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Penny Dreadful – Little Scorpion – Review

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I cannot decide if I enjoyed this episode of Penny Dreadful or not. On one had I felt it was a bit slow and hashed out the obvious for the audience. On the other hand, Vanessa and Ethan’s relationship is an important one to the plot of Penny Dreadful. It is written and prophesized that they are a unit, protector and protected, and seeing their relationship grow and flourish was necessary and enjoyable. These two people understand each other and know what it’s like to shield the world from their darkness better than any other characters on the show. Dorian is almost inhuman in his immortality and Frankenstein is arrogant in his belief that his science trumps the fault of that darkness. Ethan and Vanessa are more human, even if they aren’t like other humans. The push and pull of their relationship in “Little Scorpion” does set the stage for conflicts to come as we near the end of the season and even without a back story spelled out we learn much about Ethan Chandler in this episode.

The episode opens in the aftermath of Ethan’s transformation. Sembene seems to be taking it all in stride, remarking on how “things become other things”. He speaks with experience on the subject of man changing into another thing and I wonder if he means this metaphorically, spiritually, or literally. I could be all three given what we’ve seen on Penny Dreadful. It is Sembene who hypothesizes that perhaps Ethan’s curse is actually a blessing, one they don’t see the purpose of yet. While very true, I do wish our characters would understand the sharpshooter’s connection to Brother Gregory’s writings and his role as Lupus Dei. I do like that Sembene says he “sees” Ethan, meaning that even with this terrible burden and the things he might have done under its influence, the sharpshooter is on the side of good. I enjoy the friendship that has sprung up between these two and I think if Ethan were ever to wolf out in front of the rest of Sir Malcolm’s team, it would be Sembene that would help him master the beast.

Jump to the next day where Sir Malcolm’s team are discussing what happened to Vanessa at the ball. Sir Malcom seems to believe that Vanessa fell under the influence of “female hysteria”, a catch-all phrase used in Victorian times to describe ailments and peculiarities in women. Sir Malcolm is very staunch in his stance that there is a mundane reason for the medium to faint and even Dr. Frankenstein thinks it peculiar to not give Vanessa some credit. Sir Malcolm as seen under Evelyn Poole’s sway is quickly irritating me, but that is the point given he is meant to work against the best interests of our heroes. And also I miss his beard. Vanessa decides that things are too heavy in London and that she must leave the city for her own safety. Ethan insists on accompanying her. Interestingly, it is Mr. Lyle who suggests that Vanessa keep her destination a secret. I hope he survives to the finale, especially if Evelyn Poole finds out the linguist is working against her. Vanessa and Ethan make to leave right away and Vanessa confides in Frankenstein as to where they are going, in case they need to be summoned. I love the dynamic that’s developed between Vanessa and Victor, it feels as if they are almost siblings at times, especially now that she is giving Frankenstein advice regarding his “cousin”. However, I worry that the doctor will be weakened by his current predicaments and secrets surrounding Brona and will be coerced to give up the information.

And so we see Vanessa return to the beginning, to the place that started her path through the demimonde; the Cut Wife’s cottage. As she and Ethan enter, we see the cottage is in disrepair, abandoned all this time. For Vanessa, it is a place of pain as well as comfort, and you can see that on her face as she gazes around the room. The medium actually remarks on the belief that a place can be haunted, though I don’t think what Vanessa means is the literal apparitions. The weight of what went on in that cottage weighs heavy in the air. Ethan adds to the conversation, telling of an Indian graveyard occupied by those he killed and how he felt he belonged there. While Ethan speaks of this haunting in a melancholy sort of way, Vanessa seems almost at peace with her belonging on the moor. The fact that she is so comfortable slipping in to this old life, as well as the fact that her gaze lingers on the book the Cut Wife presented as a last resort, gives us a hint at things to come.

Having only each other for company, Ethan and Vanessa have many opportunities to talk and share their inner most thoughts. We haven’t seen this kind of interaction since season one and that’s one thing enjoy the most about this episode. “Little Scorpion” allows the audience to see Vanessa and Ethan bonding together. We know they are bound by prophecy, but aside from being thrust together in that way it’s nice to see them learning about each other. On the moors, as Vanessa goes about gathering herbs and setting traps, her knowledge of which surprises Ethan, they discuss the change in Sir Malcolm. Vanessa is resentful of Evelyn’s involvement with Sir Malcolm and the fact that the familial bond that grew between her and the explorer, one that came from their mutual suffering, seems to be strained nowadays. It’s interesting that Vanessa admits that Sir Malcolm’s contentment is what is dissolving her bond with him. We know the explorer is under an evil influence, but hearing Vanessa essentially say that her misery would love some company sheds some light on just how much the medium is struggling and how alone she feels. This is Evelyn Poole getting in to her head, causing Vanessa to become an island among her friends. The witch is dividing and conquering. Ethan also mentions how he felt content with Brona before she passed away. Vanessa remarks that Brona was his moor, his place to belong. However, I still am not over the fact that Vanessa doesn’t realize Lily is Brona. I also think it’s a bit obvious for Ethan to outright state that Vanessa will make a great wife someday. We all know what this trip is leading up to, we don’t need it spelled out.

