It’s time to learn about the sordid history of Mina (Olivia Llewellyn) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green).
Let’s bitch it out…‘Closer Than Sisters’ is unique in that it excludes the majority of the main cast in favour of an extended flashback that reveals the origin story of the show’s best character, Vanessa Ives. The episode is essentially two things: 1) a showcase for Eva Green and 2) a faithful rendition of Victorian horror (think Dracula and Frankenstein) in its use of letters as a narrative framing device.
We learn about Vanessa’s complicated relationship with Mina dating back to the time that they were children. After witnessing a forbidden act between Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and her mother in the maze that separates the two households, Vanessa is changed and begins attracting the attention of dark forces. Over time Vanessa’s infatuation with both Mina and Peter (whose fate we learned during the séance back in episode two) grows and takes on a dangerous edge. It’s telling that Vanessa effectively poisons her relationship with Mina on the eve of her best friend’s wedding by seducing the fiancé among Sir Malcolm’s taxidermied animals (Side Note: the animals certainly look alive when the rocking of the table makes them move). I particularly enjoy how Vanessa sees Mina watching her mid-coitus and Vanessa stares at her and carries on – it’s creepy, unnerving and just plain cruel.
After being shut out of the Murray household, Vanessa falls ill and the result looks like a mild possession crossed with catatonia. Her parents confine her to an institution which has all of the hallmarks of a Victorian quack factory: drugs, hydrotherapy and surgery are her treatment options. What follows is more (great) craziness by Eva Green as she gets to once again speak in tongues, flip her shit in the ice baths and try to eat her doctor’s face. It’s basically American Horror Story: Aslyum condensed into a lovely ten-minute sequence (Side bar: you could not pay enough to act out the water hose and lobotomy scenes. Also: kudos to the sound effects team as the instruments pushes through Vanessa’s skull. Barf)
Later, Peter comes to see Vanessa before he journeys to Africa (I enjoyed her mother’s advance warning that “she’s much changed” – talk about an understatement). Peter is suitably upset by her appearance, though I think Green looks lovely with her Mia Farrow haircut. She manages to pry a kiss out of him (hands up if you expected a bite) and then bluntly states that he will die in Africa. It’s not a warning; it’s a statement of fact. Her dark passenger now allows her to see the future apparently.
What follows is the highlight of the episode as the possessing spirit, in the guise of Sir Malcolm, appears to tempt her. They chat about Keats, powers and death and as the music swells, they kiss and he takes her (I found this scene evocative because it feels as close as we might come to what you’d expect to see in Dracula when Mina falls under the vampire’s spell). When her mother finds her naked and getting spiritually fucked, a single look from Vanessa is enough to kill her (Side Note: this could have been extremely campy, but Green’s dedication to the ridiculousness of it all somehow sells it).
Vanessa and Mina reconcile where we first met them: on the beach. Mina forgives her in her suffering, but it’s a just a ruse – turns out Mina is already under the Dark One’s control and this is more of an invitation to the events that started the series. Aside from being visually interesting when Mina gets sucked away, the reunion is interesting because there’s a implicit suggestion of responsibility on Vanessa’s part for what has happened to Mina, as though her friend has fallen into danger because of the deal that Vanessa struck with her possessor (this is nicely reflected in the contrasting colours of their costumes: black for Vanessa and white/beige for Mina).
Armed with the knowledge that Mina is in danger, Vanessa offers her help to Malcolm (note that she asks to be invited in? Way to subvert the conventions of different horror texts, Penny Dreadful!). The pair exchange some heated words before coming to a temporary truce, which brings us to the present and Vanessa’s writing of the letter that has served as the framing device for this extended flashback. The fact that she has a box of letters addressed to Jonathan Harker is a little hokey, though the post-script that she loves Mina enough to kill her is a nice reminder that the show doesn’t trade in light-hearted territory. If nothing else, this Vanessa-heavy episode has shown us that she has the strength (and possibly the power) to do what needs to be done to “save” Mina, whereas Malcolm, in all likelihood, does not.
What’s your take on Vanessa’s dark past? Did you miss the rest of the cast? Did you catch all of the references to eyes (a longstanding horror trademark)? Did you think of The Shining when you saw the hedge maze? And just who has Vanessa made a deal with (is it truly the devil)? Sound off below.
Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 10pm EST on Showtime