews knows that old school asylum methods are especially terrifying to me. The doctor, a woefully uninformed jag named Banning, believes he can cure Vanessa’s catatonia and “psycho sexual” condition. Whatever is wrong with Vanessa, it can’t be named, and it can’t be cured. Vanessa knows she isn’t insane, and wishes her mother would just let her die. I wasn’t too keen on watching Vanessa go through progressive hydrotherapy—especially since it’s a total crock. At one point, I thought they were preparing her for ECT, but it was worse—a lobotomy, maybe several. It wasn’t uncommon for quack docs to do the procedure more than once, since it was all guesswork anyway. Of course, what actually ailed Vanessa was a combination of extreme depression and being tormented by a demon, a vampire, by Dracula. She’s speaking in tongues for crying out loud. Claire tries to care for her daughter once she returns home, but actually seems more upset that Ser Malcolm doesn’t want her anymore.

Penny 1.5 Van Mal

After a time, Mina finds a new man—Jonathan Harker. We all know what that means, right? Peter pops by for a visit, making him the first Murray to speak to an Ives since Mina’s engagement ended. Vanessa speaks to him just long enough to say that he’ll die in Africa. We already know that Peter does die in Africa, and that it wasn’t a nice death. I don’t think he got to have a mountain named after him either. Later, Ser Malcolm appears in Vanessa’s bedroom—or does he? It’s the demon, maybe even Dracula himself in disguise. He’s there to tempt Van with something otherworldly, something dark. Raucous noises come from Van’s bedroom, and Claire runs up to investigate. Her daughter is naked, appearing to be engaged in intercourse with someone who isn’t there. Van’s eyes are white and stark. Seeing this, Claire falls down dead.

Vanessa walks on a beach when she is approached by Mina. Mina forgives Vanessa, tells her that her illness was punishment enough, and that she’s now married to a good man. Mina knows things she couldn’t possibly know, things Vanessa has never said out loud. She has knowledge, from the Master. Mina proclaims to know “things no one should ever know.” Mina begs Vanessa to save her from him. We know she will. That’s all she’s been trying to do since we met her. Will Vanessa give herself to the demon to save Mina? Yeah, probably.

Penny 1.5 Van Mina

When we next see Vanessa, she’s arriving at the home of Ser Malcolm. Sembene shows her in. She tells Ser Malcolm everything, sure that he won’t believe her. He does. He believes all kinds of crazy crap these days. Vanessa and Malcolm have plenty of loathing for each other—well deserved on both sides, I daresay. He basically tells her if she wants forgiveness to ask the Pontiff. She, in turn, tells him he doesn’t know anything about death or suffering, and is in no position to judge her. It’s decided that they’ll work together to help Mina, and then go their separate ways. Seems fair enough, right? That’s how she came to live in Ser Malcolm’s home.

Vanessa finishes what we learn is a large stack of letters to Mina. Van won’t rest until Mina is safe—after all, they’re “Closer than Sisters.” With three more episodes remaining in the season, it’s hard to say whether that will come to pass anytime soon. Penny Dreadful has been renewed for a second season. That’s good news, particularly since this season may end up with a few loose ends. We didn’t hear from anyone else this week, no Ethan, no Brona, no Caliban nor his maker. They’re probably all attending a party at Van Helsing’s.

See you’s next week!




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