Monday, June 9, 2014

Symbols & Analysis: Penny Dreadful, Closer Than Sisters, Season 1 Episode 5

This was an amazing episode; oh, you're disappointed? You thought we were going to learn that Vanessa had been in a vampire harem, or that she drank Mina's blood, prostituted Mina to the devil and married the devil himself? Well, if you thought anything along these lines, don't blame yourself, because the series has truly teased that it was so monumental that our imaginations were racing with the possibilities of the profane. I assure you, however, what we learn in this episode is utter genius, especially for us Christians who need to see some positive signs regarding the direction our culture is headed.
It will probably surprise you as to why Fenton--the Reinfield like character Malcolm and the others "caught" at the London zoo and took back to Grandage Place to do experiments upon--keeps calling Vanessa "mother," and says why everyone wants her. Fenton's lurid suggestions make Vanessa indeed sound like the "devil's whore," as he calls her. Again, it's because "Vanessa" means literary invention that Fenton recognizes and calls her "mother," because she has in fact, given birth to him and even Fenton's master, "the creature." There is even more to discuss on this below. We are starting out examining Episode 5, Closer Than Sisters, because this is the vantage point from which we can analyze and explore the episodes that have come before, so the next episode we will do is the first one, Night Work.
Vanessa writes a letter. This is a perfectly intricate device, since "Vanessa" means "literary invention," so we have a literal literary invention giving birth to a literary invention as she writes a letter to a woman who, as Mina Hawker, is herself a literary invention from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and may never read even one line from the box of letters Vanessa has written to her. So, why is this important? There are many areas we could explore, such as Vanessa writing a letter is like Dorian Grey looking at portraits of other people; for the moment, let's just say that it illustrates how closely the film makers are paying attention to what they are doing, all the levels of connections and meanings that they have woven together assure us that we cannot possibly be peering into the narrative too deeply, rather, we risk not looking close enough, or for long enough.
There is a moment in the show when Vanessa's doctor has cork-screwed her brain in what appears to be a lobotomy, and he touches her head the same way that we saw Victor Frankenstein touch Proteus' head (pictured above) in Episode 1, Night Work. Why is this important? Because the film makers want to direct our attention back to this scene, that Vanessa, or we should say the definition of "Vanessa" in Victorian England, was also largely a creation of Victorian science. 
So, the first question, why does Vanessa have sex with Mina's fiance? This is a perfect example of what happens when we ask the wrong question, and we can be confident this is the wrong question because there is really nothing leading up to it, there is, however, the case of young Vanessa stealing the hair comb (or perhaps it was a file of some kind?) off of Mina's vanity while she brushed her hair. The item was long and slender, rather like a phallus; given that Vanessa always attributed such bravery and courage and strength to herself, and pinned Mina in the role of the soft, childish and helpless female, it's not surprising that Vanessa would want a phallic symbol to represent herself with, almost as if the act of theft was a kind of "raping" of Mina.
On the left is the scene of Vanessa and Mina the night before Mina's wedding, and on the left is a scene from Camilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu of 1872, one of many vampire stories Stoker drew upon for his own Dracula. In Camilla, it's a vampire with lesbian tendencies who must be slain.  Is lesbianism one of many of Vanessa's sins, or even just a latent, suppressed lesbianism, and that's why she has sex with Mina's future husband? Well, let's compare this scene to the closing scene with Ethan and Dorian from Episode 4, Demimonde, when Ethan kisses Dorian. Perhaps, and we will find out more later, but Ethan knows that Dorian had been with Brona and why she was so shy when they met, so, since Ethan can't sleep with Brona anymore, Ethan might calculate, he'll sleep with someone who has slept with her also and then he will somehow still have a bond with her. Since Vanessa won't have Mina all to herself anymore, 
It is, however, more accurate to say that, rather than having sex with Captain Bronson--which she did, but that wasn't really her motivation--she wanted to steal Bronson from Mina, just as she had stolen Mina's hair comb, and just as she she felt Bronson was stealing Mina from her. Remember, there was no attraction to Bronson on Vanessa's behalf, so we have to delve into the depth to discover the traces of what is there and why Vanessa did what she did.
