After last week's Ethorian hookup, I didn't think Penny Dreadful could raise the level of the shock-o-meter any further. It did. This week's "Closer Than Sisters" shows us how far the horror series will go. Answer: all the way.
The spotlight is laser focused on Miss Vanessa Ives giving us a glimpse of her Mina connection, her strange relationship with Sir Malcolm and her trip to the loony bin. No wonder the creature wants her soul. What a catch. Let's take a look at Vanessa's past.
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Endless Ribbon of Words
"Closer Than Sisters" opens with Vanessa writing to Mina more than a little obsessively ... monthly at first, then weekly and now daily. She even comments that she seems to be reaching a point where it will be all she does. The rest of the episode is 47 minutes of a drawn-out flashback offering more answers than the previous four offerings combined.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Dreadful
We see a young Vanessa and Mina running on the beach, holding hands, laughing. Vanessa wants to go far out while Mina's the cautious one. Their two families are so close, neighbors in their shiny palatial estates complete with hordes of servants. Their hangout is a room full of Sir Malcolm's dead animals, all stuffed to perfection. They talk about who they'll marry. Mina wants a tall, mustachioed man. Peter, Mina's brother, is supposed to marry Vanessa according to his sister. Both look a little ill at the prospect. Maybe it's Vanessa's talk of naming dead things to make them live that's the turn-off.
Sir Malcolm returns from an adventure and gets a hero's welcome from his doting children and pretty neighbor girl, Vanessa. Within 30 seconds, it's obvious the explorer favors the girls. He's got an awkward kiss for his wife that says he's not getting any. Ever. Sir Malcolm tells tales of his adventure to an enthralled audience of dinner guests.
There's one big reveal after another in this week's episode. The first one shows us what Sir Malcolm did to look so guilty all the time. Vanessa foreshadows, "On that terrible night, the night it happened," and we know this isn't going to be good. Vanessa enters a huge labyrinth and finds her mother and Sir Malcolm having sex. She says she thought she would find Peter and Mina playing a trick on her but surprise, surprise. We know Vanessa has issues, but oh how deep they run. She says of her peep show, "I enjoyed it," adding that "Perhaps it has always been there, this demon inside me." She keeps the secret but says it changes her forever, causing her to perform little acts of wickedness.
Flash forward and the girls are all grown up. Vanessa catches Mina and her suitor, Captain Branson, in the same maze. This time, she interrupts before any serious dirty dancing can occur. Vanessa seems to be flirting with the idea of dating Peter, who she comments has an inadequate beard. I think he makes a perfectly good enough beard for our lovely Miss Ives, don't you think? She can't keep her eyes off Mina and is unhappy with the courtship of handsome Captain Branson. Vanessa says, "God, how I envied you. Perhaps I even hated you." Vanessa becomes so envious that Mina experiences things before her: a man's touch and love.
Back in the maze -- because apparently that's the only place people do anything together -- Peter and Vanessa take a stroll with the young man confessing he was never the son Sir Malcolm wanted, always ill and weak. Vanessa attacks him in an awkward kiss that rivals the Lisa Marie/Michael Jackson smacker or that Liza Minnelli/gay husband clunker. I think Peter would feel more comfortable with Ethan and/or Dorian. In the least surprising move of the night, he breaks away and runs off.
Sex, Lies and Taxidermy
The creepy Vanessa whisper-praying is back. Would we have an episode of Penny Dreadful
without it? Miss Ives says, "God didn't answer her, another did," and we hear a Darth Vaderish voice but can't make out the words. Yes, definitely not Morgan Freeman; it must be the creature.
Flash to the engagement party of Mina. Vanessa's wearing green ... on the inside. She's one jealous girl. We see her sport "envy eyes" directed at her friend during the party, but all must be forgiven because later that night they're in bed together. No, not the Ethan/Dorian kind of love nest, but the innocent "just sleeping" kind of bed. Vanessa is staring at her dozing friend and those eyes are back. She gets up and meets Captain Branson, leading him to the dead animal room. She seduces him with an impromptu tour and a talk of dead things. He's transfixed on her and they go at it. Nothing spells sex like a room of taxidermy. Mina walks in and sees. Mission accomplished.
