Spoilers may lurk in the shadows.
If there is a way to create tasteful excellence in horror, nothing comes close to this TV series. The latest episode, Penny Dreadful 1×05 Closer Than Sisters, once again proves the amazing gift that is Eva Green as Vanessa Ives as we finally are given a most revealing, tortured and horrifying look into her past. Last week I said that the mark of all the main characters was that they each were haunted by something. Vanessa Ives is both the most powerful and most haunted of everyone we’ve met so far. Through her backstory we also meet Mina and her father, Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Timothy Dalton.
It is worth nothing that the episode is narrated in a letter than Vanessa is writing to Mina, very much reminiscent of the way that Bram Stoker writes his novel Dracula through the letters of his main characters. The episode begins by introducing the once innocent and free spirited childhood of Vanessa, growing up alongside Peter and Mina Murray. The Murrays and the Ives are close friends, with the children free to roam wherever they please. Speaking of which, the children have a most curious hobby: taxidermy. Peter is obviously a bit taken with Vanessa, but he’s too shy and fragile. Sir Malcolm Murray returns from Africa full of gifts and stories. Peter dreams of nothing more than to join him on his expeditions.
But there’s a cloud in the horizon. Sir Malcolm is carrying a secret affair with Vanessa’s mother. The young Vanessa soon stumbles upon them in the hedge maze in the midst of sexual fervor. The Ives are devout catholics, but Vanessa decides to keep the secret which instead of scandalizing her seems to empower her. She steals a fan from Mina just out of plain wickedness. Something else seems to be answering to her prayers every night. Something else that seems so close that she’ll turn and catch it. On unrelated news, I’m sleeping with all the lights on tonight.
As the children grow into adulthood, Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) gains a suitor in Captain Branson. Vanessa feels left behind and kisses Peter on the hedge maze, a bold act which frightens the shy young man into running away. Right then and there, Vanessa knows that Peter will die in Africa, but rather than chase him down and warn him she opts to let him go. Vanessa turns to prayer, but God doesn’t answer. Instead something else does. Did I lock the front door? I’m going to check again.
On the night before Mina is supposed to be married, Vanessa seduces Captain Branson and he takes her right on top of the taxidermy table. They are caught by Mina herself. The engagement is abruptly ended and the gate that separates the two homes is closed forever by Sir Malcolm the moment that Vanessa wants to talk to Mina. Rejected by those she loves the most, Vanessa becomes unhinged and suffers episodes.
The Ives consult Dr. Christopher Banning, who locks Vanessa up for the most horrid of tortures believing to be treating her condition which borders of madness or possession. The extreme therapy escalates from drugs, ice cold immersions and brutal water torture into crude surgery. The doctor drills into a skull to perform something resembling a lobotomy from victorian times. Vanessa returns to her parents in a vegetative state.
The distraught parents receive a surprise visit. Peter Murray shows up at their front door, asking to see Vanessa. Her father doesn’t think it’s appropriate, but her mother sees it as a chance to see if her daughter might show some signs of human recognition. Peter tells Vanessa he’s finally going to travel to Africa with his father. She asks him for a kiss. After Peter concedes, she tells him he’s going to die in Africa. Shaken, Peter leaves without telling Mrs. Ives what he heard.
Vanessa is left alone in her room. She hears a voice talking to her. It’s Sir Malcolm but then again, it’s not. She calls him “serpent” and “prince of darkness”. Vanessa states she doesn’t want anything beyond this world. The entity posing as Sir Malcolm replies it has been in her power all along to close this door. A sinister deal is struck. Her mother hears noises and walks into a naked Vanessa copulating with thin air, her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Her mother drops dead from shock. I’m going to check that I have every light in my apartment turned on again.
Whatever deal Vanessa has struck seems to have restored her enough to attend her mother’s funeral, after which she goes for a walk down the beach. She is approached by Mina, who tells her she bears her no grudge and that she has been punished enough. Mina has married Jonathan Harker, a lawyer from a firm in Essex. But it’s not all that it seems, as Mina suddenly reveals Vanessa’s thoughts on Peter, who has perished on his expedition to Africa. Vanessa knows that she never told that to a soul. Mina’s eyes go red as something speaks through her. She’s under the control of a master vampire. She regains control long enough to plead for help and is suddenly pulled away and disappears.
Drenched under the rain, Vanessa Ives appears at Sir Malcolm’s doorstep. You’ll notice throughout this episode there are few characters who stand at doorways asking permission to enter. It reminds me of the old vampire rule that states that a vampire cannot enter a human’s home without permission.
Sir Malcolm listens to Vanessa’s story. She doesn’t expect him to believe her but he does. Sir Malcolm has killed many men, and tells Vanessa that he once thought about killing her as well. He may still do that, but for now he’ll use her to find Mina.
The story ends as Vanessa finishes the letter to Mina and adds a postscript we don’t hear right away. The letter joins a hundred more she keeps unsent, as Mina has been missing for a while. We’re treated to a nostalgic image of the three children, Mina, Peter and Vanessa, running on the beach. The final words from Vanessa are that she loves her in a different way that her father does. She states: “I love you enough to kill you.”
Highs: Wicked scary, disturbing but amazingly crafted episode. The young and happy Vanessa Ives. Her cruel transformation and her desperate cursed deal with the supernatural to gain some of her sanity back. It’s not that the scenes of her torture at the asylum are any joy, but they are so superbly constructed that I have to admit horror becomes art in this series unlike anything that horror movies have done in the latest years. At the end of this episode you will believe Vanessa has endured so much torture both human and supernatural she has to be superhuman herself. As much wickedness and cruelty might have existed in Vanessa Ives beforehand, her decision to strike a deal with a demonic entity given what she had to endure is a choice far from easy judgement.
Lows: This was easily the highlight of the season and I don’t see any way anyone can top this. Every single other character’s ordeal pales in comparison with the haunting of Vanessa Ives. It’s going to make it incredibly difficult to be interested in anybody else’s story for a while. Also, I’m not going to sleep tonight.
That will do for now.