“It’s a wicked old world and it’s only got me and you to save it.”
Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels finally comes to life with its first sustained dive into a Chicano subculture (counterculture, at that), but the show doesn’t stray from the “Wicked Old World” for long. War is brewing, after all—not just in Europe, but in Los Angeles, which has become the battleground for whatever the hell is going on between Magda and Santa Muerte.
To define their relationship might give away more than series creator (and writer of “Wicked Old World”) John Logan wants to reveal at this juncture, but frankly, City Of Angels could use the boost. The show sputtered in its second episode, “Dead People Lie Down,” but at least last week’s installment introduced Sister Molly and Fly Rico, who couldn’t represent more disparate segments of the population if they tried. One is a vamping evangelical, who may be holding out on Tiago about what she knows about the Hazlett murders; the other, a pachuco who recognizes a fellow put-upon soul in Mateo. It seemed fair to assume that both Sister Molly and Fly Rico were going to play a part in whatever comes next, and “Wicked Old World” doesn’t leave us guessing for long. But Logan and director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan walk us down some well-trod paths for the better part of the episode, a move that gets more tiresome with each passing week.
Tiago and Molly have a date at the pier, unaware that Randolph is spying on them for Miss Finnister, who yells at her daughter through a closed door for… dating a brown man? For leaving them vulnerable to an investigation into James Hazlett’s dealings, which include buying a “love nest,” a bombshell dropped by Michener in the closing moments of tonight’s episode? Neither is a bad guess, especially given how familiar the setup is. But at least this week, Tiago made sure his brother was alive before he went out on a date. I know we’re supposed to read Tiago’s actions as representative of some great turmoil, but we hear more about that turmoil—including via a heavy-handed speech from Raul—than we feel it. It doesn’t help that Daniel Zovatto’s been asked to play smitten more than anything else so far, although I guess I wouldn’t know what else to do opposite Kerry Bishé either.
One matter that’s quickly resolved is the fate of Raul, who, while in a murderous rage brought on by Magda, was shot in the premiere by his brother Tiago. Maria wasn’t hallucinating at the end of “Dead People Lie Down”—her eldest son is now on the mend, presumably with the help of Santa Muerte. But he’s still getting his injured head around what happened that day in Belvedere Heights; he listens, aghast, as Mateo tells him about the day of the protest, and how he was “killing them all.” Mateo is angry at Tiago for shooting Raul and siding with the LAPD over the residents of Belvedere Heights, but Raul instructs him to show a little more compassion for their brother. “I’d rather be any fucking thing in this world than Tiago,” Raul says. “He’s not one of us. He’s not one of them. He’s a cop. He’s a Chicano. He doesn’t know what he fuck he is.”
City Of Angels has centered its exploration of what it means to be bicultural on Tiago, who spends his work days surrounded by whiteness then goes home to a primarily Chicano neighborhood. He’s learning that he can’t keep these parts of his life apart; his co-workers only see a brown face, and his friends and neighbors are now focused on his badge, especially after what happened at the construction site. The truth is, his conflict is one that’s shared by his fellow Chicanos, though you wouldn’t really know it from City Of Angels. Tiago might be the first Chicano detective in the LAPD, but he’s far from the first Chicano to feel like they were caught between worlds, languages, or cultures. The show’s discussion hasn’t been particularly nuanced so far, because the divisions have been shown so literally, from his predominantly white workspace to the Chicano neighborhoods he calls home. Tiago only speaks Spanish around other Chicanos or people he trusts, like Michener and Sister Molly, and with good reason.
But the show hasn’t really considered that Chicano culture is itself a combination of cultures and influences, a mix that varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, and is distinct from what it’s like to grow up Mexican American in the Midwest or Texas or any other region of the U.S. But it starts to dip a toe into those churning waters in “Wicked Old World,” with a nightclub scene more vibrant and promising than just about anything else we’ve seen so far. The sequence at the fictional Crimson Cat club is one of the show’s most impressive and involved—choreographer Tommy Tonge reportedly worked with over 100 dancers, including cast members Natalie Dormer, Johnathan Nieves, and Sebastian Chaco. Mimica-Gezzan tries admirably to capture every shimmy and chicken walk, but the club is packed with pachucos, pachucas, and other Chicanos. Fly Rico still stands out, and when he brings Mateo out on the dance floor, the show explodes with vitality. Coming together to dance in the wake of tragedy might not make strides in community organizing, but it’s a form of defiance, too. Bread and roses, and all that.
