Previously on Penny Dreadful: Vanessa did something to Mina before Mina disappeared. And it’s caused a bit of tension between her and Malcolm. Also, Malcolm had a son who died.
Vanessa sits down and starts writing a letter to Mina, explaining that she started writing these letters when she recovered from her ‘illness’ and they’ve been getting gradually more frequent.
Flash back to the girls’ childhood. They run along a beach just below their two families’ homes, which are enormous mansions, by the way. Vanessa suggests going for a swim as far as they can go, but Mina’s more cautious. In VO, Vanessa talks about how crazy close their families were.
One morning, Vanessa makes her way to the Murray home, greeting Mrs Murray and commenting on how lovely the weather is ‘for the homecoming.’ She moves on to a room that’s been given over to taxidermy. Mina’s brother, Peter, is working on a monkey, and he’s frustrated that it doesn’t seem to be coming to life the way a dead, stuffed animal should. Vanessa suggests naming it. She’s working on an eagle she’s named Ariel, after the Shakespeare character in The Tempest. The girls start talking about future husbands, and Mina teases Vanessa about marrying Peter someday. Peter says he won’t be around to marry her, because he plans to go to Africa with his dad.
And speaking of dad and Africa, Malcolm’s returned home from one of his many journeys! All three of the kids dash out to greet him, and he gathers them in his arms affectionately (the girls, anyway, he and Peter shake hands, because Peter’s too big for cuddling, I guess). His wife gets a somewhat chillier reception—just a peck on the cheek—before the children get their presents of animal pelts.
That night, the Murray and Ives families gather for a fancy dinner to welcome Malcolm home. Vanessa remembers how lovely and jolly those homecomings were and how Peter would light up, imaging a glorious future with his father. As they begin the meal, the Iveses cross themselves and pray and Vanessa VOs how her family’s Catholicism was alien to the Murrays. Oddly, some of them still give the Iveses strange looks even though they’ve allegedly all been friends for years at this point and you’d think they’d be used to this particular pre-meal ritual by now.
Later, the kids play in the massive hedge maze in the garden. As Vanessa walks through it, she hears the unmistakable sounds of two people having sex and stumbles on Malcolm and her mother in flagrante. Conducting your affair in the maze your children are playing in? Not bright, folks. Vanessa, hangs back, unseen, watches, and realizes she’s actually enjoying watching. Somewhat horrified with herself, she hurries home to pray.
She does not mention this to Mina, choosing to protect her innocence, while Vanessa starts acting out in small ways—by stealing a comb, for instance. And so the children grow up, and now Vanessa’s wandering through the hedge maze as a young woman. Mina becomes engaged to a young officer named Captain Branson and Vanessa playfully teases Peter and watches Mina flirt with Branson and talk about her future living in India. Vanessa admits in VO that she both envied and hated her friend for getting to go out and learn more of the world, while Vanessa remained behind.
Peter and Vanessa stroll through that maze and he admits he likes Branson, but he hates to think of Mina out in India. She asks about his plans to go to Africa and he says he wants to go but his father won’t let him. He thinks if he does go and helps blaze new trails he’ll finally stop being a disappointment to his father. He’s sure he’ll go at some point, though, and comments that Vanessa will be all alone when he does. She suddenly grabs him and kisses him hard, but he pushes her away, reminding her that they’re expected at dinner soon. He rushes away, leaving her alone as her VO says she should have gone after him and begged him not to go, because she knew he was too weak and wouldn’t survive. She loved his weakness, though.
Back home she goes, to pray, as usual, but this time she collapses on the floor, weeping, and starts to hear some kind of deep, creepy voices.
Later, she goes to the Murrays’ for a pre-wedding party. Peter barely meets her eye, so Vanessa goes to find Mina and she remembers that they were never happier than that weekend. It’s the night before Mina’s wedding. Vanessa stays at the Murrays’, snuggled up with her oldest friend. In the middle of the night, she wakes and goes downstairs, where she runs into Branson, relaxing, and shows him the taxidermy room. She shows him a squirrel Mina did, as well as Ariel. When she stuffed him, she put mirrors behind his eyes so they would reflect the light and seem more alive. She takes Branson’s face in her hands, says she’d put mirrors behind the entire world if she could, and kisses him. Before you know it, they’re having sex right on the table, and of course Mina walks in and sees them at it. As she stares in shock, Vanessa looks up and spots her…and keeps right on going. Vanessa’s a totally shit friend.
The following day, Malcolm sees off Branson. Branson seems to be curiously possessed of all his limbs, which makes him much luckier than any man who attempted to cheat on a daughter of mine would be. My husband would be all over that asshole, believe me. Upstairs, Mina weeps in her mother’s arms.
Vanessa leaves her home, heading to the Murrays’, but her mother rushes out after her, asking if she has any shame or sense of decorum at all. Vanessa throws that back in her face and tells her to get upstairs and make amends to her husband. She shakes her mother off and continues towards the Murrays’, only to run into Malcolm in the garden. He asks what she wants and, when she says she wants to make amends to Mina, informs her that there’s nothing she can do, before slamming the garden gate in her face. She turns and staggers a few paces back towards her home before collapsing.
VO explains that her illness was inexplicable. She writhes in bed and falls into fits, foaming at the mouth and having to be held down by her mother and a nurse and the doctor. She won’t eat, though her mother begs her to. Mrs Ives adds that they don’t think it’s epilepsy, but the doctor doesn’t have a clue what’s wrong with her and thinks her brain’s shorting out. In other news, Mina’s gone, and the Iveses are no longer welcome at the Murrays’. Weeping in frustration, Mrs Ives says they’re consulting a specialist in London, to try and find out what’s wrong with Vanessa. Vanessa figures they mean to put her in an asylum and tells her mother she’s not insane or unhappy. Well, I think that latter bit’s totally untrue. She tells her mother she should let Vanessa die and Mrs Ives sobs.
