“Dead People Lie Down” pumps the brakes on the main narrative, and not always to great effect, but the potential is still very much there.
This recap of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 2, “Dead People Lie Down”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The problem with ending your premiere in a torrent of gunfire and chaos is that you can’t really keep it up. The sophomore episode of a season has to pump the brakes a little, and when that happens there’s always a question of how much is too much. You’ve set a certain standard, and thus fans have certain expectations now, so the follow-up is a crucial period; it’s a show convincing an audience to trust that it knows what it’s doing. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Episode 2 suggests this one might not.
That isn’t to say that any of “Dead People Lie Down” is outright bad, just that once it slows it struggles to pick up steam again. It starts off in the logical place, at least, right after the fracas between the Chicano community and the LAPD during which Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) fired on his own brother, Raul (Adam Rodriguez), who it’s probably worth mentioning was under the sway of Natalie Dormer’s shapeshifting seductress demon villain, Magda. Not that anyone is really interested in reasoning with him at this point. And Tiago’s determined attitude only riles his colleagues, who predictably see themselves as the persecuted party, despite it being one of their own (though admittedly Magda-influenced) who kicked the violence off in the first place.
So Tiago, unwavering, gets spat on in the process of visiting Lewis (Nathan Lane), is warned by Mateo (Johnathan Nieves) that he’ll pay for what happened to Raul if he had anything to do with it, and is instructed in no uncertain terms by Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner) to bring him any old Mexican head so justice of a kind can be seen to be done. It’s a nightmare, really.
In all this fuss, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Episode 2 almost forgets that there’s a murder to investigate. Enter, then, Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), the popstar evangelist who, somewhat unsurprisingly in this burgeoning Hollywood climate, has a micromanaging mother in Adelaide Finnister (Amy Madigan). Molly’s a person of interest in more ways than one, and you can tell because Tiago spends an inordinate amount of time with her in “Dead People Lie Down”, to the extent that you almost feel he doesn’t know what else to be doing. As obvious as it is that Molly knows more than she’s letting on about the Hazlett murders, or at least about James specifically, the way this is all handled strikes me as trying to shunt Molly to the forefront of our minds without really having justified it narratively.
Magda’s meddling continues to take more shape here though, which is welcome, even if the men she has targeted, while influential, are also kind of boring. Councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis) is the more interesting of the two since he also makes for quite a chilling parallel to contemporary politicians who would happily politicize a race riot in such a way as to lionize the oppressors. He’s obviously under the sway of Magda, but he’s also not afraid of cozying up to Nazis, so sympathies are limited. The charmless Dr. Craft (Rory Kinnear) feels a lot more like an avenue for cliché than any kind of commentary. This is the subplot featuring Magda’s creepy demon offspring Frank (Santino Barnard), which is still the most overt horror idea in the show, and the idea of Craft being a lecherous oddball is confirmed in a predictable fashion when he starts fantasizing about Magda while having sex with his utterly disinterested wife, Linda (Piper Perabo). Obviously you don’t cast Natalie Dormer unless you’re going to include at least one scene along these lines, but it’s still a bit of a chore.
More interesting, if undercooked thus far, is Lewis’s Nazi-hunting escapades, especially since the legendary Lin Shaye turns up as one of his crossword-enthusiast associates. You can scarcely see a demon anywhere in film or TV without Lin Shaye pottering around somewhere near it, and her presence is always welcome. “Dead People Lie Down” does very little with her, and with this subplot in general, but it’s still there and will likely yield more interesting things down the line.
It’s Chicano culture and folklore that remains at the heart of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Episode 2, though, which is no bad thing, even if so far it’s really only Maria (Adriana Barraza) who provides an avenue through which to explore the mythology to which Magda is bound. The relationship any of the characters have to Santa Muerte is a bit nebulous at present, and I’d like to better understand how these demonic sisters relate to one another, not to mention how Maria relates to Santa Muerte – she’s obviously pally enough to ask for favors – and how the whole culture relates to Roman Catholicism. I’m sure someone within the culture would understand this better than me, but then again I’m sure that plenty of people watching the show aren’t within the culture either, so it needs explicating in-universe.
With an ending that suggests more of Raul and presumably his fight against the development of the parkway, which has to be integral given Magda and the Nazis both want it to go ahead, I’m reasonably confident that Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has more to offer. I also feel it’s a more assured version of what The Terror: Infamy was trying to do, with a surer grasp on the culture to which its demonic folklore is intimately tied, but it also runs the risk of falling into the same traps if it doesn’t get a handle on its details and less-than-charismatic lead. Still, the potential is there.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.