Penny Dreadful’s penultimate episode “Closer Than Sisters” attempts to answer a lot of questions. While I appreciate the stroke to clarify some of the series’ more opaque conundrums, I’m not sure exactly how successful Closer was in doing so.
“Closer Than Sisters” begins with Vanessa at her desk, writing a letter (one of many) to Mina. Logan uses this convention to frame a flashback episode that chronicles Vanessa and Mina’s relationship. “Closer Than Sisters” is not about Ethan, it’s not about Caliban and it’s not about Victor. It is only about Vanessa and Mina. In many ways, the episode serves as a sort of stand-alone piece.
Long ago, the Ives and the Murrays were neighbors- they lived in adjacent mansions above the cliffs overlooking the sea. If this seems vaguely familiar it’s probably because the heroine in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is also named Mina. Like Logan’s Mina, Stoker’s Mina also lives in a seaside manse.
Given that proximity of Vanessa and Mina’s homes, the pair become close friends. Mina, courageous and mischievous, is a dubious influence on Mina, but their families remain amiable. This idyll begins to unravel when Mina’s father, Malcolm, returns from Africa. Though his homecoming is greeted with an intimate dinner party, there is something lurking just below the surface.
Late in the night, after the meal has finished, Vanessa—out on a midnight stroll—stumbles upon Murray and her mother in the midst of a tryst. Vanessa confesses that what shocked her most about this discovery was how much she enjoyed watching the two of them. From this point on, Vanessa’s inclination towards mischief grows. In her one-way correspondence with Mina, she states that God began to ignore her prayers, but that another spirit answered her in His place.
When Mina becomes engaged, Vanessa becomes jealous. What Logan does very well is keep the details of Vanessa’s possession ambiguous. Is her growing darkness an attribute of her character or the side effects of the malevolent spirits within her? The audience is never sure. Thusly, when Vanessa seduces Mina’s fiancé, we’re not sure whether Vanessa is motivated by a lack of morality or the demon within.
Mina discovers Vanessa’s transgression, the Murrays end their relationship with the Ives and Vanessa descends into madness. She begins to have seizures. When Vanessa’s parents can no longer deal with her afflictions, she is sent to an asylum where the spirits in her body take full control. She describes to one of her doctors a detailed account of an ancient maritime disaster, and when he calls her Vanessa, she responds “Who’s Vanessa?” before attempting to bite his throat.
The work Eva Green is doing on this show is amazing. Her stint into madness is not only specific, but the tone and tempo vary from one moment to the next. As an actress, Green knows exactly what she’s doing, even in moments of frantic release.
The thing that was difficult about “Closer Than Sisters” was how much plot they tried to fit into 54 minutes. If you look at the whole first season of Penny Dreadful, it’s amazing how little happens. The six-episode season barely has enough time to introduce all the characters, with the overarching storyline coming in second. It’s fine by me; I appreciate a slow build. I wonder, though, if Logan and the producers felt pressured to start moving the story along. In favor of plot, this week’s episode completely glossed over the details of Mina’s kidnapping and Peter’s death, two events which would have benefited greatly from a little more attention. There was a lot of plot points that the audience was told. Isn’t “show, not tell” one of the cardinal rules of TV? Overall, this was, I think, one of the better episodes of the season.