“All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is... is being told he can.”
Like The Terror: Infamy, Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels is a spin-off (or, in this case, a “spiritual sequel”) in name only. Even with Penny Dreadful creator John Logan shepherding the series, very little of his original concept made the trip over from England to the United States—on the surface, at least. But monsters do lurk in “Santa Muerte,” the City Of Angels series premiere. Some are man-made; others, primordial. What is clear is that the battle lines are being drawn across multiple conflicts—and Los Angeles is a powder keg just waiting on a spark.
Directed by Paco Cabezas (The Alienist, American Gods), “Santa Muerte” absolutely packs its hour-and-change runtime with plot and characters. Logan, who wrote the first four episodes of the season, introduces everyone from the Vega family—including the earnest Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatoo), the LAPD’s first Chicano detective—to the German American Bund to a pair of feuding immortals played by Natalie Dormer and Lorenza Izzo. Dormer’s Magda, a shape-shifting demon or other entity, has a foot in every major storyline, donning the guises of abused housewife Mrs. Bronson and the frumpy aide to Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis, at his booming-est). And she’s no mere observer—Magda is a walking tinderbox, ready to lay waste to humanity for... some as-yet-unknown reason.
The opening scene establishes the complex relationship between Magda and her sister Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo). They are playing a game with the lives of humans, one that Magda seems much more intent on winning. She gives a speech, dipped in disdain, about humanity careening toward complete annihilation, and tells Santa Muerte that mortals aren’t worthy of her compassion. “I have no heart for the living,” Santa Muerte responds, and then accepts Magda’s tribute (which is as much a tribute to Magda, I’d wager): the lives of the men on the field, including the father of a young boy. When the boy runs to his father’s side, Santa Muerte repels him, effectively sparing the child. So maybe she’s not quite so indifferent to humanity’s plight.
Cabezas frames this exchange between supernatural forces with the grandeur it deserves, but the dialogue and setup leave something to be desired. While reserving my judgment, I’m confused about the relationship between Magda and Santa Muerte. Magda speaks in an English accent, and has a name that is German or Slavic in origin. She speaks in English to her “sister,” who is, depending on which sources you refer to, a deity or idol from Mexican (and, increasingly, Mexican American) folk religion. Like a lot of elements of Mexican/Chicano culture, Santa Muerte is a product of syncretism: Originally depicted as male, she has roots in Mesoamerican and Hispanic (as in, from Spain) traditions. Magda and Santa Muerte’s disparate backgrounds, or rather, the signifiers of said backgrounds, make their connection fuzzy.
Of course, Magda is a shape-shifter, which means she likely has some other, to-be-revealed identity that fits a bit more seamlessly with a Mexican/Chicano cultural figure. But the doubling down on the mystery between just two of the many characters introduced here throws off the balance of the premiere. That same deadly scene also features a young Tiago, who sat innocently listening to a rendition of “La Llorona” on the radio in the moments leading up to his father’s death. Now in the present day—which, in the show, is 1938—Tiago, short for Santiago, is just days away from starting his career as an LAPD detective. His job is a source of pride for his family, including his mother Maria (Adriana Barraza), brother Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), and sister Josefina (Jessica Garza). Elder brother Raul (Adam Rodriguez) holds a different view of Tiago’s chosen vocation. An activist and cannery worker, Raul sees Tiago’s work on the force as, if not an outright betrayal, then a huge source of strife for the family and their neighbors.
Like many other Chicanos in City Of Angels, the Vega family resides in the fictional neighborhood of Belvedere Heights, which is about to be demolished to make way for the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the first freeway built in the United States. Raul thinks Tiago will have to decide between being Chicano and a cop, which rattles the younger brother more than he lets on at first. Tiago’s plight and Raul’s concerns both feel immensely relatable—they could be transported to almost any time and still resonate. People of color in the U.S. are regularly asked to choose between their “American-ness” and their respective cultures, to set aside the latter to prove the former, even as the first word in terms like “Mexican American” remains what you are defined by.
