Mon
Jun 9 2014 4:00pm

Don’t Look Back in Vampire: Penny Dreadful Ep. 5 “Closer than Sisters”

If you’ve ever seen the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye joint White Christmas, then you know there’s an earworm of a song in it more pervasive than anything Frozen has embedded in our collective unconscious. And that song is Irving Berlin’s “Sisters,” as performed by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.* Its relevant lyric, the one that kept turning over and over in my head while watching the latest Penny Dreadful was this: “And Lord help the Sister who comes between me and my Man!”

Vanessa Ives is in full flashback mode in “Closer than Sisters,” and all the questions we may have had about why she hangs around with Sir Malcolm, what her relationship was with Mina, and what kind of haircuts she used to rock, are all here, laid plain in her super creepy letters to the past.

Full Spoilers for Episode 5 of Penny Dreadful.

Save for a framing mechanism of Vanessa writing a letter while smoking one of her (joints?) cigarettes, none of the action of “Closers than Sisters” actually forwards the present action of the events of Penny Dreadful. If you’re tuning in with the hopes of seeing what became of Dorian Gray and Ethan Chandler’s impromptu make-out session, too bad. If you want to know what’s going on with Brona Croft’s passing-out-in-a-doorway thing, bummer! No Frankenstein! No Monster! This one is all about Vanessa’s back-story, meaning none of the other Dreadfuls (save for Sir Malcolm, and briefly Sembene) make any appearance whatsoever.

Quickly, we learn Sir Malcolm’s missing and maybe-vampired daughter in the “present,” Mina was childhood friends with Vanessa Ives in the past. They weren’t sisters at all, but instead, neighbors, both living in what appear to be dueling Downton Abbey-style estates. Vanessa comes over and hangs out with Mina and Peter, and the three of them do what any normal kids do on a sunny afternoon indoors—taxidermy!

Meanwhile, Mina’s father—Sir Malcolm—is away all the time, killing animals and probably people on safaris in Africa. There’s also some weird religious tension between Vanessa’s Roman Catholic family and whatever it is the Murrays believe in. Though it’s not over-stated too much, we all know vampires hate the crucifix, so, even though Mina isn’t a vampire as a little girl (and maybe not even one “now”) maybe this all is related?

Sadly, even in this flashback episode, Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm is still rocking the beard, and looks nothing like he did as James Bond in The Living Daylights. He does, however, have James Bond’s libido, as it’s quickly revealed he’s doing it with Vanessa’s mom. Pre-teen Vanessa witnesses this affair while hiding behind a hedge in a giant garden maze, conveniently constructed here for people to have whispery chats, or in this case, extra-marital sex. (Voldemort and/or Robert Pattinson are nowhere in sight)

Young Vanessa is both ashamed and turned on by this event, and as we flash forward into her pseudo-adulthood, she becomes increasingly moodier and more jealous of Mina, who soon is engaged to be married. The lucky man is a Captain Branson and he has a giant Col. Mustard mustache, which is much discussed. Vanessa tries to get Peter to make out with her in the maze at this point, but he’s not into it, presuming he’s either afraid of her or as the episode makes great pains to convince us “a weak person.” Around this time, Vanessa begins getting some of her prophetic possession powers which we’ve seen demonstrated in previous episodes (most notably in “Séance”) She tells Peter he’s going to die in Africa with his father, which we already know is true.

Whether by her choice or through some influence of the spirit inside of her (remember, there’s a chance she’s got Amunet inside of her) Vanessa seduces Mina’s husband-to-be in the creepy taxidermy room and screws him on the table right next to some dead animals. Mina walks in, is horrified, Vanessa sort of doesn’t care, but rapidly gets slut-shammed by just about everyone, including her mother. This in turn, makes Vanessa into the girl from The Exorcist, and she starts foaming at the mouth and generally acting like a crazy person. In an effort to treat her, Vanessa’s parents take her to doctor who decides she is totally crazy and the best thing for her will be a bunch of water boarding and a new haircut, which will make her look exactly like Fantine from Les Miserables.

The larger plan here is to give Vanessa a lobotomy, which seems to kind of work for awhile, insofar as she appears to be a vegetable for a bit. But, as soon as she returns home, Vanessa is back to her speaking-in-tongues ways and starts freaking everyone out, including neighbor Peter, who apparently, is the only person who will still talk to her. While chilling in her bed, Vanessa has a vision of Sir Malcolm, who is not Sir Malcolm at all, but somehow a representation of the demon or whatever that possesses her. This thing tells Vanessa that’s she’s always had a choice when it comes to this stuff, heavily implying that she doesn’t just act like a crazy person because she’s possessed. Eventually, this fantasy evolves into Vanessa ghost-screwing whatever this thing is totally naked on her bed and with all-white pupil-less eyes. Her mom walks in on this, and faints dead from the shock.

