In the dramatic beauty that so characterises this series, Vanessa writes a letter to Mina, one of the many letters she writes even though she cannot send them in an attempt to connect to Mina. It’s a lead in to a flashback
We see young Mina and Vanessa as neighbours and bestest friends (also seeing Mina’s older brother Peter, who died in Africa and Vanessa later channelled while possessed. The siblings kind of assume Vanessa will marry Peter because naturally). And, because this is Penny Dreadful these happy young people enjoy a bit of taxidermy – just to keep the creepiness levels high. Sir Malcolm returns from one of his many explorations and Vanessa greets him as warmly as Mina (ane he even refers to them as “my girls”, definitely a father figure).
It’s all idyllic and very Victorian, from Malcolm’s tall tales of his adventures, to his very restrained and decorous greeting of his wife – even the slightly scandalised looks Mina’s family gives Vanessa’s over their Catholicism. And under all the so-pretty veneer Vanessa explores the maze at night and finds that Sir Malcolm was having an affair with Vanessa’s mother (so very very very Victorian). And in similar Victorianness, Vanessa enjoys the view – and then feels sinful and demonic because of it.
They grow up and Mina finds her ideal and considers going to India – which leaves Vanessa feeling so lonely (especially since Peter, her expected betrothed, seems so inadequate) and with more than a little seething jealousy. Peter is also not especially happy with Mina going to India – but more to do with his racism than anything else. He’s also pouty that daddy isn’t especially eager to take Peter adventuring in Africa; especially since his sickly, less-than-physically-adeptness feels like a disappointment to his father. Vanessa, perhaps more to “get there first” than out of any genuine wish, kisses Peter and he flees the scene. (Vanessa’s dramatic monologue says how she loves Peter for his weakness – but how he would never survive Africa).
More desperate prayer, more demons and, getting out of bed with Mina (probably not sexual, for women of that class and era – but certainly very close) on the night of Mina’s wedding, Vanessa shows Mina’s fiancé her very powerful, creepy taxidermy… (make dead things alive – ah Victor, she did it first!) and then has sex with him among the stuffed bodies. Witnessed by Mina.
The fallout isn’t pretty. The wedding is off, Mina is in tears. Vanessa’s mother tries to remonstrate with her – but Vanessa throws her hypocrisy in her face; still Mina isn’t accepting visits from Vanessa and Sir Malcolm closes the ever-open gates between their homes.
Vanessa dramatically faints and becomes mysteriously ill with an inexplicable illness. The illness lasts for some time and her mother frays as the doctors are more and more bemused by it. They decide to take Vanessa to an asylum – though Vanessa just wants to die.
Where she is treated for “psycho-sexual disorder” (which is Victorian for “icky female sexing! Ew!”). Vanessa maintains her wish to die – with extra creepiness and demonic possession when, in her terrifying rambling, she uses her doctor’s full name. Which he hasn’t told her – and then she tries to eat him and has to be dragged away by orderlies
Their “treatment” involves repeated immersion in icy cold water (and tied, crucifix-style, to a wall to be sprayed with a cold pressure hose), lots of straight jackets and restraints and forced drugging.
Unsurprisingly, none of this works – the next step is the doctor forcing a horrific lobotomy on her.
So “treated” she returns home – nearly always comatose, into her mother’s care. Peter visits her. She rouses and asks him to kiss her – he does and she warns him he will die in Africa. With extra creepy.
She gets another visitor – Sir Malcolm, quoting Keats (of course). Only this Sir Malcolm has black eyes and she calls “serpent” and “demon of the pit”. He seduces her with her hunger for more and dark poetry
Her mother hears the noise and investigates – to find Vanessa, stark naked having sex with something completely invisible. There’s a limit to what this Victorian lady can take and she dies from the shock of it (especially Vanessa’s pure white eyes). No, I mean that literally
Demon sex and mother killing brings Vanessa to her senses and allows her to go to her mother’s funeral. Vanessa has a vision of Mina who forgives her – Vanessa has suffered so much; but Vanessa will not forgive herself. Mina tells Vanessa of her marriage to John Harker. Before ruining all the idyll by revealing her hidden knowledge – and blood red eyes – given to her by “the master”. She begs Vanessa to save her – then disappears.
Vanessa goes to see the real Sir Malcolm and tell him about Mina. He agrees to use her, after showing off his ruthlessness, but he will not forgive her. Vanessa scorns what he has suffered and sacrificed because she trumps all (in glorious terms). They agree to work together until they find Mina and he declares his house her home.
Back to the present and Vanessa continues to wallow in guilt. She finishes her letter – and adds it to the vast stack of others. With a P.S. – Malcolm loves Mina enough to save her, Vanessa loves her enough to kill her.
It’s so Victorian! The tension! The undertone. The pretty exteriors and dark underbellies! The guilt, the sin, the properness! The polite words and seething depths! It’s so AMAZINGLY MELODRAMATIC while at the same time being INCREDIBLY RESTRAINED! This is just an ode to Victorian Britain, Victorian Gothic, the whole genre on a great big tarnished platter. All symbolically happening in the twisty, hidden but-not-secret-because-anyone-could-stumble-on-you corridors of the hedge maze.
Of course, being Victorian, it also comes with the terribleness of the era – including Vanessa being dumped in an asylum (which wasn’t impossible for any woman who was considered a nuisance – let alone one that was actually demonically possessed) and the horrendous way the mentally ill were treated in this time. And it is fully displayed as utterly horrendous, it’s stark, it’s brutal and there’s no pretence of it being a good, useful or acceptable thing. It is shown for what it was – torture.
But it also contains “historic racism” which is so often an excuse for, well, racism. There are ways to show bigotry (and needs to show bigotry since washing over history isn’t laudable) which challenges it – and Penny Dreadful doesn’t do it. The very least they could do is make their one POC and actual character – something they have utterly failed to do. Displaying bigotry cannot be justified as “history” if there is no challenge of it – because then there’s absolutely nothing historic about the bigotry there.
There’s also an ongoing demonisation of Vanessa’s sexuality – and that’s in a literal sense. Her sex is literally the stuff of demons, the cause of all evil, the source of all the problems in the show, the reason for Mina’s thrall… Of course, that is another powerful Victorian theme - the evil and demonic nature of lust, especially female lust.