“Wicked Old World” is as lively as Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has been thus far, even if it could stand to pick up the pace and flesh out its mythology a little.
This recap of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 3, “Wicked Old World”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
I suppose it’s fitting that Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is about a demon temptress moving stealthily among 1930s Los Angeles since the show itself moves subtly between genres and tones and styles almost constantly. It’s a period drama about a maligned community being scapegoated for the self-serving ills of a government that has been infiltrated by Nazis and folkloric monsters; it’s a Hunters-style secret battle being waged against those monsters; it’s a murder-mystery, a family drama, a romance. As of “Wicked Old World”, it’s more still; an extended sequence at a Chicano dancehall is as straight-faced and light-hearted a celebration of culture as you’ll ever see in a show so proudly dark and complicated.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 3 is complicated, sure, but not just for the sake of it. It has a lot of parallels to draw between occult evil and systemic corruption, which is never as on-the-nose as you think it would be. The cast helps. Nathan Lane’s Nazi-hunting Detective Michener juggles the responsibility of traditional justice with the guilt of secretive vigilantism, especially now that his avoidance of procedure is getting innocent people killed. Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) is caught between the culture that employs him and the one that claims him – the one that he has betrayed by trying to forge his own path. He spends a lot of “Wicked Old World” on Santa Monica Pier with Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé). Both ostensibly want to escape their lives and responsibilities and mistakes, but the show isn’t subtle about the parallels it draws between Molly’s entrancing evangelism and Magda (Natalie Dormer), who enslaves her victims just as readily.
There is more to Molly than meets the eye, and both her mother Adelaide (Amy Madigan) and Randolph (David Figlioli) come across as obviously dangerous, but she’s attractive to Tiago both for the obvious reasons and subtler ones; she too presents as someone caught between worlds, unsure of who they really are, which is the defining aspect of Tiago’s character, expressed pretty vocally in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 3 by Raul (Adam Rodriguez), the brother he shot in the premiere who now seems to be on the mend.
There’s no wonder that Magda finds this setting so ripe for manipulation. She’s intent on talking the city into chaos, for reasons that are still unclear but that obviously relate to her on-going feud with her sister Santa Muerte, but thus far she has done so by targeting Councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis) and Dr. Craft (Rory Kinnear); the former by supporting his charged political rhetoric and the latter by playing a victim of domestic violence. It gives Dormer a lot to play as both a mousy PA and a battered spouse, but “Wicked Old World” gives her a bigger challenge in embodying Rio, a white woman who is nonetheless the Mexico-born child of Spanish immigrants and thus the largely self-appointed “queen” of pachuco counter-culture that Fly Rico (Sebastian Chacon) and Mateo (Johnathan Nieves) embrace this week. All the scenes set here are the episode’s best and liveliest, including an impressive dance number that goes on for longer than you’d think but also not nearly long enough.