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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels continues to play a dispiriting game of chess with its characters

Natalie Dormer and Piper Perabo
Natalie Dormer and Piper Perabo
Photo: Warrick Page (Showtime)
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You’re American.”
I’m a lot of things.”

Of his Penny Dreadful offshoot (spin-off?), City Of Angels creator John Logan has said he wanted to explore the monsters without rather within. As he told Variety, one of the themes of the new series is “Beware the monsters around you.” Instead of showing us the humanity of supernatural beings, City Of Angels seeks to uncover humanity’s capacity for monstrous acts. Logan clearly doesn’t lack for inspiration for such a story; even narrowing down the setting to Los Angeles in 1938 still offers a dismayingly abundant source material. Redlining, mass deportation, anti-semitism—any one of those subjects could be the basis for a thoughtful (and, since this is Penny Dreadful, even thrilling) season-long exploration of our potential for cruelty.

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The trouble with the latest iteration of Penny Dreadful is that it’s trying to tackle all of those stories at once. And four episodes in, not a one has been developed to any satisfying degree. The relationship between “sisters” Santa Muerte and Magda remains unclear and lopsided—as Magda schemes and stalks around Los Angeles, the Lady Of Shadows simply awaits the next volley from her combatant/companion or summons from Maria, who has a direct line to her. The opening scene in “Josefina And The Holy Spirit” (written by John Logan and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan) could possibly point to the connection between Santa Muerte and “coyote” Maria. Santa Muerte walks away from a massacre at a small bar in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico with a small girl in her arms—I think we’ll come to learn that this was a flashback to when Maria and Santa Muerte met and eventually became whatever they are to each other.

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The murder of the Hazlett family, which helped ignite the explosive confrontation at the end of the premiere, remains unsolved, apparently due to forces no more sinister than Tiago and Michener’s inability to stay focused on the crime. They both have bigger things on their minds, though I’d argue Michener wins this one: He’s at least trying to thwart a Nazi conspiracy in Los Angeles, while Tiago is mooning over Sister Molly, who confirms this week that she was having an affair with Mr. Hazlett, and she doesn’t appreciate Tiago being a stick in the mud about the whole thing. Bishé is great in the role of this Charismatic Christian, but it’s hard to view her speech at the oceanside hideaway (purchased with church donations, thanks to Hazlett’s embezzlement) as anything more than a tantrum.

The all-consuming passion that’s supposed to be growing between Molly and Tiago also gives off very little heat, which makes his actions just look absurd. When he heads back to the police station, Tiago finds dozens of Chicanos locked up in cells, and another handcuffed to a chair, beaten bloody by Officer Reilly. Tiago threatens to kill Reilly, then asks his boss if he should join his fellow Chicanos in the cells. Whatever fire or determination we see here is quickly extinguished. Vanderhoff, who’s already tasked Michener and Tiago with “concluding” the open Hazlett case, impresses upon his young detective once more the importance of doing something, anything, to find the person(s) responsible. And what does Tiago do? Well, after getting the kiss-off from Sister Molly, he heads to his family’s home to have a beer with his brother Raul, whom he shot in the head, and gab about girls—specifically, dating gringas.

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Illustration for article titled iPenny Dreadful: City Of Angels /icontinues to play a dispiriting game of chess with its characters
Photo: Warrick Page (Showtime)

I know we’re supposed to think Molly is holding out on Tiago, maybe even trying to throw him off the scent. But nothing we’ve seen so far suggests he’s even got a working theory, which makes the idea that he’s some pivotal part of whatever’s brewing in Los Angeles almost laughable. The whole Vega family has become ensnared in this conflict, but City Of Angels continues to plays catch and release, forgetting about some characters—Josefina is in the title of the episode, but has only a few minutes of screentime, and even less development—for stretches of time. The show has explained away the possibility that Raul will face charges for what happened in Belvedere Heights, but the construction of the parkway, the thing he was protesting in the first place, is still in the works. Yet he sits at home; recuperating, yes, but talking about babes with his younger brother instead of meeting with his fellow activists about what to do next. Raul also seems weirdly okay with the fact that Tiago decided to shoot him rather than see him shoot Michener, a guy Tiago had just met two days earlier. Michener is a decent guy and all, but was Raul really better off dead than in jail or on trial? I still don’t understand what made Tiago shoot his brother.

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That’s the thing—City Of Angels just pushes its characters around like pawns, even the ones who supposedly have some kind of divine role to play. Marching orders are handed out every episode, but there’s still little evidence of a strategy. The show has thrown out all of these intriguing ideas, including the complicated history of Los Angeles as a land of dreams, with little consideration for where they land or even how they fit together. There’s compelling context for all of these storylines—the Bund, Chicano activism, the worship of Santa Muerte—but it’s being mined for little more than loglines.

