“It’s not a compromise, it’s not a mistake. It’s a sin.”
Last week, I described Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels as the result of the writers playing Mad Libs with headlines, but after watching “Maria And The Beast,” it feels more like a game of Exquisite Corpse. The last three episodes, including this week’s, were all written by different writers, and it shows. Now, there’s nothing unusual about having a team of writers on a single TV season, but the work of the City Of Angels team has been far from complementary. Characters and storylines haven’t been developed in equal measure, and it’s nearly impossible to tell if that’s by design—that is, if certain characters are merely being prioritized over others. The A story is hard to distinguish from the B story. Motivations arise and disappear, while big steps are taken with little justification.
After seven episodes, the pieces still do not fit together, leaving a lot of ground for the final three episodes of the season to cover. What little resolution City Of Angels has offered—Vanderhoff got his scapegoat, and so did Tiago—has been mostly unsatisfying. The lack of consistency has made it impossible to tell when a character is being shifty or if they’re just bad at their jobs or what. Every single character on this show behaves unaccountably, which has made the sprawling narratives even more difficult to follow, let alone care about.
Case in point: Tiago follows up his cover-up—and a night of drinking with racist cops—by having sex with Molly, even though she hasn’t officially been cleared of James Hazlett’s murder. True, she was never officially a suspect; but Tiago never actually questioned her or followed up on the paperwork Michener retrieved from Hazlett’s office at the Joyful Voices Ministry. Tiago knows that the murderer(s) hasn’t been caught and that Molly was close to one of the victims—a fact she and her mother went to lengths to hide—and yet, he’s so smitten that he just invites her inside. But first, he chides her that Mexicans aren’t the same as Chicanos.... which is true, even if the show itself seems to forget that fact from time to time. That line is the beginning and end of the discussion on the differences, though, so it may as well have not been uttered.
Because of how vaguely sketched Tiago still is—not to mention the overall story—we can’t tell if Magda is helping Molly pull the wool over his eyes, or if he is, as I’ve observed in the past, just terrible at his job. (Really, the only thing Tiago seems capable of is pulling his gun on people—though, to be fair, Michener finally provides him with a worthy target in Richard Goss and Kurt.) “Maria And The Beast” suggests that Magda has been messing with the Vega family, which we’d already surmised, though the episode doesn’t make her objectives any clearer. If anything, the script from Colin S. Liddle muddies the water when it comes to the relationship between Magda and Santa Muerte, and, by extension, their relationship with humans/mortals.
“Maria And The Beast” is the first episode to spend a significant amount of time with Maria, though it does so while holding her at a distance. From the beginning, Maria has been positioned as some sort of intermediary between this world and the next—not only was she able to call on Santa Muerte to revive Raul in “Dead People Lie Down,” but she’s also spoken of the great battle/war that looms. She carries a carving of a coyote around her neck, and is even called “Coyote” and “Old Coyote” by Santa Muerte. Maria can also sense Magda’s presence, though it’s unclear if she knows that Rio and Elsa, the latter of whom she meets (and bristles at) this week, are the shapeshifter’s guises. When she complains to Santa Muerte about her “bitch sister,” “the beast,” Maria only says she can “smell her” in the air.
Magda does show up to confirm Maria’s suspicions, but, as is the nature of this show, ends up raising more questions than she answers. Magda points the finger at Santa Muerte: “Why do you torment this family?,” she asks her “sister,” who sheds a single tear and then just leaves. But Maria isn’t afraid of Magda, not even when the demon-entity-whatever-she-is mocks her nickname. Why, Magda wonders, does Santa Muerte refer to Maria as “Coyote?” And why would Maria want to represent or be represented by a coyote, what Magda describes as an “old dog?” Maria, with as much dignity as Adriana Barraza can muster, replies: “I am a dog. That is my strength.”
At that point, I literally closed my laptop (obviously, I opened it again—I even watched the episode a second time, for due diligence). It’s such a risible line, and something I can’t imagine being put in the mouths of any of the white characters (not that anyone else gets to drop any pearls of wisdom this week either). But this moment underscores just how little understanding City Of Angels has of the cultures from which it purports to borrow. “Coyote” has different connotations, including referring to someone who exploits migrants making their way to the U.S. But the coyote also has connections to Teotihuacán, which was once the center of a civilization older than the Aztecs. But, you say, the show has been a little more concerned Aztec folklore—okay, even then, the writers would’ve found the Aztec god, Huehuecóyotl, a master of dissembling and an “Old Coyote” himself. A coyote has never just been an “old dog”—not to Mesoamerican peoples, not to Mexicans, not even to Chicanos.
