Episode five of Penny Dreadful deviates from the format of the show to date, focusing solely on Vanessa as she composes a letter to the still missing Mina. Her internal monologue is, as far as we can tell, the text of the letter, in which she tells Mina a whole bunch of things she already mostly knows. Even so, Vanessa writes in hopes that one day Mina will write back and things can be as they were.
While Mina, upon receipt of this letter, might be bored, the audience learns all sorts of new things. We discover that as children, Mina and Vanessa are best friends and neighbors. Mina is the weaker of the pair – a word in this case defined by being more timid and lacking Vanessa’s exceptional skills at taxidermy.
One night, Vanessa stumbles upon Mina’s father and her mother having sex in a hedge maze. She’s a little preoccupied by the gossipy car crash of the whole thing, but mostly, she just confesses that she thought it was hot. Little Vanessa prays to be delivered from her sin, but God doesn’t answer. Something else does, however.
As the girls grow older, and Mina becomes engaged to a man who will likely take her to live in India, Vanessa becomes jealous that her timid friend in the one who shall have the adventure of marriage and sex first. She makes a move on Vanessa’s brother Peter, but he rebuffs her.
The night before Mina’s wedding, Mina and Vanessa are in bed together. This is both completely platonic and appropriate to the period and also about as much lesbian subtext as we’re going to get in this whole episode. Tragic.
Vanessa can’t sleep and gets up to wander the house. She runs into Mina’s fiancée in the halls, shows him the taxidermy room, and highlights her more advanced skill at the art. (She mentions that to make something alive, you must name it, and speaks of her own taxidermy project, a bird of prey named Ariel which should put you in mind of Victor’s Caliban.)
The fiancée becomes smitten with Vanessa’s advanced taxidermy skills and they have sex on the table covered in dead things. Mina appears in the doorway. Nope, sorry, no hot threesome action. There are just a lot of tears, the engagement is called off, and the friendship between the two families is ruined forever.
At which point Vanessa goes crazy. An asylum sequence is almost required of a show called Penny Dreadful but that doesn’t make the scenes of medicalized torture or what I presume to be trepanation any easier to watch. The fact that Vanessa isn’t crazy, but is just possessed by something, also makes it frustrating. Oh the injustice of people not realizing her problem is demons! Whatever is possessing her, by the way, is very keen on the surgical option, possibly because it wants to bet let out of her head and into the world.
After her surgery, Peter comes to visit her. From a near catatonic state Vanessa demands a kiss and tells him he will die in Africa. After he leaves, she is seemingly visited by Sir Malcolm, who speaks to her of four lines of Keates (another link to Victor). She names him the Devil, and he persists with the poetry, ultimately seducing her in what is a devastatingly hot scene celebrating the power of words and a voice pitched just right.
Vanessa’s mother then hears noises from upstairs. When she enters Vanessa’s room Vanessa is on her bed, naked, clearly having some vigorous sex, with someone invisible. Oh, guess that really was the Devil and not actually Sir Malcolm further upping his creepy points. Vanessa’s mother faints dead away. Yes, actually dead. The next scene is the funeral.
Apparently, sex with the Devil is a key component of Vanessa’s recovery, as she’s a lot more verbal after that. She and Mina meet on a beach and tell each other their troubles and offer forgiveness. There is the suggestion that they may be half-sisters. Mostly, everything seems fine until Mina starts to recite things that Vanessa has only said to herself in her own head. She then creepily speaks of the “Master” and is whisked away into dust.
Vanessa goes to Sir Malcolm (the real Sir Malcolm and presumably not also the Devil, but we can’t totally be sure), and tells him of the encounter, saying that Mina needs their help. He tells her that he would have killed her in the past and might kill her in the future, but for now, this house is her home and they shall work together.
Vanessa closes the letter by noting that Sir Malcolm loves his daughter enough to save her, but that her own love for Mina is different. I know, I was thinking lesbianism too. But nope, Vanessa just loves her enough to kill her.