Penny Dreadful: “Closer Than Sisters” Review

“Closer than Sisters” might’ve been better titled “Ambivalence.” It marks the fifth hour of our 8-hour season, and the episode is an odd combination of satisfying and annoying. The entire episode is a flashback to Vanessa’s past with the Murray family and after the oft-alluded to Point of No Return for former friends Mina and Vanessa. This means, of course, that we don’t know anything more about Dorian, Ethan, Brona, or the rest of the gang.

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But we do get many of our questions answered–what happened between Vanessa and Mina? Who is the voice talking about in the seance? Did Vanessa witness incest between Mina and Sir Malcolm, or did Sir Malcolm have an affair with Vanessa that was witnessed by Mina? What is Vanessa’s part in this? And does she know what’s haunting her? (Spoilers!)

So we begin the episode with Vanessa writing to Mina, and we quickly move to the flashback, which then progresses linearly. The Murrays and the Ives were neighbors and friends. Mina and Vanessa, around the same age, were bosom friends, one light and one dark (Mina is fair,

Peter, Vanessa, Mina, and Sir Malcolm

Peter, Vanessa, Mina, and Sir Malcolm

golden, and kind to a fault; Vanessa is dark, curious, and impetuous.) We see Vanessa’s first encounters with her darker side after she sees her mother and Sir Malcolm having an affair. (So it was Vanessa the seer, looking at Sir Malcolm and her mother, that was alluded to in the seance.) This moment, in which Vanessa discovers that there was something enjoyable, something delightfully wicked about seeing Murray and her mother together, is Vanessa’s moment of departure.

Vanessa and Mina continue their friendship as they grow older, though they become less alike. Peter, Murray’s young son whose death was revealed in episode 2’s seance scene, seems to be just a bit older than the girls, and we know from their childhood that many expect Peter and Vanessa to grow up and be married. But they don’t, of course. In a pivotal scene, the two are in a garden labyrinth together, and he rebuffs Vanessa’s sexual advance. Oh Peter. Vanessa later wishes she’d run after him, told him she loved his weakness. Oh Vanessa.

And then we finally come to the moment when the friends are no longer friends. On the eve of her wedding to a gallant man with a wonderful mustache, Mina discovers Vanessa and her future husband having sex. We know now what sin she is paying for–and why she and Sir Malcolm have such a tenuous relationship. There’s a direct line between Murray’s transgressions and Vanessa’s.

This affair spawns a full-on possession of Vanessa. She’s treated by a host of doctors, download (4)diagnosed with epilepsy, and committed to an asylum. We get several squicky moments here, pictures of mental healthcare in the 19th century that include ice baths, hydrotherapy (the download (2)patient is tied up and shot with high power water) and trepanation (drilling holes in the head). Vanessa is then allowed to return home, but she doesn’t seem to be any “better.” She’s visited by a demon in the form of Sir Murray, who seduces her. We then get the most disturbing in an episode that has many disturbing images—naked Vanessa, eyes rolled back in her head, spread naked on her bed, having sex with an invisible force. The shock kills her mother (presumably a heart attack).

Later, we see Vanessa walking on a beach, and it is then that she is confronted by Mina, who has come to her in a vision. Mina speaks of forgiveness, of being sure that Vanessa’s suffering has made up for her crimes. She speaks of Peter’s death, of her marriage to Jonathan Harker. And then things get really weird for Vanessa, as Mina mentions Peter’s refusal of her advance that day in the garden, something Vanessa never told Mina. And Mina finally speaks to Vanessa of her master, one who has taught her so much. Her face falls, voice faltering a bit, as she manages to say “things no one should ever know” before being, quite literally, snatched away.

Cut to Vanessa at Sir Malcolm’s door, drenched in rain, asking him to help Mina. It’s obvious that tensions are still high between the two, but Murray consents to work with her to get Mina back (and where is Harker, I wonder). And then we hear the ominous last bit of Vanessa’s letter—“I love you enough to kill you.”

I’ve no doubt that she does. I do wish, though, that Vanessa’s transgressions weren’t so largely sex-based. It just seems so——done. That Eva Green is an amazing actress made the story shine. But the familiarity of punishing a female character for sexual curiosity and desire makes me roll my eyes a bit, especially after seeing nameless women brutally torn apart before the opening sequence in the first few episodes and with the trope of the consumptive whore present in the character of Brona. I get that the show is playing with tropes, and I think that can work—but there’s a fine line between playing with tropes and playing into them, and this seems a little close to that line.

Either way, I’m glad to hear that Showtime has announced a 10-episode season two of the series, and it looks like we’ll be returning to our present story-line next week.

6 thoughts on “Penny Dreadful: “Closer Than Sisters” Review

  1. I feel the same way on the transgression trope. For me it is done and old news. Wished they had chosen something else.


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