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Illustration for article titled iPenny Dreadful: City Of Angels /istill hasnt figured out exactly what war its fighting
Photo: Warrick Page (Showtime)
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The two worlds of the world met. Brown and white. Aztec and European. Hummingbird, wizard, and Jesus. Malinche and the Virgin Mary.”

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Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels has invoked multiple religions and/or denominations, but it’s really only taken one approach to its narrative: Tell, don’t show. This is particularly true of the series’ treatment of Tiago, who’s ostensibly one of the lead characters. That gorgeous, gunpowder-obscured shot in the premiere, which showed (ahem) Tiago in between Magda and Santa Muerte on that day’s battlefield, was probably the last time City Of Angels employed anything more elegant than a Greek chorus-like observation from his brother Raul and partner Lewis to demonstrate just how tight a spot Tiago finds himself in.

Aside from those speeches, there’s very little indication of the turmoil that’s supposed to be raging inside of Tiago. He’s not particularly committed to his job—at least, not judging by how quickly he forgot that Sister Molly is potentially a person of interest or material witness or whatever the term would be in James Hazlett’s death. And, while he’s concerned about his family, he’s now pulled his gun on both of his brothers, an action that seems to be getting easier for him, judging by how quickly he points his revolver at his younger brother in the final moments of tonight’s episode. Tiago is still a cardboard cutout; a sometimes dashing figure, but one with little propping him up. City Of Angels remains true to this obvious form in its fifth episode, “Children Of The Royal Sun,” as Lewis tells Tiago what we’re all thinking: “I don’t know who the fuck you are today.”

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“Children Of The Royal Sun” is at least visually transportive; director Roxann Dawson and cinematographer John Conroy take inspiration from the title, limning the distinct Los Angeles neighborhoods in sepia and gold (the Adventures Of Robin Hood billboard is a nice era-specific touch). But José Rivera’s script, while providing a little more backstory for City Of Angels’ supernatural entities, continues to give the show’s earthbound characters the short shrift. Character motivations turn on the story, instead of the other way around; Sister Molly is a vamp or a poor little rich girl depending on whether John Logan’s larger story calls for her to be in Tiago’s arms in that moment. Once a compelling representative of a fascinating counterculture, Fly Rico’s now the dummy to Rio’s ventriloquist. Maria, who warned Santa Muerte of a “great battle” in the premiere, has the time to pleasantly chat with Lewis about her religion, and even give him a Santa Muerte figurine for protection. Whatever urgency there is exists solely in the script notes, never making its way onto the screen. But still, we’re reminded of great conflicts, especially the one inside of Tiago.

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If Tiago were supposed to be a bystander in all of this, his lack of development would be excusable. But he is in the thick of it, both because of his allegiances to two very different groups and whatever divine intervention Santa Muerte engaged in while Tiago’s father burned in that field all those years ago. And yet, while he occasionally puffs his chest at his racist co-workers, he hasn’t done much for the Chicanos of Belvedere Heights. In “Children Of The Royal Sun,” he can’t even dissemble well enough to Lewis to throw his partner off the scent long enough to track down Mateo by himself, so he can figure out what role his younger brother had in Reilly’s death. Tiago thinks like a cop or other agent of the state, whether he’s threatening the witness to Reilly’s murder with deportation and separation from her child, or pulling his gun on Mateo to get him to answer questions.

I’m not debating Tiago’s Chicano-ness; despite what the show seems to be suggesting, you can absolutely be a person of color and still work for a government institution that sees people of color as second-class citizens. But for much of the season, that’s the dilemma that City Of Angels has put forth for one of its lead characters—this is one of the many nebulous wars or battlefields of war it’s sketched out. The show has implied there’s a lot riding on Tiago’s choice, a choice he’s struggled to make (cue the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reference) but he has effectively picked a side.

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Illustration for article titled iPenny Dreadful: City Of Angels /istill hasnt figured out exactly what war its fighting
Photo: Warrick Page (Showtime)

None of the main storylines have gotten the consideration they need; with each new episode, the feeling that arcs have just been forgotten or suddenly remembered grows. It’s not a balancing act but a roulette wheel: This week, it happened to land on Tiago... and Lewis... and Mateo... and Dr. Craft... and so on. Instead of making any headway into the Hazlett case (or even just showing consequences for Tiago disappearing for a night with a potential witness to a crime), we see Townsend do a little tap number before inviting Kurt into his home, because we need to see all sides of a demagogue, including the besotted one, I guess. I still cannot be bothered to care about the Nazi with the midlife crisis, no matter what Magda’s real goal is for him. Just last week, Mrs. Craft hinted at there being a darker side to him, which is hardly surprising because he’s a Nazi. Why Magda-as-Elsa has to put in all this work is beyond me—and, judging by the gratuitous “sex on a grave” scene, beyond the show as well.

