It isn’t often that a show fully steeped in horror and the dark supernatural can really grab you. Last year’s Sleepy Hollow did an amazing job in that regard, and this year the same can be said of Showtime’s surprise hit Penny Dreadful, which just last week was greenlighted for a second season. The first four episodes have been a tale unto themselves, telling a consecutive story that ran all the way through and introduced us to this world of horror, vampires, zombies, dark magic and perhaps werecreatures even. I’ve been a fan since the first episode.
One thing that has stood out for me in the previous episodes is that we got to see so little of the weird relationship between Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa Ives. The latter at first appeared to be a confidante and an ally but we’ve seen since that she used to be friends with Sir Murray’s daughter and that there is something dark in their shared history that has brought them to this point. I was hoping we’d get more flashbacks this past Sunday, but what we got instead was a mind-blowing episode that was all flashback and explained almost entirely this relationship between two of the show’s star characters.
This week’s episode is titled “Closer Than Sisters” and it delves into the relationship that Vanessa had with the Murrays as a child and as a young woman. She and Mina were indeed closer than sisters and they lived a most charming life that was often defined by the return of Sir Malcolm Murray from his adventures in Africa. Slowly, bit by bit, writer John Logan teases out the history that Vanessa has with the Murrays and he makes it a tale that is not to be missed for anything. As with any such tale, the tale of Vanessa and Mina too is filled with secrets and with lies, with deceptions and betrayals, and those are what really make this entire episode come alive.
The episode this weeks delves greatly into Vanessa’s psyche for it is told from her perspective as she writes yet another letter to the lost Mina, a letter that she used write once a month at first, and then gradually quickened to writing one every day. This helps give us some perspective on how long Mina has been lost, for as we see in one of the closing scenes, Vanessa has an entire chest of such letters, and we see just how long and fruitless the search has been for her and for Sir Malcolm, without any progress to show for it.
Yes, the episode slows down the forward momentum of the show since it is all flashback and we don’t see anything of Brona Croft or Dorian Gray or Ethan Chandler or Victor Frankenstein or anyone else. But that’s for the better I think, because in a way, it gets the tedium of constant flashbacks out of the way. Both John Logan and Showtime do an incredibly brave thing here and I think it worked out fairly well in the end since the episode posted the series’ second-highest viewership numbers to date. Being on Showtime means that Penny Dreadful’s audience is quite small in numbers, but people seemed to have responded well to it and I can only hope that this momentum sticks with the next three episodes, since the debut season here is only eight episodes. Short and sweet, and I suspect that the showrunners have learned a bit from the tale of Dracula, which got cut short at just ten episodes and while good at times, was also often slow-paced and frantic with its plots, mixing as it did several different thigns.
The whole focus on Vanessa in this episode means that we see how she went from being an innocent child to someone who wanted to hurt her closest friend for the hell of it and how she became a clairvoyant and a medium. In doing so, John Logan also picks up on some of the things that he seeded earlier in the show, such as that amazing seance scene in the second episode which ranks as one of Eva Green’s best performances to date in either television or film. Just the last week Sir Malcolm and Vanessa had a bit of a verbal argument that was punctuated by their retorts to each other of how they had hurt Mina in their own way. Now we get the explanations behind it all, and it is indeed most glorious you see.
Vanessa’s own journey here, as she realizes the darkness that has been growing inside of her, and her condemnation of acceptance of that darkness alike, it means that John Logan treads very cerebral waters here and he gives a great accounting of himself and his characters. Having so much explained at this point in time makes for a richer experience as far as the show is concerned and I am certainly grateful that he trusted his viewers to stick with something like this and respond to it.
Bit by bit, Penny Dreadful is turning into one of the most amazing genre shows I’ve seen in a long time, and the performances of steady stalwarts like Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives are a huge part of that. Without their performances, this episode would not have been as impactful as it was for me, and I have to say that the two of them interacting together in a show like this gives me great hope for how things are going to turn out in the next three weeks.
As much as John Logan’s writing is to be commended, I also want to commend director Coky Giedroyc who did such a perfect job in this episode, taking over from Dearbhla Walsh as the hand behind the camera for this episode and the next, Giedroyc’s long-shots and the way that she captures each character’s emotions on film is just fantastic. She makes every scene flow together in a single tale without any kind of rough adjustment in between and since she is telling such a particularly focused story here, her results are even better than expected I dare say.
Like I said, I hope that Penny Dreadful keeps up this momentum, and there’s only three more episodes to go, so my excitement and anticipation are even higher I dare say.