What a fantastic opener to the Penny Dreadful Spin-off, ‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’. Right out of the gate we are show just how different this spin off is going to be from the original. First off we traded in the 1800’s London Gothic Horror for 1938 Los Angeles infused with Mexican-American Folklore and Nazi’s. I mean, can you have a race war without Nazi’s?
At the core of this spin-off, the show is about the rise of political extremis, with themes of Anti-Semitism and xenophobia. For the most part the show is going to follow Detective Tiago Vega and his partner Lewis Michener much like the original followed Vanessa Ives and Ethan Chandler. However, we also have the introductions to side characters that we are going to love and hate as much as Dorian Grey, Sir Malcolm Murray, Victor Frankenstein, and John Clare. Speaking of John Clare, the actor that played our beloved Frankenstein’s Monster in the original, Rory Kinnear, returns to play a character in this series as well!
Just in the opening scene of the episode there is a ton of information thrown at us, as well as, some weird fire CGI. We are in a field most likely in southern California since Raul later says that they are born in America and not Mexico. A young Tiago Vega is in the field with his father as our Angel and Demon are standing off the to side. Even the song choice here is pretty telling about where the show is taking us. The song is ‘La Llorona’ and connects to the Mexican folklore about a woman of the same name (Weeping Woman) drowning children in a river at night. However, the song takes a slightly different meaning. It talks about a man that is trapped by a woman that he no longer loves but doesn’t leave because of her constant weeping. He basically tells the woman, that like La Llorona, he wants her to take him to the river and drowned him to end his suffering. Yeah, but it sounds beautiful.
Over to the sisters. We have Sante Muerte, Our Lady of Holy Death. She is the personification of death and is associated with healing, protection, and the safe delivery of souls to the afterlife. This version of Sante Muerte also tries in Mexico’s Day of the Dead tradition.
Her sister here is the shape-shifting demon, Magda, and we will see her take on many forms doing just what she promised here, whispering in their ear. She doesn’t understand why her sister has such compassion for the humans because they are noting more than animals and she intends to prove it by allowing and showing them what they could be. “All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is being told he can’ I feel is going to be the theme here. Sante Muerte says that she has ‘No heart for the living’ so she will not directly interfere with the war her sister plans to wage, starting with this field.
The Prophecy Magda speaks here says that one day nation will battle nation, race will devour race, and brother will kill brother. That is what is going to be the moment that really starts off this end of days battle we are going to see, just like in the original. More on this later.
Magda then turns and sets the field a flame killing most of the workers including Tiago’s son. When Tiago runs out to his father, we have the one interference from Sante Muerte, she pushes Tiago back. While this action saves his life it also leads Tiago to question the faith because he feels betrayed that Sante Muerte didn’t save his father.
Welcome to Homicide Detective Vega
We then fast forward to 1938, with Tiago not only having a birthday but the celebration that he has made detective with the LAPD. In fact, he is the first Mexican American detective. While his mother, Maria Vega, is overcome with pride, his brother Raul, not so much. The tension with them becomes more apparent later, because for the celebration Raul puts aside his animosity toward the LAPD and congratulates his brother.
When Tiago and his mother are later walking the catalyst that is going to spark this war is first presented to us. The machinery here is set to start work on a new motorway through the city and through the back yard of Belvedere Heights, the home of the Vega family. She even mentions the injunction and meeting that we will see Raul at later.
Tiago then heads home to his apartment where he settles in for the night. Only one thing I really want to point out from this scene, the handprint on his chest. The handprint left by Sante Muerte. Anyway, the next morning Tiago is called in by his partner. This happens one Friday when Tiago wasn’t even supposed to start until Monday. However, they received orders from Vanderhoff himself, who we will see during their investigation and in the final scene of the episode. He specifically asked for Tiago and his partner, Lewis Michener specifically for an unknown reason.
When arriving to the scene the reason becomes more apparent. There are four bodies in a ceremonial type display with face make-up like that used in Day of the Dead rituals. Michener doesn’t recognize the make-up, but Tiago does and for now he keeps that quiet. While these bodies are obviously mutilated, it isn’t until reading the Spanish message written in blood, “You take our heart, we take yours’ that they notice the hearts are also missing.
Tiago and Michener then head into the precinct where Tiago is harassed by another detective just showing that some people aren’t happy about seeing the first Chicanos Detective. Michener stands up for Tiago when he doesn’t defend himself, but he clearly thinks that Tiago should be standing up for himself. They then head in to see Captain Vanderhoff where they receive the identity of the family thanks to a call from the family’s maid to report them missing. The big problem here is that this family is from Beverly Hills, a high-end white neighborhood making this a prime case to start a race war. Venderhoff even makes the comment that he wished the victims were Mexican, no offense though. They also make the comment that this could be the work of the Pachuco’s which is a subculture of the Chicanos/Mexican American community associated with the Zoot suit, street gangs, and nightlife.
When Tiago and Michener arrive at the house their connection to the main story here presents itself. This is not only a deeply religious Christian household based on the painting and radio, but the man was one of the designers of the Arroyo Secco roadway. Now the writing in blood takes on the meaning, you take the heart of our community we will take you literal heart. While I think this case will carry on through the series, this is where it ends this episode.
