TV- Penny Dreadful: “Closer Than Sisters”- A Powerful Prequel


Eva Green in one of her best performances.

The creators of Penny Dreadful seem to relish the conventions of the supernatural procedural drama. The show is something of a love letter, not just to the Gothic literature that inspired it, but to older supernatural-themed shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Penny Dreadful is not simply fun in its own right, but fun as a celebration of its genre. The show can be hard to criticise, because many aspects of the plot and production that seem “generic” or “overdone” feel entirely purposeful. Penny Dreadful is a pastiche; a work of innovation instead of invention. Closer Than Sisters, the fifth episode in the series, follows in the tradition of other genre shows by revisiting the often-utilised concept of the flashback episode. Genre TV shows from Fringe to Heroes have relied on this style of episode to flesh out one or more of the characters in a manner that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. By setting the episode months or years before the events of the main series, the writers are able to examine the background of a protagonist or of the show’s setting. Closer Than Sisters finally reveals the much-alluded to history between Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) as well as linking the events of Penny Dreadful to the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Despite being more than a little predictable at times, the episode is atmospheric, extremely eerie and surprisingly funny in places. Almost all of the praise for the episode must go to Eva Green who absolutely excels at portraying Vanessa’s transition from rebellious teenage girl to a (literally) haunted world-weary woman. The more Penny Dreadful progresses, the more likely it seems that Vanessa Ives was the character that Green was born to play.

Beginning years before the events of the main show, Closer Than Sisters follows the idyllic childhood of Vanessa and her best friend Mina (a character from Dracula, played here by Olivia Llewellyn). The two girls enjoy an extremely close friendship, due to their families living beside one another in luxurious mansions on the Yorkshire Coast. Vanessa’s perfect childhood is interrupted by the discovery that her mother is having an affair with Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm. The revelation of her mothers’ sinful actions has a slow but powerful effect upon the young Vanessa, which comes to a head in her teenage years when she betrays Mina and shatters their sister-like bond. Vanessa falls into a deep depression and is confined to an insane asylum (which is every bit as horrifying as Victorian psychiatric hospitals are known to have been). During her barbaric treatment, there is an indication of a second personality within Vanessa, a dark supernatural being that has been pushing her to evil actions all her life (this is almost certainly one of the two evil Egyptian supernatural beings referenced in previous episodes). Vanessa is ultimately trepanned (19th Century brain surgery) and becomes comatose. When she finally awakens, the events of Dracula have already taken place. Vanessa’s demonic possession claims the life of her mother in a shocking scene that is both terrifying and an example of (extremely) dark comedy.

Whilst it’s a shame that a flashback episode means that there is no time to showcase the shows’ other characters, this remains one of the best episode of the series so far. The Gothic atmosphere is palpable; whole sections of this episode could be mistaken for a Charlotte Bronte adaptation. The performances are suitably overstated and grandiose, bordering on the comical in places. The supernatural element is subtle and eerie; a disembodied whispering voice is far creepier than any prosthetic monster could hope to be. The star of this episode, by far, is Eva Green. The theme of the precarious position of women in 19th Century society has been touched upon in the show previously (with Billie Piper’s Brona), but this episode dedicates itself to examining the plight of being young and female in a society where the worth of such a person is dictated by her marriage eligibility. Even as children, Vanessa and Mina are encouraged to imagine their future husbands. Vanessa’s later transgression against Mina is born out of her frustration at being inexperienced sexually. When she attempts to express her repressed sexuality to Mina’s brother Peter (Graham Butler), he acts like the proper Victorian gentleman and flees. Like so many women of her age, Vanessa is subjected to torturous experiences in an asylum because she is an inconvenience to those around her (although, credit to the show’s writers, Vanessa’s mother and father are written as entirely sympathetic to their daughter and not as stereotypical Victorian aristocratic parents). The show is not expressing a political message so much as creating a suitable back-story for the Vanessa of the main show. Vanessa is a product of her time, through and through. Victorian masculinity is similarly examined in the episode alongside Victorian femininity. Peter’s desperate desire to prove himself to his father is well-written and fairly well acted by Butler. As the audience already knows that Peter is going to die horribly, his need to accompany his father is particularly tragic and dark. Sir Malcolm is presented as being as responsible for Mina’s ultimate fate (as a vampire) as Vanessa is. It is still not clear exactly how true Penny Dreadful is being to its spiritual precursor, Dracula. One could argue that almost everything from Stoker’s novel could plausibly have taken place during Vanessa’s coma. More characters from the novel would have been a welcomed way to tie the events of the show and the book together (assuming that the shows’ creators want them to be so connected). Closer Than Sisters is a fun transgression and an important episode for those seeking to understand the shows’ main character. It is a strong tribute to the very concept of the “flashback episode”.

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About George Willcox

George Willcox is in his early twenties and has recently been awarded a Master’s Degree in Film Studies. Film and filmmaking has always been his passion since he was a very small child. George has previously worked as a cameraman and as a film editor for a number of independent film productions, television news and lifestyle programmes. Currently, he is trying to expand my resumé as a film and television screenwriter as well as a film and television critic. Whilst he is extremely passionate about making films, George's academic studies on the subject has imbued him with a strong desire to work within the media industry in a writing capacity. George considers himself skilled at writing in an entertaining yet clear and concise manner. During his university studies, he was commended for the quality of his academic papers and short film screenplays (one of which was an award winner at his university). Outside of his film and television interests, George enjoys hiking, reading and video gaming.
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