Illustration for article titled iPenny Dreadful: City Of Angels /icontinues to play a dispiriting game of chess with its characters
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As we head toward the midseason mark, nothing has come together in any meaningful way. Rather than address this issue, “Josefina And The Holy Spirit” just piles on more characters and subplots. Townsend gets a lover, Magda-Alex gets leverage over the councilman, and Goss gets one step closer to... whatever his goal is. Dr. Craft gets a hunky adversary, who tries and fails to lure Elsa away. Mrs. Craft briefly wakes up, but only to talk about her husband, whom she assures Elsa is not a good guy. Mrs. Craft mentions his hometown of Essen, a center of German industrialization and the real-life “Armory Of The Reich.” But we already know Craft isn’t a good guy, which is why Magda-Elsa is using him, so the moment is hardly revelatory.

Slightly more promising is the next step in Michener’s plan, which is to seek out Benny Berman (Brad Garrett, looking natty), a Jewish gangster, for help in shutting down the Nazis in Los Angeles. Michener tells Benny about Caltech’s race to recreate Werner von Braun’s V2 technology, and the deadly ramifications if the students are successful. He mentions Meyer Lansky’s support of the Irgun in Palestine, and tells Benny it’s their responsibility to act because “No one gives a shit about the Jews but the Jews.” (Logan’s condensed history a bit here—Lansky, whom Benny ostensibly answers to in the show, did donate to the Haganah, but he did so in the ’40s, along with Bugsy Siegel.) Benny’s promise that “by flood and fire, Judea shall rise” ultimately feeds into Magda’s hunger for war, but at least he and Michener are doing something.

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Illustration for article titled iPenny Dreadful: City Of Angels /icontinues to play a dispiriting game of chess with its characters
Photo: Warrick Page (Showtime)

But let’s return to the Vega family, and to the title of the episode. City Of Angels is so populated that we still know next to nothing about Josefina, the youngest in the Vega family and Maria’s only daughter. She made out with a boy in the premiere, which triggered Mateo’s machismo. This week, her body is once again a source of conflict for her brother. As she and Mateo walk back from a trip to the store, he teases her about becoming a famous actress, which tells us a little more about her. Just then, Officer Reilly, not content to brutalize Chicanos from the comfort of his precinct (and under the watchful eye of his commander), recognizes Mateo and stops them on the street. As three of his cop buddies hold a struggling Mateo, Reilly assaults Josefina.

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As her brother weeps and apologizes to her, she commands him not to tell anyone about what happened, and we have no idea if this squares with the kind of person Josefina is, because we don’t know her. She starts to tell her mother, who brushes her off because she’s more concerned with Mateo and his shining new cross tattoo (which is similar to the one on Molly’s raiment). Not knowing how else to deal with the attack, Josefina goes all the way to Molly’s church, where she appears to fall under the good sister’s spell. Again, just chess pieces being pushed around—Josefina only ends up at Molly’s church to provide another avenue for the Molly-Tiago storyline/romance. I’d buy her seeking spiritual counsel, but surely there’s a church closer to home? Does she not have any friends she can talk to? Why doesn’t she want to tell her brothers? Is it because women have all too often been blamed for the sexual violence that befalls them? And, if police are snatching up Chicanos on the street to try to pin the Hazlett murders on them, would Josefina really be allowed to attend a service at the Joyful Voices Ministry unbothered? After four episodes, all we have are questions. As it nears the end of the first half of the season, City Of Angels has to start looking harder for answers.

Stray observations

  • I literally laughed when I saw Raul, bandaged head and all, dishing with Tiago over beers. I know he said last week that he has sympathy for his brother, who he sees as caught between the anglo and Chicano worlds, but does that really mean giving Tiago a pass on choosing someone else’s life over his?
  • The seduction of Dr. Craft is just so by the numbers, as is Frank’s scary story. I don’t see the point in messing with Craft’s children’s heads, but Magda’s plans haven’t exactly been communicated well.
  • To be fair, I can see how Josefina wouldn’t want her brothers to risk themselves to avenge her. She might not even trust Tiago to do anything, since he turned on Raul at a moment’s notice. But her general demeanor, possible dreams of stardom, and the fact that she has a boyfriend (or something like one) lead me to believe she’d have at least a friend or two she could have approached before heading out across the city to the ministry.
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if Maria were more concerned with her sons—I’ve certainly seen this happen before. But City Of Angels offers zero insight into her parenting (beyond being able to ask a deity for favors) or the family’s dynamic.
  • Speaking of the potential to do evil—I’ve visited Los Angeles enough to know that Councilwoman Beck’s suggestion that drivers wouldn’t mind the additional four minutes of commute time to preserve a Chicano neighborhood would blow up in her face even if Magda and Goss weren’t pulling strings.
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