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TV Review: Penny Dreadful: Season 1, Episode 5

Jun. 8, 2014by: Chris Bumbray
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Episode 5: Closer Than Sisters

SUMMARY: The mystery of Vanessa's (Eva Green) past and relationship with Sir Malcolm's (Timothy Dalton) daughter Mina is revealed.

REVIEW: This is an intriguing episode for several reasons. As we reach the final stretch of season one episodes (with only three more left after this), Vanessa – who's no doubt emerging as the show's true protagonist – finally gets an episode which is largely focused on her back story. This is a kind of standalone episode exploring Vanessa's childhood and her relationship to Sir Malcolm's family. We discover that Vanessa's mother and Sir Malcolm had a tempestuous affair, witnessed by the catholic Vanessa, who was excited by this brush with sinfulness – igniting in her a desire for “tiny sins” that escalate and escalate, presumably leaving her soul in the dire situation she finds herself in now.

Green's performance continues to anchor the show. It's a great one, with it utterly unhinged at times – such as when she's possessed or praying furiously in Latin. Other times it's terribly seductive, with her apparently harbouring a kind of lust for Sir Malcolm's family, extending from his weakling son Peter (the same one who's death in Africa haunts Malcolm) to (possibly) Mina, and her fiancee, who she recklessly seduces as another of her “tiny sins” - only to discover that her actions have far-reaching consequences, able to tear apart Malcolm's family and Vanessa's soul. But are her actions consciously wicked? This is left open to interpretation, as she's clearly shown to already – and perhaps unconsciously – be haunted by sinister forces. She remains a fascinatingly difficult character to pin down. She seems good and compassionate, but she's capable of extreme cruelly, and during her love scene seems to get off on Mina watching her have sex with her fiancee only to bitterly regret it later.

Green excels at playing these kinds of heavily stylized, over-the-top characters, as shown by this as well as her recent standout work in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, and WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. At times, she almost seems to be channeling Vanessa Redgrave in Ken Russell's notorious THE DEVILS. In that film, Redgrave's character was called “psycho-sexual” which is the same way Vanessa is classified her, with her packed-off to the asylum for some horrific Victorian treatment, which seems more akin to torture, as she's apparently possessed by a demonic force – although whether or not this is in-fact the case is again left open to interpretation. Poor Green really goes through the wringer this week, being hosed down in cold water, having her head shaved, and even having Vanessa being given a kind of lobotomy that turns her into a kind of mindless zombie for awhile, although she recovers (although one can assume this will be revisited), seemingly thanks to a sexual encounter with a satanic figure, that s upsets her mother she drops dead. And yes, Eva Green does get naked this episode, but it's such a perverse scene I doubt anyone could really call it titillating. It's certainly bold, that's for sure.

Other than Green, the only other regular to get any screen time this week is Dalton, who gets to show a warmer side than usual in his early scenes with young Peter and Mina. Some insight is given into his relationship with Peter, who's kindness and gentle nature no doubt doomed him into whatever happened in Africa, where his death haunts Malcolm and informs his current relationship with Victor.

The only disappointment is that last week's crazy ending, where Josh Hartnett's Ethan is seduced by Dorian Gray, is left unresolved. Oh well, there's always next week. Nevertheless, this is a stylishly directed, beautifully composed episode that both answers questions about Vanessa's background, and raises more. Next week can't come soon enough!

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6:24PM on 06/10/2014
Great review Chris! Didn't expect this entire episode to be completely focused on Vanessa's past, and I did miss the other characters, but it cleared up all of questions I had about her connection with Sir Malcolm and his family. Eva was certainly on top of her game as well! Next week looks awesome from the previews!
Great review Chris! Didn't expect this entire episode to be completely focused on Vanessa's past, and I did miss the other characters, but it cleared up all of questions I had about her connection with Sir Malcolm and his family. Eva was certainly on top of her game as well! Next week looks awesome from the previews!
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