Warning: Spoilers, Most Dreadful
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, created and written by John Logan, originally based on characters from Victorian literature — Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein — as well as on characters from the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, like Varney the Vampire and Wagner the Werewolf, twists those characters around Logan’s principal creation, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), in an intriguing and complex exploration of evil. Not the evil that some people insist exists only outside each of us, and call by names like the Devil or Lucifer or Satan, but the evil that exists inside us. Season 2’s Episode 7, “Little Scorpion,” returned to that theme with a vengeance.
The Lion Still Hunted
After the blood-soaked hallucination that ended the grand ball at Dorian’s mansion in E6, Vanessa decided that she was not safe in London. Museum curator and closet-homosexual Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) immediately seconded her wish to go away, advising her to go away now and to not tell any of them where she was going. Despite Eveyln Poole’s (Helen McCrory) blackmail of him (because of his sexual orientation) to help her get Vanessa, Lyle occasionally surprises us by his affection for and attachment to Vanessa. At the ball, he was upset that she was without an escort, and offered to see her home, telling her outright that it wasn’t safe for her there. Now, he was strongly advising her to go away without telling anyone her location. Mrs. Poole would be understandably upset at his “betrayal.”
Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), who is literally bewitched by Mrs. Poole, was upset at his exclusion from Vanessa’s plans. He asked if they were no longer to trust each other, especially after Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Lyle both agreed that Vanessa should go away without revealing her destination. Ethan (Josh Hartnett) insisted that he was going with her. Sembene (Danny Sapani) seemed to approve of Ethan as her companion. When Sir Malcolm asked, rather petulantly, why Ethan got to accompany her and no one else did, Vanessa summed it up very simply, saying that all — except Ethan and Sembene — had been present at the ball, and “yet the lion still hunted.”
Though Sir Malcolm may feel piqued at not being considered Vanessa’s sole or ultimate protector, he is actually not one of the warriors in the show. The only true warriors, given their histories, are Ethan and Sembene. Ethan hunted Indians in North America, sometimes infiltrating and destroying whole tribes who refused to be relocated to reservations. Semebene, whose face is marked with tribal “coming of age” scars, knows what it is like to hunt and fight. He was the only one Ethan trusted to watch his transformation, which, as he learned in the morning, was into a Wolf.
Sembene was not afraid, telling Ethan that he saw beyond the crocodile (who ate) the monkey (who ate) the whatever, each higher predator absorbing the prey lower in the food-chain. Sembene told Ethan that he also saw beyond the Wolf, and was not afraid because he sees the good in Ethan.
In effect, Sembene and Ethan are the warriors in Penny Dreadful, and they have now bonded as such.
Sir Malcolm, who literally and metaphorically raped his way across Africa (Vanessa accused him of S1E7, “Possession,” saying that he also insisted that his son Peter have sexual relations with the women against his will, to prove his manhood) is an imperialist, not a warrior. He conquers. He orders. He commands. He takes. He controls. Hence, his condescending remark that Vanessa may have imagined the blood-bath at the ball.
Despite Sir Malcolm’s being under a love-spell cast by the head Night-Comer, or witch, Evelyn Poole, his dismissal of Vanessa’s vision and its implications for her own safety are typical Sir Malcolm. Later, Vanessa revealed to Ethan her disappointment, and perhaps resentment, that the relationship between her and Sir Malcolm has changed since Mrs. Poole came into his life and he “fell in love.”
But I don’t see that the relationship between Vanessa and Malcolm has changed: he was always using her for his own ends. Just because his daughter Mina is now dead and Vanessa thinks he “chose her” over Mina, doesn’t mean Sir Malcolm has ever changed his basic imperialistic character. Or his attitude toward Vanessa and the others.
Sembene and Ethan, who have bonded over Ethan’s secret as well as over their own individual but similar pasts as hunters and warriors, are the ones who have now been revealed as the two characters most capable of good, although, of course, each is capable of killing another creature to ensure his own survival.
Despite the episode’s title and the Cut-Wife’s (Patti LuPone) reference to Vanessa as her “Little Scorpion,” quite a few of the characters are dangerous creatures who “sting whether you believe in them or not,” as Lyle explained to Victor, when he and Lyle were discussing good and evil, the Devil and God, Amu-net and Amun-ra. Lyle said the Egyptians called love the “Scorpion’s Sting,” insisting that it would infiltrate your entire system and last forever.
We know Mrs. Poole has stung Sir Malcolm, literally, with her ring, several times, sucking his blood as the vampire Creature did from his victims in S1 of Penny Dreadful; and perhaps injecting him with love’s venom, metaphorically.
Dorian (Reeve Carney), who is supposed to be in love with transgendered Angelique (Johnny Beauchamp), has already been technically unfaithful to her, though I’m not sure he ever actually promised her fidelity. Not only did he “forget” Angelique at the coming-out ball he threw in her honor by becoming virtually obsessed with Lily (Billie Piper), formerly Ethan’s lover Brona, whom Frankenstein smothered to make her into a Bride for the Creature (Rory Kinnear), but Dorian further betrayed Angelique by taking Lily out on a date. Dorian stings anyone involved with him, too.Despite Victor’s obvious distress at the events at the ball, as well as at the invitation from Dorian, Lily was delighted by both and went out with Dorian. Victor has been stung by the scorpion of love, but Lily apparently has not. She not only spent the day with Dorian, she picked up a stranger afterward and, while having sex with him, choked him to death, her face expressionless throughout.
