WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premiere, “Santa Muerte.”
In its three seasons, Penny Dreadful focused on sociopolitical themes such as classism, elitism and poverty in Victorian-era England. It analyzed into prostitution, the lower-class and a bit into the concept of migrants being ill-treated, but not as deep as one expected.
It’s easy to understand why, though, as showrunner John Logan had many layers to peel back dealing with Eva Greene’s Vanessa and a feminist uprising against Dracula and his brother, the Devil. However, those issues are fixed in the spinoff, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, because its biggest strength is the way it weaves modern politics into its narrative.
One can’t help but think that the original series could have really dissected these issues a bit more, which is what Carnival Row did. Carnival Row broke down borders and the concept of refugees via supernatural monsters and faeries, and while City of Angels doesn’t really use those kinds of monsters, there are powerful parallels to the xenophobia that’s experienced today.
In the premiere, there are big statements on racism and how politics creates systems that can last for several years. In 1938 Los Angeles, Magda (Natalie Dormer), a demon shape-shifting around the city, sets up a race war, using her powers such as pyrokinesis and her ability to sway the thoughts and hearts of hateful men, Magda’s helping Nazis infiltrate and rule America, and this calls for the extermination of blacks, gays and Jews using a covert army.
This legion’s law enforcement, which is mostly white males with itchy trigger fingers, so again, the show is touching on discrimination and of course, police brutality, especially at Arroyo Seco. There, the Mexican community is protesting tearing down of its homes to build motorways, and Magda incites a riot using her persuasive powers to get white cops to execute migrants and their kids. It’s similar to HBO’s Watchmen as she stokes racial division, creating a white supremacist movement who hates people of color for taking their jobs and in their view, bringing crime to their streets. It’s propaganda which she’ll deceptively rage against disguised as a radio host, Rio, later on this season, so one can see how the modern tools she’s using to play cops against minorities are working.
Magda is also disguised as an assistant to councilman Townsend (Michael Gladis), using him and his connections to create a corporate network. And at the head of it is Hitler, whose main agent is Richard Goss (Thomas Kretschmann), an architect for the Third Reich. It’s all about owning American businessmen, promising money and power — in Townsend’s case, to be mayor — so they can run industries such as transport, entertainment and health. It’s basically the origin story of the one percent planting immovable roots deep into society. This far-right movement is something Logan wants to hold up as a refection to society, provoking with his art, through less-than-subtle shots at gentrification.
Logan is showing the sacrifices made, how innocent people are deemed expendable and how power bases look after their friends and families only — things that are obvious especially looking at politicians in the coronavirus era. In fact, the way the professional landscape is laid out, it feels like a jab at U.S. president, Donald Trump and his political allies.
It’s all bookended in the finale where the star cop, Tiago, has to shoot his brother, Raul, during a riot between cops and Mexicans as bulldozers try to take down their homes. Magda influences everyone into war, making it clear civil unrest is what she feeds on, as well as the ensuing bloodshed. By having hate-mongers as her puppets and slipping them into high positions, she’s also reminding viewers that humanity doesn’t need monsters to be destroyed, just wicked men with cruel and selfish desires.
Created, written and executive produced by John Logan, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels stars Daniel Zovatto, Natalie Dormer, Nathan Lane, Jessica Garza, Kerry Bishé, Ethan Peck, Adriana Barraza, Michael Gladis, Dominic Sherwood and Johnathan Nieves, as well as Piper Perabo, Amy Madigan, Brent Spiner, Lorenza Izzo, Lin Shaye and Adam Rodriguez in recurring roles. The series airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' strength is how relatable and thought-provoking it is when it intertwines modern politics into its supernatural war.