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.