Penny Dreadful Recap: You Won’t Like Vanessa When She’s Angry
Hey hey … hello, Trashmii. Ready to find out if Brona’s the bride? Ready to find out if Caliban can be more insufferable? Ready for the super sexy fun time between Ethan and Dorian? Well, you won’t get, it suckas! It’s time for Vanessa’s back story.
Fade up on one of Vanessa’s crazy eyes as she’s writing a letter to Mina. She started writing as part of her “recovery” and as time progressed she got crazier and went from writing once a month to once a week to daily and expects soon to just write continuously, starting the next letter as soon as the last is finished, which … I get that they wanted to be poetic but really, just keep writing the same letter. Oh yeah, and Vanessa’s smoking, with a cigarette holder, in case we didn’t already know she’s “bad news.” At least she doesn’t suck the smoke up her nose. That’s gross.
Vanessa’s cross dangles on its chain as she says, in the letter, that she hopes things can return to how they were, but she knows that cannot happen. As she gets a pensive, or flatulent, look on her face we flashback to Mina and Vanessa, as girls, frolicking on the beach while VO Vanessa wonders if it was all seashore and sandcastles in their childhood?
It’s established early on that Vanessa’s the daredevil, wanting to go swimming out as far out as they can, while Mina begs off, saying they’ll get in trouble. Vanessa tries to taunt Mina for being a chicken, but Mina’s resolute. The girls return to their huge neighboring estates replete with enchanted woods in between. Mina wanders through the gate and into the Murrays’ home because she’s that comfortable with them.
She meets up with kindly, and plain, Mrs. Murray and they exchange pleasantries about what a lovely day it is for a homecoming before Vanessa joins Peter and Mina in the solarium … which is full of the children’s taxidermy. Ew. Say what you want about kids today, at least they’re not spending their time stuffing dead animals. Or at least when they are, we now know to be on the lookout for more signs of antisocial behavior.
Peter’s working on a monkey that still looks dead (Ummmm …) but Vanessa tells him it’s because he never gave the monkey a Shakespearean name. Although I don’t know if calling the monkey “Nick Bottom” will really give it a twinkle in its eye. But “Van” swears that without a name it will never come to life (because it’s dead) and she’s named the bird she’s working on “Ariel” because John Logan has a thing for “The Tempest.”
Mina’s not quite so well read so she just jokes that Vanessa’s “always working on things that eat other things, “(SPOILER!) and accuses her of being bloodthirsty. Peter doesn’t think so. He thinks she’s ghoulish. He’s bloodthirsty. Victorian aristocratic families were weird.
At least girls will be girls and Vanessa starts talking about “Mr. Andrews” the servant she saw earlier. She thinks he’s dreamy with his luxurious “mustaches” (he has more than one … or … I’m confused) and being so tall letting Mina inform us how shallow she is, since she’s like 12, that she could only marry a tall man because a “stunted” one would be embarrassing at balls. Heh. She also wants someone who’s at least six feet tall with a waxed mustache but has “tiny feet for dancing.” What?
Then they discuss what kind of man Vanessa will marry but she hasn’t really given it much thought. Especially since it’s kind of assumed she’ll marry Peter, anyway. He doesn’t think so, though, because he’ll be on expedition in Africa. Vanessa questions that but before she can crush his spirits they hear a bell and get excited.
They run to the entrance and it’s Sir Malcolm. Peter comes running out first and Sir Malcolm barely shakes his son’s hand before the girls descend upon him and he doesn’t have to deal with the awkwardness of being alone with his disappointing son. The girls don’t even notice Peter being shunned, they’re just happy and giggling about him being home while Mrs. Murray, Gladys, begins to gently sob. Sir Malcolm walks over to his wife and chastely pecks her on the cheek while reprimanding her for crying. Man, he’s really a peach, isn’t he?
Peter, still trying to get his father’s attention, and affection, asks what he brought back. Sir Malcolm actually shows some interest and produces a serval pelt and explains to the children what a serval is. Peter and Vanessa are enthralled while Mina is repulsed but Sir Malcolm soon tires of talking to his disappointing son so he gathers the girls up under his arm and they walk off, leaving Peter behind, to discuss the meal they have prepared for the evening.
