“Josefina and the Holy Spirit” has some stand-out scenes, but so much of this show’s writing and plotting are utterly baffling that it’s difficult to actually enjoy them.
This recap of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 4, “Josefina and the Holy Spirit”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
There’s a scene in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 4 that made me question if perhaps this show is too ambitious for its own good. It wasn’t even much of a scene, either. In it, Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) has a beer and a chat with his brother Raul (Adam Rodriguez). That’s it, really, but it’s one of those little throwaway scenes that occur when lots of other things could be happening instead and seem to ignore a lot of important details that you wish the show wasn’t just glossing over. Tiago shot Raul in the head while he was protesting a construction project that, as he sits recuperating, continues to go ahead. Everything about this felt like the overarching story had been left in stasis just to allow for it.
What does this have to do with ambition? Well, “Josefina and the Holy Spirit” is the clearest example of the show trying to tell so many stories at once that it can’t lend any the appropriate focus, and in sequences like the one described above, when you have time to sit and really think about all the things that could and indeed should have been explained by now, that’s when you really start to realize how many teetering plates are being spun at once. Eventually, they’re going to hit the floor.
I don’t really know or understand the relationship between Magda (Natalie Dormer) and Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) or, for that matter, what connection the latter has to Maria (Adriana Barraza). I’m puzzled about the ins and outs of the Hazlett family murders since Tiago and Lewis (Nathan Lane) are too busy to investigate them. We learn in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 4 that Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) was having an affair with Mr. Hazlett, but that really only seems to be a way of justifying Tiago’s swooning fascination with her. We’re reminded again how much Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner) wants the case closed by any means necessary, and of the inherent racism in the police department and of Tiago being ostensibly trapped between cultures, but none of it really takes since it keeps getting left alone for extended periods while everyone heads off to do their own thing.
“Josefina and the Holy Spirit”, despite its title, doesn’t really offer much insight into Josefina (Jessica Garza), either, beyond her being a Vega and therefore, somehow, intimately tied to everything that’s going on in ‘30s Los Angeles. Here, she’s assaulted by Officer Reilly (Rod McLachlan), the show’s go-to avatar of explicit racial animus, but it feels in large part to be framed more in Mateo’s (Johnathan Nieves) perspective than hers; an excuse for a late and effectively frantic scene of violence that stands out as one of the episode’s strongest moments but still gives us very little understanding of Josefina. Her seeking spiritual counsel from Molly after half-heartedly trying to share the experience with her disinterested mother felt, to me at least, like a bit of a stretch.
Magda’s meddling seems to take something of a backseat this week, though she’s present (as Rio) for Meteo’s stand-out scene of neck-hacking brutality, and she’s albeit inadvertently responsible for a great horror beat when her demon offspring causes a bit of a fuss at a sleepover. But her influence of Townsend (Michael Gladis) and Dr. Craft (Rory Kinnear) still feels rote and a bit ambiguous; we know they’re bad guys and are thus useful to her, but we’ve never really been given much of a reason to care either way.
Perhaps this is just me, but a part of me wishes that this whole show was about Lewis trying to unravel a Nazi conspiracy with his eccentric, Hunters-style crew. In Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 4 he turns to Brad Garrett as a Jewish gangster, and it’s really the only subplot in the entire episode that feels as though it has real legs. While those aforementioned stand-out moments should give one pause before completely writing off the show, its reliably poor writing and plotting could really do with some of the energy that I felt in this story strand. Hopefully, subsequent episodes are able to hone in on these warring subplots enough that each starts to feel equally purposeful, or we might just end up with a show that couldn’t manage to be even one of the many things it was trying to be.