At the asylum, a doctor interviews Vanessa and her parents. Vanessa’s practically catatonic, so he addresses the parents. Mrs Ives thinks Vanessa’s being tormented. But the doctor thinks what she needs are hydrotherapy and narcotics. Fun! He mentions ‘surgical options’ if these treatments don’t work. Vanessa finally rouses herself, so the doctor asks to speak with her alone. He introduces himself to her fairly pleasantly, but Vanessa ignores him and says she wants to be outside. He promises she will be, mentioning their garden. She prefers the ocean and starts talking about drowned men and sunken slave ships. He quickly presses a silent alarm and asks her to sit down. She walks over to him, asks who this ‘Vanessa’ is that he’s speaking of, grabs his head and starts baring her teeth, looking well and truly crazy. Orderlies rush in and bundle her out.
And so begins her torment. She’s forced into ice baths, strapped to a bed and sedated, chained to a wall and hosed full blast with what I’m sure is not warm water. Her head is shaved as she silently weeps. And then tiny holes are drilled into her skull to…I don’t know, relieve pressure or something? I can’t imagine having this done during the late Victorian period. It sounds horrifying enough now.
Finally, she’s returned home. Late in the evening, Peter comes to visit and announces he’s heading to Africa with his dad after all and he’d like to see Vanessa one last time. Her father’s reluctant but her mother readily agrees, warning Peter that Vanessa’s much changed and he mustn’t be shocked by what he sees.
She is, indeed, much changed. She now just lies on her bed, prone, staring blankly at the ceiling. Peter asks Mrs Ives if she’ll die. ‘If there is a god,’ the woman replies, and I think it’s important to point out that there’s no malice in how she says it, just the strain of a parent seeing their child in constant pain. Peter sits beside the bed and Vanessa turns a bit to face him. He asks if she knows him and Mrs Ives answers that they’re not sure, before urging him to speak to her, since that seems to help. Peter does, telling her about his Africa trip and how happy and excited he is. She gasps that he should have kissed her and asks him to do so now. Because it’s hard to refuse a friend in pain, he does, gently kissing her lips. As he draws back, she whispers that he’s going to die in Africa. Bon voyage, Peter! In horror, he turns to leave. On his way out, Mrs Ives thanks him for coming and asks what Vanessa said. He lies that he couldn’t make it out.
Late at night, Vanessa wakes to find Malcolm in her room, asking if she knows Keats. She immediately guesses that he’s not really Malcolm, this is just the form her tormentor is taking. She identifies him as the devil and he calmly talks about Keats again, and how four lines from Ode to a Nightingale stuck with him. He offers to recite them and she growls that she has no choice. Oh, but she does, according to him. All the choice is hers. He offers her up the power to see what’s beyond this world, and though she claims not to want it, he knows better. She’s always wanted to see further, and see more. Back to 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.
He gets closer with every line until they’re right in each other’s faces, and when he’s done they kiss and he lays Vanessa back on the bed.
Downstairs, Mrs Ives wakes from a nap to strange noises, and when she goes to Vanessa’s room, she finds her daughter naked and apparently having energetic sex with an invisible person. When Vanessa turns to look at her mother, her eyes are completely white. Mrs Ives falls to the floor, dead of shock. Yeah, Vanessa’s possessed.
Mrs Ives is buried.
Sometime later, presumably (since her hair’s grown back), Vanessa walks along the beach. She meets up with Mina, walking towards her wearing what I think is her wedding gown. She should be thankful Vanessa spared her from wearing that in public, because it’s pretty bad. Boring as hell and poorly fitted. Anyway, Mina forgives her for having screwed her fiancé, because she figures Vanessa’s suffered enough. Vanessa admits she can’t quite forgive herself. Mina goes on to say that she’s married to a lawyer now, and he’s a good guy and loves her. Vanessa says she’s happy for her. They commiserate over the loss of Peter, and Mina says she wishes Vanessa had run after him that day in the maze, and told him not to go. Vanessa asks how she could know about that, and Mina’s eyes go red and her voice changes and she says she knows about many things now, the master has taught her much. She then goes back to normal and begs Vanessa to help her and save her from him, before she’s sucked backwards and disappears. Vanessa falls to her knees.
It’s late at night. Sembene goes to Sir Malcolm, at work in his study in London, and tells him something in a language I’m unfamiliar with. Malcolm goes out to the hall and finds Vanessa standing in the rain just outside the front door. You couldn’t even let her wait inside, Sembene? Kind of dickish, no? She tells Malcolm she knows Mina needs their help and she’s there to lend some kind of aid. At last, she’s allowed in. She tells him she thinks she can communicate with Mina. He tells her there was a time he would have gladly killed Vanessa, but now he can make use of her, though he won’t forgive her for what she did. She informs him she’s suffered immensely for what she did, so his threats mean nothing to her. She says she knows more of death than he ever could. He agrees that they’ll follow it, together, to Mina, and after that, they’re done.
Vanessa finishes up her letter, saying she expects no forgiveness, but she won’t rest until Mina’s safe, as she has no other purpose in life. She promises to love Mina always, then adds a postscript before folding up the letter and filing it in a box with dozens, perhaps hundreds of others. In VO, she reads the postscript: Malcolm loves Mina enough to do anything to save her, but Vanessa loves Mina in a different way—enough to kill her, if necessary.
So, we’ve got a werewolf (probably), a possessed psychic, a human-builder, and…Malcolm. If Sembene turns out to be some sort of voodoo priest, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.