When a show has such a wonderful cast as Showtime’s Victorian era set horror series Penny Dreadful does, the desire to build entire episodes around a specific character and make it a showcase for the actor in that role is an understandable one. The fifth episode of the series’ first season, which is set to run for eight episodes, is entirely focused on the character of Vanessa Ives, as played by Eva Green.
To this point, there have been hints about and vague references to the enigmatic, oddly off-kilter character’s history, and this is the episode where the shadows become flooded with light. Through flashbacks as Vanessa writes a letter to her missing friend Mina, daughter of famed explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (played by former James Bond Timothy Dalton), we are privy to the entire backstory of Vanessa Ives.
The flashback goes clear back to Vanessa’s childhood, when she was growing up as a neighbor to the Murray family, a child who spent more time at her neighbor’s home with her friends Mina and Mina’s brother Peter than she did at her own house. Vanessa and Mina were very close as they grew up – the episode’s title ‘Closer Than Sisters’ is a description of their relationship.
But Vanessa was a troubled girl, there was something dark brewing under the surface. It started out with mischievous acts and thievery, a growing lasciviousness, and escalated to total betrayal. During a down moment, she heard a whispering voice with no known source, the first clear instance of supernatural activity in her life. After ruining Mina’s life plans with an act of indiscretion, the supernatural overwhelms her.
She collapses, becomes catatonic, suffers seizures, and in moments of clarity she’s not herself. As viewers of the show, we know she has fallen under the spell of something otherworldly, but as its characters live in a world they believe to be normal, her troubles are diagnosed as being mental and she is committed to an asylum, where she endures the sort of horrendous, barbaric, brutal treatment that was thought to be helpful back in the 1800s.
Through all of this, Eva Green shines, perfectly bringing to life every nuance of the character as she experiences these intense scenarios. She’s a troubled girl, she’s a lunatic, she’s a demon, she’s dirty, she’s frightened out of her mind, she’s playful, she’s exhausted to the verge of death. This episode is carried along entirely on Green’s shoulders, and she does not falter, she leads the viewer through its dark maze and impresses every step of the way.
Although it is Green’s episode, Timothy Dalton also does exemplary work during the scenes he’s involved in. There were moments in ‘Closer Than Sisters’ when I started to wish that Dalton’s tenure as Bond had lasted around fifteen years longer than it did, because the man is truly captivating here.
As the episode reaches its conclusion, we know a lot more about Vanessa than we did before. We know why she seems the way she does… but still the question remains, what is the force behind her affliction? Perhaps we’ll find out as Penny Dreadful continues.