[Review] - Penny Dreadful, Season 1 Episode 5, "Closer Than Sisters"

Courtesy of Neal Street Productions

Before we start in on the past, let's look towards the future. Late last week, Showtime announced that Penny Dreadful has been picked up for a second season. A second season that will see the episode count extended from 8 to 10 episodes. Showtime is incredibly happy with the way Penny Dreadful has performed thus far, both critically and in the ratings, the latter of which is impressive considering that it is going up against the juggernaut that is HBO's Sunday lineup, a juggernaut that has reduced other cable network's Sunday programming to ruins. Said Showtime President David Nevins, “picking up Penny Dreadful was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made. The series has had worldwide impact, drawing big, passionate audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and more than any other show on our network has hit the bullseye with viewers who want to watch television in all the new ways that are available...We are extremely excited for what’s in store for season two.” As am I.

But before we get there, we have to finish this season, and Closer Than Sisters once again showed that John Logan is not setting this series to any standard formula. On the backs of last week's revelations concerning Chandler, and the increasingly complex relationships between the various characters, this episode paused the building tension in favour of a prequel. Much like Frankenstein's creation's getting a half episode backstory a couple episodes ago, this week devoted the entire run time towards explaining Ives and Sir Malcolm's unique agreement with each other. It was a tense and horrific as anything the series has done so far, and did it largely without monsters. It was a period piece within a period piece, and a showcase of Eva Green and Timothy Dalton's talents, as if either of those things were in question.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that loves you enough to kill you.

Once again the baton passes to a new director, as Coky Giedroyc takes the visual reigns, and immediately sets his own style of tight shots and extreme focuses. The style worked well to tell a back story, as things at the edge of the frame were constantly out of focus, giving it that old school "vacalin dream effect" without seeming cliched or forced. It did force the vision of the viewer though, putting what we needed to see in crisp, sharp focus and distracting us from the movement just out of sight. Like Ives, increasingly disturbed by the voices behind the mirror, the episode lead the viewer through the fog of memory, as Ives' obsessively related her story to Mina, hoping to make her understand how things have lead to this.

The episode served two masters. One was establishing the emotional connection between Mina and Ives, to give reason to her dogged pursuit of her friend in "real time." Ives has thus been the character to receive the least elaboration, but by episode's end she is the one laid the most bare. The other master was to echo the sentiment we've heard before, that Sir Malcolm is seeking redemption as much as he is seeking his lost daughter. These are two characters that have both utter failed their dearest love in spectacularly different ways, and both seek atonement. 

The horrors that this episode delighted in were the truths of the time. While space was made for demons and masters, the monsters that have populated the series were replaced by the ignorance of the period. Ives' is subjected to torture in the name of relief. The notion that it is better to leave a person broken but whole rather than abandoned to indecency. The monsters Ives has faced and overcome were those of 1870s medicine; the trepanning scene more uncomfortable and cringe inducing than anything they've done thus far. And in the tradition of Dracula, the sex and seduction in this episode took the form of corrosion and infection. Ives becomes seduced by the darker impulses, nicely balanced by Mina's innocence. Ives' darkness leaves her incapable of anything other than corrupting that innocence. However, once the balance effect of Mina's presence is removed, Ives collapses under the weight of her own nature. The darkness consumes her, and she lacks the strength to properly fend it off. Her options become continue to exist in a drained, catatonic state, or embrace the darkness and be fulfilled by it. 

The devil character is one I'm interested in exploring more. Because the nature of the "Master," be he Dracula or other, is still uncertain, the vision that Ives has in the guise of Sir Malcolm could be one of many agents of evil. Is the Devil himself in play, as has been suggested. Some malevolent force known to the ancients which has fallen for Ives. And if so, is it the same as Mina's Master, or is it a competing force. Hallucinatory seductions aren't unheard of in the text of Dracula, but one would assume that if he had easy access to his intended love, he wouldn't need to use Mina as bait. So then, are there two competing forces at play? One, the cursed flesh of the Master, the other the evil spirit. Will, if Ives falls into the hands of the Master, her spectral lover offer her some protection, to claim her wholly as his own?

Sir Malcolm got less screen time, and that worked less in his favour than Ives. The final scenes, where Malcolm appears completely unaware of Mina's predicament until Ives informs him of it, seemed somewhat hollow. If he is racked with guilt over Peter's death, I had assumed that he would be a blood hound when it came to protecting his one remaining child. That he appears to have isolated himself and remained unaware of his daughter's movements seemed against character. But, the material from when the children were very young was fantastic, and again the suffering is little more than the product of the Victorian culture. The father's emotional distance from his son, the husband's reserve when it comes to his wife, the repression when it comes to his desires. Nothing destroys men faster than inhibiting their nature, and Sir Malcolm was the poster boy for that exalted Victorian position. He was everything that he was expected to be, and it tore his life apart.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. I thought this series had dismal ratings, but I guess they are good enough for Showtime. Either that or its president is loopy.

    1. The premiere had 1.44 million viewers, which is the best debut that Showtime has ever had, and the viewership skews heavily towards young people, which are the coveted group. They've also made a point of noting that this has been their test for "alternative media;" the pilot was up on YouTube for two solid weeks before the premiere, and they've used this show as a pilot project for time shifted, digital streaming bonus content and delivery, which has bumped domestic numbers up to around 4 million per episode. It's also a co-production with Sky in the UK, where it is drawing record numbers as well. All told, a solid win and potential long time earner for the network.

      And, after the bad press of the Dexter finale, I think they've glad to have something critically acclaimed again.

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