By the time Vanessa’s mom’s funeral rolls around, she seems to have grown back all of her hair, which might be a demon power, or maybe they just took a long time to organize the funereal. In any case, Vanessa soon catches up with Mina on the beach who casually tells her that she’s remarried to a Mr. Harker (solid Dracula reference) and that everything is okay now. Then, Mina’s eyes go all red and she mentions “the Master,” before rapidly ghosting away onto the beach. This presumably brings us up to the present, with Vanessa marching over to Sir Malcolm and telling him she can find Mina. Reluctantly, he agrees to house her and they form the alliance we’ve been witnessing for the past four episodes.

Vanessa’s letter writing is actually a nice nod to the novel Dracula itself, which like so many novels of its kind (Frankenstein being another) is framed in and has its realism heightened by the epistolary form. I’m not sure, however, I needed an entire episode of Penny Dreadful set entirely in the past. In terms of new information, the most important thing we learned was that both Vanessa and Sir Malcolm performed indiscretions, though not with each other, and really, neither as objectively bad as we were lead to believe in “Séance.” Other than some character-building stuff between Vanessa and Mina, there’s not much in this particular installment to satiate our monster-plot hungry appetites. The back-story information was good, but I’m not sure I needed an entire episode built around it. Further of the various monsters being teased out here, I’m also not sure the pseudo Dracula-plot is being drawn as compellingly as some of the others. Plus, after the original Frankenstein flashback a few weeks ago, I’m getting a little worried the rest of the season is going to be all flashback episodes, and then, really quickly, one big finale episode in which all these flashbacks are reconciled. It worked okay in the Caliban episode, but it works less well here and I can’t help but think it’s all about time management.

But what about that letter Vanessa was writing? Well it’s just one of many she’s never sent to Mina, and it contains a spooky postscript: “I love you enough to kill you,” which is pretty much the Penny Dreadful answer to the afore mentioned song “Sisters.” A lot went down between these two, and now, I guess its demon killing/vampire stalking/take no undead prisoners, game-on. Because Dracula might not help the Mina who comes between Vanessa and her demon powers.

 

*In White Christmas, this song gets an immediate encore, in its entirety and in drag by Bing and Danny.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

15 comments
Matthew Watkins
1. oraymw
Why did you get that song stuck in my head?!!! Now it will be stuck there for days...
quinne
2. quinne
I really liked this episode - it was very dark and surreal.

The previous episode was kind of boring and didn't really make Ethan's decisions believable. I'm not buying this whole "Ethan is bi-sexual" storyline. I'm not against a bi-sexual character I'm just saying that the writers never gave us a vibe indicating that he was. Besides, Dorian Gray and Ethan have absolutely no chemistry together.
Elisa Edgren
3. Isiswardrobe
It was not a lobotomy, but trepanning, drilling a hole in the head, which once was used to treat, among other things, epilepsy. :)

I was actually quite sure that Vanessa and Sir Malcolm had had an affair, so I was pelasantly surprised being wrong. I liked this episode, even if not much happened to move the story forward. The whole series is really beautifully filmed, and this was no exception. There are five episodes left, hopefully, even if we do get more flashbacks epsidoes, it ought to be just two, surely? Ethan and Dorian Gray.
Kevin Baijens
4. ImRhoven
Despite not moving the plot forward this was probably my favourite episode so far. It was excellently shot and explains a lot of the back story. Also, Best Actress Emmy for Eva Green please.

Note: Vanessa's hair is still short during the funeral. It's long again, and prominently in frame, during the scene on the beach right after, which clearly means to indicate that a good deal of time has passed since then and the funeral.
Chris Nelly
5. Aeryl
That was a transition shot. It showed her at the funeral with short hair, and a black scarf. As the camera swept around her head, she was still wearing the black scarf, but now has long hair, and looked healthier.

There were several shots like this to establish time passing(Peter's beard).

I caught how they kept framing shots in the mirrors, and then the whole thing about mirror behind the glass eyes(She likes my name too! It even has a similar origin, NEAT), I knew they were going somewhere with it.