Vanessa narrates us into the homecoming dinner and we see her parents: her mother is a more robust and vibrant woman than Gladys while her father is a simpler, softer man than Sir Malcolm. Hmmm. I can’t imagine where this could be going.
I certainly didn’t expect it to go into a tale of encountering cannibals. I wonder if he knows Coach Ben Wade. Probably not since it doesn’t include pygmies eating his asshole. Sir Malcolm shares a look with his wife then turns his much more enthusiastic attention to Vanessa’s mother. But the conversation continues to flow until the Iveses cross themselves before they start to eat which squicks out Mina and keeps Vanessa as an outsider because Catholicism was like Mormonism to the Victorians.
Later that evening Vanessa decides to go for a walk through the hedge maze. Thinking she’ll find Mina and Peter hiding instead she finds her mother and Sir Malcolm boning. Well, that’s one mystery from the séance solved. Oh yeah, and rather than being shocked and disgusted … Vanessa enjoys watching them. Heh. Dirty.
Of course, being Catholic has its perks so Vanessa ran home to pray the sin away, but in voice over she tells us that she always felt like she had this demon, just over her shoulder. Then looks in the mirror behind her in case actually saying “behind my back, waiting for me to turn around” was too subtle.
Still, Vanessa chooses not to tell Mina what she saw. Claiming she didn’t want Mina to grow up so fast, that she couldn’t bear it, although a part of her wanted to keep the hidden sin to herself. But she had changed. She became a troublemaking little kleptomaniac. Never doing anything bad enough to get herself in trouble, but just bad enough to give her a thrill.
Back at the hedge maze as child Vanessa enters but switches to adult Vanessa who lets us know that she was not surprised that Mina met her “gentleman” first and that he’d have multiple luxurious mustaches. Vanessa keeps narrating as we see the four younger adults having lunch. Mina and her mustachioed gentleman, Captain Branson, Vanessa stuck entertaining Peter with his single, unimpressive mustache and “inadequate beard.”
Vanessa makes the best of her sad lot until she realizes that Mina would likely be leaving for India with Branson and decides that she envies, maybe even hates, Mina a bit. Then she side-eyes Peter because he can’t get any respect. But Vanessa’s isolation from the Murrays continues as she realizes that, despite seeing herself as the brave one, Mina would start her adult life first. The envy/hatred continues to seethe as Mrs. Murray calls Mina away from Vanessa to do wedding stuff.
Trying to stage her own hedge maze fun time, Vanessa’s strolling through with Peter, but all they can talk about is Mina, too. He doesn’t like the idea of her going to India because it’s too far off and he’s racist. Vanessa sees the irony in someone who’s been begging to go to Africa sneering at the non-white Indians, but Peter just whines about how Sir Malcolm won’t let him go.
Peter thinks that if he can finally go on an African adventure with Sir Malcolm then he won’t be such a disappointment since he’s always been sickly and unathletic. He realizes that when he goes to Africa with Sir Malcolm, Vanessa will be left alone and feels badly until she molests him, forcing him to grab her breasts because boys just hate that. Peter gets confused and flustered and a little frightened so he runs off, reminding Vanessa that the minister is expected at their house at seven.
And yet, this does not deter Vanessa. She narrates that she wished she’d followed Peter, told him not to go to Africa because he’s too weak. “But he’s beautifully weak,” and “she loves him for his weakness.” Yeah, I don’t think that’s quite as romantically poetic as she thinks.
Regardless, she narrates that at that moment she saw the future crystal clear … but doesn’t tell us what she saw. She just runs back to her room to desperately pray. But her prayer wasn’t answered by god. Instead it was answered by an internet meme.
Vanessa heads to the pre-wedding dinner in a lovely gown but the ominous music lets us know something is afoot. First, Peter’s talking with Mr. Ives but cold shoulders Vanessa then she goes over to Mina and they share a brief, happy moment while Vanessa narrates in voice over that it was the last night that she would be Miss Mina Murray. But her tone quickly changes to wondering why Mina “didn’t mind this loss of self,” and thinks she minded it for her. Yeah, that’s what she “minded.”
While the two young women are cuddled up in bed (sure, why not) Vanessa’s awake and looking to cause trouble. She kisses Mina’s … hair? … then goes downstairs where she just happens upon Branson and offers to show him something … interesting.