Later on in the evening, Ethan and Vanessa share a meal and a cigarette to take the edge off while telling stories. These are the moments I enjoy the most, where Ethan and Vanessa are simply people and not so consumed by their inner demons. They are so at comfortable and they actually laugh! The conversation turns to a discussion of what the pair feared as children and it’s highly ironic that Vanessa dislikes dolls. I now want to see a showdown between her and Evelyn in the terror doll chamber. I also think that the horse Ethan tangled with being named “Diablo” wasn’t a coincidence. The conversation takes a serious turn as Ethan makes a comment about the things that mark you when you’re young. In the context of their talk, this can mean something emotional, but in Ethan's case this has to also be alluding to his back story and how he became a werewolf. Vanessa and Ethan go on to discuss the monsters and demons they hold at bay inside themselves. Vanessa comments that when such things are released they show a person’s true self, something Ethan seems almost crushed at hearing since he is so at odds with his wolfish side. The sharpshooter then abruptly leaves the cottage, commanding Vanessa to keep the door locked tight, and under the full moon gives in to his primal side. There is a very cool slow motion shot of Were-Ethan eviscerating some local sheep here as well.

The next day, Vanessa wakes to find Ethan chopping down the tree that the Cut Wife was hung from. This is touching considering Vanessa told him earlier of how the experience of seeing her friend brutalized upon its branches left a profound impact on her. Vanessa wants to know what it is that claws away at Ethan emotionally, but he changes the subject and teaches the medium to shoot. Vanessa is a natural, obliterating every bottle in sight, and even shoots one in midair. Ethan cautions that living targets are more difficult and warns that connecting with them, looking your enemy in the eyes, will cause you to fail. He essential tells Vanessa to operate on instinct and shed her humanity in order to kill. The pair have been very intimate this trip, especially when Vanessa reaches around Ethan’s hip to grab more ammo and reload her gun. They grow even closer when Vanessa repays Ethan for the shooting lesson with dancing lessons of her own.

What comes next are a variety of scenes in the life of Ethan and Vanessa out on the moor. This plays out almost as a romance movie would, with each player coyly watching the other, growing close and more in sync, as seen by Ethan’s progress with dancing. By the end of the montage he is able to squire Vanessa about the dance floor quite well. I always remark upon the music on Penny Dreadful, but it has been so enchanting this year and the music during this montage was the right balance of playful and elegant, giving a light hearted feel to the images we saw. When perfecting their dance one night, the door blasts open in a gale of rain and wind. This is very foreboding, as if something is on its way. Obviously Ethan and Vanessa pay this occurrence no mind, but then a bolt of lightning strikes the cottage, causing a belch of fire to erupt forth from the hearth. The roof of the cottage catches fire and danger is everywhere, but Ethan and Vanessa soon get it under control. It feels as if someone, perhaps the Devil, is trying to prevent the union of these two. However, after the fire is put out and amidst the rain pouring from the ruined roof, Ethan and Vanessa finally kiss. This is short lived as Vanessa pushes the sharpshooter away, proclaiming that they are both dangerous. While this is true, I do wish that Vanessa would be allowed to let herself be open. This is the same thing that happened with Dorian, but I feel that her and Ethan’s connection is different and with all the talk of embracing one’s demons you’d think she would proceed, at least with caution. Ethan is defeated and leaves the cottage to venture out into the stormy night.

The morning after, Vanessa and Ethan are out walking in the woods. They still appear close even after the awkwardness of the night before and this speaks to their bond. The pair discuss the rest of the team searching for a solution to Vanessa’s unfortunate destiny and the medium admits that sometimes she wishes to just let the darkness take her so she can find some modicum of peace. This displeases Ethan who vows that she will not die, not while he’s around. He even outright states that her protection is his sole purpose. I love the line that Ethan has here when he states that they “have claws for a reason”. Unfortunately this moment of bonding is rudely interrupted by the lord of the surrounding land, the same man we saw in Vanessa’s flashback who instigated the murder of the Cut Wife. Ethan and the lord snarl at each other as the lord talks of obedience, referencing his ill-tempered dogs, and insults Vanessa.

