Each week, Joe (@bstolemyremote) and Terry (@gaylydreadful) review an episode of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, alternating between our respective sites — queerhorrormovies.com and gaylydreadful.com.
Spoilers for episode four…
1.04 “Josefina and the Holy Spirit”: Tiago scours Sister Molly’s beach house for clues. Peter Craft invites Elsa to a party at his home. Lewis asks a gangster to help battle the growing Nazi menace in LA. Josefina Vega has a harrowing encounter with the police.
What a difference a week makes, Terry. For the last two weeks, we’ve been praising the (mostly) rich character development work while also holding out hope for a slight advancement in either action, scares or both. Sadly episode four did a lot of damage to that built-up goodwill.
My biggest issue with “Josefina and the Holy Spirit” is John Logan’s shotgun-burst approach to storytelling. We’ve both remarked about Logan’s propensity for juggling multiple characters and storylines; in the original incarnation, this worked to build both dread and suspense about how and when characters would come together against a common enemy.
In City of Angels, however, it’s having a very different kind of result. I’ve taken to breaking up my notes based on individual characters, which normally would result in 2-3 sections as they pair up or cross-over. “Josefina and the Holy Spirit”, on the other hand, contains anywhere from seven to nine character sections, which confirms that the show is quite the sprawling ensemble, but also that Logan has spread the storytelling across a frankly unsustainable number of moving parts.
I raise this point primarily because of the titular character, which is also the source of most of my displeasure with this week’s offering. Josefina (Jessica Garza) has barely been a character on the show, appearing briefly in Vega family scenes in the first two episodes and completely sitting out episode three. Here, she appears for the first time 33 minutes into an one hour episode, at which point she is immediately sexually assaulted by Officer Reilly (Rod McLachlan), which drives her into the arms of Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) and drives Mateo (Johnathan Nieves) to track down and murder Reilly in brutal fashion.
It’s pretty clear how these events will forward the plot in the episodes to come: Mateo is now firmly in bed with the Pachucos, Reilly’s death will further escalate the tensions that open the episode when Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) claps back at Chief Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner) over police beatings of Chicanos, and this draws Josefina further into the Christian world that Tago is already exploring. I get all that, but in order to facilitate these developments, Logan basically (re)introduced a WOC, immediately showed her being gratuitously violated and used her trauma to advance the narrative.
This is a tired trope, Terry and I’m not feeling particularly generous about it. Even if Josefina were more of a presence, it would be icky to use her sexual assault as a plot point (which, let’s be clear, is all it is). But Josefina isn’t a character – hell, she’s barely even been a presence – which just makes the way that Logan structured this all the more reprehensible. He’s been taking narrative shortcuts to squeeze in all of these characters, so much so that there’s no time or space allocated to properly explore the impact of what’s happening because the show has to move on to the next scene. Here it feels particularly reprehensible: Josefina’s rape is uncomfortable and horrifying because of the performances of the actors, but it is Logan who is drawing my ire for employing a tired, cheap, emotionally manipulative story trope that degrades women solely to advance the plot.
If you can’t tell, I’m pissed.
I don’t even know how to transition over to other storylines, here, Terry. Townsend (Michael Gladis)’s “secret queer” storyline remains completely groan-inducing, even if recording public figures engaging in illicit or disreputable sexual practices for blackmail purposes was a Hollywood fixture. It’s just very blah, which is also how I feel about Elsa (Natalie Dormer) and Dr. Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear) taking their relationship to pound town.
If I’m forced to identify a positive, it would fall squarely on Detective Lewis (Nathan Lane)’ efforts to engage the equivalent of the Jewish mob, represented by Benny Berman (Brad Garrett). Berman is fascinating: an erudite, profane and threateningly tall figure (especially in scenes with Lane) who is unafraid to shoot an opportunistic colleague in the head in a freezer to prove a point.
Terry, what did you think of Berman’s introduction? Do you share my significant apprehension about Josefina’s storyline and, more broadly, the reduced screen time all of the characters are receiving? And did you enjoy Tom (Julian Hilliard)’s scary encounter with creepy Frank (Santino Barnard) at the sleepover?
