REVIEW: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep10 – Day of the Dead

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep10 - Day of the Dead

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels concluded its first season with an incendiary episode at the start but that also sets up various plot lines for a potential second season. The season finale was likewise another example of how the show has struggled to balance several genres and themes at the same time and thus not giving justice to any of them.

The first half of the episode was powerful and again showed how prescient Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has been about socio-economic issues and racial tensions in America. The lynching of a person of color and the subsequent riot and social unrest are events that are too close for comfort but the fact that they were written in a show set in 1938 Los Angeles truly demonstrates history’s dangerous tendency to repeat itself.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep10 - Day of the DeadAfter the news spreads about the lynching of Diego last episode, the Chicano community gathered in The Crimson Cat is understandably incensed. Rio tries to make this an opportunity for revolution but Fly Rico is a more reasonable leader and instead convinces his community to remain civilized and to focus on burying their fallen brother. And for a few moments, he succeeds in winning them over and they begin to march peacefully through the streets.

But it doesn’t take much to trigger a riot and with both Rio and Elsa in the vicinity, the first time two of Magda’s alter-egos make any contact, the situation quickly escalates. While this scene is meant to show Magda’s interference in human affairs, it is also not unlikely that a riot would have broken out without her meddling. The racist white people were just waiting for an excuse to beat up the brown people and the Chicanos have been oppressed for too long that the accumulated frustration would make them retaliate.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep10 - Day of the DeadAn interesting moment where Magda as Rio does play a more active role is in killing Fly Rico since he hasn’t proven to be the easily-manipulated puppet she wanted him to be as a leader of the Pachucos. While Magda’s involvement has mostly been whispering in men’s ears, this direct action seems unexpected from a supernatural being but then again, both Magda and Santa Muerte’s roles have never been very clearly defined on the show. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels creator John Logan did hint, in an interview with EW, that Magda’s murder of Rico bodes of more dangerous things to come.

Martial law is declared and the city is in a state of almost lockdown, another frightening parallel to modern times. Councilman Townsend practically twirls his mustache with glee knowing that his motorway plans will find fruition at last, showing he is pretty much the same character as he was in the season premiere. After the compelling clash in the first half of the episode, the second plays out more quietly and with fewer moments of real interest. As mentioned above, the latter half feels more like checking off a list of unresolved plot points and setting up the story for a second season.

As Peter Craft tends to his young son, Trevor, having been wounded during the riot, he tries to convince the boy not to give in to hate. Craft also tries to resist Elsa’s exhortations for him to take a stand against the Chicanos as the leader of the German-American Bund. When the man still holds to his convictions, Elsa pulls out her trump card and tearfully gives an account of an even more wretched wartime experience and the importance of maintaining their dignity against oppressors. Craft is finally moved, his stern resolve crumbling in the face of Magda’s manipulation, and he sadly reclaims his Nazi heritage. The Craft storyline has been the weakest this season and though I enjoyed Rory Kinnear’s performance, I’m not too keen on seeing more of the character in future seasons.

The last two major storylines also involve two character deaths, both significant but in different ways. While both will have an impact on the lead detectives of the show, one is a tragedy for the victim herself while the other is more notable because of the darkness it adds to the already tainted soul of the executioner. And both, even more sadly, are also signs of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels having too extensive a cast that it failed to develop all its characters adequately.

Molly always had an air of tragedy about her and her inevitable death was a truly sad way for the character to go. Her romance with Tiago was always doomed but there were moments, even in this finale, that there might have been some hope for them both. At least for them to survive all this.