Her transformation into a Creature-Bride seemed to have left only amnesia and the visible scars over her breasts and down the center of her chest and abdomen (and what they represent, I have no idea, unless Victor replaced her consumption-damaged lungs). But the scars over her breasts were clearly visible as she choked the man while she was having intercourse with him. One scar over each breast, connected to the main, body scar. Rather like a scorpion’s claws, eh?
Despite the fact that Vanessa was called “Little Scorpion” by the Cut-Wife, and despite Vanessa’s using the symbol of the scorpion as her badge of protection, she still stings. For one thing, she can shoot flawlessly, apparently without ever having had lessons.
And though she claims to accept Ethan completely, she accepts then immediately rejects any physical or sexual advances, saying, “We’re dangerous.”
Has she stung him? It would seem so.
Has he stung her? Perhaps.
But she’s maintaining control over her emotions and her sexuality.
Welcome to the Night
The bulk of the episode dealt with Vanessa’s and Ethan’s doomed Romeo & Juliet romance. Despite the fact that he chopped down the tree from which the Cut-Wife was manacled and burned alive,
despite all their revelations about their own sorrows and brief moments of happiness or safety in the past as they walked the fields, searching for herbs, and setting rabbit snares,
despite her teaching him to dance in return for the shooting lessons, and despite his proficiency in dancing, leading to closer physical proximity between the two,
the evil in each of them comes between them.
By Vanessa’s choice.
After being confronted and threatened, once again, by Sir Geoffrey in his woods, Ethan goes to Sir Geoffrey’s mansion, intent on killing him: not as a werewolf, but as a man, with a pistol, to protect Vanessa. He is stunned to witness, as he aims the gun, Sir Geoffrey’s own hounds turn and devour him.
Though Vanessa was warned not to use the Book with the glyph on its spine unless she felt completely abandoned and lost, since once she used it, she would “have turned forever from God,” that is exactly what Vanessa did.
In a scene eerily reminiscent of Evelyn Poole’s incantation to the Devil,
Vanessa got out the book and started chanting its spells.
To have Sir Geoffrey’s dogs kill him in retaliation for his killing the Cut-Wife.
Vanessa sold her soul to the Devil, turned her back on God, to get even with a worm like Sir Geoffrey?
Sure, she shed a few tears after she collapsed.
But Ethan, he was madder than hell.
He returned to the Cut-Wife’s cottage, calling Vanessa a “little girl” as he berated her for the evil thing she’d done. After all, he’d not only taught her to shoot, “to protect herself,” but he’d gone, as her protector, to do the deed himself.
Ethan hadn’t gone to do “evil,” in his opinion: he was an animal, trying to survive; he was defending the life of someone he loved from a predator. Ethan may, in fact, be the Lupus Dei — The Hound of God — repeated in the puzzle that Lyle and the others are attempting to solve in order to understand the Verbis Diablo — the language of the Devil which the Night-Comers use, and which is in the book Vanessa used to turn Sir Geoffrey’s hounds against him.
Furthermore, if Ethan is the Lupus Dei of the puzzle-tale, it may be his job to protect Vanessa. He certainly seems to see it that way, even though there is also now a sexual attraction there.
(Remember that the two of them had no relationship last season beyond employer-recruiter and hired gun. Sir Malcolm needed more guns to kill the Creature in his hunt for his daughter Mina, and Vanessa found and hired Ethan Chandler. Ethan was emotionally involved with Brona Croft (Billie Piper), who was dying of consumption but whose death was hurried by Frankenstein’s holding a pillow over her face so he could transform her into Lily, the Creature-Bride. Vanessa attempted a sexual liaison with Dorian, but in the midst of intercourse, her participation in the sex act unleashed the demons that the Victorians associated with female sexuality, and she became possessed.)
Now, however, Vanessa has once again chosen to do evil, just as she did when she seduced her best friend Mina’s fiancé the night before the wedding, causing a permanent rift between Mina and Vanessa, as well as between the two families. In “Little Scorpion,” Vanessa’s choice to do evil, when she knew she had a protector, when she’d learned how to shoot, when Sir Geoffrey was not actively harming her, infuriated Ethan and caused a rift between them.
It’s a rift far wider than that between Romeo and Juliet’s families. After all, the Montagues and the Capulets can’t even remember what started the feud in the first place: they just recall that their families are ancient enemies.
Vanessa consciously chose to do evil, to use the book of spells and the Verbis Diablo — which she was warned would separate her forever from God — for something as petty as revenge.
“We have claws for a reason,” Ethan told Vanessa earlier.
But after she used a Night-Comer’s spell to kill Sir Geoffrey, Ethan angrily told her that she could never go back to what she was before.
“Welcome to the Night, Vanessa,” he said, before turning away.
Penny Dreadful, Season 2
Betrayal of the Blood: Penny Dreadful, S2 E4-6
The Cut-Wife, the Day-Walkers, & the Night-Comers: Penny Dreadful, Season 2, Episode 3
When the Hunters become the Prey: Showtime’s Penny Dreadful Season 2 Premiere
Penny Dreadful, Season 1