“There’s four of us.”
“There’s a city of me.”
After bookending its series premiere with explosions of fire and violence, Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels turns things down to a simmer again in “Dead People Lie Down.” The episode, directed by Paco Cabezas, opens in the aftermath of the clash between LAPD and the Chicano residents of Belvedere Heights over construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) is at Michener’s (Nathan Lane) side at the hospital, which is ill-advised for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that their racist co-workers see themselves as the victims, not perpetrators, of violence. Michener warns his young partner to go ’round the back: “These motherfuckers only see a brown face” (hasn’t that always been the case, though?). But Tiago refuses, saying that if he bows to the pressure now, he’ll never stop.
Tiago is spat on for his troubles, and the offenses don’t stop there. His loyalty is questioned by his family and his colleagues; he’s ordered by his commanding officer, Captain Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner), to bring him a “Mexican head” to answer for the deaths of three cops. Tiago’s younger brother Mateo (Johnathan Nieves) warns him that if he had anything to do with Raul’s (Adam Rodriguez) death, he’ll pay for it (guess he’s got his mother’s intuition). Michener might have had Tiago’s back in the altercation in front of the hospital, but at first, he has no qualms about playing Herod to Vanderhoff’s Salome.
Yet with all this turmoil, not to mention a murder investigation to carry out, Tiago spends a chunk of “Dead People Lie Down” sitting down for coffee with Sister Molly (the wonderful Kerry Bishé). She’s an undeniably charismatic figure—the face and sound of the Joyful Voices Ministry, of which James Hazlett was a congregant and bursar. When we first meet Sister Molly, she’s sitting in the shadows; soon, she singing in front of thousands in a manner much more arch than anything I’d expect to hear on evangelical radio. The lyrics are far from suggestive, but there’s a calculated sensuousness to the performance. Bishé’s Molly is innocent yet pert; alert but not worldly. The message of the song is ultimately about abstaining, but... from what? That question lingers long after Molly returns to the wings, because her mother Adelaide Finnister (Amy Madigan) has figured out how to exploit the Madonna/whore binary. This is Hollywood, after all (or will be), and crowds of this size only gather for a real show. Adelaide knows that; to a lesser extent, so does Molly.
Bishé makes an assured entrance as Molly, but the fact that Tiago proceeds to spend half the day talking with her in the middle of an investigation, rising racial tensions, and oh yeah, his brother’s struggle to live is suggests a lack of professionalism and self-awareness. It’s not hard to see why he’d want to handle questioning her, and it’s not like he feels welcome at the hospital, not with both Mateo and his fellow cops ready to spit on him. Seeking refuge is understandable. But City Of Angels raises the stakes in every other storyline in “Dead People Lie Down,” while rendering Tiago almost inert. He’s clearly upset about Raul, but he’s also convinced Michener that the Hazlett murders might be the work of someone who wants to stoke hatred between racial groups in Los Angeles. It’s not a great time for a tête-à-tête—for Tiago or for the overall story—no matter how beguiling the companion.
Now, this wouldn’t be the first time some greenhorn detective misread a situation and fell for a devil in disguise. Though we have no reason to suspect Molly of anything, she’s clearly conflicted about her prominent place in the Joyful Voices Ministry. She’s also holding out on Tiago as far as what she knows about James Hazlett. It’s an interesting development, but one that goes on a bit too long. I also have to question how someone as indoctrinated—not to mention white—as Molly would recognize “Santa Muerte” when the name didn’t ring a bell for Michener, who seems to have had far more contact with the Chicano population of LA. She’s also under constant watch, both from her mother and a heavy named Randolph.
This could point to Molly knowing more than she lets on, but it feels a bit like carelessness on the part of the script, which extends to other parts of tonight’s episode. The lovely family dinner and sidewalk dance scenes in last week’s premiere helped make the fictional Belvedere Heights feel both real and really Chicano. The mix of language and culture was almost heady; tonight, the arrival of Fly Rico (Pose and Tales Of The City’s Sebastian Chacon), a pachuco who comes to Mateo’s aid when he’s being assaulted by a police officer at the hospital, similarly crackles. Pachuco culture has a long and ambulant history, starting off in Texas and Mexico before making its way to California. City Of Angels takes place five years before the Zoot Suit Riots, but I’m keen to see if and how this Chicano counterculture factors into the larger narrative.