Dr. Peter Craft is an interesting character. He is first introduced to us because Maria Vega is his housekeeper. (pay attention to these little connections) Craft is a German immigrant and Pediatrician. He has two young sons himself and an American alcoholic wife. He even asks Maria before leaving for work to keep an eye on her. They also make mention of the new Arroyo Secco roadway, just in offhanded conversation with the sons, mostly excited to see it built.
When we next see Dr. Craft, he is at work doing an examine on a patient. The patient happens to be ‘the son’ of Elsa Brenson. Elsa Brenson is one of the forms of Magda obvious because she is also played by Natalie Dormer. Elsa is also a German Immigrant married to an American that not only doesn’t understand her and her son’s needs, but also abuses them. She uses this and their German connection to gain sympathy from Craft, also mentioning that she is stuck in Boyle Heights with the Jews. A real tough life. It isn’t clear what her intentions are for Peter yet, but we learn later that he is also a Nazi. When Elsa and ‘her son’ leave the office she then absorbs him back into herself? It was weird.
Craft then takes his lunch break which consists of him and his German American Bund making their way through the park spreading Nazi propaganda about the need for America to no get involved in a European war. This is witnessed by a large group of people including Tiago and Michener. Michener seems really disturbed by Craft’s speech and we see more about that later.
Councilman Charlton Townsend
Councilman Charlton Townsend comes into play because he is the head of the Transportation Committee which means he is also the man pushing for the Arroyo Secco roadway. He faces off with Raul Vega with Raul making a stand against the Council to protect Belvedere Heights. Townsend makes comments like, ‘Go back to where you came from’, but Raul points out that just like Townsend he was born here in L.A. The town meeting ends with the crowed singing together and then beaten out of the room.
We follow Townsend into chambers where we once again see Magda at work, this time as Townsends assistant Alex. She not only works to refine Townsend but to push the roadway agenda. First the Arroyo Secco and then another roadway through Bunker Hill, the ‘colored’ area. Does it matter where it is going? She lastly informs him of a meeting that she has set up for him later.
This meeting is on the outskirts of town and out of the public eye and for good reason. Richard Goss is part of the building-architecture firm Goss and Ossenberg. He first hooks Townsend’s attention by letting him know that his plan is to make him mayor. In exchange, he must betray his country and help third reich in their plans to take over America. They are already measuring the streets for a victory parade, it’s practically a done deal. All Goss needs is Townsends ear and he is promised riches.
We see Goss again later but only in a picture. Michener develops the photo and then includes it on his wall. It looks as though he is investigating Hitlerism and Nazi’s in Los Angelo’s, which makes his discomfort at seeing Craft’s band make a little more sense but I think we will discover this gets even more personal for him.
Brother Against Brother
Just like Magda said, we see brother against brother. It builds the entire episode not only with Raul’s story of trying to save Belvedere Heights but with Tiago’s experience with the LAPD. The tension was there like I mentioned at the birthday celebration. However, we see it again at the music shop.
The music shop is first seen when Tiago’s younger brother Mateo drags out a boy feeling up his sister Josephina. We see it again later when Tiago stops in to talk to his mother and Sante Muerte and the connection it may have to the case. He promised to investigate it after talking earlier with Michener, confessing that he knew what the make up was about. He does talk to his mother trying to get a feel for any activity but she brings up his bitterness about Sante Muerte instead. Why does he turn his back when he may need her someday?
Raul and Tiago later talk outside the music shop with Mateo there as well. The argument with them starts with Tiago offering to get Mateo Angels tickets for Monday. This is his way of getting Mateo away from the confrontation that is likely to happen with the Arroyo Secco construction starting. This upsets Raul because he thinks that Mateo should be there. The real conflict though with within Tiago himself. Like Raul asks him, where is your heart?
This later had Tiago showing up at Michener’s house telling him that he will not be reporting to work on Monday. Michener is upset with him, after all it is only his second day on the job and this is an order. However, Tiago is going to stand out on principle.
This changes though when Maria contacts Sante Muerte herself. She prays to her in her shrine the angel and she appears. However, she isn’t happy about it and she isn’t willing to help. She again repeats her sentiment that she has no heart for the living. However, she does tell Maria about the prophecy which Maria believes is happening now. I love when Maria tells her that her sister is a bitch. Yes, she is.
Maria then runs to Tiago asking him to be at the field on Monday to hopefully stop whatever evil is going to happen. Sante Muerte chose him with the handprint and now it is his job to make sure this doesn’t end in blood and fire.
Come Monday morning all the players are in their places. Raul, Mateo and the rest of Belvedere Heights VS. the LAPD including Tiago, Michener and Vanderhoff. There may have been hope that Tiago’s speech to his childhood neighbors could set things right but when Magda wants on the field, we know that shit is about to go down. Raul basically tells Tiago that he should be ashamed, so Tiago heads back to his spot next to Michener. However, before getting there Magda has whispered to one of the more impressionable officers to shoot. Once he takes his shot and kills one of the Belvedere Heights men chaos erupts.
Magda then whispers in the ear of Raul. He picks up a gun and, in the madness, begins killing officer after officer. He even shoots Michener but only injures him. He moves in to take the kill shot but Tiago steps up and must shoot his own brother in order to stop him. This is where the episode ends with Tiago standing over Raul and Magda across from Sante Muerte. I am not 100% sure that Raul is dead because he is credited with being in 7 episodes, but I imagine that will be cleared up early in the next episode.