Branson’s all “Well hey now ….” But Vanessa plays it off like she was always planning to show him the “solarium” full of its taxidermy. Branson’s all “Whoa” because that is a creepy hobby for your fiancée to have, but Vanessa lets him know that Mina only stuffed the gentlest of animals then shows him her squirrel. Which is not Victorian for muff, it’s an actual squirrel. Branson tries to get things back on track by asking which animals are Vanessa’s. She confirms that they’re definitely not the docile ones and he’s not surprised. Horny, but not surprised.
Then she starts molesting the falcon she stuffed and telling him her spiel about naming her dead creatures and he’s “Ariel.” She also put mirrors behind his eyes so they’d spark. Branson dully states that it’s like they’re alive so Vanessa can go nutty on him and say they are and that if she could she’d put mirrors behind the whole world.
The crazy gets his attention and they start boning on the end of the table, which is really romantic, especially since Vanessa’s still a virgin so she just kind of lies there in pain, while he takes care of his business. Mina eventually shows up but even though he’s directly facing her from about 15 feet away, Branson never sees her but Vanessa does, and just keeps right on fucking Mina’s fiancé. Way harsh, Vanessa.
So, next morning Branson books it out of there under the watchful eye of Sir Malcolm while Mina sobs on her mother’s shoulder, her wedding gown a few feet away, taunting her. Vanessa takes off from her home over to the Murray home but her mother is all “WTF? Vanessa,” and like a good Victorian woman, tells her she’s being obscene, ordering her daughter up to her room to hide herself in shame. Hellbent to wreak as much havoc as possible, Vanessa mocks her mother speaking to her about shame and throws down the adultery card, saying she go to her own room and make amends to Vanessa’s father. Damn, don’t you hate when you accidentally get hoist upon your own petard?
Vanessa reaches the gate between the two estates where Sir Malcolm lurks like a bouncer. Vanessa wants to see Mina “to make this right,” but being a man and seeing a scapegoat, Sir Malcolm tells Vanessa he always figured his self-absorbed, shitty behavior would destroy his family but he never knew it would be “a cruel little girl.” Ah yes, it takes a mighty man and intrepid explorer to blame all his mistakes on a young woman’s one mistake. Stay classy, Sir Malcolm.
Dejected, Vanessa starts walking back to her home but faints en route. Turns out to be the beginning of a period of “illness” but being the 19th century, when they were barely getting around to realizing bloodletting wasn’t a viable medical practice, she’s pretty fucked for a diagnosis. While Vanessa continues to break up periods of catatonia with the occasional seizure, her mother has some good news: They’ve ruled out epilepsy. Bad news? They think she might crazy.
Her mother tells Vanessa that Mina’s left, she didn’t want to stay there, and the Murrays won’t speak with the Iveses anymore. Basically, she’s just prattling on because she has no idea what’s wrong with her daughter and it frightens her but pulls it together long enough to let Vanessa know they’re going to London to see a specialist. At a clinic that specializes in “women’s disorders.” Oh, awesome. This should be great.
Vanessa snaps out of her fugue long enough to ask if they’re planning to take her to an asylum then lets her mother know she’s not mad, nor is she unhappy. They should have just let her die. Um, I don’t think those words mean what she thinks they mean. Vanessa’s mother sobs but Vanessa’s long past the point of caring.
Fast forward to their visit to the “clinic.” The doctor tries to speak with Vanessa who is just sitting in her seat, scowling, her face covered in scrapes and cuts. The doctor tries to excuse Mrs. Ives so he can speak with her husband, because women were irrelevant in Victorian England, but Mrs. Ives wants to stay. Well enough, he thinks Vanessa has “hysteria of a psychosexual nature,” so he’s recommending a course of treatment that involves narcotics and “escalating hydrotherapy” on the belief that cold water will freeze her into submission.
Mrs. Ives isn’t sure about this proposal and wonders what they’ll do if it doesn’t work. Well, there are surgical options. Dingdingding. That’s the one Vanessa wants. This piques the doctor’s attention and he asks Vanessa’s parents to leave the room. The doctor tries to speak with Vanessa, in as patronizing a way as possible, but Vanessa isn’t listening anymore, she wants to be “out there.”
