We're over halfway through Penny Dreadful's eight-part first season (it's been renewed for a second, thank heavens), and instead of advancing the plot, John Logan decided to colour in the background to Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). In "Closer than Sisters" we learned how they came to investigate creatures of the night, and it was a particularly tragic past that gave rise to their partnership.
As the title alluded, much of this episode focused on Vanessa and her childhood friendship with Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn), whose equally wealthy family were coastal neighbours of the Ives. But while Mina and Vanessa were joined at the hip as young girls, events conspired to tear their deep bond apart. The catalyst was Mina's father, Sir Malcolm, having a passionate affair with Vanessa's own mother (Anna Chancellor). As a prepubescent girl, Vanessa spied on them having sex in a hedge maze, and the shocking yet stimulating imagery had a worryingly negative effect on her psyche. (Very interesting how the story equated Vanessa's sexual awakening with making contact with evil forces, too, no? That felt quite controversial.) Years later, Vanessa was using her sexuality as a weapon against her friend (whom she grew jealous of after Mina got engaged and started needing her less), by seducing Mina's fiancé and getting caught in coitus.
The traumatic split with her childhood friend led to Vanessa's psychic powers manifesting around her deep-rooted guilt, which only made matters worse because she was committed to an asylum and underwent horrifying Victorian treatments (ice baths, having holes drilled into her head). These "cures" only left her catatonic and open to sinister otherworldly forces, as an evil spirit (taking the form of Sir Malcolm), apparently cured her mental disorder... but at what cost to her soul? Later, it transpired that any attempt to salvage a relationship with Mina was lost, as her friend had been kidnapped by a vampire in the interim, leading Vanessa to reach out to Sir Malcolm by offering to help him find his missing daughter.
A "flashback episode" can sometimes feel tedious and indulgent when you're in the flow of a present-day storyline, but "Closer than Sisters" worked supremely well. Clarity was needed about Vanessa and Sir Malcolm's past and circumstances of their partnership, and the spooky story that ensued was worthy of the grand Victorian horrors the era is famous for. It was also nice to see Sir Malcolm's frail son Peter (before he died mountaineering), who was destined to wed Vanessa before their families fell out—and whom we saw Vanessa channel during a séance sequence in episode 2.
If there's one enduring thought I have with Penny Dreadful it's that Eva Green owns the screen whenever she's present. What a wonderfully skilled, charismatic actress. She played someone losing herself to insanity and dark thoughts brilliantly here. The sequence where she seduced Mina's fiancé with talk of lifelike eyes on stuffed animals, the scenes where she was being physically and mentally broken in an asylum, and the shocking moment her mother died of shock seeing her naked and having sex with a "ghost"... all were terrifically handled by Green. And you can't overlook the actress's bravery in portraying some of these bizarre, frightening moments; quite besides the level of nudity required at times. She's fearless.
On the downside, I'm still not clear about how Mina's fell under the spell of a master vampire, which perhaps deserves its own flashback episode. It was only a minor part of this Vanessa-centric hour, but I'm still not sure what happened and it's a little aggravating. Why was this vampire interested in Mina? Did Sir Malcolm know or suspect his daughter's lover was a vampire? Did the vampire kidnap Mina to lure Vanessa?
Overall, "Closer than Sister" was a fine addition to this excellent first season, and more evidence this show's a triumph. I'm just puzzled Showtime's overnight ratings haven't broken a million yet, and there doesn't seem to be much online chatter about the show. While I'm glad a second season's been ordered, I really hope more people catchup with this somehow. It feels like it's slipping too many people by. It may not have the insane gruesomeness of American Horror Story, but it's a far better show. John Logan knows the horror genre well, understands its archetypes, and uses its traditions in clever ways.
There are always things to intrigue and unsettle, even after an episode has ended. After all, "Closer than Sisters" revealed that Vanessa's power comes from a dark place, or that evil entities are the only ones choosing to use her talents. Has she made a Faustian pact with her bedroom visitation when she was sick? If so, what was her mental health in exchange for? Greater but more danger psychic powers?