This week’s episode of Penny Dreadful was one giant epistolary flashback, all about Vanessa’s childhood and backstory. And also a little bit about the devil. Well, it’s Penny Dreadful; what else did you expect from a childhood tale?
This is a tough episode to review, in that it undoubtedly slows the forward momentum of the show and (being a flashback) we don’t get much narrative continuation; at the same time, I think it might just be my favorite episode of the season. Just when you thought Eva Green couldn’t get any radder than that séance scene, we get a whole episode pretty much dedicated to how badass she is. Excellent.
Composed like an epistolary novel through a series of letters from Vanessa to Mina, we discover that the Murray family and the Ives family were next door neighbors, as close as can be. And I mean so super close; Vanessa accidentally walks in on her mother and Malcolm Murray gettin’ busy in the hedge garden (so that mystery from the séance is finally solved, and incest-free at that—but could Sir Malcolm be Vanessa’s father?). Vanessa and Mina grow up together, the best of besties; Mina, conservative and cautious, while Vanessa is brash and impulsive. That is, of course, until Vanessa ends up banging Mina’s fiancé, the mustachioed Captain Branson. Vanessa’s all, “Oh, no, but I’ve been stalked by an evil force ever since I saw our parents doing it,” but, really. There’s no good reason to bang your bestie’s fiancé. Not ever.
Sadly, this all leads to some fairly difficult-to-watch scenes after Vanessa is incarcerated in a women’s asylum, where she’s treated for “psycho-sexual hysteria.” Funny thing about Victorian asylums—they could lock women away for pretty much any reason at all, and the women themselves were powerless to stop it. Your husband thinks you have too many “ideas?” Time for the asylum! Causing problems for your family? Asylum-town! It didn’t help that at the time, hysteria was a completely legitimate medical diagnosis, often thought to be a hereditary disorder of the uterus which could be responsible for anything from seizures to the unfortunate desire to read too much (seriously). Sadly for Vanessa, it seems this particular asylum had not taken up the (very common) use of the vibrator as a cure for sexually-motivated hysteria, and instead she’s made to undergo some pretty brutal brain surgery.
But the fun isn’t over for Vanessa yet; she’s visited by Amun-Ra, the devil himself, in the form of none other than Sir Malcolm Murray. In the creepiest of creepy reversals, it’s Vanessa’s mother who walks in on them this time. And she dies. What I’m trying to say is Vanessa probably carries around a lot of guilt, like, all the time.
We’ve seen Vanessa take up the mantle of several different Victorian archetypes, including the Gothic woman, the Holmesian deducer, and the spiritualist. But “Closer Than Sisters” suggests that perhaps our Miss Ives is something else altogether; over taxidermy projects (because we’ve learned nothing from this show if not stop messing with things that are supposed to be dead), Vanessa suggests that you must name a thing to make it real—like a witch’s spell. The old-timey, persecute-y view of witches is that they would “commune with the devil” in order to work their spells—and Vanessa definitely got her communing on with the Sir Malcomized devil this week. So it seems we have our witch.
“Closer Than Sisters” was a brilliant character piece, and episode five (of an eight episode season) isn’t a bad place to put a slow-moving hour like this. But I hope the next three episodes give us nothing but non-stop movement forward—I need more answers!
You can (and should) check out Penny Dreadful Sunday nights at 10pm on Showtime!