Penny Dreadful: City of Angels creator on confronting the horrors of our reality with the finale
Warning: Spoilers from the Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1 finale are discussed in this article.
Reality, as the world seems to constantly remind John Logan, can be much more horrifying than any supernatural scare.
When the acclaimed playwright and Oscar-winning film scribe set out to make the original Penny Dreadful for a 2014 audience, the show became his "very personal response to romantic poetry." He filled it with all manner of gothic terrors, from Dracula to werewolves to possession, all while remembering that "the most interesting monsters were human," he tells EW. When Logan returned years later to make another Penny Dreadful, a narratively separate spiritual descendant subtitled City of Angels, he confronted that idea more head-on — and the results continue to grow in tragic poignancy.
Set in 1938 Los Angeles, the premiere episode rewound time to the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which threatened to "build a wall" through Mexican American communities. Logan's new inspiration was clear. As the season progressed, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the first Chicano LAPD detective, grappled with his responsibility to uphold the law with the vehement white supremacy and racism that permeated the force. By the final two episodes, white cops lynch a member of the Pachucos who took the wrap for the murders of an affluent family. Meanwhile, Magda (Natalie Dormer), the shape-shifting demon who's been sowing disorder throughout a city on the brink of civil war, turned a peaceful protest against police brutality on people of color into a riot.
It's been "unnerving" for Logan, stuck at home in lockdown in modern-day L.A., to look outside his window and see the same sort of events play out in real time. "I love genre horror, just love it to pieces, and I never want to leave it behind," he says. "It's built into the show in a vital way, but the real monsters are human and the real scares are real-world scares."
With the season 1 finale of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels now behind him, Logan reflects on the show, the looming outside forces in 2020, those final chaotic moments, and where the story goes from here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has been the experience of watching the story play out on TV and seeing how fast our world is changing in real time?
JOHN LOGAN: It's been unnerving and eerie because so many of the themes of the show are being echoed in the streets outside my window. In our last two episodes, we have a person of color being lynched by the police force and then a peaceful protest march turning into a race riot. But this show was always meant to be about 2020, whether it's set in 1938 or not. It is so distinctly, inescapably about this moment now that, in a way, I'm glad we're speaking to the moment and to people who are living in this world.
Do you think now you have a different relationship to the story you wrote?
Yeah, absolutely, because when you're planning and writing in the writer's room and filming, it's all very hypothetical. If you're creating a work of art that you hope will speak to people and then as the world changes so dramatically in ways that align with your storytelling, it just makes you even more aware of your responsibility to be empathetic, to be understanding, and to treat complicated issues in complicated ways. In the writer's room, we were always very cognizant that we were dealing with provocative racial issues and we tried to do it responsibly. But as current events have transpired, I'm glad we took the time to try to do it with sophistication and with some sense of honesty.
What were your conversations like in the writer's room to make sure you were doing those scenes justice?
The show was always intended to be about the complex racial and political landscape of Los Angeles in the period, and it was a period where, if you were Mexican American or Latino, you were considered less than human. Restricting housing covenants meant you couldn't live where you wanted, the freeways came along and bulldozed your neighborhood and your churches and your businesses, and Latinos were being hung on lampposts in 1938. So, talking with the writers, particularly the Latina and Latino writers, it was important to try to present that with as much complexity as possible, but also just to present it brutally because it's a brutal world and these are brutal issues. There's no way to dance around them, if you will. We spent a lot of time talking about that [lynching] sequence in particular and how difficult it was to write, how difficult it was to film, and what the impact would be. We were aware that, if you show a person of color being lynched by the police force, you're making a very bold and provocative statement about what the world is, what the world was then, and sadly what the world is now. We took it seriously and very methodically.
Was there anything you intended to be an exaggeration of current events that ended up mirroring reality too closely?
