The latest episode of Penny Dreadful was very Vanessa-centric, but no less amazing. It’s told from Vanessa’s point of view in flashback, and it gives a history of what occurred in the past between the Murray and Ives families and what exactly Vanessa’s transgression was.
At the beginning of the episode, Vanessa is seated at her desk, just as we saw her in episode three, writing a letter to Mina. This is something she has done since she recovered from her illness, and she writes them daily to try to cope with the situation that has unfolded. The scene flashes back to Mina’s and Vanessa’s childhood. The Ives and Murray families lived next door to each other in houses close to the seashore, and Mina and Vanessa were the best of friends. Vanessa, it is shown, is the bolder one who is more willing to take risks, whereas Mina is more thoughtful and deliberate. Vanessa is shown going over to the Murray home, where the family is waiting for Malcolm’s return from Africa, which is supposed to occur later that day. Vanessa wanders into the taxidermy room, where Mina is watching her brother Peter stuff a new animal. Mina is rather disgusted with what her brother is doing, but Vanessa isn’t bothered by it, and she insists that Peter name the animals in his father’s collection. She points to a stuffed hawk and calls him Ariel, after Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The girls wonder about whom they’re going to marry, and Vanessa teases Mina that she will marry a tall man with a luxurious moustache. Mina teases Vanessa back and tells her that she will marry Peter. Peter objects, saying that he will be in Africa with his father when he is older.
Sir Malcolm returns home, and the children are elated to see him. He brings Peter a present, the skin of a serval. It’s very clear that Malcolm is much more affectionate toward the girls than Peter, and this bothers Peter greatly, as he idolizes and wants to please his father. Vanessa’s parents join the Murray family for dinner, and they listen in wonder as Sir Malcolm tells stories of his adventures in Africa. We also see that Vanessa was raised Catholic. Vanessa reflects that beneath all of the friendship and love their families shared with one another, there is something darker underneath. Vanessa always had been able to sense the tension between the families, particularly the looks that passed between her mother and Malcolm.
After dinner, Vanessa wanders out into the garden maze. It is dark and she can hear the sounds of people panting and moaning. She thinks it is Peter and Mina playing a trick on her, but instead she turns the corner and sees her mother having sex with Malcolm. She is fascinated, and it is then that she begins to be plagued by not-so-benign spirits, as she is sensitive to the spirit world and to those around her. She never tells Mina about what she saw, but she allows herself to give in to temptations, like stealing her friend’s things.
A few years later, we see Vanessa wandering through the garden maze, singing, and she comes upon Mina and her beau, Captain Branson, in the same spot where she had seen her mother and Malcolm so long ago. While Vanessa is happy, she is also jealous of Mina for finding someone first and she doesn’t want Mina to marry and leave for India. There are also the beginnings of love between Vanessa and Peter.
One day, Vanessa and Peter are out in the garden talking. He wishes to go to Africa so he can be the son his father wants and not the awkward, weak, sickly young man he is. Vanessa decides to take a risk and kisses Peter fully on the mouth, for she loves Peter. Peter is shocked at her gesture and pulls away from her, mumbling something about his mother expecting them. Mina saw his future in that kiss, how he would go off to Africa with his father and die there. She prays to God that night, but while she is at prayer, the evil spirits begin to speak to her. She does not see a good future for Mina, and she decides to sabotage the prospective marriage.
On the night before Mina’s wedding, Vanessa goes downstairs and finds Branson. She takes him to the taxidermy room to show him the Murrays’ taxidermy collection, and she shows him the hawk she stuffed. She seduces Branson, and while she is caught in his embrace, Mina enters the room and sees them together. The wedding is cancelled after that, and Mina is devastated. The friendship between the two families is over, but Vanessa seeks to go to Mina’s to try to make amends. Vanessa’s mother tries to stop her and asks, “Have you no shame?” Vanessa tells her mother to go back in the house and make amends to her father, and that shame had been brought to the two families long ago. Vanessa wanders into the garden, where Sir Malcolm is standing. She asks if she can see Mina, but Malcolm won’t let her pass. It’s clear that he’s very angry about the entire situation, and he tells Vanessa that he never imagined that a “cruel little girl” could bring such devastation to his family. He slams the gate shut. Vanessa, overcome with emotion, faints. This is the beginning of her illness, which seems to resemble demonic possession.