Joe, I don’t even know where to start. You had messaged me before I had had a chance to watch this week’s episode, saying that you were angry and my immediate thought was, “oh dear.” And for about 30 minutes, I was wondering what could have created such an about-face in the narrative being sprawled in front of us. And then it happened. A moment where I actually considered turning off the program. I don’t want to dwell on this particular moment because we will probably just continue to get angrier about it, but this moment was, as you said, reprehensible.
You’re absolutely correct in your assessment that she’s barely a presence, let alone a character. In fact, the only time I truly remember her on screen was in the first episode where she was used to show Mateo’s protective nature towards her when she’s discovered kissing a slightly older guy. Outside of that scene and a couple stand-in group shots, she’s virtually non-existent which makes this sequence all the more agonizing and and the writing all the more grotesque. Again, she’s used as a character beat and a plot point for a male character. It sets Mateo off on his quest for revenge and it becomes a plot point that, as you mentioned, will increase the racial tensions in the city. That’s all Josefina is. A character beat for Mateo and a plot point to push the back half of the season forward.
I’m sick of this trope, especially as clumsily executed as it is here, and I’m sick of this scene so let’s try to move on to a couple more interesting moments.
I’m starting to be afraid for poor Tom Craft, the Boy Who Knows Too Much. Back at the beach scene in episode two, we mentioned that Tom seems to suspect something’s not quite right with Frank (and then it was confirmed by Julian Hilliard himself). This entire sleep-over was one of the best moments of the night for me. Last episode, Chief Vanderhoff had a moment with Tiago where he mentions not being able to get the images of the case of a twelve-year-old-girl named Florence Moore out of his mind. It’s set-up and payoff as this week we have the creepy Frank taking the horror story in a real direction.
The basic gist is that Florence Moore was kidnapped. Her father arranged payment and at the drop-off he sees her in the kidnapper’s passenger seat, looking terrified. After paying, the kidnapper drove off, stopped, and dumped Florence on the street where it’s discovered she was just a torso; that her limbs were severed and her eyes were pinned open so she’d look alive. Frank tells this story to the stunned group of kids before snapping off the light.
Then we get a nightmarish scene that night where poor Tom is visited by a version of Florence, who tells Tom that they did it to her while she was still alive before appearing in his bed in grotesque, limbless fashion. It’s an effective scene that could be played as a nightmare. But I say it’s a version of Florence because she looked very similar to Frank in the face and I don’t think it was a nightmare. I think it was Frank, toying with him. If Magda (Natalie Dormer) is able to create a kid to be her/Elsa’s son, then there’s no reason that a mock Florence couldn’t be used. Regardless, it was my favorite sequence of the whole episode.
And, if Magda does this with Elsa and Frank, it has me wondering if any of the other characters circling around Rio and Alex are also simulacrums…
Pivoting to Benny: one of my favorite tropes is when a butcherous character is erudite and quotes literature and questions the use of language. “Hey Jane Austen, shut the fuck up,” Benny tells Lewis when he’s trying to determine if it’s “you and me” or “you and I”. I was living for it. I don’t need more characters in this already sprawling epic, but if this is going to happen, I hope they have as much character as Garrett’s Jewish mobster.
Like the story of Florence Moore, his interaction with Lewis pays off the kind of wishy-washy scene from last week’s episode where Lewis confronts the CalTech kid. Lewis tells him about Wernher von Braun who, as we already discussed, is a rocket scientist. This instigates a “what if” scenario wherein the Nazis get their hands on similar rocket technology being developed at CalTech. The rockets could hit New York, among other choice targets around the world. And this is how we get the mafia involved in the fight against the Nazis while also paying off the opening scene of bloodshed that started this episode.