Here’s where things get thornier. We’ve seen Magda pulling strings in every storyline so far, so it’s not surprising that she’s found her way into the pachuco stronghold—as Fly Rico said last week, there’s a “city of” these young Chicanos who are as misrepresented as they are underrepresented by their government. Earlier this episode, Raul mused about harnessing the power of this group for the labor movement or to protest the parkway. Magda is intent on tearing the city apart, for reasons that remain unclear beyond wanting to strike out against or help her “sister” Santa Muerte. And for that, she’ll need everyone. Rio is the latest face in Magda’s arsenal, a Chicana and pachuca by way of Mexico. “But you’re white,” Mateo observes, speaking for all of us at home. “Bite your tongue,” Rio says, before elaborating, in a necessary bit of exposition that gets funnier the longer it goes on, that she was born in Mexico to Spanish immigrants (from Seville), which makes her a “dago” though not a “spic.”
Where to begin with Rio? On the plus side, Natalie Dormer isn’t in brownface, though her Chicano accent, if you can call it that, needs work (sorry, queen). And the show’s staff has done enough research to reflect how in 1938, the Spanish-American War would still have been relatively fresh in people’s minds, and while Mexicans and Spanish people were “white” for the purposes of the U.S. census, they weren’t considered white in any social context. Pachuco culture, which embraced its differences from Anglo or mainstream culture, was made up of more than just Chicanos. The zoot suit look that originated with Black jazz musicians was adopted by Chicanos, Asian Americans, and more. So it makes some sense that someone like Rio would have found a home within this subculture, this band of outsiders. But where Magda’s other personas, Alex and Elsa, are white women without a ton of agency, Rio has been dubbed the “queen” of this group. Alex may be the devil on Councilman Townsend’s shoulder, but she’s still a secretary; she can’t move in the world the way he can—that’s part of the point of the frumpy disguise. The show takes pains to acknowledge that Rio is not a person of color, then gives her a position above those who are.
I know this is ultimately in service of the bigger “humanity at war on all fronts” storyline, but I don’t think Logan considered what it would mean to make a woman who admits she passes for white the new “leader” of the pachuco group. It’s likely that Fly Rico is the leader of the group and that Magda worked magic to not just insert herself, but also make everyone think she’d always been there. But Rio is still part of a bigger issue with City Of Angels, which is how it’s balancing its two (and counting) worlds. We get more time this week with Dr. Craft, the compassionate would-be adulterer, than we do Maria, who basically performed a miracle with the help of Santa Muerte, whose role remains frustratingly underdeveloped. When I talked to John Logan at TCA earlier this year, he said the show wouldn’t strictly adhere to any one myth, figure, or folk tale; the story would be another melting pot. The problem is, City Of Angels has yet to identify the ingredients. It’s still lacking in specificity. I have a better sense of the inspiration for Sister Molly’s super-church than Maria’s vague brujería, the latter of which is much older in its traditions (though you wouldn’t know that from this show). This extends to Magda, who has an impressive set of powers, including shape-shifting, fire, mental manipulation, and exploding windows, but can’t keep a blustering asshole like Townsend in line.
And if you don’t think it matters, consider the moment in “Wicked Old World” when Michener learns of the murder of his two friends and allies, including Richard Kind’s Sam Bloom. Michener can’t (and doesn’t) hide the fact that he’s Jewish anymore than Tiago can hide being Mexican American. In front of the medical examiner, he’s every bit the hard-boiled detective, asking for a little rule-breaking before pocketing the slugs that killed his friends. But when he’s alone in the stairwell, he breaks down crying, rending his collar in the act of kriah. We don’t sit with Michener for long, but his anguish is communicated by more than just his tears. I can’t speak to whether this is the kind of thing a Jewish man in his 50s would do in the U.S. in the ’30s (please chime in, though, commenters), but I have a better understanding of what’s happening in that stairwell than I do what Maria did for her son last week, because the tearing of the collar is recognizable. Having Adriana Barraza mutter some Spanish to summon the Angel of Death like a Postmates worker doesn’t seemed based on much of anything beyond the writers’ imagination. And if it is, then it’s time for City Of Angels to start unveiling that mythology.
- “It’s our city. We found it. We made it. We take it back.” Magda-as-Rio’s rhetoric is bound to get some people going.
- “Only reason men hide anything is for money or pussy. Cherchez la femme. Oldest story there is.” If you only knew, Michener.
- Speaking of worn-out premises, Councilman Townsend as the angry bigot who’s also a closeted gay (or bisexual) man is up there. Any bets on how long it’ll take the Germans to use this for blackmail, since they can’t seem to get him to fall in line?
- The tattoo Mateo gets at the end of the episode is of the shining cross, which was a mark that a lot of pachucos wore.