Penny Dreadful Season 1, Episode 5 “Closer Than Sisters”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Coky Giedroyc
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
Led by Eva Green’s magnificent performance, “Closer Than Sisters” is an enjoyable, if predictable, origin story for Penny Dreadful‘s most enigmatic and mysterious character. Soaked in atmosphere and sprinkled with musings on the true nature of evil, “Closer Than Sisters” only fails when its trying to justify it’s dramatic tensions, turning entire segments of the episode into slut-shaming exercises. When it’s squarely focused on the characterization of Vanessa Ives, however, “Closer Than Sisters” wonderfully illustrates her seduction to the darker side of Penny Dreadful‘s supernatural world.
As expected, the best moments of “Closer Than Sisters” come when Eva Green is conveying Vanessa’s internal battle with the struggles placed on her by the outside world: the feeling of inadequacy around Mina, the allusion of sin when she sees the passion between Malcolm and her mother, her desperate, probably ill-placed, pursuit of Peter Murray… all of these moments add texture to the very mysterious, allusion-heavy presence of Vanessa in the series’ first four episodes, a very effective way for the show to place us directly in Vanessa’s point of view during her formative experiences, giving life to the conflict in both her mind and her heart (spoken no better when she writes to Mina at the episode’s end that she loves her enough to kill her, if she can’t rescue her) and allowing Green to dominate the frame with her layered performance.
Unfortunately, the times “Closer Than Sisters” is trying to build its mythology, constructing the bridge between past and present, it stumbles and turns into an hour of Vanessa Fucks Everything Up By Fucking, her thirty-second seduction of Mina’s fiancee ruining their wedding, and sending her tumbling through a twisted, dark web of psycho-therapy (trepanning!), demon seizures… and even some invisible demon-fucking, her seduction to the darkest of sides completed in a very weirdly written scene where she has sex with not-Malcolm. On one hand, I enjoy the ambiguity because it continues to present this idea that evil exists within all of us, but it’s life experience that brings out the worst – but on the other hand, there isn’t a ton of compelling visual evidence that suggests why the demon wants to seduce Vanessa (outside of the impregnation angle; that other vampire/devil thing Victor took samples from called her “Mother”), except that she’s easily persuaded into bad, sexually-related decisions, thanks to her possession (which does ground itself in some logic; demons challenge us to destroy our morality, which explains why Vanessa is into praying, and now refuses to enter a church).
It makes for an episode that is equally enthralling and disappointing: for every fascinating scene adding depth to Vanessa’s character, a plot point that tries to undercut it for the sake of dramatic tension steps in the way. Some of these moments work well to demonstrate the internal conflict of a woman fighting the allure of the Devil, but others seem to cheapen this battle by allowing the men of this world to place all their blame on her, essentially guilting her into accepting the darkness that wants to consume her (or rule the world with her; all depends on the time of day).
When “Closer Than Sisters” works best, it’s moving away from these machinations that torture Vanessa and punish her, painting the various seductions of darkness as choices that create conflict within the character, not the world around it. Sure, the setting of Penny Dreadful allows its old-school misogyny to not feel out of place: but when it comes to things like Malcolm’s treatment of Vanessa in the episode’s back half, or the death of Vanessa’s mother watching her fuck an invisible demon, “Closer Than Sisters” feels like its punishing a character beyond what might be considered “reasonable” for the single transgression she’s committed. There’s one important thing “Closer Than Sisters” forgets: philosophically speaking, there is no such thing as an unforgivable act – and if that’s all Vanessa needs to save herself, it makes the torture the show’s placed upon her soul much less compelling than a woman slowly being absorbed by the seduction of evil.
– “the summer of Peter’s beard” was such a great turn of phrase, in an episode that tries a little too hard to be poetic with its voiceover exposition.
– lots of suggestions that Peter was gay, huh? It wasn’t enough for him to be weak – he also had to be feminine in his weakness.
– there isn’t a lot of explanation behind the children’s taxidermy obsession, though I like the melancholy nature of those scenes.
– Well, Mina Murray becomes Mina Harker by the end of the episode, so I’ll assume we’re still heading towards Dracula, yes?