So yes, Joe, there’s a lot of story going on here. A lot of criss-crossing (some effective, a lot not) that surprisingly feels like a ten episode season can’t contain the story Logan wants to tell, so he takes shortcuts. I feel like this is the opposite complaint we’ve had with some shows like The Outsider where they should have been shorter…but I kind of think this season deserves more episodes if only because of the diverse set of characters and conflicts. What do you think? Did you also dig Berman, or are you worried of yet another character to keep track of? And we haven’t even touched on our femme fatale Sister Molly and the truth of her involvement with Hazlett…did that storyline work for you at all?
Oh, trust, I was living for Brad Garrett. I was never a fan of his sitcom work, but he’s such a fascinating character here that I was 100% invested in all of his scenes with Nathan Lane, whom I continue to really enjoy. In an episode built on our main cast being tempted into “bad” behaviour (Lewis and Mateo both encouraged to murder; Townsend lured to bed by Dominic Sherwood’s Kurt) this was the most successful to me.
I’ll confess that I was less taken with Florence than you, though it may just be that I don’t understand what the purpose of it is. Clearly Elsa is operating on some kind of agenda to ensnare Dr. Craft, although Linda (Piper Perabo) is clearly not giving up on her man, if her fiery encounter with the German woman at the party is any indication (throw Linda’s line about Essen and Peter’s family atop the list of burning background questions we already have).
When it comes to Florence, though – I just don’t understand what’s to be gained from scaring Tom. I figured Frank was little more than a means to an end to get close to Dr. Craft. For a horror show, a dismembered Florence is the sole standalone scare of note. As a narrative construct, it’s a bit of a “but…why?” to me. (Sidebar: yes to your observation about the face, though. It’s either Frank’s face placed atop actress Amelia Sheik or simply great lookalike casting. Either way, it’s very uncanny).
Which brings us to the slightly snoozy (non)revelations in the Sister Molly/Tiago storyline. Their early episode interaction at the beach house felt rushed and mildly inauthentic; she’s so defensive right from the get-go that there’s nowhere for the scene to go. It’s too heated, too quickly.
What plays better, and what I want your opinion on, is Molly’s theatrical sermon near episode’s end. Following that scene, Josefina spots a poster for the church and takes in Molly’s latest address in a packed house. It’s a fascinating scene for what Logan isn’t being explicit about, which is whether or Molly has some kind of religious experience on stage as she warns of Satan’s approach and pleads with God to intervene. Miss Adelaide (Amy Madison) worriedly stands up offstage, as though Molly has gone off-script, even though the audience is eating it up.
Terry, what did you make of this moment, as well as Molly’s and Josefina’s interaction? Will these two “Sisters” rise up to reclaim their own (sexual) agency? And speaking of uneasy partnerships, do you have any interest in Alex (Dormer) and Goss (Thomas Kretschmann) teaming up keep Townsend in line? And how long before Councilwoman Beck (Christine Estabrook) takes a drive off a cliff?
Oh, Joe, our feisty Councilwoman Beck is not long for this world, I’m afraid. The look she received, not just from Townsend but from Alex…she’s going to be taking a drive soon. That thought is brought home with Alex and Goss’s pornographic choice of evening entertainment that almost closes the episode. It’s hardly surprising, though. The moment Kurt asks Townsend if he’s a “top or bottom,” it was incredibly evident, even without the two-way mirror, that this was a way to keep his queerness out of public eye. It also puts the Germans’ hooks deeper in him.
As for my other favorite scene, I was enraptured with Molly’s performative snake oil saleswoman speech. She whipped that crowd up to a frenzy, but I, too, made a note about her mother’s concern. Molly looked completely possessed, gibbering before fully screaming and yelling. The way she said that the Devil was among them, I almost expected to see Magda stalking her way through the congregation.
I’m curious about what this means for Molly. Was she actually possessed in some way by a demon? Was she simply going off book? Rebelling in her own way against the religious structure forcing her to play a role?
It’s too soon to guess. But I hope next week’s episode brings us back to the character development we’ve enjoyed because any goodwill this episode established was quickly destroyed in that one moment. I guess we’ll find out next week at Gayly Dreadful.