Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premiere recap: Day of the Dead, indeed
Shape-shifting demon Magda compels 1930s Los Angeles to the brink of war.
After nearly four years, Penny Dreadful is finally back. But it looks a whole lot different than what we remember. That's because this isn't really Penny Dreadful, not if you're expecting Eva Green's Vanessa Ives to re-emerge from the shadows that drape the cobblestone roads of a dreary 19th-century London. This is Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, more a distant cousin who went to college on the West Coast while the first show attended NYU and now haunts Coachella festivals with inappropriate Native American headdresses and floral crowns. The two series couldn't look more different, but a stranger might clock the family resemblance.
Some ground rules: City of Angels isn't a sequel to the first Penny Dreadful, nor does series creator John Logan currently have plans to turn this property into the next horror anthology series à la American Horror Story and Haunting of Hill House. Rory Kinnear, who played Frankenstein's monster in Penny Dreadful, plays a much different character in City of Angels. Though Logan sees "an incredible thread that runs between the both of them" in the sense that both deal "very operatically" with themes, "multidimensional characters," and "hairpin plot twists." Even though there are actual monsters stalking the streets, these shows are about the monsters within.
The results with City of Angels are still sublime, though it doesn't quite convince at this point why it needs to be a Penny Dreadful story. That's not necessarily a negative. The first show was just so unique and dark and extravagant with such a standout leading lady that she's still a celebrity to the fans that adored her show. City of Angels feels like it's own thing, which is a good quality to have. Yet, attaching the name Penny Dreadful also attaches a lot of expectations.
City of Angels begins with a prophecy from Magda (Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer), a demon of discord and the sister of Santa Muerte (Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood's Lorenza Izzo), the Holy Angel of Death and ferry-woman of human souls to the afterlife. Magda believes humanity is inherently evil, that "all mankind needs to be the monster he truly is is being told he can." She plans to prove her point not by attacking her victims directly, but by "whispering to them" and "letting them be who they are."
"There will come a time when the world is ready for me," Magda promises, "when nation will battle nation, when race will devour race, when brother will kill brother, until not a soul is left. Are you ready?"
The new setting is 1938 at a particular time in the history of Los Angeles. The city is planning for the construction of the Arroyo Seco Motorway, a major step that will inevitably transform the city into a metropolis. But the parkway will displace many Mexican immigrant homes, including that of the Vega family, which places Tiago Vega (Here & Now star Daniel Zovatto) in a precarious situation. He's the first Chicano police detective on the LAPD force and the mentee of Jewish Det. Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane). His peers give him a hard time and make racist remarks, but he's driven to make a life for himself. At the same time, he sees how hard local authorities have made life for his mother Maria (Adriana Barraza), brothers Raul (Adam Rodriguez) and Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), and sister Josefina (Jessica Garza). Raul is part of the movement protesting the parkway, which is set to begin construction in a few days' time. He feels Tiago is betraying his own people by working with the cops to enforce construction, and Mateo, too, feels the frustration of being a minority in L.A. and wants to be more involved.
There's something else about Tiago that has him fated for a greater purpose. When he was a boy, he accompanied his father to work in the fields when Magda set fire to the crops and killed everyone except for Tiago. Santa Muerte, someone who claims to have "no heart for the living," commanded her sister to leave the boy alone. During the blaze, he saw his father's soul resting in the arms of Santa Muerte. He raced to his side but the angel tossed him backward with her hand, forever marking Tiago. As an adult, he doesn't believe in Santa Muerte, but his mother, who considers herself a bruja (i.e. witch), suggests he might need her down the line.
On his first day on the job, Tiago and Lewis are charged by police chief Ned Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner) with investigating "butchery down the river": four members of a rich Beverly Hills family were found with their hearts cut out in the empty L.A. river, each of their faces carved and painted with skeletal Día de Muertos makeup. A message in Spanish is inked in blood nearby: "You take our heart, we take yours." This paints the Mexican community as the instant targets, but Tiago isn't convinced. Snooping around the victims' home, they find no bloodshed and no signs of foul play, but they do see a whole lot of imagery of Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), a radio evangelist who preaches to a fundamentalist crowd. They also learn the father was working for a company in charge of building the parkway.
Lurking in the periphery is Magda, doing exactly what she promised to do. We'll see her take on three human forms in season 1, and the premiere episode introduces two of them: Elsa and Alex.
Elsa is the voice whispering in the ear of Dr. Peter Craft (Kinnear), a German immigrant pediatrician and a leading member of the pro-Nazi German American Bund organization. As it happens, Maria works as Peter's housekeeper under the often drunk eye of his American wife, Linda (Piper Perabo). Peter also draws the eye of Lewis, who sees him marching through the street with his Nazi brethren and declaring lines like "America first." (Where have we heard that one recently?) Elsa brings her son — a demon child that Magda magically oozes forth from like clay — in for a checkup. She presents herself as a battered wife whose American husband also beats on their son. Peter clearly finds her attractive and becomes more seduced by her parallels to his own story: she grew up in Germany and is now forced to live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
As Alex, Magda's other target for manipulation is Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis). You can probably guess his political views by just his Hitler 'stache. Is it a coincidence, then, that Charlton sounds an awful lot like charlatan? As his assistant, Alex supports his racist rhetoric and sets up a secret meeting between the councilman and Richard Goss (Thomas Kretschmann), who moonlights as a German architect but is really one of many Nazis who infiltrated L.A. with the goal of bringing Nazism to America. He wants to make Charlton mayor and use his influence to build even more motorways. Richard is also the target of Lewis, who, secretly, is tracking the movements of Nazis in his community.
With Monday approaching, Tiago has a decision to make: will he join his fellow officers to make sure construction of the parkway proceeds as scheduled, or will he sit out? As he ponders this, Maria, praying at her altar for Santa Muerte, awakens the angel. Maria senses Magda's presence and asks Santa Muerte for help with her "bitch of a sister." But, after eons of wading through the agony of ferrying dead souls to Heaven, the angel repeats that she no longer has any heart for mankind. It's a line we hear echoed in various situations, notably when Raul asks Tiago, "Where is your heart?" Maria goes, instead, to Tiago and asks him to stop the coming confrontation between Mexican laborers and police.
On Monday morning, the standoff begins and Tiago is there amongst the crowd of his fellow officers. He walks out in an effort to get his neighbors to disperse. But Magda, invisible to the human eye, weaves between the mass of cops, looking for someone to manipulate. She finds an officer with shaky hands and compels him to fire the first shot into the crowd. The bullet kills one of the Mexican workers and sparks a riot. Cops with batons beat citizens, citizens fire guns at the cops, and amid the chaos, Magda finds another target. She whispers in Raul's ear to pick up a gun and shoot as many cops as he can. Almost mindlessly, as if by some hypnotic trance, he goes to kill Lewis. Raul doesn't react to the shouts from Mateo or Tiago, and Tiago is forced to fire on his brother.
As Tiago stands with a look of horror overtaking his gaze, the prophecy, it seems, has begun. Now is the time when nation battles nation, when race devours race, and when brother kills brother.
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