Last night, Penny Dreadful made a play for being the most Victorian thing ever on TV with an epistolary flashback episode. It didn't progress the plot much, but it did Penny Dreadful-ize everything that happened, so we're still unsure of specifics but definitely creeped out by whatever it is.
"Demimonde," an episode titled with that favored Victorian phrase to explain people you wouldn't have over to a respectable dinner but who you just knew threw stunning parties, left us with a little Victorian-aesthete sleepover between Dorian and the unexpectedly-sexually-fluid Ethan Chandler. It's not an enormous surprise, therefore, that an episode titled "Closer than Sisters" goes full Carmilla in its Sapphic undertones. It also goes full Carmilla in its wholly unsettling family dynamics, which make up the entirety of the episode; all the other subplots fall away as Vanessa Ives' backstory leaves the realm of Complicated and becomes a hopeless snarl of deeply Gothic psychosexual hangups.
The epistolary flashback, in true Victorian fashion, goes on forever and includes a pile of information already well-known to every party except us. It also ticks off a handful of Gothic bingo squares. Golden, blissful childhoods of impossibly close family contact at the edge of a deserted, lonely, creepy beach? Naturally.
Taxidermy playroom? Of course.
Peter to Mina, about Vanessa: "I'm bloodthirsty. She's just ghoulish." Comes by it honestly, does our Vanessa.
Though this episode's question is actually whether or not that's true. "Perhaps it has always been there," she says more than once in this letter, trying to trace the moment she first felt the demon at her back, but this episode also points out more than once that this is a world in which complicated things are crushed, stuffed, and stuck with glass eyes. She's a dark person, there's absolutely zero doubt, but this episode exists to prove she's just a dark thing in a world of dark things.
Her discovery of her mother and Sir Malcolm in flagrante, for example (at the center of a secretive maze, because of course) will be a motif much repeated this episode:
Vanessa, who admits she liked spying on it, takes the prayers to her room in an attempt to outrun the sex-guilt demon she senses creeping up right behind her:
(Whoever gave her that doll is fired as a parent.)
However, this series has already been so dark and no-holds-barred that I was honestly just relieved to get a plausible explanation for the sex mentioned in the séance, which had been construed as, among other things, sex between Malcolm and Vanessa and sex between Malcolm and his own daughter Mina. Sex with a neighbor of consenting age is a straight-up relief.
And largely, Vanessa's manifest darkness is delightful, like the shade she throws at the past ("The season of Peter's inadequate beard"), and the shade she throws at Peter in general, who reacts to her predatory sexuality the way I always imagine a man with an ounce of self-preservation would:
That's the face of a man who's just realized someday she'd shove him off a cliff for jollies; he's not wrong. (Vying for most Victorian extract from the letter: "You're beautifully weak, Peter. I love you for your weakness.")
But really, Vanessa's greatest concern is Mina, who is one of those vaguely-darling sorts who becomes the object of fixation because the fixator has decided it, rather than through being interesting in herself. (Sorry, Mina, you seem nice and I'm still holding out hope that you're the mastermind, but right now the most interesting thing about you is still Vanessa.) And when Mina's set to get married to Captain This Is Doomed, Vanessa has a lot of complicated feelings about all that business.
Oh, is it subtext? Eh, just make it text.
(I wish these actresses had either had a little more time together, a little more conflict to create some spark, or just better chemistry from the get-go; neither one of them is bad, but this lacks the sexual tension of last week, and largely ends up being subsumed into Vanessa's No Good Very Bad Life.)
And so she sets up a last-minute honeytrap for Captain What Are You Thinking, taking him into the taxidermy room because of course she would, and murmuring "I put mirrors behind the glass eyes" as she strokes the wings of her favorite creation, which turns the Captain on so much he decides to sex her right among the dead things.
This show's absolute favorite stylistic thing is to take an already-awkward moment and visually make it as unsettling as possible. "A honeytrap that's both creepy and understandable given how magnetic Eva Green is even when talking about taxidermy? Great, that sounds unbearably thematically messy. Can we make sure little glass containers of eyes go rolling around when they start? Perfect.")
Mina doesn't think it's perfect.
Interestingly, though, she doesn't give Vanessa the cut direct: she's heartbroken, but so is Vanessa, and you get the feeling that a big shouty fight and an eventual teary reconciliation when Mina remembered sex requires two people would have solved this whole business. But Vanessa runs into Malcolm first, who closes the door on her, hissing that she's a cruel little girl with so much sexual energy that all that weirdness from the séance comes rushing right back.
Vanessa doesn't take it well; she gets a pretty terrible case of Yikes-itis that's either Amunet having some fun or the worst case of Catholic guilt we've seen in a while. (Vying for most Victorian extract: "The doctors were at a loss to explain it, because you see....it was inexplicable.")
This show's casting perfection continues with the brilliant choice of Anna Chancellor as Vanessa's mother. Many of her best moments were hard to screencap—her casting about for things to talk to Vanessa about in her illness and ending up unable to do anything but quietly vent her own worries and grief was probably my favorite—but she was a wonderful presence here, the sort of character whose loss you feel even though they appear in a single episode. Vanessa's mother could easily have become just another of the parade of villains in her daughter's life; it's far more painful to have her be simply a well-meaning mother at the end of her rope, looking to modern medicine to do the best it can for her daughter.
Bad news: this is England in the nineteenth century, and what modern medicine can do is pretty awful.
(Great shot. So geometrically sacrificial.)
