Spoilers for episode ten…
1.10 “Day of the Dead”: Peter Craft, Elsa and the boys are trapped amidst a riot. Townsend celebrates the rise of his political fortune. Tiago and Molly face reality about their relationship. Lewis and Tiago protect Brian. The Vegas celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Terry, I think I should begin this final review of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels with an apology to you. I was the one who originally pitched coverage of this series to you, and had I known that we would be personally victimized by John Logan and lose ten hours of our life to this…well let’s just say that I would have made better decisions for our lives.
It’s been a long road to what I assume is the first season finale of this show, but everything has come full circle. In other shows, I would be far more appreciative of the symmetry of matching up the Vega family celebrations and the two efforts by moustache-twirling white villains to destroy a Mexican community in order to build a freeway, but I’m not feeling particularly generous right now. After a frankly stunning opening sequence that is clearly meant to simulate the Zoot Suit Riots – wherein white sailors clashed with Pachuchos in the streets and Martial Law was declared – the rest of “Day of the Dead” is a spectacularly underwhelming affair.
So much of this finale plays like a retread of the same stuff we’ve seen in the last nine. Elsa (Natalie Dormer – utterly wasted across the season) once again trots out her familiar refrain about the need to be strong and proud of their Aryan race to Peter (Rory Kinnear) while Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) and Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) rehash why they can – and can’t – be together. It wasn’t that captivating the first time around, so it’s even less captivating the tenth time.
And therein lies the true problem with City of Angels to me: nothing has happened! We’ve struggled all season long to dissociate this spin-off from its predecessor, but John Logan has frankly made it impossible not to compare because the dip in quality is so vast. When Magda arrives in the cemetery to deliver the exact.same.declaration as the first episode, and we get a near identical protest against the destruction of the Chicano community, I could only throw my hands up in frustration. And then Tiago’s on-the-fucking-nose statement to Lewis (Nathan Lane) about what Councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis) and the other rogue gallery of white villains – who are all literally standing off to the side! – are planning? Oh my god. And that shot of a bicycle spinning its wheels with a little American flag in the spokes and the line “This is not the United States of America.” Jesus Christ, Terry – I nearly vomited.
Normally I would applaud the sentiment about straying American values, but this is so damn preachy and condescending to the audience. Plus it comes at the end of an episode that literally incited a race riot…and then forgot all about it! And it comes at the end of a season that dedicated so much time to tangents that never actually came to anything (where’s Peter’s wife, Linda? Why did it matter that Raul survived? Why did the orchestra swell when Jonathan Nieves‘ Mateo left with Rio rather than stay with Tiago?)
Oh Terry, I’m so frustrated! What did you think of the finale? Do you think we were meant to feel dread at the inevitability of all of these forecasted events, or was the show just clumsy? Did you at least “enjoy” (if that’s the word) the opening riot? And please clarify if you still believe that Molly – the sole good character in the series aside from Adriana Barraza’s Maria – who dies by suicide in the finale, remains a femme fatale?
The joy of writing in Google Docs comes from those little moments when you happen to log into the document to see you writing away. So furiously, I might add. And I can only imagine you, Joe, just tap-tap-tapping away, a look of disgust on your face because I watched this one last night before going to bed and my final thought was, “boy, I can’t wait to hear what Joe thinks about this trainwreck.”
Because it was a trainwreck that perfectly encapsulates the season. You’re right about the opening moments leading into the riot. It felt like the kind of skill and tension-building we’d come to expect from the OG Penny Dreadful, CGI fire aside (Joe, I hate CGI fire almost as much as I hate CGI blood). But then we get the most on-the-nose moustache twirl in a session full of them, as Townsend goes full Trump and just spews the most incredibly ridiculous diatribe against everyone. It was so comical and dare-I-say campy? It felt so completely tone death for an episode about the destruction of a community.
And when we get to the moment where Lewis Of Mice and Men’d Brian (Kyle McArthur)–“Look at all the stars, kid–I almost choked on my water. Not only did this feel like it belonged in a different story, it also was emblematic of the season as a whole. As you said, it’s much ado about nothing, as plots either go nowhere or are discarded as quickly as they’re introduced. For all the build-up with Townsend’s ire towards Councilwoman Beck (Christine Estabrook), including asking his lover Kurt (Dominic Sherwood) to kill her…she doesn’t even show up again.
Joe, I can’t believe this show came from the same creator and writer of Penny Dreadful. The plotting has been all over the place, the attempts at making a point are amateurish and clumsy, and the once impeccable plotting has been reduced to throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. The fact that our confirmation of Adelaide (Amy Madigan)’s involvement in Hazlett’s death came from a throwaway line just describes the lack of finesse this season has pretty much existed in.
Which leads me to Molly. Poor sweet-yet-still-femme-fatale Molly. I know this has been a point of playful contention between us, but yes, I still absolutely see Molly as a femme fatale, even though maybe not in the traditional sense. Femme fatales will die and they may ultimately be good…I’m thinking of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and her complicated relationship with James Bond in Casino Royale and the way her death sent Bond on a downward spiral.
