Most of the time, the TV Performer of the Week is tied specifically to a particular episode, but occasionally, it’s about an overall body of work for the season. In Eva Green’s case, I could have chosen any episode of Penny Dreadful to highlight her commanding performance. But “Little Scorpion” in particular found Vanessa Ives at a crossroads, and showcased Green’s ability to make Vanessa so many different things all at once.
Season 2 of Penny Dreadful has improved upon Season 1 in part by giving us a Vanessa who is not constantly tortured and tormented by demonic possession. One of the things that made “Little Scorpion” so lovely was that Vanessa was actually allowed to be happy for a time. In Season 2 she has even smiled, getting herself involved in the romantic affairs of Victor (Harry Treadaway) and Lily (Billie Piper), befriending Caliban (Rory Kinnear), and acting as a friend and confident to all in Sir Malcolm’s (Timothy Dalton) house (in between intently studying the relics of the verbis diablo, that is). Though Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) has been Vanessa’s savior over and over in the series — and in “Little Scorpion” we get a peek at the mythology behind it — we were finally able to see Vanessa being resourceful in her own right, and launching her own attack.
Not that Vanessa isn’t typically resourceful — she is really nothing but. John Logan’s script and Green’s performance keep Vanessa as an outsider, though. Everyone in Sir Malcolm’s coterie loves her (how can one not? Green is positively magnetic in the role) and wants to protect her, but she is still forced to stand apart. After so much build-up towards a relationship between Ethan and Vanessa, the two finally have a brief lip-lock before Vanessa tears away from him and pronounces them both dangerous. Yet that moment isn’t half as excruciating as one far quieter, when Ethan brushed off her invitation to the ball in “Glorious Horrors” (needing to turn into a werewolf instead). There Vanessa stood in what seemed like a power position above him on the stairs, her head held high. Yet she shyly and slyly asked for him to escort her; when he said no, she was both confused and crestfallen. It was devastating to behold.
Vanessa has always sought to turn from the darkness that she feels separates her though, until the moment she saw an opportunity for justice for the Cut-Wife by exacting revenge on the man who brutally killed her. In embracing the dark arts, Vanessa not only took one willing step towards the demon she typically evades, she also saved Ethan from having to commit the crime for her. But what makes all of this so engrossing is watching Vanessa convincingly go from a smiling, herb-collecting, natural-born sharp-shooter to a woman possessed by dark magic. That transition embodies Penny Dreadful’s particular brand of mixing the ordinary with the supernatural.
A character like Vanessa could never work, though, without Eva Green. As Vanessa, she’s seductive without being overtly sexual, exuding strength while still being deeply vulnerable, dark and mysterious while also being genuine and kind, and is the powerful lynchpin of the series while also living in fear. Green portrays these changes and juxtapositions organically, building up a rich layering for Vanessa’s character. It’s incredible how she can move from being horrified and covered in blood during a witch-inspired hallucination to casually picking out herbs on the moors and gently instructing Ethan not to use too much salt in the stew. Or, how she can go from shooting bottles and dancing to becoming hissing and guttural as she sends a deathly spell to her enemy.
Though admittedly, Penny Dreadful’s first season occasionally slid into camp (mainly due to its over reliance on the possession narrative), the show has course-corrected beautifully for its second season so far. And despite the fact that it’s always been an ensemble drama, Eva Green truly stands out not only as the heart of the series, but as its mystical center. Her mesmerizing portrayal of Vanessa is its own kind of magic, and it helps to make Penny Dreadful once again one of the year’s best series.