This week, Penny Dreadful takes a step back from the main storyline to finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for – a proper explanation of the tangled relationships between Sir Malcolm, Vanessa and Mina (guest star Olivia Llewellyn). Sadly for viewers, that means no further development of the bizarre, romantic web being spun between Dorian, Ethan, Vanessa and Brona – for now. Still, Penny Dreadful doesn’t sag despite turning its focus back in time, which is a credit to John Logan’s writing and the strength of the performances.
On paper, it would be a somewhat risky move for a show as young as Penny Dreadful to drop all of its active plot threads for an entire episode to tell what amounts to an origin story. But then again, “Resurrection” did the same thing (to an admittedly lesser degree) while fleshing out the backstory for Caliban/Frankenstein’s Monster. “Closer Than Sisters,” however, is an entire episode about the lifelong bond between Vanessa and Mina, and how that bond was brutally severed. In focusing on that, it sheds some light on the meaning of that tense conversation between Sir Malcolm and Vanessa last week more quickly that any of us probably expected.
We start out in the present, with Vanessa writing a letter to Mina. She tells us that she writes almost constantly, trying to communicate the mess of love and agony she feels when thinking of her lifelong friend. Soon, she may give up everything else and just churn out “an endless ribbon of words,” she says. We’re quickly thrown back into the past, where the Ives and the Murrays live side by side in two beautiful mansions by the sea. “Were ever two families closer than ours?” Vanessa asks wistfully.
As remembered by Vanessa, their childhood was merry and filled with sunshine. “I don’t remember clouds when we were younger – were there any, my dearest Mina?” she asks. The younger Vanessa (Lili Davies), Mina (Fern Deacon) and Peter (Xavier Atkins) share a strong friendship. They run along the beach together, play hide and seek and happily gossip about what the future may hold. Mina wants to marry a mustached gentleman, for one. As for Vanessa, she doesn’t have much of an opinion herself (“Anything but one of father’s dreadful solicitors!” she laughs), but Mina insists Peter will be available. He’s not so sure – Africa, and the promise of adventure with his father Sir Malcolm, beckons.
Right on cue, Malcolm arrives home from one of his expeditions. This is a fresher, merrier version of Malcolm than we’ve seen thus far – despite his extensive travels, he hasn’t seen true darkness yet. That’s still to come. The Murrays and the Ives dine together to celebrate, and we learn that the Murrays’ Catholicism is one of the few irreconcilable differences between the families. It caused “not tension, exactly,” recalls Vanessa, but more like the “tremor of something.”
Innocence always ends, and the transition from childhood to adulthood comes early on for Vanessa, when after one of the dinners, she investigates noises in the Murrays’ hedge maze. There, she finds not Peter and Mina, as she had thought, but Malcolm and her mother, Claire (Anna Chancellor), passionately making love. We’ve known for a while that Malcolm is no angel, but this is the worst side of the character we’ve seen so far. “More than the shock, the sinfulness, the forbidden act, there was this,” Vanessa remembers of that night. “I enjoyed it.”
Turns out, there has been something dark rooted inside Vanessa her entire life. It just took her witnessing her mother’s betrayal to awaken it. She prays fervently, hoping that her God will show her the right path to take. Instead, she just senses that a seed of darkness has been planted in her mind. Still, Vanessa wants to hold onto her childhood, and onto those happy days, so she says nothing and maintains the status quo.