Molly’s character has been used similarly all season and her fatale-ness was cemented when Magda traces her finger down Tiago’s neck and asks him if he’s ready. Molly’s death is a turning point for his character and while the religious figure ultimately came off as more innocent than I expected her to be, she still exemplifies the traits of the trope where it counts. If there is a second season, I anticipate her presence to linger in Tiago’s mind and drag him down a seedy path of vengeance.
I don’t know, Joe. I expected so much more from this season and it continually failed me at every point. But let’s talk about the character that could have easily been excised this entire season…what did you think about Peter Craft née Krupp and his very quick descent into Nazism? What did you think of his tender moment with Tom (Jullian Hilliard) where he tried to explain the importance of not letting hate win contrasted with the final image of Peter? And can this show be saved? Do we even care if it is?
Oh, we both absolutely do not care if this show gets saved. I think I speak for both of us when I say this is where we pull the parachute on the show and never speak of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels again. Regardless of whether it is renewed: this is our exit, Terry.
As for “can it be saved?” Of course! That’s one of the reasons that we’ve both been so frustrated with this spin-off. We know what John Logan is capable of delivering and we kept waiting for that guy to show up. There’s a lot of potential in this series, particularly in the talent on-screen, but the writing has been inconsistent (to say the least) and the narrative has been woefully unsatisfactory. We’ve talked at length over the last ten weeks about dialling back the number of characters, about making Magda more of an antagonist for the other characters and giving this cast better material to work with. That never happened in S1, but it could happen in a possible S2. Overall, though, it’s still shocking to me that Logan had folks like Dormer, Kinnear, Lane and Barraza and this is what he chose to do with them.
The Peter storyline is easily the most emblematic of the show’s problems. It was never clear what Craft’s story was in the early episodes and he was the most removed character of the bunch. Over the course of the season, we’ve seen Elsa slowly but surely guide him away from his “American pacifist” values towards a more racist, divisive rhetoric. The problem is that this, like so much of City of Angels, has been both obvious and lacking in pay-off. Consider his two big moments in the finale, his bedside chat with Tom and his ultimate resignation in delivering a Nazi salute: these should have happened further apart, but also earlier in the season. This is all pay-off for an anticipated second season that may well never happen! The intent is clearly that we’ve seen a good man corrupted by evil, but it smacks of “duh”; we called this development from the moment that Peter began flirting with Elsa and investigating the vacancy rate at the looney bin for his wife.
Terry, I’m probably being generous, but I’m giving this season a 5/10. There are some great moments hidden among the garbage, and I still really like these actors, but City of Angels never got more than halfway there for me.
Is there anything that could save the show for you in S2? (Personally I would denounce all of my criticisms if Eva Green signed on). Did any character or arc ultimately satisfy you? And what is your grade for S1?
It’s funny. City of Angels has had some great moments over the last ten episodes. From the first truly horror-filled moments in the hospital when Raul is resurrected to the contrasting moments between the rich and white and BIPOC queer spaces to Molly’s impeccable fashion sense, the show showed promise.
I think ultimately John Logan was not the person to tell this story about Chicanos living in 1930s LA. Penny Dreadful worked because it came from a place of authentic love of the European classic horror monsters. There, the openly gay Logan was able to rip the queer heart that beats beneath all of those outsiders and show the world that the monsters they loved growing up were unabashedly queer.
Here, it definitely feels like a white person trying to tell a story he only barely knows. Sure, he surrounded himself with other BIPOC writers and producers and directors, but when you have a rich history of Latinx folklore and culture and you’re forced to create a deity in Magda…I mean, you’re not really doing that much research. It also doesn’t help that Logan’s ability to add campy flair, something handled so impeccably well in the original series, feels comically (and distastefully) out of place against such a searing backdrop of an era of bigotry that feels timelier and more relevant than ever before.
But even from a storytelling perspective, Magda’s plan feels less like a mastermind laying the puzzle pieces out than just throwing temper tantrums when things don’t go her way…only to emerge somewhat victorious at the end as if everything that didn’t go her way was actually planned. It’s messy. This season was messy.
I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.
No, I’m also angry. I can’t even meme correctly. I don’t want a second season, as much as it pains me to say that. This was a story that Logan shouldn’t have attempted and I don’t want to see him struggle through more seasons. But if it somehow gets picked up (our reviews aren’t the only negative thing about it) I want Logan to stay on as producer, sure, but step back as show runner. This would be a great opportunity to use his white privilege to help promote Latinx and queer voices and let them tell a more authentic story.
As for rating this season, I’m going to be slightly less generous and give it a 4/10. Wasted potential. Wasted actors. A few moments that matched the grandeur of Penny Dreadful at its worst can’t overcome how messy and inelegant this narrative was. I hate writing these words because I was one of those people who screamed in joy when I heard there would be more Penny Dreadful.
Now, I wish I could go back to that naive man and tell him, “oh honey, no.”