With details like these, Logan makes the period and setting of his City Of Angels feel intentional, purposeful. At TCA press tour in January, he spoke of wanting to explore the politics of infrastructure, which are often racially motivated; “Santa Muerte” proves the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway fertile ground for that discussion. And it’s not as simple as a two-sided argument. There’s plenty of line blurring, even flat-out crossing. Early on, Tiago muses that you “can’t stop progress, I guess,” a statement echoed with far more vitriol by Councilman Townsend, who doesn’t mince words about his willingness to steamroll over the descendants of the people whose land Los Angeles was built upon.
The Vega brothers’ conflict mirrors that between preternatural sisters, to some extent, but just as “Santa Muerte” begins to draw those parallels, it also maps out several other season plotlines. Councilman Townsend accepts an offer of election interference from ze Germans via an “architect” and Nazi named Richard Goss (Thomas Krestchmann), a meeting arranged by Magda-as-his-assistant. Magda also starts exerting her influence on a pediatrician named Peter Craft, played by (among other things) Penny Dreadful alum Rory Kinnear. Craft is also a Nazi, only he tries to couch his hatred in patriotism (where have we seen that before?) as part of the German American Bund. And, since there has to be something for newly-minted detective Tiago and his partner, the weary but not resigned Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane), to investigate, they’re called to a crime scene with the bodies of the slain Hazlett family.
It would be an Olympian feat to make these storylines intersect in a single episode, even one that’s an hour and eight minutes long (going off the screener runtime), but Logan tries his damnedest. And I don’t just mean with the particulars. The racism on the police force extends from the brutes in the locker room to the police chief’s (Brent Spiner as Ned Vanderhoff) office to Michener’s lips: “It’s some spic thing,” he tells Tiago after they see a Spanish phrase, “te llevas nuestro corazon, tomamos el tuyo” written in blood at the crime scene. Tiago dutifully translates the expression—“take our heart, we’ll take yours”—but it’s no wonder he doesn’t immediately tell Michener about his mother’s belief in Santa Muerte. The tensions come to a head sooner than you’d think, as violence erupts in Belvedere Heights, with a little help from Magda and with Santa Muerte looking on.
Not all of these stories are made equally, though, just as not every performer manages to stand out. Zovatto’s Tiago is a bit of a blank slate, though that’s to be expected of someone who’s the “ordinary man” in an “ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances” tale. As Maria, whose work sees her looking after Peter Craft’s children, Barraza radiates a quiet power, which is befitting of someone who is a “coyote,” which seems to be some kind of intermediary between the divine and the earthly. Even before Santa Muerte (again, in English, for some reason) says it, we sense that Maria has great knowledge of the other side of the veil. Izzo presents a properly imposing figure as a folk idol, but her motivations remain murky. It’s Dormer who reigns over the premiere, whether she’s dressed as an haute couture version of a Cenobite in chin-to-toe leather or a sweet hausfrau or channeling Miss Pettigrew. She’s the closest thing this iteration of Penny Dreadful has to Eva Green when it comes to magnetic performances, and I look forward to seeing her skulk around this season.
- Welcome to Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels coverage! We’ll be digging more into the historical context, both of the Arroyo Seco Parkway and displacement in Los Angeles, but I also want to explore the mythology Logan is potentially drawing from, particularly for the Magda-Santa Muerte story.
- Speaking of which: when Raul and Tiago argue late in the episode (but before the big blowup at the end), Raul tells Tiago that they’re on a slippery slope to deportation, despite being birthright citizens. Tiago, still a little too convinced of the American dream, tells him “that’s done”—the “that” there referring, presumably, to the Mexican Repatriation that occurred between 1929-1936. 60% of those deported (over “economic anxiety”) were birthright citizens.
- I know it may seem like nitpicking, but the use of Spanish is confusing here. I appreciate incorporating Spanish dialogue without subtitles (it helps normalize the use of non-English languages in Stateside TV), but felt it should have been even more present. Maria’s children are Chicano, and therefore native English speakers (when it comes to Spanish, they’re heritage speakers), so it makes sense to me that they’d speak primarily in English. But if Santa Muerte is a figure from the old world, and Maria is herself a Mexican immigrant, why would they have their big talk in English?
- That final shot, with Tiago standing in between Magda and Santa Muerte, sets up the rest of the season just as much as everything preceding it.
- There are many versions of “La Llorona,” but I don’t think any of them beats Chavela Vargas’ version.