So when Murray showed up in the mirror, the idea that it was the demon, hit me first, but for a moment, I thought maybe not when he was revealed in the chair. He seemed like the kind of man just on the edge of NUH UH to sneak into a young woman's room to torment her, especially if he learned what she'd said to Peter.

But I figured it out before his eyes went all black, but holy shit that was scary.

I like that the show had the courage to actually do, set up all kinds of insane shit, and then say "no, wait" and take a break from it.
Chris Nelly
6. Aeryl
3 episodes. Only8, not 10, if I'm correct.
quinne
7. rochrist
I don't want to be mean, but you seemed to miss an awful lot of the nuances in this episode. For example, Vanessa's possesion can be traced back as far as when she was praying as a little girl. She says 'Perhaps it has always been there.' And it's already been established that she's possessed by something 'much older' than Amunet.

And yes, she didn't magically grow back her hair between the time her mother dropped dead and meeting Mina on the beach. That scene was years later.

And no, she didn't get a lobotomy, it was an /attempt/ at trepanning, except that it went awry when no blood would come out.

And I'm pretty sure Vanessa isn't jealous of Mina so much as she doesn't want to be left behind.

Plus, how could an episode that's all Vanessa and Malcolm be anything other than mesmerizing?
Tom Smith
8. phuzz
There’s also some weird religious tension between Vanessa’s Roman Catholic family and whatever it is the Murrays believe in.
Presumably they're Church of England, being Catholic would be unusual although not scandalously so.
Chris Nelly
9. Aeryl
Around this time, Vanessa begins getting some of her prophetic possession powers which we’ve seen demonstrated in previous episodes (most notably in “Séance”) She tells Peter he’s going to die in Africa with his father, which we already know is true.

Also, no. Vanessa said she should have told Peter he was going to die because he was weak, and that she loved him for it.

Instead, she tells him when he comes to say goodbye, after her time in the asylum. Then, when she sees Mina on the beach, that she didn't tell him in the maze is brought up to prove there's something more going on here.
Ryan Britt
10. ryancbritt
@5 (and all)

Sorry about the lobotomy!

And also, I guess I'm dumb with the passage of time. Thanks for the corrections!
Chris Nelly
11. Aeryl
@10, I probably wouldn't have caught it, if I hadn't already noticed how they telegraphed Peter's beard.
Chris Nelly
12. Aeryl
Anyone else feel real sorry for Peter?
quinne
13. eddyozman
I've got to go against the consensus and say I did not enjoy this episode very much.

Not sure I can point out a single clear reason why not, just the whole tone felt 'off'. Ham-fisted and obvious. It was difficult to reconcile the in-control and controlling Vanessa we've seen in previous episodes (eg meeting Ethan and leading him through the city to the underground lair) with her immediately previous back story of being a semi-comatose vegetable/hysteric. How much time needs to pass for that transition to be made? How long has passed since she arrived at Sir Malcolm's door still looking unhinged until the present-day? It seems like they would begin searching for Mina immediately - has it been days, weeks? Months/years would be required for her to have changed into the Vanessa we see today imo.

I was also disappointed that there wasn't a resolution to Vanessa's
non-English accent. I was relying on/expecting that it would explained by her parents origins, but they were played as straight English, so it's still left open as to why she sounds so very different to everyone else. I guess it might be resolved as a consequence of possesion by an ancient demon?

And yes, Peter has my sympathies...
quinne
14. Raeh
I think someone, naming no names, is a little too much of a 'control freak' to enjoy (really any) show. Shows are imperfect creatures, just like all of us - people. The passage of time was shown well, maybe not perfectly, but we're talking an episode in a show, not a movie, so we should be able to forgive something less-than-perfect in this regard. The hair issue - to me it was very obvious that there was some time that passed since her mother's burial (she still had short hair then) until the beach sequence.

Also, I think it's shown really well that Vanessa has had these certain 'powers' or 'budding powers' ever since she was a little girl, plus, come on, taxadermy! As she mentions many many times during the episode, she's the strong one of all the three kids, so I would assume she is the one who was driving the whole taxadermy hobby of theirs, plus she definitely seems to be the only one really enjoying it - she loves it. She's been mesmerised by death ever since she was small.

I thought this episode was the best so far. I actually rewatched it because it was THAT good.
S Barlow
15. Lizzibabe
did you notice how sweetly and tenderly that Dalton played Demon!Malcolm? it was almost croony and shocking to hear that tone come out of him.

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