When they first see each other in this scene, Vanessa says, "Sister." Perhaps because, in her heart, she knows that Mina is her sister in Satan (since they are from different churches, the Roman and the English, they couldn't be sisters in Christ) but it's possible that Vanessa has some knowledge because this is a vision, so there must be some power by which Mina can come to Vanessa in this vision, and Vanessa knows that the creature has given Mina that power. On a different note, the ocean plays an important role in this episode, Vanessa wanting to be there, and talking about the drowning of tormented souls who were slaves. The ocean symbolizes the soul in that the soul has a seemingly fathomless depth to its interior; like the surface of the ocean ravaged by a storm, so our lives might be ravaged, but the depths of our souls calm, just as the ocean is; on the other hand, there are those terrible, dark, hideous monsters lurking in the crevices, and that's where the devil lurks, too. In the scene above, neither Mina nor Vanessa are in the water--as in, in their souls, but on the outside of their souls, so to speak--rather, lingering away from it, perhaps because they cannot go there because of their master? Vanessa, all in black, and Mina in that cream (off-white color), almost like a Victorian wedding dress. It would be tempting to say that Mina is the one full of life, her purity and innocence, while Vanessa is dead as the black in which she is draped, but I think the exact opposite is true in this scene, especially for what we know what happens with Mina. Black is always death, but there is the good death ("death to the world" so the perfection of the soul can be achieved) and then there is "death to the soul," so one can live in the world and die to the soul, pursuing whatever pleasures they desire. Vanessa's hair is covered, which is a sign of humility, given that, it is probably appropriate to read that Vanessa is dead to the world but Mina is dead to her soul. A corpse turns white as it rots, and when we realize that Mina has "been taken" she certainly doesn't seem to be alive with virtue or faith.
Now, the next most fascinating question of the episode: why Sir Malcolm? Of all the manifestations for the devil to come to her in, why Sir Malcolm? Since her London doctor, Christopher Banning, mentions "hysteria of psycho-sexual nature," that invites the real diagnosis of Vanessa ("literary invention") as the Electra complex, from the the play Electra by Sophocles (so, like Vanessa, she's a literary invention). It's the mental stage of sexual development when a girl will compete with her mother for the attentions of her father (contrariwise, the Oedipus complex is when a boy competes with his father for the affections of his mother). Vanessa was overcome at finding Sir Malcolm and her mother having sex in the hedge maze, and--not having seen her mother with her father--formed a desire for Sir Malcolm instead (especially after he took on the father role in punishing her by closing the gate between their houses). But, there is probably another reason as well,...
One must admit, Sir Malcolm shows as much affection to little Vanessa as he does his own Mina, and certainly more to Vanessa than to Peter. Why is Peter not interested in marrying Vanessa? Because Peter suffers from the Oedipus complex, but the mother isn't Gladys, that Sir Malcolm hardly even kisses when he has returned, no, the "mother" Peter is after is the "motherland," the deep, dark, mysterious motherland of Africa, the great unknown. On the eve before his trip to Africa, Peter visits Vanessa, he goes to see the bride that won't be his, so he can hasten to "probe" the depths of Africa with his father, in competition with his father, to show Sir Malcolm that he is as capable as his father. Sir Malcolm treats every person like they are Africa: dark and deep, he has to explore them and discover what their "source" is, like the Nile. Consider when Sir Malcolm invites Victor Frankenstein to his club to dine, Sir Malcolm plays games with Victor, trying to find the right bait to offer the doctor so Victor will help him find a cure for Mina. Vanessa has an attraction for Peter because Peter is much like her father, Mr. Ives, easily dominated, and there is a part of Vanessa that likes that and desires it, but her deeper more dangerous self desires the type of man that Sir Malcolm is.
Sir Malcolm is the explorer, and the conqueror, so Vanessa wants to be explored and conquered like darkest, deepest Africa--just like her mother Clare--and that's another reason why the devil comes to her as Sir Malcolm, he knows her dark desire and what she "needs." Now, the next logical question is, why does the devil recite Keats to her?