It was always based on fact, on what was always going on in 1938. It was as real as we could possibly make it. The fact that it is still so real is what is disturbing about it and what makes shows like this so absolutely necessary. It's not easy to create entertainment, but it's important to create entertainment with purpose. I give Showtime a lot of credit. When I walked in and said "I want to do a political show about a Latino family in 1938." They didn't blink and they embraced that. But then when you see the world catch up with the past, it's a great reminder that the choices we make are important. If we're not aware of them, these cycles will just keep continuing. It happened in 1938 and it happened in 2020.
I know season 2 hasn't formally been announced and who knows where the industry will be once we figure out this COVID situation. But has your perspective on how this story continues changed, given anything that has happened in the world since the show premiered?
Of course. When I started the show it was Donald Trump, it was Brexit, it was "Build the Wall," it was the demonization of Mexican Americans—particularly as it relates to Los Angeles history. Now, things are so extreme and the schisms in the country are so pronounced that I think the show has to reflect that in a way. I think the gloves have to come off.
For the whole season, Magda has been this Devil on your shoulder, egging you on. Then she actually kills Rico. Why was that riot, in particular, the moment to inevitably make her a much more active participant?
Because I think it was so incendiary. I think the emotions and violence reached such a degree that she felt direct action was required. Like all the Devils who whisper on your shoulders, sometimes they poke you in the head, as well. Giving her a more active role at that point seemed like the right conclusion for that character: an escalation, if you will, which is terrifying. She's no longer seducing you or whispering to you or trying to corrupt your politics, she's actually putting a knife in your rib. So it seemed like the right escalation for the character and to promise more frightening things to come.
Magda has been entrenched in human affairs for so long and is becoming more horrifically human. Do you think that contributed to her action in that moment?
Yeah, well said. She's been around humans for so long and she's intimately engaged with them in so many ways that maybe she's picking up a little humanity, good and bad. And that's something I want to explore next season because I think it's interesting for Natalie to play, as well.
I was always curious if there was a reason for why she chose the people that she did to manipulate. They all, just like her, are not who they appear to be on the surface.
Magda is very tactical, looking over the landscape of the world and choosing Los Angeles and choosing the people she chooses to influence—some politically, some personally, some socially—but ethically, it's all very strategic. Like a master chess player looks over the whole board, reaches forward, and moves a rook one space. She's not a puppet master, she's a chess player.
Natalie pointed out that Magda doesn't manipulate female characters in the show. Is there a reason for that? Is that something you're thinking about for season 2?
I'm definitely planning on moving more into that for a potential season 2. That's all I can tell you.
What does Magda make of Tiago, given how he's been touched by Santa Muerte, whom she hates?
The penultimate scene is Tiago in the graveyard, and Magda for the first time touches and speaks to him. That's classic dramatic structure of keeping characters apart until you want to bring them together. If you look at Henry IV, Part I, Hal and Hotspur are clearly characters who are meant to go into combat, but they don't until the very end of the play. I think that's the case with Magda and Tiago. She knows that Tiago is special. She knows that Santa Muerte has chosen Tiago for something and she's moving closer and closer and closer to him. Finally, in the penultimate scene of the final episode, she makes contact. What that promises for next season, should we have one, is a more direct connection between those characters.
In the final moments of this season, Tiago is talking about how this isn't the United States that he knows. It feels like he's talking directly to the audience. Can you talk about how you came to the decision to end the season on that note?
You could've ended the season on Magda talking to Tiago in terms of, "Aha! There's conflict to come." But that's not all the show is about. The show's intended to be about society and the entire city of Los Angeles and, thus, America. So, to have your protagonist speak about what this all actually means I felt was really important. Tiago has a dream of what America could be, like we all do I hope, and what he sees around him is not that dream. This is not the United States he can embrace and will accept.
Molly takes her own life in the finale and Tiago does not take that well. What can you say about the state that he's in now and the stage you're hoping to set with him?
I think he's older and wiser. I think some romantic ideas have probably been stripped away, I think the easy out of romance has been cut short by the reality of the complexities of the world and the other characters, and I think he's ready for battle.
Have you had any formal conversations about season 2 with Showtime at this point?
No, it's a little early for that. I would love to keep telling this story. I hope I get the chance.