“They’re not building roads, they’re building walls.”
Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels always had too much story to tell and not enough interest or insight to see it all through. What began as an exploration of how pernicious a city’s infrastructure can be has, after 10 episodes, ended in tedious recapitulation. Lurking behind Tiago in the final moments of “Day Of The Dead,” the season-one finale, Magda repeats her little salvo from the series premiere, “Santa Muerte,” promising a time “when nation will battle nation... when race will devour race... when brother will kill brother... until not a soul is left.” Even the framing partially mirrors the final shot of “Santa Muerte,” with Magda declaring war next to a bowed Tiago.
What’s missing, aside from Santa Muerte—who has yet to be identified as an ally or combatant in Magda’s war even after 10 hours of drama—is the early, admittedly faint, promise of the story about to unfold. With City Of Angels, Penny Dreadful creator John Logan says he set out to capture humanity’s capacity for cruelty, be it through social engineering and redlining, developing weapons of mass destruction, or a criminal justice system that exists to protect one segment of the population while disproportionately punishing others. It was an ambitious endeavor, but ultimately ill-conceived, as the season-one finale proves that City Of Angels has taken us for a ride; a lurching journey full of dead-ends and unsatisfying detours.
The eighth and ninth episodes of the season, “Hide And Seek” and “Sing, Sing, Sing,” managed to both retrace the show’s steps and move the plot forward. Townsend, panicked over a potential recall, asked Kurt to kill Councilwoman Beck, who refused. Craft finally revealed he is actually Peter Krupp, a member of a German dynasty that basically armed the Nazis (among others in their 400-year history). Michener finally remembered Benny Berman, and asked for his help in protecting Brian Koenig (Kyle McArthur). The Crimson Cat became a scene for dancing and reconciliation, as the Vega family worked out all their grievances in record time, and with a speech from Tiago that feels like it was taken from an after-school special.
But it turns out the racist cops who were gunning for Diego in “Maria And The Beast” never intended to let him get to San Quentin (so the “Vega and Michener” toasts were sarcastic). In a highly incongruous pair of scenes, the Vega family swivels across the dance floor while a handcuffed Michener watches helplessly as his co-workers lynch Diego, as City Of Angels makes the same mistake as Game Of Thrones and centers an observer to an attack rather than the victim. “Day Of The Dead” begins with Michener at the Crimson Cat, warning Tiago to get his family and Molly out of there because the cops who murdered Diego left him hanging in Belvedere Heights, so it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.
Michener is selling Tiago’s friends, family, and neighbors short, though. Fly Rico (I will never stop calling him that) shuts down Rio as she’s trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy. He knows that, in that moment, it’s more important that they look after the slain Diego and his family, who are all a part of their family. The pachuco looks out at his fellow Chicanos and Angelenos and urges compassion: “We’ll show this city exactly who we are: familia.” Now we know why Magda-Rio has taken Mateo under her wing; she’s clearly had some doubts about Rico’s desire for bloodshed, and because all she knows is how to destroy, has looked for someone to replace him as her right hand (though she pretends to be theirs).
The diverse group takes to the streets, mournfully making their way through a neighborhood they wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed in for anything but work, if that. Fly Rico tries to keep Rio from instigating, but he’s only one man—and Rio is Magda and also Elsa, who sits in a car with the Crafts and her “son” Frank. That little monster lets out an ear-piercing scream that startles Peter, who drives into a Chicano man, wedging him between his car and a parked one. Rio screams that “they’re killing us,” and the powder keg is lit. Sailors come out of bars to attack the marchers, in a scene reminiscent of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, which were named after the victims of the attacks, because that’s American history for you.
As in 1943, white people take offense to Mexican Americans not deferring to them or staying in their neighborhoods. Yes, it’s an impromptu march, but it’s a peaceful one. And while Rio certainly fans the flames, the white people in their cars, including the Craft kids, are disturbed by the mere sight of so many brown and Black faces. In the melee, Rio kills Rico for not being as murderous as she is, then crowns Mateo his successor. I’ve never been sold on Mateo being this font of rage who will lead some kind of race war, even though he is definitely an angry kid. But City Of Angels is as determined as Magda to tear the Vega family apart, so while Mateo comes to Tiago’s aid when he’s getting the shit kicked out of him by a bunch of sailors, he is maybe now also one of Magda’s generals.
Tiago gets yet another lesson in not belonging, but he still leaves Molly mid-plan-to-run-away-together and goes back to work the following morning to help Michener, who has hidden Brian away at the Vega home. The scenes with Benny and Maria are cute, as is Dottie’s goodbye to Brian. But instead of offering some respite, these quieter moments cost the finale some of its momentum. City Of Angels has been holding war over our heads all season, yet after one of the biggest and bloodiest altercations—which resulted in martial law being declared, much to Charlton’s delight—Logan’s script calls for some mole and rugelach. It’s not that I want to see more violence, but what’s it all been for, if not this big confrontation? The romance has been lackluster; the family drama, inconsistent. At the very least, City Of Angels can finally tear itself apart.
“Day Of The Dead” just never gets there, though. Logan does finally reveal who killed the Hazletts, or rather, ordered their murders: It was Adelaide Finnister, who wanted to protect Molly’s reputation and, presumably, retain the influx of money to the ministry. This information destroys Molly, who takes her own life in the baptism pool, where Santa Muerte collects her, because this show never got a handle on its depictions of religious sects. If Santa Muerte appears to everyone who dies, regardless of their beliefs—she did leave her mark on Tiago as a child—then she must have greater influence than we’ve seen to date. So why does she mope like an angsty teen whenever Magda comes along?
