Penny Dreadful episode 5 review: Closer Than Sisters

Review Becky Lea 18 Jun 2014 - 07:05

Penny Dreadful delivers a quieter episode that delves satisfyingly into Vanessa's past...

This review contains spoilers.

1.5 Closer Than Sisters

After the sprawling narrative of last week’s episode, which took in several characters at once, Closer Than Sisters narrows its focus to Vanessa’s story as she writes to the still-missing Mina in a nice nod to epistolary structure of Dracula. Their relationship only hinted at previously, the episode goes back to when the two women were close childhood friends along with Peter, Mina’s brother, the son who was channelled by Vanessa during that spectacular seance scene earlier in the season. Over the course of the episode, the reason for Mina’s guilt and her dark past is revealed, leading to her alliance with Sir Malcolm to track Mina down.

In last week’s review, I commented that Penny Dreadful had been very forthcoming in asking questions or teasing connections without actually establishing any answers or making these connections directly. I needn’t have worried. This episode shades in the background of the biggest plot point so far, the search for Mina Murray and the mysterious past that Vanessa has been hiding, and does so very well.

It’s a quieter affair than some of the previous episodes, a welcome shift in tone that wholly embraces the psychosexual element with Vanessa’s coming of age, her psychic abilities and darkness activated by her voyeuristic observation of Malcolm’s affair with her mother. Vanessa has always been something of an enigma in the midst of several other mysteries and though this episode goes some way to unravelling her, it manages to retain an air of intrigue throughout.

Eva Green is once again fantastic, peeling back Vanessa’s assured front to reveal someone who has danced, amongst other things, with the devil. Green deftly captures the various aspects of the character; Vanessa is at times vivacious and strong, at others vulnerable and broken. It’s also an excellent physical performance during her illness, throwing herself into the physical torments that Vanessa endures as part of her punishment.

It is an episode of strong performances, particularly guest star Anna Chancellor as Vanessa’s hypocritical and distressed mother. Timothy Dalton has been consistently strong and is so once again, channelling the roguish adventurer and guilty father easily. He also gets a chance to unleash his sinister side in Vanessa’s encounter with the devil and clearly does so with relish. Never has Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale sounded so threatening.

Malcolm’s final scenes with Vanessa, broken by his experiences, bring us full circle to the guilty man desperate to find his daughter. Their agreement to search for Mina is one of mutual understanding, a need for both to find redemption in this final act. It goes some way to explaining the desperate methods they have been resorting to when it comes to the treatment of vampires and explains their strong relationship with ease.

As in other aspects of Penny Dreadful, Logan falls back on nineteenth century literary tropes to shade in this story; Mina and Vanessa are visual opposites, the blonde Mina coded to the innocent, virginal portrayal of femininity whilst dark-haired Vanessa eventually becomes the sexualised temptress, punished for her misdeeds. However, as with other characters in this series, Logan rewrites the generic narrative to have Vanessa survive rather than be destroyed entirely by her mysterious illness, granting her a chance for redemption in the process.

The horror of this episode does not arise, as it has done previously, in blood, gore or violence, but in the sinister atmosphere created by Vanessa’s possession and the contemporary medical treatments that she undergoes. The hydrotherapy scenes are especially brutal. Coky Giedroyc’s direction focuses in close during the hose scene, dispensing of the score to ensure that the deafening sound of the hose and Vanessa’s screams are the only noises you can hear. Sound effects are used to even more distressing effect in the draining of Vanessa’s skull as her head is drilled into and the grinding noise of the drill contrasts sharply to the low strings of the score.

Long a veteran of period dramas, Giedroyc also handles the family elements of the story particularly well, capturing Vanessa and Mina’s idyllic childhood on the coast in warm, sunlit scenes. It provides a counterpoint to the cold, sterile light of the asylum scenes and even more so with the dark, lamplit moments in the Ives’ home as Vanessa convalesces and consorts with the devil. It’s a slow shift over the course of the episode, but it builds into a constant sense of dread as these background events are revealed.

A quieter episode it may be, but it is refreshing to have questions answered regarding the backgrounds of two of the characters and be able to understand more about their respective motivations. It ends on a dark note as Vanessa acknowledges she may have to kill her friend in order to free her, thus setting up a further conflict in her relationship with Malcolm. Vanessa remains the charismatic heart of Penny Dreadful and understanding her more going into the final three episodes of the season can only help the ongoing narrative.

Read Becky's review of the previous episode, Demimonde, here.

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