Even after seven episodes, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels still hasn’t managed to come together as a coherent story.
This recap of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 7, “Maria and the Beast”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
At this point, it’s virtually impossible to tell how many of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’ problems are the result of design or incompetence. It’s a weird situation to be in, for the show and the audience, the latter having spent the last seven weeks trying to put the former together. But how can you when so little of it makes sense, so little of it coheres, and so little of it seems the result of an overarching creative direction rather than various random impulses and ideas, some of which work and many of which don’t. After Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 7, “Maria and the Beast”, I could tell you more or less who the main characters are, but not why they’re doing any of the things that they’re doing, or really how each of their storylines necessarily relate to the others.
It’s a problem. Rather than foreshadowing and justifying its developments, the show just allows them to occur, often without warning, and almost always at the expense of characterization. And because nobody behaves in a consistent way, it’s impossible to tell if their bizarre behavior is supposed to be a clue as to some deeper motivation, a deliberate character flaw, or an accidental writing error. Tiago, the show’s ostensible protagonist, was once both the anchor point of its cultural conflict and the driving force behind its murder-mystery; now his brief mentions of Chicanos feel tokenistic, and he’s so busy covering up misdeeds, sleeping with persons of interest, and utterly failing to investigate leads that he just seems to be absolutely terrible at his job.
What’s worse is that we still can’t figure out the extent to which Tiago being good or bad at his job is important, since we don’t know to what extent the Vega family is being manipulated by Magda, and for that matter, we still don’t really have a proper sense of what Magda’s end goal is or indeed the details of her relationship with Santa Muerte. “Maria and the Beast” at least spends more time with Maria, who since the beginning has been positioned as a kind of intermediary in this conflict, and it even goes so far as to have her interact with Magda and Santa Muerte, which raises more questions than it answers. Maria might visibly bristle at the presence of “the beast” in her Elsa form, make claims of being able to “smell her” and such, and get a speech that is clearly intended to be a big, impactful moment of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 7, but none of it makes much sense to me. I still don’t know Maria’s relevance beyond her unexplained communicative powers. I still don’t know why the sisterly conflict is happening or where it’s heading, and not in the way you’d expect three episodes away from a conclusion. This isn’t skillful dramatic pacing; it’s clumsy obfuscation with no real motive, and it smacks of nobody, let alone me, properly understanding the physical, spiritual, and cultural conflicts that are ostensibly at play here.
More confusing still is how “Maria and the Beast” treats a supernatural showdown like this in the same kind of detached, blasé way as subplots involving city politics and Caltech students making rockets. All of this stuff has, at one point or another, threatened to become the focus of the show and then never did, so even pretty substantial side stories are treated with the same degree of importance – or lack of importance – as incidental details such as Josefina’s newfound evangelism. It’s all equally undeveloped, equally awkward, and equally uninteresting. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels season 1, episode 7 proves the whole thing a hodgepodge of ideas that nobody, least of all the show’s writers and directors, of which there are altogether too many, seems to have any idea what to do with.