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Penny Dreadful: “Little Scorpion”

Eva Green/Showtime
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While not strictly a bottle episode, “Little Scorpion” does devote the bulk of its running time to one location and two characters: Vanessa and Chandler holed up at the Cut-Wife’s former cottage on the moors. This turns out to be just the right move for this point in the season. For one thing, it gives us an extended look at the interplay between Eva Green and Josh Hartnett, and the resulting contrast in acting styles; when they share the screen, Penny Dreadful hits the sweet spot between highly theatrical stylization and “aw shucks” naturalism. In terms of the season-long arc, the pairing is crucial because, with all due respect to the rest of the ensemble, the relationship between Vanessa and Chandler needs the time and attention given to it here as the characters grow ever closer.


If that’s going to happen, what better setting than the classic horror movie cabin in the woods? (Even better, given the presence of a werewolf, a cabin on the moors.) When Chandler insists on accompanying Vanessa out of the city, it makes sense for several reasons, not least of which that the moon is still full and he needs to be as far away from a densely populated area as possible. Here his only victims are helpless sheep as Chandler continues to get a handle on exactly what happens to him during his blackout periods. (Earlier he’d asked Sembene, a rare surviving witness to his transformation, “Tell me what you saw.”) Despite the developing trust between him and Vanessa, however, he stops short of sharing his secret with her.

In a way, this is Lost syndrome all over again: If the characters would only stop to share information honestly for five minutes, so much would be cleared up that the season would only last three episodes. When “Little Scorpion” cuts back to Lyle and Frankenstein continuing to work the puzzle, they’re baffled by references to the scorpion and the hound of God. If Vanessa, Chandler, or even Sembene had shared everything they know with the rest of the team, these clues wouldn’t be mysteries at all. Since this is only episode seven of ten, however, it’s not yet time for the puzzle to be solved, however frustrating that may be for those of us who are a step or two ahead of the game.

In fairness, the Cut-Wife’s former residence may not be conducive to full-blown intimacy. With bundles of herbs hanging everywhere and the walls overgrown with vegetation, it has the spooky ambiance of a place being reclaimed by nature; it’s haunted by its past, recalling for Chandler the Indian graveyard he spoke of last week. It doesn’t help that the tree on which the townspeople strung up and burned the Cut-Wife still stands in the front yard, at least until Chandler takes an axe to it.

Outside of the cabin, picking berries on the moors, Vanessa and Chandler are able to open up and speak more freely about the terrors of their past, if not their present. This is some of the best work Green and Hartnett have done together, convincingly portraying the dynamic of two people from completely different worlds finding tentative but secretly thrilling common ground. Their childhood fears are a mismatch: in Chandler’s case, a horse named (appropriately) Diablo, and for Vanessa, even more appropriately (although she has know way of knowing it yet), dolls. They may not agree on what to call the troubling otherworldly element that lurks within them both (you say monsters, I say demons), but they know it’s there and that they share something most of the world knows nothing about.


That means it’s time for them to finally indulge in the most intimate, tender experience two people can share: shooting lessons. Yes, viewers who have been waiting patiently for Vanessa and Chandler to tumble into bed together will have to wait a bit longer, but at least now we know Vanessa is a crack shot with a pistol. They also cook together and she teaches him to dance (“the opposite of homicide”), but their cozy domesticity is interrupted by a lightning storm that sets the cabin on fire. If this is a sign, Vanessa takes it as a negative one: they’re a dangerous duo.

Sir Geoffrey finds this out firsthand when he once again crosses paths with Vanessa in the woods. She wants revenge; Chandler tries to talk her down and take matters into his own hands. Vanessa has her way, taking Chekhov’s Necronomicon down from the shelf, speaking the Verbis Diablo, and turning Sir Geoffrey’s own hounds against him. “You’ll never get your soul back,” Chandler tells her; harsh if true, but having the book of evil in play should make for a lively final trio of episodes this season.


Stray observations:

  • The werewolf transformation effects are minimalist and old-school so far, which is all to the good. Maybe Rick Baker retired too soon.
  • Back in London, the easily distracted Dorian Gray now has his eyes on Lily, whom he takes on an untimely date to the waxworks. (In retrospect, it makes sense that Gray doesn’t recognize her as Brona, because that would involve thinking about someone else for more than two seconds.) I’ve been waiting for the Creature to catch Frankenstein and Lily together, but this is actually more satisfying, in that I wouldn’t mind seeing John Clare rip Gray’s head off at this point.
  • Another twist: Innocent though she may seem, Lily is a monster at heart. Watching her choke out her new friend from the pub, I couldn’t help but think back to sweet-natured Proteus from the first couple of episodes. Was he doomed to be a killer, too?

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