When Mr. and Mrs. Ives have taken Vanessa to the office of Dr. Banning, her parents leave the room and she tells the tells the doctor that she has seen men drown, slaves, chained in their torment to a slave ship, then drown with their chains on into a greater torment. The events of this episode are taking place roughly around 1890, so 50 years earlier, the premiere English artists JMW Turner exhibited this painting, The Slave Ship. In 1781, the captain of a slave ship ordered that more than 130 slaves be thrown overboard to the sharks so the insurance payments could be collected. This outraged the English so much that slavery was abolished. I couldn't help but think of it when I saw Vanessa standing at the window and talking about the drowning slaves.
John Keats' Ode To a Nightingale (complete poem at this link):

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 mus├Ęd rhyme, 
  To take into the air my quiet breath;

Recall, Frankenstein mused on the poets and death before his mother's death, and herein, we might come to a very modern problem: with all our technology, and advances in science to prolong life, how often do we really think about our death? Rarely, if at all. The Victorians, on the other hand, had made great advances, however, illnesses such as consumption (like what Brona has) were still rampant, especially in the poorer classes, and so death was still intimately tied to your individuality (like Peter's death in Africa, even though Vanessa has warned him about it, he feels he must still go because that is, ultimately, the death he wants). But, what I think this snippet of the poem really refers to, are two different types of "death."
This may seem like a ridiculous question to ask, but sometimes those are the most fruitful:P why does Mrs. Ives die after seeing Vanessa in bed, naked, gyrating, and her eyes whited out? I think that, just as Vanessa saw Sir Malcolm, so, too, did her mother, and Clare saw herself in Vanessa's place. It was seeing her own sin, rather like Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring, that made her die because Clare probably didn't really think her sin was a sin, which is a reason why sins go un-confessed. The exact opposite is sinful as well, and that's the behavior pattern we see in Vanessa: she won't forgive herself for what she did. Judas committed the same sin: it wasn't betraying Jesus that was Judas' great sin, it was believing that Jesus would not forgive him that was Judas' great sin, and that is what we see in Vanessa. This is an act of pride in that a person is strong enough to carry their sin, or even that they have committed a sin beyond forgiveness (which is what Vanessa tells Mina on the beach). Besides not being forgiven for the sin, the other harmful part is that we get used to living in a state of sin so the committing of other sins looses its sense of severity (a person doesn't really notice a piece of trash on the table if they are living in a dump). We will explore this further when we go back and analyze episode 1, Night Work, because this explains what is happening to Vanessa when we see her praying before the Crucifix and there are spiders coming out from behind it.
First, there is the ease of physical death, of committing suicide, and in a time when there were almost no pain killers, suicide or over-dosing on opium was a desirable end to one's suffering (especially a painful illness like consumption, which is what Keats had, which the devil-as-Sir-Malcolm mentions). As Christians, we know the purpose of our suffering is to refine our soul, that our physical and mental suffering on earth is meant to be united with Christ's suffering and pain is therefore redemptive, we are made stronger and wiser through it; an easy death, though, is a death devoid of redemptive suffering, saying--in essence--"no" to Christ, that you will not join Him in suffering and that you will not seek to perfect your soul the way He has dictated. In the scene wherein "Sir Malcolm" quotes Keats to Vanessa, he tempts her with this kind of a death, a death where she doesn't suffer the pain she has been through, but only experiences pleasure and ease, and this is what he's tempting her with.
There is another angle to "explore" this: why Sir Malcolm was having sex with Mrs. Ives. Seeing his physical affection with young Vanessa (pictured above) it might be that Sir Malcolm wanted Vanessa, but knowing she was too young, re-directed his attraction to her mother; he certainly isn't attracted to his wife. When, towards the end of the episode, Vanessa appears again, he keeps her under his roof--which one would not necessarily expect--especially during Victorian times: a young, unmarried woman living with a man who is not her father or other relative would have been pure scandal, so Sir Malcolm risks a great deal in having her stay (instead of just putting her up in a boarding house or something like that) and we have to ask why he's willing to take that risk.
So, even though some of the explanations of Closer Than Sisters might seem disappointing to you, I think contributing the catastrophic betrayal of Mina to having had sex with her fiance is absolutely the best thing they could have done because our culture today has such a casual approach to sex that, like Vanessa's mother, people don't realize the far-reaching damage it can do (if Sir Malcolm and Mrs. Ives had not been having an affair, perhaps none of this would have happened). All the heartache and trouble these characters are experiencing then, goes back to sex in a garden.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
Like she's been locked out of the Garden of Eden.