Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 7, “Little Scorpion”
Written by John Logan
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airs Sundays at 10 pm ET on Showtime
The overarching theme of Penny Dreadful’s second season—and indeed, the show as a whole—has been the battle for Vanessa Ives’ (Eva Green) soul. Evelyn Poole and her coven of witches have been fighting hard to deliver Vanessa to Satan, and “Little Scorpion” highlights one of the reason’s the devil wants Vanessa’s soul so badly: it’s steeped in darkness.
After last week’s rain of blood sent Vanessa into a swoon, she’s convinced it’s time to get the hell out of town. Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), still under the sway of Evelyn Poole, tries to shrug off Vanessa’s incident, resulting in Vanessa’s amusing, in media res retort: “It wasn’t female hysteria!”
Vanessa and Ethan (Josh Hartnett) travel to the Cut Wife’s cottage from “The Nightcomers.” “The Nightcomers” was the best episode of season two by far, so it’s only fitting that “Little Scorpion” contains some of Penny Dreadful’s strongest moments in weeks. Here, Vanessa and Ethan settle into a sort of domestic harmony, where Vanessa lets slip that she was afraid of dolls as a child—which is fitting, since Evelyn Poole has a room full of creepy puppets. Through it all, these two cursed people genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
These are tender, quiet moments that should, in theory, bring the momentum of the show to a screeching halt, but instead are successful, thanks to the strong work of Green and Hartnett. Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler has always felt a little bit at odds with Penny Dreadful, but “Little Scorpion” finds a nice platform for Hartnett.
Ethan must contend not just with Vanessa’s safety, but also with his own curse of being a werewolf. “Little Scorpion” permits Ethan to go full-wolfman, having a delightfully staged horror-movie sequence wherein Ethan storms out of the cottage to transform under a fat, full moon. He attacks a flock of sheep, ripping a poor creature’s throat out in the process. Director Brian Kirk frames this with the full moon perfectly over Ethan’s shoulder, allowing a stream of slow-motion blood spilling from Ethan’s mouth to flow directly in front of that dead heavenly body.
The chemistry between Ethan and Vanessa grows, but before they can consummate their passion, Vanessa shuts it down. “We are dangerous,” she says, and she’s right. Buried in “Little Scorpion” is truth that both Vanessa and Ethan have monsters and demons burning inside them, clawing to get out. And while Ethan is a werewolf, Vanessa’s inner demons are less primal and animalistic, and more calculating and spiteful.
An encounter with Sir Geoffrey Hawkes (Ronan Vibert), the man who helped bring about the Cut Wife’s death, unleashes a furious vengeance within Vanessa. She uses a cursed book the Cut Wife left her to turn Sir Geoffrey’s own hunting dogs against him, and the ritual proves that Eva Green is an actress born to recite demonic incantations. As Green unleashes guttural curses in foreign tongues, the recurring motif of Penny Dreadful resounds: what would this show be without her? In an episode that focuses primarily on her and Ethan, it’s apparent yet again how truly secondary every character on this show is to Vanessa.
To almost underline this, “Little Scorpion” briefly cuts away from Vanessa and Ethan to show Lily (Billie Piper) out on a date with Dorian (Reeve Carney) to the wax museum. After they part ways, Lily picks up a man and strangles him to death during coitus. It’s shocking, but also feels hastily and unskillfully tacked-on, and in a season that only has three episodes left, it truly comes across as extraneous. The heart and damned soul of “Little Scorpion”, and Penny Dreadful as a whole, lies firmly with Vanessa.
When Ethan learns that Vanessa has used her magic to kill Sir Geoffrey, he’s condescending and judgmental, even though he himself was planning on shooting Sir Geoffrey before the dogs turned on the man. “You’ll never get your soul back,” Ethan scolds Vanessa. She knows this, and meets Ethan’s judgmental stare head-on. Earlier in the episode, Ethan had been much more accepting of their true natures. “We have claws for a reason,” he told Vanessa. “Little Scorpion” ends with Vanessa no longer being afraid to brandish those claws for her own sense of what is right and just, even if it means getting those claws bloody and losing her soul forever to the night in the process.