Of course, series creator and writer John Logan already has quite a few plates spinning. The demagogic Councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis), not even aware that he’s actually doing Magda-as-Alex’s bidding, politicizes the deaths of the police officers—despite the fact that the number of slain Chicanos is considerably higher—to move forward with his parkway project. Magda also continues to work her charms on Dr. Craft (Rory Kinnear), who fantasizes about her while having sex with his uninterested wife Linda (Piper Perabo, who will hopefully have more to do than look glum). Last week’s lunchtime Nazi sesh notwithstanding, I’m finding it hard to care about Richard Craft or his family. We’ve been down this road before: Man is repeatedly drawn to “broken” women because of his desire to fix things. The family day at the beach does yield this week’s title, as Frank (Santino Barnard), Magda/Mrs. Branson’s creepy son tells his new friends that “dead people lie down,” despite what they saw in Beau Geste. I know why Magda wants to manipulate Craft, but his home life sucks the air out of the room.
In an episode already full of stops and starts, we’re also introduced to Michener’s Hunters-esque pals, including Lin Shaye as the crossword-loving Dottie. This foursome stakes out Richard Goss (Thomas Krestchmann) and a Cal Tech student who works with or near “explosive materials.” But Goss’ Gestapo henchman takes out Sam Bloom (Richard Kind) before we can learn more about the anti-Nazi activities or possible plot against America. Truly, City Of Angels is leaving narrative stone unturned.
But “Dead People Lie Down” does manage to return to where it began, with a genuflecting Maria (Adriana Barraza), who is praying to Santa Muerte. The final moments mirror Maria’s posture at the beginning of the episode, but the execution is off. Early on, seeing Maria roll down her stockings to avoid staining them or otherwise wearing them out was an inspired touch, as the gesture communicated so much about her place in life. But when the focus returns to her and her difficult-to-decipher Spanish muttering, I was taken out of the “miraculous” moment. I think she’s reciting the Our Father prayer at the beginning, but City Of Angels fails to make any connection between certain Catholic rituals and the Santa Muerte sect. Like last week, Maria is asking Santa Muerte for something, but we don’t know what it is. Does she want Santa Muerte to make Raul’s passing painless, or is Maria bargaining with a deity? What’s the basis for her request? There’s a vaguely Roman Catholic sensibility* to the Santa Muerte stuff, but the mythology is otherwise lacking, which hinders City Of Angels’ world-building.
The episode ends with an injured Raul standing in front of his mother, though it’s unclear if she’s having some kind of vision or if the show is taking its episode title seriously and showing us that the dead lie down while the living stroll around a hospital ward in the wake of a supernatural being. It’s not quite a scare, or a surprise even, but I’m relieved that City Of Angels isn’t leaving this question unanswered. The fight he’s leading against the parkway and displacement is as much a part of this story as Tiago’s investigation (whenever he gets back to it). Although I think there’s a good chance Raul will be arrested, the lack of eyewitnesses to what happened at the bulldozer site suggests he won’t be out of commission for long. Then again, this show did set out to remind us that Los Angeles hasn’t historically welcomed Mexican Americans or Mexicans.
- “There’s a city of me.” Come back, Fly Rico!
- When I say I need the mythology fleshed out, I don’t mean that I would like tips on how to resurrect the dead or navigate the occult. What I need is for the show to be purposeful about its setting, its characters, and its use of folklore. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with another Curse Of La Llorona.
- Also starting to worry that we have a Derek Mio/Chester Nakayama problem here with Daniel Zovatto/Tiago Vega—handsome leads who get lost and stay lost in swirl of mystery.
- I’m sure many people would argue that Richard Craft’s inclusion is worth it to see Natalie Dormer frolicking at the beach, and I would not deprive them of that.
- I am an atheist who was not raised in any church, and most of what I know about religion I picked up from movies about the mafia and demonic possession. Yet I am “Catholic” in the way so many Mexicans/Mexican Americans are; what Gael García Bernal dubbed “culturally Catholic but spiritually agnostic.”