Penny Dreadful – City of Angels: “Santa Muerte” Review

Penny Dreadful was a delightfully dark and macabre piece of gothic television that perfectly captured the spirit of old school horror.

In many ways, it was the “shared universe” of classic monsters that Universal’s failed “Dark Universe” should have been (in fact I wrote an entire piece on that).

So it came with surprise, excitement, and a bit of apprehension when Showtime announced they were producing a follow up series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.

Billed as a “sequel” of sorts, this new series would move from Victorian London to 1930’s Los Angeles.

Many are already comparig Natalie Dormer to Eva Green, who starred in the original series. However, it seems a bit unfair to do so, as we saw Green’s character grow over 3 seasons, and we’ve only gotten one episode of Dormer. Before comparing them, we need to let her have time to develop as well.

After releasing the first episode, it’s quite clear that City of Angels has potential, although it does raise a few questions. So let’s take a closer look at its pilot episode “Santa Muerte”!

City About to Boil
The series begins with showing as a 1938 Los Angeles that is a powder keg, ready to explode.

Between racial tensions, impending world war, and grisly, ritualistic murder, and even Nazis demonstrating in the park, it seems that things can only get worse, which is exactly what “Magda” (Natalie Dormer) wants.

Acting as the evil, demonic foil to Santa Muerte, Magda’s primary goal is to spread chaos and influence people to be the worst they can be.

Santa Muerte, or “Saint Death” is an iconic figure of Mexican folklore, who has inspired an almost cult-like following.

She can do this by taking human form, or even just being a spirit whispering into people’s ears. It’s a creepy idea, and it will be very interesting to see where they take it.

Choosing a Side
Right from the first scene involving Magda burning a field, it’s quite clear that the series’ primary theme is going to be an exploration of the struggle between good and evil within all of us.

Which is fitting, considering the original Penny Dreadful dealt with similar themes of duality.

City of Angels’ main protagonist Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) faces a similar dilemma. Being the first Latino detective in the LAPD, he’s already facing the challenge of having to represent not only himself but his ethnicity, all while facing prejudice himself.

Even his somewhat progressive partner Lewis (Nathan Lane) casually drops a Latino ethnic slur, without even realizing why it’s offensive.

Admittedly, these two have good chemistry that will be a good foundation of the series.

Tiago finds himself between a rock and hard place when the city is planning on building a freeway going right through his neighborhood.

As a member of the police, he’s tasked with enforcing law and order, but his brother Raul (Adam Rodriguez) is a vocal union leader, one who’s spearheading resistance against this freeway, and the forced migration of his people.

Raul looks down on his brother for being part of the corrupt system that he’s fighting against. While Tiago is of the mind that the best way to affect change is to do it from within the system, rather than fighting against it.

Like many revolutionaries, Raul is willing to break rules (and laws) if he believes he’s justified. Which makes this awkward when his brother is a police detective.

It’s a compelling dilemma that feeds into the show’s over-arching theme of duality, but it’s definitely more overtly “political” than the original series is.

There’s nothing wrong with a film or TV series tackling serious political/social issues, in fact it often provides for compelling and relatable stories.

It only really becomes a problem when it feels like the audience is being beaten over the head with the “message” at the expense of story.

City of Angels is certainly nowhere near that point in the first episode, and hopefully it doesn’t devolve into that.

Spoiler Ahead – You’ve Been Warned!!!

The First Spark
All of this tension culminates in a standoff between the LAPD and the citizens of Belvedere Heights, as the bulldozers are getting ready to plow their neighborhood to build the freeway.

Initially, Tiago doesn’t want to go, as doing so would mean standing with the police against his own community.

Ultimately, he does show up and tries to diffuse the tension by giving a speech to his family, friends, and neighbors to stand down.

Unfortunately however, Magda is also there (in her unseen demonic form), and causes one of the young officers to fire off a shot, sparking a full blown riot, resulting in even more death.

Raul unleashes all of his pent up anger at the system, and it takes Tiago shooting his own brother to prevent him from killing his partner Lewis.

It’s still unclear how severe Raul’s injuries are, but Tiago has chosen his side and must now stick to it. And with Magda still around, things are probably only going to get worse.

The final shot perfectly summarizes the conflict, even if it is incredibly on the nose…

“Santa Muerte” proved to be a decent start to a series that has serious potential, so long as it doesn’t get bogged down too much in trying to be a PSA.

It was also rounded out with a great production design that makes us feel like this world is very lived in.

We get a great supporting cast as well, which includes Piper Perabo, Lorenza Izzo, Kerry Bishé, and even Brent Spiner.

Most of the performances are on point, with the exception of some very fake-sounding German accents (which are hard to pull off without sounding fake).

The ultimate question however, is why this series needed to be called Penny Dreadful at all. Other than the casting of Rory Kinnear from the original, it really shares no connections, other than tone and themes.

It’s kind of surprising that only one actor from the original series is back. Or maybe American Horror Story just has us all spoiled.

Does this mean that Penny Dreadful will became an American History Story-like anthology series moving from different settings season to season? Is that even something that should happen?

What did you think of series premiere? What do you hope to see in upcoming episodes? Let us know in the comments below!

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One thought on “Penny Dreadful – City of Angels: “Santa Muerte” Review

  1. The CGI was TERRIBLE! Magda is going to light a spark, so she waltz through a grape field burning it to the ground? The fire doesn’t spread? Only one man dies? Did anyone else there see anything? Penny Dreadful never relied on CG like this first episode does. In the original series, the heavy handed Victorian exposition was awesome and welcome, but in this it’s out of place and laughable. Also, this is a personal POV but the LA/Latina American theme is not going to be broadly enjoyed. It’s like watching a documentary. Yes you’ll rationalize the horror, but you’re not connected to it at all, unless you’re from LA and maybe have a connection to the riots. In PD there were so many historic fictional characters to carry different themes. If we’re sticking the Mexican gods, the list is going to be short. The Nazi side of evil is off to a boring start. If we actually see terrible CG Panzer tanks this season, it’s proof they should have pushed PD another season or two and left it at that. So far things arent looking good. As for comparisons to AHS, every season generally falls off the rails because of poor writing and under developed ideas. With this bold and over the top a start (with its reliance on terrible CG), I wouldn’t be surprised if PD:CoA isn’t around for another season.

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