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Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels opened with a promise and prophecy of war, “when nation will battle nation... when race will devour race... when brother will kill brother... until not a soul is left.” But the magnitude of that war, as well its boundaries and its combatants, is still unknown. “Children Of The Royal Sun” does give us a better idea of who and what Magda and Santa Muerte are. Consider Rio’s speech to Mateo, which is quoted in part above: She speaks of Tenochtitlan (I’m omitting the accent marks, because they differ depending on whether you’re speaking Nahuatl or Spanish); of the “hummingbird,” “children of the Royal Sun,” and “Malinche and the Virgin Mary.” These terms come from Mesoamerican mythology and history, and speak to the Spanish invasion of their lands. The hummingbird is associated with Huītzilōpōchtli, the Aztec god of war and the sun (depending on myth), and patron of the city of Tenochtitlan. La Malinche is the indigenous woman enslaved by Hernán Cortes and charged with the fall of an empire.

Last week, I suggested that Magda and Santa Muerte are two sides of the same deity; I pivoted away from an earlier (unposted) theory that they were Aztec siblings, possibly Huītzilōpōchtli and his sister Coyolxāuhqui. In some tellings, they are the sun and the moon; in others, Coyolxāuhqui led their 400 brothers (the Centzon Huitznahuas) in an attack against their mother, Coatlicue, and the as-yet-unborn Huītzilōpōchtli. In some versions, Huītzilōpōchtli had no creator; in others, he was the result of Coatlicue tucking a ball of feathers into her clothes as she swept a temple. (There are a lot of Aztec myths and variations on those myths, obviously.) Santa Muerte is herself the result of syncretism, so it makes sense that John Logan and his team would dig into Mesoamerican culture for her roots as inspiration for this story. But the biggest clue might be the reference to the Virgin Mary and La Malinche.

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Illustration for article titled iPenny Dreadful: City Of Angels /istill hasnt figured out exactly what war its fighting

After the Spanish invasion, Catholicism took hold in Mexico, and mariolatry—the specific worship of Mary, mother of God—soon followed. The Mexica exalted the Virgen de Guadalupe, a syncretic figure fusing the Aztec goddess Coatlicue and the European Virgin Mary (this painting by Saturnino Hernán is a vivid interpretation of this concept). The Catholic Church has never taken well to this marian devotion, attempting to extinguish the many forms it’s taken in Mexico, including worship of Santa Muerte. Which brings us to City Of Angels, and “sisters” Santa Muerte and Magda. Santa Muerte seems to represent the older, Mesoamerican version of the same figure/deity, while Magda and her many forms are the “European” and “white” referenced in that same speech.

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What this has to do with the war they’re fighting against each other or together is hazy. It also doesn’t explain why Santa Muerte is so passive (except when she’s doing favors for Maria), or why Magda can influence men—we’ve yet to see her manipulate women, correct?—or blow up windows or start fires or be in multiple places at once or, really, any of the things we’ve seen Magda do. Like so many other elements of City Of Angels, this is intriguing stuff that just kind of sits there.

Stray observations

  • Magda could very well just be an opportunist, who’s figured out just what to say to incite Chicanos to violence. If that is the case, I will be annoyed, because then it will really feel like City Of Angels is just playing Barbies with religious and mythical figures.
  • That is, unless there’s some opportunist god I’m not thinking of in the Aztec pantheon (for lack of a better word).
  • “You know there’s no better team.” Lol, Tiago and Lewis haven’t closed a single case.
  • At one point, I thought Magda and Santa Muerte might even be gender-flipped, reimagined versions of the Mayan hero twins (look, I was working off very little beyond “sister”). I suppose this could still be the case for Raul and Tiago.
  • Tiago and Molly both withheld significant details from each other in what was supposed to be a time for sharing. I wonder why Molly told Josefina the truth, assuming that’s what she did.
  • I know this is the equivalent of yelling at the TV, but I don’t understand why Mateo didn’t just tell Tiago that Reilly sexually assaulted their sister. Does he think Tiago is too far gone to care?
  • I just have a hard time believing Tiago is conflicted about being a Chicano cop when he tackled a child, sending him flying down the stairs, shortly before whipping out his gun to make Mateo “talk.” A lot of good that did him.
  • This is the first episode we’ve seen so far that wasn’t written by John Logan (IMDb credits him, but only Rivera’s name appears in the episode credits), and while it doesn’t have anything as striking as the big Crimson Cat dance scene, “Children Of The Royal Sun” is the first episode that feels purposeful in its drawing from Mexican/Mesoamerican culture and history.
  • I was just waiting for Rio to mention the Reconquista.
  • Speaking of the short shrift, I know my summary of Aztec mythology, the rise of Catholicism, and the veneration of the Virgen de Guadalupe is cursory, but I didn’t want to get too far into the weeds. But I’ve always been fascinated by mythology and the way it’s adapted—which is why I’m still watching this show. American Gods season one wasn’t perfect, but Bryan Fuller and Michael Green did achieve a compelling synthesis.
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