Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Past and present are revealed in Penny Dreadful’s mid-first season

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Home is where your heart lies or so we are told. But memories are a living being within your mind. They shape who you are, your convictions, your weakness, and your demons. Midway through the first season of Penny Dreadful, we learn much and more about these characters who have suffered so. Yet, what things have they suffered, we are given stories and tall tales boasting a struggle that would crush lesser beings. Yet at the height of the journey lies at the middle of the first season when our central characters are finally fleshed out by revealing their pasts. Others we learn more about through the struggles they are facing now.

This is your home now.

At the start of this fifth episode, “Closer Than Sisters”, we are shown Vanessa in the present. She is writing a letter to Mina, the letter itself lending narration to this episode by her voice. Quickly we are thrown into a time long past as Vanessa and Mina, children, run across a beach in bliss. On either side a mansion with two gates that never closed, until as Vanessa says, the day they closed forever. The girls quickly join Mina’s brother Peter in the taxidermy room as he is working on an animal. As the young girls talk of the perfect man, you can see Peter is trying hard to be his father’s son. He is only concerned with becoming an explorer like Malcolm, to go on man adventures with his father. It’s sad to think what fate will befall the poor boy.

A young Malcolm, Peter and Mina Murray and Vanessa Ives
A young Malcolm, Peter and Mina Murray and Vanessa Ives

Soon after a younger Malcolm returns home from being away for quite sometime. Immediately Peter rushes to his father, who is happy enough to see him. Yet after the boy is given a gift, he is abandoned and Malcolm rushes to kiss his wife and hold his daughter and Vanessa. A dinner party is in order as the Murray family entertains their best friends, the Ives, with stories of glory and battle from the wilds of Africa. Vanessa describes these gatherings as being better than Holidays, but children’s thoughts often change once they experience the sad event that turns them away from innocence.

One day as she is searching for Mina and Peter, she runs into their maze, thinking that a prank is afoot. What she sees changes her forever and allows her soul to open up to a force she would never truly understand. She sees Malcolm and her own mother making love. They do not see her but she stands and stares for a long while. She enjoyed it, the act itself and having a secret that no one else knew. She did love Mina so much that she did not tell her, to inform her would make her grow up too fast as Vanessa had. This secrets caused her to act out, stealing things while under watchful eye and later something much worse.

As the little girls became young women, it was only natural that love would be on their minds. Vanessa had always been aware that her and Peter would one day marry in a sort of pseudo-betrothal, yet she could only be jealous of Mina when she found the man of her dreams. A young captain with an extraordinary life ahead of him. Jealousy was not the only emotion running through Vanessa, but possession. Mina was hers. To sate this mentality she begins to force herself closer to Peter whose mind is only focused on Africa and his father. She kisses him and forces his hands to her breast but it is too much for this shy boy. He turns and leaves, sealing his fate as Vanessa remembers with sorrow, wishing she could have made him stay.

That night she prays to a silent God for respite, to stop Mina’s marriage and from her leaving her, and for Peter to keep him safe. Her God remains silent but something else answers.

“If I could only go back now, I would run off after him and say ‘Don’t go. Don’t go to Africa. You’ll never survive. You’re too weak. You’re beautifully weak, Peter. I love you for your weakness'”

Vanessa and Peter
Vanessa and Peter

The night before Mina’s wedding, Vanessa happened upon the groom to be. In the taxidermy room they spoke of the animals and how she would often put pieces of glass behind their eyes, especially the predators, to make them look more alive. Slowly but surely, she seduced him and he took her right there on the table; only Vanessa saw Mina standing at the door watching the ordeal in tears. The next day she leaves her home to see Mina, while her mother screams asking has she no shame. She retorts by finally revealing what she saw that night as a young girl. Only Malcolm appears at the front gate and suddenly it is closed forever as Vanessa walks away and faints. Her new friend answered her prayers, but came back to exact his toll and it would be more than Vanessa could bear.

Whatever spoke to her casts an illness upon her, more like a possession after each passing day. At first it’s a malaise but soon she begins to have violent fits and seizures; no doctor that visits knows what is wrong with her. Epilepsy is considered and the symptoms get only worse as the Murray family leaves their home, breaking their bond with the Ives. Soon enough a specialist is contacted, Vanessa is afraid of it being an asylum. The doctor speaks with Vanessa, assessing what he can. Not longer after he mentions using hydrotherapy and narcotics to help her she begins speaking like a mad woman in an incomprehensible language, just before she attacks him and surrenders what freedom she had left to her.


