Penny Dreadful: Closer Than Sisters, review

Penny Dreadful opens our eyes to Vanessa’s transgressions in Closer Than Sisters.

This week’s Penny Dreadful episode, “Closer Than Sisters,” begins to tie up some of the background, if not loosen some of the knots. The League of Gentlemen and not so gentle woman cabal that is at the heart of Penny Dreadful’s monster squad has been a long time in the making. Vanessa Ives’ lifetime. The younger Vanessa (Lili Davies) plays a pivotal part in the coming transformation of the young Mina Murray (Fern Deacon) and in her own monster magnetism and, well, don’t it make Vanessa’s brown eyes blue.

The episode opens on a close-up of Vanessa Ives’ deep blue paranormal orbs. The camera lingers for quite a while establishing the blueness, the lightness, the depth of the eyes. Vanessa (Eva Green) is writing a letter to her long-lost friend Mina and those eyes search the darkness of her past. Shortly after establishing the azure iris and the black pupil, the camera cuts to a brown-eyed girl, Vanessa in miniature. It continues in the establishing shot in the garden labyrinth when we see the very brown-eyed Vanessa as a young woman for the first time.  I spent the rest of the episode anticipating some earth-shattering incident that would make Eva Green pull a Crystal Gayle.

That incident never quite happens. There is a slow buildup of incidents, flirtations, betrayals, medical procedures and possessions that break down the brown, but nothing that specifically transforms the vision as much as it does the visionary. It was distracting, in a good way because it built up a false and incredibly subliminal suspense, but it had no payoff. I understand that in life there is often no payoff, and cable programming has been pulling tricks like this since The Sopranos, but there are other distractions in the knots that Penny Dreadful has tied around Vanessa Ives.

The series began with a young girl whose mother is snatched by nocturnal creatures. It cuts to a younger and very Roman Catholic Vanessa Ives going into the throes of Christian mystical ecstasy. The backstory fills in some of the lost time, but I think they are flubbing some of the relationships. Not a major problem in episodic TV, which very often destroys its series’ canon several times over (The Odd Couple in the seventies and The Simpsons), but a distracting one. How are the Ives so congenial in their Roman Catholicism?

Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is an adventurer and an explorer. Only a rich man can afford all this picking up and heading off to the deepest darkest parts of Africa and his children suffer for that wealth. The young Peter Murray (Xavier Atkins) is a studious boy with no grit to speak of. Sure, the trio of misfit kids, Mina, Peter and Vanessa, can cut up and reconstruct Sir M’s bagged trophy animals in a taxidermy nursery but there’s not a Dr. Frankenstein among them. Nor is there a new rough and ready adventurer, they just aren’t strong enough. What with those Victorian collars and all.

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Dalton makes a subtle transformation in this episode. We first see Malcolm as the returning hero, having conquered jungle cannibals and come home with pelts and rare verdant gifts. Hatless and hungry, every homecoming is a feast to celebrate his not being roasted on a spit himself. Jungle fever gives way to garden fever as Mal and Vanessa’s mom prune each other’s flowers in the moonlight hedge-maze. Dalton jumps in happily and hungrily. Lust is part of an adventurer’s entitlements and Dalton plays with everything that is on Malcolm’s plate.

The dalliance in the hedges is an education for Vanessa, too bad she couldn’t share it with the young Peter, whose peter peters out in the petrified forest. Lust denied brings on the visions, of course, and  in the subsequent spectral communication we see the first instance of Vanessa’s eyes lightening. We assume that this is the reaction to supernatural contact and indeed, this has been reported as one of the symptoms of trance. It is subtle, distracting, and hypnotic in its teasing significance.

Penny Dreadful then subtly explores the correlation between spiritual and sexual awakening and the fine line between occult visions and mental illness. Vanessa looks through at the world through mirrored eyes. The world does not always like being reflected and all that ghoulish bloodthirsty teasing that Vanessa indulges in destroys her insulated world, but winds up liberating her into a much deeper trap. Insanity and witchery weren’t treated much differently centuries ago. They don’t dunk witches in asylums, they put them in frozen water to shock the Hell out of them.

The special effects makeup is superb here. Usually reserved for blood and gore in shows like this, the medical procedure is far more ghastly. The hole in Vanessa’s head looks like a hole in the head. Her grey skin and shaved dome looks sickly. The haircut itself, a way to break down a person, is ghastly and painful. All that science wasted on paranormal.

Now that Penny Dreadful has flown through its premise and started filling in the backstories it should move the series to new ground. Last week, they focused on the lost years of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature (Rory Kinnear) to bring depth to the monster, but no less menace. This week brings an explanation of the magnetic motherly quality that Vanessa Ives has with her supernatural friends, it shows where the affinity originates, but it makes her no less evil. We understand the darkness a little better but I can see how some fans might get as lost in the new departures as Sir Malcolm got in Africa.


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Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars


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4 out of 5