Maria isn’t even just a “dog” in this story, as she’s able to banish Magda, whom she’s left to deal with on her own because Santa Muerte has hurt feelings (she has no heart for the living, but she does have one for her own ego, it seems). She also seems to know a bit about Magda; she sniffs disdainfully as she tells the demon she only knows how to destroy, not create. Maria’s speech is intended to be this stirring moment—she has a helluva backdrop, and Barraza continues to do her best with the inelegant dialogue she’s given. But like so many other elements of “Maria And The Beast,” it fails to land. Maria’s role, like that of her family (and, more specifically, Tiago), in this “battle” remains ill-defined. Is she a major player, and is that why Magda is going after her family? And if she is a significant figure, what exactly are her “abilities?” For that matter, what are Santa Muerte and Magda’s powers?
Hell, at this point, I’d settle just for knowing what their relationship to each other is. This week, Magda alludes to having been rejected by Santa Muerte, and what it felt like “when you loved me.” It’s still possible that they’re Huītzilōpōchtli and Coyolxauhqui—the way Magda speaks of their rift suggests a betrayal, something along the lines of what Coyolxauhqui did to her brother (in certain myths). But if that’s the case, why would Magda need a coyote explainer from Maria? The “mamacita” also feels out of place for the same reason. My theory about Magda and Santa Muerte is just that, a theory—but even if I’m wrong, City Of Angels has still failed to establish a foundation for their rivalry/war.
The inept attempts at world-building are made all the more glaring by the dull drama that makes up the rest of the episode (and season). Sheree Folkson’s direction is stymied by the frequent changes in location; everything just kind of looks the same, whether we’re watching Alex and Councilwoman Beck square off in the restroom or Maria having a showdown with two supernatural beings. Toward the end, the show remembers about Lewis, who’s already forgotten about Diego. Lewis is stressing the importance of Richard, the Caltech student who is apparently the only person in the state who can beat Wernher von Braun at his own game. “Don’t let him out of your sight,” he tells Dottie, seconds after they’ve let him out of their sight. I guess Lewis has given up on his little alliance with Benny Berman, because he asks Tiago to help him gun down Goss and Kurt. Of course, he did show Tiago his “investigation boards” first, but ultimately, he just blackmails his partner (though, honestly, does Tiago ever really need a reason to shoot at someone?). But they both have to holster their weapons, if for no other reason than to maintain the City Of Angels tradition of not letting anything happen. Maybe they thought it would be unseemly to shoot Nazis in front of Nazi collaborators—though, why not just wait until they’ve all gone their separate ways after dinner? Aren’t they on a stakeout, after all? I’m getting tired of having so many questions at the end of each episode. “It’s not a compromise, it’s not a mistake. It’s a sin,” Tiago says, at the top of the hour, which might be the most unintentionally relevant thing he’s ever said.
- The Craft home continues to be devoid of interesting developments: Frank now has free rein to torment Tom, thanks to Elsa’s meddling. She pushes Maria out of the home and into a room in the attached garage. Maria is upset, but it’s hard to tell if she knows Elsa is Magda.
- Josefina’s newfound evangelism is so off-putting that Mateo, who wails that he has no place else to go, doesn’t want to hear it. It would be funny if it weren’t yet another example of just how thinly sketched the character is—that goes for both siblings, unfortunately.
- Lest you think this show doesn’t know what side its bread is buttered, Councilwoman Beck is appalled by Alex’s attempts to make a “racist demagogue without a single scruple the President of the United States.”
- Adelaide Finnister meets with Townsend and Goss, in a rather unsurprising development. It’s not that the show has laid the groundwork for this, but with only three episodes left, people’s paths have to start crossing.
- I’d be much less irritated by the show’s warping of Mesoamerican/Mexican figures if it was in service of some wholly new creation. But so far, the approach to these cultures has had all the intent of a trip to Hot Topic.
- ETA (June 13): I think I’m going to reclaim my Sundays (I know time has lost all meaning, but I’d still like a day off). I’ll be back for the season finale on June 28, though.