The captain is sent packing as well as Vanessa. She tries to go back to Sir Malcolm's to "make this right." He slams the gate in her face. I don't think it actually hits her, but in the next scene she gets her "rolling back in the head" eyes again (another prerequisite of the series) and faints. She talks of an illness that came and we see her return to Linda Blair form writhing on a bed, frothing at the mouth. The doctor doesn't know what's wrong with her, although mum says they "fear it is your brain. Something inside you." Mommy Dearest also tells her Mina's gone. Great bedside manner. She tries to lighten the mood by saying the next trip is ... an asylum. Vanessa replies, "You should let me die."
It's a Mad, Mad World
In the facility, Vanessa looks awful -- greasy hair, raw knuckles, black under her eyes. This is perhaps the most shocking turn of the night ... Vanessa looks ugly. Do I hear a best makeup Emmy for turning Eva Green into an ugly hag? She creeps out her doctor with talk of death and asks, "Who's Vanessa?" She tries to bite his smug head off (I was really rooting for this) but is stopped by orderlies in hilarious little white caps. She's dipped in icy water -- I guess to freeze the crazy out of her -- given a shot in the neck, then cuffed to a shower wall and sprayed with a hose bigger than the ones wielded by those Chicago firemen. Next up, her hair is cut off close to the scalp and she's strapped to a table. In a difficult scene to watch, a screw is driven into her head, and we see close-up scars of old procedures.
Peter visits the Ives to say farewell ... he's embarking on his ill-fated adventure to Africa. He wants to see Vanessa. In the understatement of the series, Mom says, "She's much changed." She's catatonic with her eyes open. Peter sits with her trying to reach the old Vanessa. Mom suggests "closer." I'm thinking, "She's a biter."
He tells her he's going to Africa and she responds with, "You should've kissed me. Will you kiss me now?" He looks like he's going to vomit, but lays a lame attempt at a real kiss on her.
"You're going to die there. You're going to die there," she tells him. That African safari is not looking so fun. He leaves, never to return again.
She opens her eyes and Sir Malcolm is in her room, only it's not really him. "Who are you? You're not Sir Malcolm."
He says, "You have to name a thing to make it live ... You can shut the door on this at any time. Will you?"
Vanessa doesn't shut the door or anything else on the creature because mom pops in to find daughter being ravished by some unseen force. In a sort of unintentionally funny scene, Mom drops dead, right there, clunk on the floor. (Sorry, I think I channeled my inner Vanessa.)Reunited and It Feels So...
In the next scene, we see Vanessa looking much better at a funeral. She walks the beach afterwards and runs into a seemingly forgiving Mina. "Sister, I do not blame you. Whatever sin has been forgiven in your suffering."
Vanessa won't take the absolution, saying, "I can't forgive myself."
They talk about the good old days and braiding each other's hair (not really) when Mina mentions, "Oh yeah, Peter's dead." In the creepy line of the night, she adds, "If only you'd run after him in the maze and told him you loved him." Mina's possessed by the master and begs her former BFF to save her. I blinked and she's gone.
We get some insight into the Vanessa/Sir Malcolm relationship when Miss Ives visits the explorer, telling him of Mina's predicament.
He responds with, "There was a time I would gladly have killed you. There may come a time when I gladly shall. But for now, I can make use of you." Wow, he sounds as bitter as the owner of California Chrome. Just in case she's confused with how deep his hatred runs, he tells her he can never forgive her.
Vanessa's not the type of girl to take that verbal lashing lying down (unless your name is creature). She counters with, "An unforgivable transgression has marked me for life." She says she's been in hell and then resorts to name calling. He figures they can use each other and make a pact to save Mina. When it's all over, Vanessa says Sir Malcolm will be "done" and she will "walk on." "This is your home now," he tells her.
The final scene shows her back to writing her letters, telling Mina, "I will not rest until you are safe. There is no other purpose in my life. I shall love you always."
There's a post script, of course: "Your father loves you very much and will do anything to save you. I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you."
So many answers packed into one episode. "Closer than Sisters" had some big reveals and explained the Mina/Malcolm/Vanessa connection in a satisfying way. What did you think of this week's offering?
airs Sundays at 10pm on Showtime.
(Image courtesy of Showtime)