REVIEW: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep1 – Santa Muerte

“There will come a time when the world is ready for me, when nation will battle nation, when race will devour race, when brother will kill brother until not a soul is left. Are you ready?”

Thus opens Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, as a pair of goddesses face off and decide the fate of humanity. Caught in the crossfire is a young boy, Santiago Vega, who will soon grow up to be the first Chicano detective of Los Angeles. The first episode establishes the setting and the characters of the piece even as the malevolent Magda (played by Natalie Dormer) begins to sow the seeds of chaos.

Though I wrote a list of five series I thought would be closest to Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, one show did not make the list but when I watched the premiere, I was struck by how similar both shows are. This is The Terror: Infamy, incidentally also a “spiritual descendant” of its original series and the comparison was also made by another reviewer. But the similarities are uncanny. Both center on a next-generation immigrant (Chester Nakayama, Tiago Vega) who is confronted with a mysterious, malevolent force who is both female and rooted in folk religion (Santa Muerte/Magda, Yūrei). There are the struggles immigrants face in a white world as well as the looming threat of war.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep1 - Santa MuerteWWII is a big part of The Terror but Penny Dreadful is set some years before it even starts although the first stirrings of conflict are already evident. These similarities do not lessen the quality of either show, however, and since I enjoyed The Terror: Infamy, I am now reassured that Penny Dreadful: City of Angels will not disappoint.

Tiago celebrates his promotion with his family, his mother Maria expressing her great pride for him and his brother Raúl reluctantly showing support. There’s tension here because both brothers are now on opposite sides of a coming conflict, with Raúl leading the union who will be protesting against the building of a new motorway that cuts across their community. This conflict comes to a head later in the episode.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep1 - Santa MuerteTiago and his partner, Lewis, (played with the requisite world-weariness by Nathan Lane) are called to the scene of a grisly murder, a family laid naked but with Día de los Muertos makeup and with their hearts carved out. The police immediately suspect a Mexican angle so they chose Tiago to take the case. He senses some connection to the folk religious figure, Santa Muerte, the Angel of Death, a figure with whom his mother is very familiar.

He consults her about the case and she berates him for his lack of faith, especially since she believes that Santa Muerte herself marked Tiago years ago when he ran to the burning corpse of his father. As skeptical as he is, he is perturbed by the whole affair. Maria later wakes Santa Muerte from the latter’s slumber and implores her help. But the goddess refuses to meddle in the affairs of men, even when her sister is doing exactly that. The scene would have been more compelling if it had been done entirely in Spanish since there’s no real reason why a Mexican folk deity and her priestess would be communicating with each other in English.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep1 - Santa MuerteAll the while, the shape-shifting Magda has been whispering into the ears of various characters, laying the foundation for terrible things to happen. In human form she has appeared as a seemingly hapless housewife named Elsa Branson, who is seeking the help from Dr. Peter Craft for her asthmatic son. Later on, she is seen as the frumpy secretary of Councilman Charlton Townsend who is making shady deals with Nazis in order to build that controversial motorway.

Peter Craft also turns out to be a less benevolent figure than he seems as he is a Nazi too and on his lunch hour, marches around with the German-American Bund proclaiming messages like “America first.” Yikes. It’s still too early to tell if Rory Kinnear is reprising his role as Caliban from the original series but I suspect he might be. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Penny Dreadful: City of Angels might be tackling real world horrors along with supernatural ones.

The episode ends with a bloody conflict as the police faces off against the angry protesters. Tiago attempts to reach out to his community to minimize the bloodshed but unfortunately, Magda’s whispering triggers a vicious struggle and Tiago is forced to shoot his own brother to protect his partner. As the young detective surveys the carnage, the two powerful deities, Magda and Santa Muerte stand face-to-face, and the lines in the fight ahead have been drawn.