Add this to the Emmy reel that this season has been for Eva Green; the worst horrors are often man-made, a suitably Gothic theme. Sure, Amunet might be searching for a human vessel from which to conduct a symphony of eternal darkness and/or tear a doctor's throat out for fun, but the doctors here would firehose you and drill into your skull, quietly assured it was good for you, and her brokenness under this inhuman treatment is as wrenching as her creepiest demonic affectation.
Back home, on the verge of death, she wishes Peter a good trip to Africa ("You're going to die there," which is rude but sound advice), and then waits to die, except that Malcolm shows up first.
So, Malcolm and Vanessa's relationship has been a backbone of the series; their dynamics cover so many bases that every revelation has only added to the quagmire in which they miraculously manage to function. Clearly the demon at work here chose a form it knew Vanessa wanted, for filial reasons and sexual ones, and both Timothy Dalton and Eva Green are hair-raising in this scene, in which it's not so much that Vanessa's seduced by the devil as she stands her ground so long that he's the one seduced. ("Darkling, I listen; and, for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death.")
She's in a pretty terrible position, and I wouldn't doubt that she's been haunted pretty much since the beginning by one awful force or another. But when demonic Dalton is offering her the Second Sight, it feels a bit late (way back in the maze she knew Peter would die in Africa), and even here it feels like an unexpectedly even playing field. I wonder if, at the bottom of all those piles of demons, Vanessa isn't going to be able to pull out of it and win.
"So the darkness spoke." "Yes, but you listened," says the demon, as if to himself, because Vanessa has managed to creep out even the Lord of Darkness.
Then, because this is Penny Dreadful, her mom walks in on her naked and humping the air and immediately dies of shock, which is horrible, but also I cracked up, because this show has a quota of cover-your-mouth moments, and if it's not going to be a wall of bugs, it's going to be the moment where your mom dies because she catches you in the throes of banging the devil.
Eighteen inches of hair growth later, the still-mourning Vanessa meets Mina again unexpectedly.
("But what about us?" "We'll always have this thematically-apropos beach.")
Mina forgives her (no word on whether she's gotten the idea yet that it takes two people to have sex, but we'll let it slide), and then crosses the meta-boundaries of time and exposition to speak Vanessa's own thoughts about poor dead Peter—perhaps the first time we've seen Vanessa so flatly creeped out. Mina reveals herself as supernatural, but is yanked away while still begging for help. As Vanessa has no one else, guess where she ends up.
"Will you let me in?" Has a single meaning has ever left their mouths?
Naturally, he loathes her but thinks she'll be of use in locating Mina, so she gets to stay, but he's also very careful to enunciate that this is her home now in a way that's comforting, threatening, and promising by turns. These two almost justify an entire episode of dedicated flashback.
I'm still wondering about this, but given the chemistry between them, which began at Loaded and has only gotten heavier—and which the flashback to her as a young wedding-wrecker has done nothing to dispel—I wonder if Dalton's decided to play it that he's aware something happened sexually between them, except he himself wasn't actually present. It would explain about half the hostility; it would explain his acceptance of her gift and the warning to Ethan that it makes her desirable; it would definitely explain why he looks like he hasn't slept in a decade: terrified of the truth, but afraid to miss anything should it happen.
("Dear Mina, Things going swell, wish you were here. Catch you later, Vanessa.")
Back in the modern day, Vanessa wraps up her letter (Most Victorian extract winner: "There is no exculpation I expect of you") with some definitely-platonic signoffs, promising, "I will not rest until you are safe. There is no other purpose in my life. I shall love you always. Your dearest friend, Vanessa." ("Dearest" ""friend"" """Vanessa..""")
Then she tucks the letter into an enormous trunk absolutely stuffed with them Even trusting that at first she wrote one letter a month, then one a week, as she claimed at the beginning of the episode, and assuming she's only been writing them nightly since, say, "Night Work," that's a ridiculous amount of epistolary flashback. At first I laughed, wondering what on earth she'd been writing about beforehand, since this letter covered their entire lives to date. Then it occurred to me that maybe she just writes this same story over and over, and it went right back to creepy.
Not as creepy as the postscript, though: "Your father loves you very much and will do anything to save you. I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you." XOXO, Van.
In the scheme of things, this episode feels...not self-indulgent, because this show definitely has an endgame, but certainly a little isolating in giving up an entire episode to a single plot when, for example, we are still not entirely certain if Brona is dead in the street yet. The third episode was better about balancing a character's backstory with ongoing plots. Then again, if anyone deserves a whole episode to herself, it's Vanessa, and this one was so Very, Very Victorian that it would singlehandedly have earned all the Gothic cred a show named Penny Dreadful could want. Female sexuality as horrifying and powerfully monstrous by turns, homosexual subtext that eventually gives up and becomes text, self-castigation as a magnet for the predatory supernatural, portentous happenings that are never fully resolved—it's Carmilla all over, remixed with a modern eye. (The modern eye falls over a lot this episode; all the bluster about Africa as an adventurous haven for brave British explorers is either macho self-aggrandizement by a pretty shitty dad, or a death sentence that serves everybody right.)
So, what has this week done to our chart?
You know it's a supernatural show when characters have definitely made out, except not with enough objective narrative certainty to warrant a solid line. Until Vanessa and Malcolm give in to their damage and just go for it, that line will remain dotted.
Next week: I mean, a lot of stuff, but mostly I'd love an update on Brona, even if it means someone has to tell Ethan something.