The doctor says they have a lovely garden but Vanessa prefers the ocean. Then she starts speaking in her possessed voice, asking if the doctor’s ever seen something drown. And not a cat or a dog, a man. A hundred men. She’s seen a slave ship go down and take all the men aboard, still chained, with it. “Souls in torment who now find themselves in greater torment.”
When she calls the doctor by his full name the doctor freaks out and buzzes the staff, but asks her, by name, to sit down. The demon has no idea who Vanessa is, though, and decides to attack the doctor instead. As the orderlies drag her away, she starts speaking in tongues (or Egyptian), probably cursing the doctor. Seems right.
She quickly finds herself on the wrong side of a straitjacket, waiting for her “hydrotherapy,” which first involves being dunked in a bath tub, while an orderly pours buckets of ice into the tub with her, then strapping her to a bed to sedate her. Once sedated, the orderlies drag her to another session where she’s shackled to a wall while an orderly sprays her with a fire hose. Finally, they shave her head for trepanning. Well, now I see why that “therapy” works.
Vanessa returns home to her family, who are reduced to sitting around their huge home, pitying themselves for having a crazy daughter. Their spirits brighten, though, when Peter shows up. He’s leaving for Africa with his father and wants to say goodbye to Vanessa. Mr. Ives doesn’t think it’s a good idea but Mrs. Ives will try anything to help Vanessa and takes him upstairs, warning him not to be shocked because “she’s much changed.”
Peter does not heed that warning and is, in fact, shocked when he sees her lying in bed, catatonic. Peter and Mrs. Ives have a decidedly Victorian conversation where they discuss if she’ll die (If there is a God.) and if she’s always like that (No, there are episodes of … activity.) but Peter is still the sweet member of the Murray family and asks to sit with her.
Vanessa’s dead-eyed and he wonders if she even knows who he is. They don’t know but Mrs. Ives thinks he should talk to her. It could help. He tells her he’s off to Africa and they’ll have that adventure to talk about. As he tells her he walked by the place on the shore where they used to swim, Vanessa lifts her head enough to tell him he should have kissed her.
Rather than blame him for her actions, she just asks Peter to kiss her, now. Which he does so she tells him that he’s going to die in Africa. Then she’s back into one her fugue. Dayum. Poor Peter walks downstairs, but Mrs. Ives thanks him for coming by. Peter tries to comfort Mrs. Ives so she asks what Vanessa said. He pretends he didn’t understand and leaves.
While Mrs. Ives sits in her parlor, pondering her lot in life, Vanessa appears to be visited by Sir Malcolm, asking if she knows Keats. She susses out pretty quickly that this is a vision but the vision of Sir Malcolm isn’t going away. She wants to know who he is. He repeats her words back to her that she has to name a thing so it can live.
Vanessa’s getting stronger throughout and is sitting up when she asks if she should name him, then. Only if she wants him to live. She starts rattling off names for evil but the vision isn’t swayed. His eyes turn black as he asks if she really has such contempt for her old friend.
His eyes return to normal as he continues to torment her with Keats. Specifically four lines from “Ode to a Nightingale.” Keats was dying, and knew he was dying, at the time. Which added to the “piquancy.” Do you want to hear the lines? Vanessa wonders if she has a choice. He tells her she always has a choice. She allowed it all to happen. Hell, she “sought it out and fucked it.”
Vanessa gets out of bed as the spirit/demon tells her she can shut the door any time she wants. Does she want to? Yes. They come closer together as he tells her that if she does, she’ll give up everything they could have together. “The true knowledge of man’s virtue as well as his sin.” She’s trying to resist him, that she doesn’t want anything from him but he says she’s lying, as he grabs her by the back of the neck and reminds her that she’s always been drawn to the dark, the mysterious, to living life to the fullest.
At this point he’s totally all up in her personal space and asks, again, if she wants to close that door, now? Vanessa isn’t really responding to much because she looks half aroused/half nauseated so let’s finally hear that Keats:
Darkling, I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Vanessa’s completely lost by this point and just lolling in his arms as he kisses her and I think we all see where this is going. Mrs. Ives hears something coming from Vanessa’s room and decides to check on her daughter. Who, of course, is buck naked and having sex with the Sir Malcolm demon, only her mother can’t see the demon. She just hears her daughter grunting and sees her bouncing on the bed with her eyes all white and it’s finally just too much for her and she dies of a heart attack. Right there. Well that’s convenient.
