With Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, John Nolan has once again brought an intricate story about the monstrosities of humanity to life with an equally stellar cast. This time he’s cleverly followed the literary evolution of the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls into the American pulp novels of noir. While I feel the first installment of the original series gripped the audience from the very first moments, this episode seemed more focused on the long game and giving the audience more insight into the varying cultural and personal lives of its characters.
This series is much different than its predecessor in scope and imagery, which is to be expected, but it still holds onto a very personal world. Unlike before, we start out with so many characters and stories. There are some slow moments but they’re also very endearing or horrifying.
Daniel Zovatto’s Tiago Vega is the first Latino detective on the LAPD and freshly minted when we meet him as an adult. As a child (Evan Whitten) he was touched/saved by Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) while his father was dying in her arms. He is at odds with his two brothers because they see him as putting his culture behind him and embracing the very police department that will enforce the destruction of their neighborhood for the installation of a new freeway. All the while Adriana Barraza gives a heartbreaking portrayal as the Vega Matron struggling to hold her family together.
Vega’s new partner, Detective Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) is a character who is both sympathetic to the difficulties Vega is going through whilst also trying to remind him of his duty. Michener has a wall in his home that appears to be tracking the rise of Nazis in L.A. which makes me think there’s going to be a lot more depth into who he really is.
Then comes the talented Rory Kinnear, who played The Creature’s internal torture so masterfully in the original series that it was impossible to take your eyes away when he was on screen. Now he plays a leader in the Nazi’s German American Bund, a group that historically tried to gain American sympathy for the Nazi cause. The still gentle way that he takes to his role is just as mesmerizing as it is repulsive. I’ve rarely seen an actor who can convey such intricate emotions with just tiny micro-expressions.
Finally, there is the captivating Natalie Dormer as Magda, the sister to the equally beautiful and terrifying Santa Muerte. One of her early lines is “All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is, is being told he can.” Throughout this episode, her chameleon-like performance seems to represent that exact statement. She is the whisperer in the ears of both the most vulnerable, and most despicable characters. Putting into motion long thought out plans for the very destruction of mankind either because she finds it amusing or necessary, it’s hard to tell which is more true at times.
This is a great extension of the original series, very different but you can still feel John Nolan’s voice under all of it. His masterful storytelling and careful casting are everywhere to be seen. I highly recommend this series just as I recommended the original. Nolan’s insight and willingness to force us to look at the humanity that we want to hide is on full display and it is both terrifying and thought-provoking.