The doctors are unsure of Vanessa’s ailment, and they believe there is something wrong with her brain. Vanessa’s mother tells her that Mina has gone and that the Murrays no longer wish to have anything to do with them. Vanessa’s parents consult a specialist in London, and after that, they will take her to a clinic that specializes in women’s disorders. Vanessa knows that this is an asylum. She turns to her mother and declares that she isn’t mad and that her mother just ought to let her die.
Vanessa’s parents take her to the specialist. Vanessa is in a catatonic state and she has wounds on her hands from her fits. While Vanessa’s mother believes she is tormented, the specialist believes that Vanessa simply is suffering from a form of psychosexual hysteria. He assures Vanessa’s parents that it can be treated with narcotics and cold-water baths, which should help treat the ailment. When he mentions other methods for desperate cases, Vanessa speaks. The doctor orders Vanessa’s parents out of the room and tries to speak with her. She speaks of the visions she has seen. The doctor rings for the orderlies and asks Vanessa to sit down, but Vanessa whirls to face him, asking, “Who’s Vanessa?” Vanessa, possessed by demons, attacks the doctor. The orderlies burst into the room and pull a shrieking Vanessa off of the doctor. As they drag her away, she begins to speak in tongues. Her head doesn’t spin, unfortunately.
So begins the torture that is supposed to be Vanessa’s treatment. She is immersed in cold-water baths, is placed in a straitjacket, is strapped to her bed, and is finally injected with narcotics. The traditional treatments don’t work, and there is only one choice left. We see Vanessa strapped to a seat while a nurse cuts off her hair, and a tear slips down her cheeks. Vanessa is strapped to an operating table and is given narcotics so she can sleep. The doctor performs an early version of a lobotomy on her.
After the surgery, Vanessa is allowed to return home. Before he leaves for Africa, Peter comes to visit her. He goes upstairs to her room to find her laying on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. This saddens him, for she isn’t the spirited, bold young woman she once was. He tells her about how he is going to leave for Africa. Vanessa becomes lucid enough to ask Peter to kiss her, and he does. She warns him that he is going to die in Africa before growing catatonic again.
Later that night, a demon in the form of Sir Malcolm comes to Vanessa as she sleeps. The demon offers to help her regain her strength if she will let him possess her soul. Vanessa gives in to the demon and the darkness inside of her. Vanessa’s mother hears strange sounds coming from her daughter’s room, and she opens the door to see her daughter having sex with some unknown being. When she sees that Vanessa’s eye are sightless, she falls dead from a heart attack.
After burying her mother,Vanessa is walking on the shore and sees Mina approaching her. Mina tells Vanessa that she forgives her, for Vanessa has suffered much. Mina tells Vanessa that she is married to Jonathan Harker and that he’s a good man and loves her. Mina then tells Vanessa about how she knew Vanessa loved him for his weakness, something which Vanessa never told anyone. Mina admits that she has been taken by the master and that she knows many things now, and she begs Mina to help her.
Vanessa seeks out Sir Malcolm and tells him of her vision of Mina. He enlists Vanessa as an ally, but he warns her he will never forgive her. Vanessa reminds him that she knows of his own adultery with her mother and that everyone has suffered enough. She has seen much in her short life, as much as he has during his bloody days in Africa. Malcolm sees that Vanessa is still very brave, and they pledge to do anything, even chase death, to bring Mina home.
Vanessa finishes her letter and adds a postscript, then puts it away in a drawer filled with other letters written to Mina. The postscript: “Your father loves you very much and will do anything to save you. I love you in a different way. I love you enough to kill you.”
I loved this episode, because it showed how strong Vanessa really is and how much potential she has for both good and evil. There is something in her that is very frightening and powerful, and she must do all she can to maintain control over that power. She reminds me of Elsa or Storm or even Jean Grey, all very strong, complex characters with extraordinary abilities but who have to keep them in check in order to go through their daily lives.
Anyhow, I can’t wait until next week. It’s back to the present story. Until then!