There’s a small service for Vanessa’s mother but when it’s over her father walks off, alone, leaving Vanessa by the grave in what looks like a wheelchair, crying to herself. That’s just sad. I mean I know she was partly respons …
No time to dilly dally on how Vanessa’s father abandoned her we need to wrap this back story up. Vanessa and her long hair are walking on the beach on a cold day at some point in the distant future because they didn’t have weaves back then and growing that much hair takes time, when she comes upon Mina walking toward her. She tells Vanessa she doesn’t blame her because whatever her sins, they have been forgiven in her suffering. Vanessa says she cannot forgive herself, and there’s so much to say.
Or so little, according to Mina. She married Keanu Reeves, for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, who doesn’t have a mustache, but he’s a good man and he loves Mina. Vanessa says she’s happy for Mina. Then they talk about “poor Peter.” Mina tells Vanessa she should have run after him in the maze. Held him tight and told him she loved him for his weakness. (I don’t really think that would have had the healing effect Mina thinks.)
But wait, how does she know about that? Mina’s eyes go red and her skin goes gray as she tells Vanessa that she knows about many things now. The Master has taught her so much. Wait … whut? Mina returns to normal and says they’re things no one should ever know and she needs Vanessa to save her from the Master. Then she’s yanked into another dimension. Well that was dramatic.
Over at Sir Malcolm’s London home, Lumpy the Butler starts talking to him in notEnglish. The better to obscure the fact that Vanessa’s there to see Sir Malcolm. I guess they thought it was a surprise. She’s standing in the doorway, in the rain, and tells him Mina needs their help. Will he let her in? With a lead in like that?
They’re sitting in the parlor of pheromones and tension but without Ethan and Victor the conversation’s just more spiteful, less sexy. They discuss whether Vanessa can reach out to Mina again or vice versa. Vanessa says she knows Sir Malcolm doesn’t believe in her visions, but Sir Malcolm tells her she knows nothing
Jon Snow about him and lets her know he’s killed plenty of men in Africa. And there was a time he would have gladly killed her. That time may still come. But for now he has use for her.
She wonders if that’s all. Yeah, if she wants forgiveness, she can go to her “Roman church.” Well, Vanessa’s been to hell and back and she really doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Sir Malcolm if he’s going to be such an asshole so she tells him that whatever he thinks he’s lived through, endured, she lived through more. Then she calls him a “weak, foul, lustful, vainglorious man.” Well, look who found a thesaurus?
Vanessa walks off reprimanding him for presuming he can speak to her of death, but as the creepy, atonal music starts up on the soundtrack, he says they shall speak of it together. (Yes) They will follow it to Mina. (Yes) And then? Sir Malcolm will be done, and Vanessa will walk on. Good. Lumpy the Butler will prepare a very sparse room for Vanessa because she’s shacking up with Sir Malcolm, now.
Back to where we started, Vanessa is finishing up her letter to Mina. She doesn’t expect “exculpation” from Mina. Her guilt is her own. To carry with her. As Vanessa wipes her tears, she writes that she will not rest until Mina is safe. She has no other purpose in life.
Then she signs the letter that she will love Mina, always, and is her dearest friend. We don’t get to hear her voice over the post script, though. She just blots the ink and puts the letter in an envelope addressed to “Mrs. Jonathan Harker,” then places it in a trunk with dozens of other similar letters.
Finally she voices over the postscript:
Your father loves you very much and will do anything to save you. But I love you in a different way.
As we see the children frolicking on the beach she finishes the postscript:
I love you enough … to kill you.
So, yeah. A great stand-alone episode that gives good insight into Vanessa, Sir Malcolm and their weird relationship. Should have been the third episode because Caliban should never have been introduced, but it was still good to get back story. Of course, with only three episodes left in this season, I hope they don’t give us a full hour on Ethan’s history. Although, I’m pretty sure we can sum him up in about five.
But what do you think? Where are they going with this? Will the vampire story be resolved? Will we find out if Ethan really is a werewolf or is he actually, per AV Club, and immortal. Which could be but why would his father send him such a pissy cable, then, if he’s been Ethan’s father for centuries? At what point do you cut that cord? And, finally, Vanthan? Dornessa? Or Vandorthan? My money’s on the threeway.
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