The therapy is a fate you would not wish on a most hated enemy. Hydrotherapy is forcing her in a tub filled with blistering cold water all the while adding more and more ice into it. You cannot even struggle because of the straight jacket that you are confined in. She is chained to a wall and sprayed with a powerful hose, to what end I do not know. Even when she is in her room there is no respite, they strap her and feed her neck copious amounts of drugs and sedatives. A final procedure includes shaving her head and drilling a hole into her skull. After a while she is allowed to return home, in a catatonic state. Fate becomes present when Peter comes to the house one night. He is leaving for Africa and wants to give his unknowing final goodbye to a long lost friend. As he kisses her on her forehead she whispers to him that he will die. He leaves speechless, poor boy.

Her nameless demon returns to her that night in the likeness of Malcolm. She knows now what he is as he beckons her to name him. Of all the names she throws its is the final yet all of them, the devil. He tells her she sought him out not the other way and offers her life and power in exchange for her being. A seduction of words ensue as the quite uncomfortable scene progresses. From the lower floor her mother hears a commotion and creeps silently up the stairs. What she sees is too horrifying for her heart to handle. She collapses to her death as Vanessa is being sexually ravaged by an invisible force.

Vanessa possessed
Vanessa possessed

The episode closes closer to the present as an older Vanessa meets with Mina, who has forgiven her for everything; telling her that she has suffered enough. She is now married to a certain Jonathan Harker. By now readers of Bram Stokers Dracula are surely throwing excited fits until Mina reveals her new nature. She is possessed by a creature but so desperately wants to be saved as she is pulled away by an insane force. That same night Vanessa seeks out Malcolm who is reluctant to help her, but as Mina is concerned his mind quickly changes. There is a great hate between the two which is quite different to the closeness they both share in the present. He offers her his home to her until Mina is saved. The ending scene shows Vanessa completing the letter and depositing it into a chest with hundreds more. Her final words show us how much love and conviction still remain within Vanessa.

“I love you enough to kill you.”

Some people cannot be saved.

After the last episode, which was entirely flashback, we are placed back in the present after the attack on the Murray mansion in this 6th episode named “What Death Can Join Together”. Fear grips all our characters as Vanessa struggles to comprehend a power and dark force she cannot understand, Malcolm fears what the price is to set his daughter free, Victor juggles the fear of doing what he must for those who are his responsibility and how to live with the choices, and Ethan fears for Brona and her deteriorating health. Back at the shipyard inn, Ethan returns to Brona after the fiasco at the theatre to find her in a worse state than she has ever been in. Almost every cough she makes is tinged with blood and she is quite bed ridden. This is a beautifully tragic moment, both these souls are deeply in love with one another yet we all know it will not last.

Back in the mansion, Malcolm is trying to get some edge on the master and turns to Vanessa with her mysterious powers; she does what she can. As Vanessa taps into her tarot deck she focuses on which to choose, being guided by a voice. The force is Mina calling for help, certain cards amplify the voice; V of cups and the moon. The sounds become a ship with men drowning and screaming, an obvious omen that takes Malcolm to investigate any eerie ships that have recently docked. Dorian Grey soon calls upon the house to offer apologies to Vanessa for his early departure from the theatre. He follows with an offer of a greater adventure.

We also return to our dysfunctional father and son as Victor performs an autopsy on the young dead vampire and Caliban shows how innocent he truly can be when he has a crush on an actress. It is a tender moment between the two as she calls him a part of her family. She expresses that he should not hide his face; she had a brother who was burned in a fire and always hid his face thereafter. She missed seeing it. His name was Lucifer, though not after Satan but rather the angel of light and beauty. With Victor however; the autopsy only reveals a normal human body with malnutrition.

Back at the mansion Malcolm contemplates the investigation ahead and what he will sacrifice to save Mina. Sembene understands better than most what really needs to be thought. What if she is beyond saving? For the first time we get so much more than a few words from the silent African. He shows great wisdom and tells truths that will assure your mission yet, will question your own morality.

Caliban and Maud
Caliban and Maud

“No. For the blood we share, for the miles we have walked, Malcolm, we are not the same. Where I come from, we know some people cannot be saved. Say your daughter is one of them. What then? Know what you are going to do”.

