“Are you a cop pretending to be a Mexican, or a Mexican pretending to be a cop?”
“Outside agitators.” Police brutality. A city in upheaval. Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels continues to hit the timeliness bingo, but its relevance hasn’t amounted to more than the result of a game of headlines Mad Libs. The culture clash is there; the players, including elected U.S. officials colluding with a foreign power, are present and accounted for as well. But these elements have yet to connect with each other, or the audience, in any significant way. A story about oppression and political interference, about resisting baser instincts and searching for our better nature, needs to do more than just turn up SEO gold. Six episodes in, it still feels like City Of Angels is outlining its story instead of setting up its conclusion.
The series hasn’t even established a sense of time. In “How It Is With Brothers,” the sixth episode of the season, Adelaide and Molly Finnister luxuriate over breakfast—with a heaping serving of guilt—then hold a service at the Joyful Voices Ministry in what seems to be less time than it takes for Tiago and Lewis to force a false confession from poor Diego (Adan Rocha). TV shows often play fast and loose with the concept of time (when they’re not throwing it out the window—cough, cough, Game Of Thrones), but City Of Angels has always had a ticking clock in the form of the Hazlett murder investigation. We’re told time and again that race relations in Los Angeles (that is, between the city’s Anglo and Chicano populations) depend on finding someone to pin the four murders on; “war” has been invoked by Magda and Michener alike. And yet, Tiago’s found time to drink beers with his brother Raul, spend the night with Molly, and otherwise be laughably bad at his job.
But this week, Tiago can’t run from or ignore his responsibilities—both to his job and his family. He and Lewis have a suspect and a precinct full of rabid racist cops who want to crack Diego open “like a piñata.” Mateo confessed to Tiago in the final moments of “Children Of The Royal Sun,” so Tiago knows Diego is at most an accomplice. The pressure to close the case(s) is now threefold: There’s the mandate from Vanderhoff, Tiago’s desire to protect his younger brother, and the bigoted cops champing at the bit to get at Diego, whom they recognize from when he was being beaten to a pulp by Reilly. Tiago is desperate to keep his secret, but he also knows that the other cops like Murphy don’t want to interrogate Diego—they want to mete out his punishment already.
Tiago’s been here before, at this fork in the road to being a cop and being a Chicano. City Of Angels’ frequent trips into this territory have had diminishing returns, because the conflict remains vague. We haven’t seen Tiago hide his Chicano culture from his co-workers (he didn’t change his name before applying for the police force or otherwise tried to pass for white), nor have we really seen him engage with it beyond the little sidewalk dance with his mother Maria in the premiere. We don’t know what kind of neighborhood he lives in—Chicano, mixed, white—so we don’t know if he’s been trying to assimilate or hide in plain sight or what. Outside of a few standout scenes, including the dance at the Crimson Cat, City Of Angels hasn’t fleshed out its depiction of what it meant to be Chicano in 1930s LA, so Tiago’s dilemma doesn’t really land. Chicano culture isn’t merely the absence of Anglo culture, nor is it some lawless existence that’s the antithesis to whatever the LAPD represents to John Logan and his writers. When he’s been on the spot, Tiago’s never failed to act like a cop: He showed up on the side of the LAPD to the big protest in the premiere; he saw his brother Raul as a combatant at that same protest. And tonight, when he had a vulnerable Chicano kid—from his neighborhood, no less—Tiago tried to coerce a confession out of him. Yes, it was to help his brother, but it’s too little, too late (also, it’s just plain gross to pin something on an innocent kid).
The bulk of the episode, which was written by Vinnie Wilhelm, just rehashes this seemingly settled debate, but we do gain some new insights in “How It Is With Brothers.” Lewis Michener ventures deep into the grays, as he helps Tiago cover up Reilly’s murder and offer up Diego as a sacrificial lamb. The interrogation scenes are tensest when Michener’s the one doing the questioning; where Tiago is covered in flop sweat from the jump, Michener remains cool throughout, save for one outburst when he learns of Mateo’s role in Reilly’s murder. Michener understands the system better than Tiago does, and so he knows how to play Diego—instead of threats, he appeals to his pride. Nathan Lane has been impressive throughout the season, offsetting Michener’s world weariness with flashes of righteous anger, but tonight, his performance manages to connect the show’s disparate elements, including the parable and the noir. As he coolly lays out the plan to Diego, his calm is one of the only truly frightening things in the show.
We also learn more about Kurt’s radicalization—he was born in California but moved to Germany to live out his white power dreams. Much to his dismay, he was assigned to the very area he tried to leave. It’s interesting that Townsend doesn’t immediately pick up on Kurt’s rhetoric—when the young Gestapo officer refers to people of color and Black people as “mongrels,” Charlton needs him to clarify.
It’s one of the smartest moments in the episode, as City Of Angels recognizes that there are plenty of homegrown white supremacists—there’s no need to look to Nazi Germany for them. Things get murkier when Townsend explains what makes Los Angeles a city of dreams: “LA doesn’t care who you are when you arrive. It only cares who you make yourself into.” It’s the American dream in micro, but the sentiment doesn’t really jibe with the Townsend we’ve seen up until this point. It’s possible that this only applies to white Americans for him, but it still feels incongruous.
This is such a strange, awful time to write or think about anything other than what is happening outside our doors here in the U.S. A show like Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels could, like Watchmen, offer a prism through which to view and understand these events. But the Showtime drama has yet to go deeper than a keyword search.
- Most of the Vega family makes an appearance tonight, as Josefina attends one of Molly’s services (and it looks like she brought some friends; I wonder if she told them about the assault), and Maria and Mateo are briefly reunited. But Rio’s hold over the teen remains intact. I was sure that Maria would sense that Rio was something other than human, but if she did, she doesn’t show it.
- I’ve been so vocal about my dissatisfaction with the Chicano element of the show because it was so prominent in the marketing of the show, but it really does feel like little more than costuming at this point.
- I do want to commend Roxann Dawson’s direction; the interrogation scenes felt properly claustrophobic, and she tapped into religious iconography with the halo lighting around Diego (the martyr) and Tiago (a Judas, or more generally, a traitor).
- I felt for poor Diego, in his new pachuco suit that he’ll probably never wear again. Kudos to Adan Rocha for making the most of his time.
- Given how tense things got in the station, not to mention all the threats Murphy et al. made, would everyone really be cheering “Michener and Vega!” in the squad room? Or are they just glad that he took their side?