The medium wants to avenge the death of the Cut Wife, but Ethan tries to talk her out of it so Vanessa will not succumb to the darkness. The pair actually have a shouting match over this. Later, in the dead of night, Vanessa stands over that forbidden book before freeing it from the shelf and using it to cast a curse on the lord, causing his dogs to turn on him and tear him to pieces. Ethan sees all of this as he himself snuck out to shoot the lord, only to realize what was happening when the dogs turned on their master. The tension is build up well in this scene as Vanessa chants in the Verbis Diablo over the book while Ethan slowly draws his gun. You wonder who will strike first, the wolf or the scorpion. After the deed is done, Vanessa collapses, weeping at the murder she just committed. Ethan returns to the cottage, disgusted at Vanessa’s actions. The sharpshooter is downright brutal as he dresses down Vanessa, but that is because he suffers so much from the burden of all the lives he’s taken, a burden he does not want to see Vanessa yoked with. He admonishes the medium, telling her she will never get her soul back. Vanessa simply accepts this.

While all this was happening on the moors, Mr. Lyle and Frankenstein are still toiling away at deciphering Brother Gregory’s writings. It gets a bit heavy handed when the good doctor reflects on the nature of love and Mr. Lyle brings up the story of Amun Net and Amon Ra and how if they ever were joined they would bring about the end of the world, paralleling Ethan and Vanessa’s struggle. Mr. Lyle and Frankenstein make the connection that the legions of the devil come in many forms and that the recent battles with the vampires could be a result of this. But what Mr. Lyle is fascinated with most is the repetition of the phrase “Lupus Dei” in Brother Gregory’s writings. He remarks that it is like a madness mantra, that the Lupus Dei is a danger to the Devil. We the audience know this to be true and here is where I grow a little frustrated with Penny Dreadful. We already have so many pieces of the puzzle and yet we must sit and wait for our characters to catch up.

Later on, Brona is preparing to go out while Frankenstein seems reluctant to let her explore the world, particularly in the company of someone as dashing as Dorian Gray. Brona is dependent on the good doctor’s approval, willing to forgo her outing if Frankenstein tells her not to. Is this devotion, fear of the unknown, or subservience? Frankenstein insists she go and soon we see Dorian and Brona out on the town. They stumble upon Putney’s Waxworks and take in the gory sights of past murders, as well as being unfortunately spied upon by Caliban. No good can come of this as the creature will no doubt be jealous.

Dorian obviously is wise to the fact that he knew his companion literally in another life, but what is his game? Will he forsake his relationship with Angelique to test the waters with Brona once more? One tableau triggers intense emotions from Brona, that of Burke and Hare. I spoke of them way back in a season one review, but if you don’t know, yes they exhumed bodies in order to sell them to surgical schools, but when fresh specimens became scarce the pair took to murdering people for profit. “To burke” became slang for death by smothering as that was how the pair killed their victims, by sitting on their chests until the victim couldn’t breathe. Brona seems deeply disturbed by the idea of the dead being exhumed for medical experimentation. While I hope that this triggers some memories of her past life, it seems that something darker is brought forth. On the way home, Brona stops her carriage and wanders into a sort of gentleman’s club. There she seduces a man at the bar and in the middle of having sex, throttles him. Well, whatever is going on with Brona just made her a bit more interesting in my eyes.

That was “Little Scorpion”. What parts of the episode stung you, readers? Leave a comment below!

I enjoyed Vanessa and Ethan’s interactions in this episode, their ups and downs, but I fear Penny Dreadful is slipping into the problem it had last season where the pacing of the show would grind to a slow trudge as characters went around and around with their problems only to speed up with brief spurts of action. The first five episodes of this season were well balanced and captivated me and I think we should be speeding up as we near the finale, not slowing down to dissect further what the audience already knows.

Speaking of Vanessa and Ethan, they were the highlight of the episode for me and we might not have even needed those few jumps back to London in the episode. Watching Ethan and Vanessa’s relationship draw them together closer and more intimately, then seeing it deteriorate as the lines of battle are drawn is troublesome for our heroes. The real enemy, the witches, are lurking and gathering more power. I still maintain my theory, especially since Penny Dreadful has been renewed for a third season, that Vanessa will be the big bad of season three, becoming consumed by her powers as a Nightcomer. Using the book has fully turned Vanessa away from God and while she has more power to fight against the Nightcomers, she is also embracing their brand of power, which may leave her more vulnerable. How can the Hound of God protect that which has turned away from God?

Tune in next week for “Memento Mori”!

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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