Sembene. "Know what you are going to do."
Sembene. “Know what you are going to do.”

Back with Dorian and Vanessa, they are on a strange adventure. He takes her to have her photograph taken. They talk about what traditions of other cultures have of photographs and immortality and Dorian talks about his love for paintings rather than photos. The chemistry ever grows with these two and honestly most of the watchers were probably thinking the same. When are they going to get it on already?

They are not the only lovers however. Caliban sneaks one of his books to the actress whose affection gave him a little false hope. The cover has a beautiful rendering of the angel Lucifer and she smiles until her true lover comes. He feigns jealousy as Caliban watches hidden and his heart is torn when she sets the gift aside and tells him the contrary. As Dorian takes Vanessa home he offers her adventure later in the evening.

We move back to Victor, seemingly watching girls at dance. In his mind we see the painful choice he will have to make soon. To take a life so that his creation may have a bride. Shortly after he meets with Doctor Van Helsing for lunch and they discuss the body of the Vampire. Van Helsing sees so much of himself in the young doctor. Yet, he reminds Victor of the price of all his work. He must not make work the only thing he knows and forget to live, to find a woman and live. The conversation moves to the topics of fate and the consequences of responsibility. Van Helsing can tell the doctor is troubled but Victor only tells him it is a story he might one day share.

Back at the mansion Vanessa prepares for her date. This scene shows just how far her and Malcolm have come as his eyes light up as she asks how she looks. This moment is wonderfully happy, contrary to how Malcolm thought of her when she appeared on his front door all those months ago.

Victor and Van Helsing
Victor and Van Helsing

Before Ethan goes to meet Malcolm and Sembene to explore a ship that held a certain plague, he spends some time with Brona. Upon his exit she gives him an Irish charm of a saint, saying it will bring him luck. She says they shouldn’t kiss anymore as she believes she is becoming more and more sick. He kisses her anyway, jesting that if he got sick she would care for him. Reckless but beautiful. When the trio is finally together, Ethan is suspicious that Vanessa is not with them.

Back with Victor, Van Helsing becomes just like his classic counterpart. He tells Victor the attributes of the Vampire and how to kill them. Just as in the novel, stake to the heart and decapitation. He even uses a quote from the original text, “For the dead travel fast”.

Ethan and Brona
Ethan and Brona

As Malcolm and his companions explore the ship they see bodies all around, some human others vampire. Beneath the hull we also glimpse the master as he wakes yet keeps himself hidden. There are many female vampires that have a likeness of Mina, like from the pilot, yet are not her. As they begin to search deeper the vampires awake and begin to overwhelm them. Sembene shows off his badass blade skills while Malcolm and Ethan unload round after round. A certain shot at an oil lamp sets the room ablaze and the master finally comes out from hiding, with Mina in his grasp. He flees after showing her off and the trio barely makes it off the ship with their lives.

This however isn’t the only horrible defeat in this episode. As Van Helsing walks the streets of London with Victor, Caliban sets upon them in a very ‘point of no return’ way. He drags the old doctor into an alley and snaps his neck like a twig. He is truly invested in the promise he made to Victor, we knew this was coming but are shocked all the same.

Mina and The Master
Mina and The Master

“Do not weep. I’ve learned that skill, it brings no solace.”

In the final scenes we are finally given a break in all the sexual tension between Dorian and Vanessa. Theirs is a very forceful and slightly violent affair as she cuts him with a knife and her nails, blood is drawn from every passionate wound. Yet as they continue a spirit appears before Vanessa, a hallucination that sends her into a panicked frenzy. She leaves Dorian on his own without a word. Confused he walks to his gallery to this hidden portrait that we are still not allowed to see. As he stares at it his wounds magically begin to heal. What the hell is this cryptic painting?

The episode ends with Vanessa returning home and finding Malcolm contemplating the dark. Her eyes turn white and her mouth opens wide as she begins to float mid air.

The midpoint of this season is a great in my opinion. We are given more depth to each and every character no matter the size of their role. Certain mysteries are solved yet so many still remain. Yet the best thing about in my opinion is that all these characters were once all connected by a single storyline, yet now they are beginning to branch out into more and more subplots that gain greater and more satisfying moments and events. In turn these subplots will introduce us to new characters who will have subplots of their own. The midseason also sets up for the eventuality that will come into the final two episodes in the season and what we expect from it.

 Vanessa suspended
Vanessa suspended

Images courtesy of Showtime

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