“Children of the Royal Sun” continues to struggle with balancing its conflicts, characters, and competing plots, while the show itself remains frustratingly inscrutable.
This recap of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 5, “Children of the Royal Sun”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has always unashamedly been about conflicts, but while it has a decent handle on the demonic, it hasn’t, at least as of its fifth episode, “Children of the Royal Sun”, figured out how best to build its human ones. The extent to which bizarre character decisions and inconsistencies are consequences of Magda’s meddling or plain bad writing is anyone’s guess, but in practice it hardly matters – the effect is of nobody in this show seeming to know what they’re doing, not least the characters upon whose decisions it ostensibly turns.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 5 continues to draw battle lines between theatres of war and the combatants who defend each front; Tiago (Daniel Zovatto) is caught between his Chicano family and heritage and law and order; Lewis (Nathan Lane) is in the midst of a Nazi plot that requires him to flirt with morality in a way he isn’t comfortable with. These two are partners, let’s not forget, but show’s efforts at convincing us they’re some kind of elite crime-busting duo are hilarious when you consider that not only have they not solved a single case since the show began, they’ve barely remembered to investigate the one that’s at the center of the plot.
This seemingly random picking up and abandoning of plot threads and ideas has two consequences: one, it gives the impression of the show having no idea what it’s doing, and two, it gives each character fish-like short-term memories. We’re expected to believe, for instance, that Tiago is torn between his responsibilities to the institution that employs him and the family that he belongs to, but he shot one brother in the head during the premiere and pulls a gun on the other in “Children of the Royal Sun”, but still has the gall to get wound up about racist brutality among his fellow officers. The fact he’s looking into the murder of an officer committed by his brother as retribution for sexually assaulting his sister (among other things) seems almost like a coincidence.
It’s hard to buy into all these ideas of great battles and so on when the fighters themselves don’t even seem to know which side they’re on. The script has characters (Tiago being the most egregious, Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) being a close second) behave in whichever way the script requires them to with nary a thought spared for any internal logic or the audience’s memory. I can tolerate this when it comes to Magda (Natalie Dormer) puppeteering people of influence – “tolerate” is, at this point, the best word to describe putting up with those segments – but less so with figures who aren’t under her sway. The show’s always at its best when it’s leaning into Dormer’s charisma and sex appeal but regularly forgets that not everyone can abide by the same playing-with-toys randomness. This is to say nothing of how nebulous Magda’s schemes actually feel, currently, and how her influence actually takes away from the individuality of certain characters she’s putting to her own use.
All of this, and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 5 is reliably tight-fisted in its fleshing out of Mesoamerican mythology, though I suppose the specific shape of its demonic happenings is irrelevant beyond the idea of a deity lusting after chaos. Then again, though, since this history informs the plot and is in turn informed by the show’s themes of cultural erasure, perhaps it’d be better if it were more explicit. Santa Muerte has, thus far at least, done little but commune with Maria (Adriana Barraza), while Magda continues to get up to all sorts. “Children of the Royal Sun” doles out more ideas about this kind of thing than any prior episodes, but too few, at least in my estimation, to clearly define what this show is or is trying to be. I’d still have trouble describing it or classifying it were someone to ask me to do so, which is rarely a symptom of good writing.