But the finale’s focus isn’t on Santa Muerte and Magda’s “sibling rivalry,” or whatever we’re calling it. “Day Of The Dead” contends with the show’s earthly characters, including Brian, the wunderkind who turns out to be even more brilliant and dangerous than anyone ever thought. His ingenuity doesn’t stop at a rocket—on the drive to Baja, where Benny’s people will soon wing him away to New York and Meyer Lansky’s protection, Brian reveals that he may have also figured out how to harness nuclear fission to create something with the power of a 1,000 suns. After spending half the season looking after him, Michener decides he can’t let Brian’s mind fall into the wrong hands, so he blows his brains out in a move that would make The Walking Dead’s Carol proud.
The elimination of this threat does little to stem the tide—for now, anyway. Townsend is already capitalizing on the riots, and he’s not stopping at the construction of the Arroyo Seco Motorway. He gives a very heavy-handed speech about walling off the Black residents of Bunker Hill with another freeway, going after the press and broadcasters, and even some gerrymandering. Like Magda, Townsend is also repeating himself. He made similar threats earlier in the season, and as has been amply shown, is a terrible person independent of Magda-Alex’s prodding. Though his bigotry got a boost, Townsend is basically back at square one.
Really, the entire show is, as “Day Of The Dead” ends just as “Santa Muerte” did: with the Chicanos of Belvedere Heights preparing for their neighborhood to be destroyed. Townsend, Goss, Kurt, and Adelaide are also there to witness the demolition, doing everything but rubbing their hands and making cash register sounds. Raul looks on once more, because he’s conveniently forgotten how to be an activist. As the camera pans over the concerned faces of their neighbors, Tiago imparts the season’s final lesson, which was actually on his brother’s lips in the first hour: It was never just about a motorway. And so, City Of Angels ends almost exactly as it began, only with a lot less good will. The preceding eight episodes were all in service of points made in the first episode. As the show went on, all it did was rob several characters, including Raul and Fly Rico, of their relevance and even humanity.
In its final hour, this Penny Dreadful pseudo-spin-off fails to deliver on any of the genres it wandered into throughout the season. Horror? The scariest thing the show could muster was an occasionally demonic child. City Of Angels also left a lot to be desired as a thriller, as the gory murder that kicked off the series was ignored unless the slack storytelling needed a boost, investigated by maybe the least competent gumshoe ever. And as a supernatural drama, well, the writers never really defined what the relationship was between its most powerful beings, let alone why their fight should spill into our world. City Of Angels acted primarily as a historical drama set between two World Wars, amid cultures and peoples in Los Angeles that clash to this day. But even there, Logan’s vision repeatedly came up short; aside from the Crimson Cat, far greater detail and time went into filling out the Craft and Finnister homes and the ministry than the multi-faceted Chicano community. Specificity, along with cohesion, was missing all season. The maps that inspired City Of Angels offered Logan a way in, but not a clear path through this hodgepodge of genres and topics.
- The most impressive elements of tonight’s episode are the production design and Richard J. Lewis’ direction. Recreating a city street in such vibrant fashion is no small feat, but to be fair, City Of Angels did always manage to nail the look of 1930s Los Angeles.
- The march in honor of a victim of state violence, along with the violence in response to it, has a dismaying number of contemporary parallels, but once again, the show’s pertinence feels more like coincidence than commentary.
- If nothing else, the last two episodes of the season sort of laid out just why the Vega family is a lightning rod for supernatural interference. They all represent different aspects of life in Los Angeles: Tiago represents the state; Mateo, the youth in revolt; Raul, the labor movement; and Josefina is, apparently, the church (even though there’s little insight into her “calling”.) That leaves Maria to represent the “old world” as a practitioner of Santa Muerte. Might have been interesting to dig into that dynamic, don’t you think?
- Seriously, why bother to keep Raul alive if the most proactive thing he does after the premiere is muse that he’s pretty sure he still has some purpose in life?
- As game and talented as she is, Natalie Dormer’s multi-role performance ultimately worked against the show. Magda’s presence undermined the ambiguity of several key developments—would they have happened without her meddling?
- And again, just what the hell is Magda and why does she still need Tiago? He wasn’t even a very good partner for Lewis. I doubt he’s going to be very useful in the Götterdämmerung or the apocalypse of her choosing.
- Peter sobbing while wearing his iron cross and doing a Nazi salute is the most unintentionally hilarious moment in a season full of them, but I suppose it does go with Michener’s statement that people will do and allow horrible things to feel safe. Peter, whose wealth is built on the bodies of others, wants to protect his sons, which means killing millions of sons and daughters and mothers and fathers. That’s a sentiment that’s fueled foreign policy.
- Also, I know this takes place 80 years ago, but Tiago’s claim that “This is not the United States Of America” would be inaccurate in any era.
- With its Dia de Muertos scenes, City Of Angels once again demonstrates a limited understanding of Chicano/Mexican culture. Tiago would want and be allowed to grieve Molly just moments after learning of her death. The way the show fast-forwards to him reminiscing with his family totally glosses over meaning of the holiday. Yes, people gather to honor and remember their loved ones, but they also would give Tiago space to mourn. But, because he’s nothing more than a pawn, he has to be at the cemetery, if only to present a compelling tableau with Magda at his back.
- That’s it for Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels coverage. Thank you for reading and commiserating or weighing in where you saw fit. If you’re looking for something with a similar pre-war vibe but with more cohesion, try HBO’s Perry Mason. It’s far from perfect, but it does tackle several of the same themes, just more capably.