But just as Molly resolves to leave “Sister Molly” behind and the life her mother had controlled for so long, she learns the horrible truth that it was on her mother’s orders that the Hazlett’s were murdered. Unable to bear the guilt of having been the reason for this gruesome crime, Molly commits suicide. There is a strangely moving moment when Santa Muerte herself greets the dying woman and even humors Molly’s fantasy of having a sister choose bunk beds. While the scene is touching, Santa Muerte’s presence is also perplexing given that Molly was the leader of a completely different religion, so much so that Maria had objected Josefina’s adhering to it.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep4 - Josefina and the Holy SpiritWas Santa Muerte revealing herself to Molly because of the latter’s connection to Tiago? Or did Santa Muerte greet everyone who died on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels? The deity’s role and the show’s mythology had never been properly elaborated though hopefully a future season will better address this.

The other disappointment to come from Molly’s death was the reveal of her mother as the culprit behind the Hazlett murders, the supposedly central crime of the series. It’s unlikely now that Tiago and Lewis will ever find the truth about the case, which is strange, and they spent more time in the season working on other things than on the case that started it all. It’s a further injustice that Diego will always be the one recognized as the vicious killer when he was completely innocent.

And the whole crime procedural aspect of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels was barely served by this arc, given that Lewis spent more time and energy on the Nazi conspiracy and protecting a young man who turned out to be more dangerous than expected. Lewis had Benny Berman and his men hide Brian at the Vega house for safety and I wish we had spent more time on this since there is a delightful chemistry between Maria and Berman and it would have been great to see more of them.

Then, they’re all rushing off to bring Brian to the next place of safety while Kurt is in hot pursuit. But a seemingly innocuous remark by the young man about a “bomb” he’s been working on sets off alarm bells in Lewis, Tiago, and Berman. The subtle expressions of the three men to the boy’s description of a bomb with the strength of “a thousand suns” already seals Brian’s fate. Kurt would have to return to his boss empty-handed.

Nathan Lane is, once again, masterful in the next few scenes as he resigns himself to the horrible deed he has to undertake in order to prevent Brian’s deadly ideas from getting into the wrong hands. Lane portrays the mix of almost paternal pity and steely resolve from the old detective as he leads Brian to his death at the beach. It’s the latest in a series of difficult decisions the detective has had to make for the greater good, or so he tries to convince himself. But he’s also acutely aware that he will always bear the burden for these sins.

The episode ends with the Vega family gathered in the cemetery to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Tiago is the most sorrowful, still mourning Molly’s loss. His family give him a moment to grieve and while he does so, Magda finally approaches him and even touches the back of his neck. The significance of this encounter isn’t quite clear yet (because Magda and Santa Muerte’s roles have never really been explained) but when the episode ends almost right where it started, with the Chicano neighborhood being demolished in favor of the motorway,  the battle lines are drawn. In another not-s0-subtle moment, Tiago remarks to Lewis that this was not the United States of America.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has lofty ambitions, without a doubt, and in its quest to combine genres while tackling relevant and profound themes, the show sometimes gets lost in its own vision. Too many characters and plot lines are poorly served by the uneven approach. The show also struggles to excel in any genre. The supernatural aspect remains vague because Santa Muerte and Magda’s roles have not been fully explained. The horror genre has not really been apparent except for a few creepy moments with Frank. And the crime thriller angle which should have been the investigation of the Hazlett murders was not explored enough and the resolution was both predictable and unsatisfactory.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, S1 Ep10 - Day of the DeadThe Vega family should have been the center of the show, each member developed thoroughly since they all have intriguing roles to play in the current chaos. The cast give consistently excellent performances despite their limited screen time but they should really be allowed more moments to shine in the next seasons.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels would have even worked well as a simple but focused period drama exploring racial tensions in pre-World War II America. Natalie Dormer’s impressive and versatile performances aside, Magda’s presence only distracts from the stories of the Vegas and of Lewis Michener. There is more than enough compelling material here without having to add a supernatural element, as if just to stay in keeping with the Penny Dreadful brand. Hopefully, John Logan finds a better way to integrate these mythological elements and multiple genres in any potential future seasons.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has introduced us to a cast of intriguing characters struggling in a cruel world not unlike our own. Although the show has a convoluted way of telling it, this is still a story I would like to see more of and a world I would like to watch saved.