“Santa Muerte” makes a strong case for itself with an enthusiastic Natalie Dormer performance and complex socio-political undertones.
This recap of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 1, “Santa Muerte”, contains spoilers.
There’s a lot in a name, and there’s a certain amount in the name Penny Dreadful that you aren’t going to find in this new version, including Eva Green. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. City of Angels, a West Coast reimagining of a brand that carries with it certain expectations, is not a sequel but feels related to its predecessor in essential spirit. It’s a show about monsters, real and imagined, and while four years have passed in the real world and the setting and time period have changed in the fictional one, the idea that those monsters are ourselves is difficult to ignore.
It’s an idea that is also made explicit pretty early on in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Episode 1 by Magda (Natalie Dormer), a shape-shifting demon hottie with a particularly nihilistic view of humanity. She believes we’re all evil, all monsters, and only the slightest provocation will convince us to embrace it. Thus, as she explains in her sultry purr, she’s going to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of folks in 1938 Los Angeles in the hopes they’ll prove her point.
During that period of significant change in LA, upturned ears are rife. Race is a prominent subject, as the planned construction of the Arroyo Seco Motorway threatens to expand the city’s horizons but also displace many Mexican immigrants, including the LAPD’s first Chicano detective, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), and his family. The Vega clan is… complicated, to say the least. The matriarch, Maria (Adriana Barraza), believes herself to be a witch; Tiago’s brother, Raul (Adam Rodriguez), is actively involved in protesting the development of the parkway, and his other brother, Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), wants in on that action as well. Seen by his peers – including, to some extent, his Jewish mentor Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) – as an outsider and by many of his own people as a betrayer helping to enforce minority oppression, Tiago’s life is not straightforward – and that’s before you get into his rather intimate association with the Mexican embodiment of death.
Of course, in adulthood, Tiago doesn’t believe in Santa Muerte, despite his being the only survivor of a crop fire that killed his father and many other children when he was young. Spared from that ordeal – which was caused by Magda – only by the demonic deity’s good graces, he was permanently marked from the encounter. All of this might prove useful since Tiago and Lewis are despatched by police Chief Ned Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner) to investigate the murder of a well-to-do Beverly Hills family with all the skeletal stylings of Día de Muertos.
Luckily, Tiago is smart enough to realize that such obvious cultural signifiers are intended to scapegoat the Mexican community, especially once he and Lewis find clear connections to a fundamentalist-stoking radio evangelist, Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), in the victims’ home. There’s also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a connection to the company building the parkway.
Already in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Episode 1, a larger picture is beginning to form; and it’s Magda who is seen to be holding the brush, daubing the precarious canvass with one subtle stroke at a time. In “Santa Muerte”, she targets two individuals. One is Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis), a blatant racist with ties to secret Nazi Richard Goss (Thomas Kretschmann); she presents as his assistant, Alex. The second is Dr. Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear), a German pediatrician and another not-so-subtle Nazi, whose housekeeper happens to be Tiago’s mother, Maria. The best, creepiest visual of the episode is Magda posing as a battered spouse, Elsa, who manifests a similarly victimized demon child in order to win Peter’s sympathies.
All the while, animosity between the Mexican community and the LA establishment continues to worsen, threatening to spill over into chaos between laborers and the cops over the parkway construction. With a little help from Magda, who moves among the crowd and subtly influences a twitchy cop into firing on the crowd of workers, a full-scale riot erupts. In the carnage, she proceeds to enchant Raul into picking up a gun and shooting people – Tiago himself is forced to fire on him, literalizing Magda’s opening speech about brothers turning on brothers.
With such a dark ending to an ambitious opening episode, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels announces its arrival. Natalie Dormer seems well-suited to her role as a shapeshifting demon temptress, and the racial element provides a compelling thematic underpinning for a story that has made-up monsters rubbing shoulders with real ones. And if it doesn’t all go to plan, well… it can’t be any worse than The Terror: Infamy, can it?
We are fast becoming the number one independent website for streaming coverage. Please support Ready Steady Cut today. Secure its future — we need you!