Penny Dreadful: City of Angels; Mirroring Today’s U.S. Within the Frame of Yesterday
Even though Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020) and Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) share the director and the name, the new series has no relation to the older one. It may be disappointing for fans of the mysterious horror characters and particularly prodigious Eva Green from the first show. Still, the new series is impressive in the way John Logan narrates another fantasy story in a different environment with new casting.
Unlike the first series, the new one is not telling the story by gathering all the famous monsters of cinema and mixing various horror stories. Neither it enjoys stylish cinematography and stunning Victorian set design of the former one. The cinematography and the set design reminds us of Italian Neorealist movies of the 40s and 50s.
It is 1938, and the world is preparing for World War II, and Neorealism is getting born in cinema. It was an intelligent approach by John Logan to create an environment close to Italian Neorealism and some Mexican Golden Age movies. Even the acting style of actors are close to films of that era. This style is something that may disappoint the younger audience or those who were waiting for a sequence Penny dreadful, but I think it is a smart choice in order to integrate all elements of the series.
Logan has made other choices too. Choices that may not match the history but serve the story better. There has been a lot of riots against racial inequality between 1920 and 1950. In most of them, police, army and white supremacists targeted Mexican, Africans, Italians and Even Filipino Americans. The conflicts have never limited to Mexicans. The question is, why do we see only Mexicans in the riots?
Logan has chosen Zoot Suit Riots (1943) as the one that epitomizes the racial conflicts in that era. Still, he also omits other races like African, Italian, and Filipino Americans who were also victims of the riot. As a result, the story focuses on Mexican Americans and their efforts to get social-economical justice.
Narrowing the racial conflicts down to Mexicans creates more space for Santa Muerte and her sister Magda to play a more significant role in the battle of races. Santa Muerte is a death deity in Mexican beliefs, but she is also worshipped for her role in bringing health and fertility.
Santa Muerte values life and death equally, but originally she is called Lady of the Holy Death, and her symbol is a skull with a crown. She has no sister in Mexican or Spanish beliefs. By creating Magda as a fictional sister, Logan made her role less confusing and complicated. She has a more decisive role in this way and saves more lives than taking them; even though she looks inactive and passive comparing to Magda.
I think Logan gave such roles to these supernatural characters to add a fictional appearance to the series. This approach helps him to distance the series from presenting a direct political view that can offend part of the audience.
Are supernatural characters or beliefs have critical roles in the story?
If we put away Santa Muerte and Magda and pay more attention to the details of the story, characters, and dialogues, we will find a simple but amusing answer to the question.
The conflict starts with the building of a free-way that destroys houses and shops of Mexicans and isolates them in a suburban area. At the final scene of the series, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), who is the first Mexican detective in Los Angeles police, says: “It’s not just a free-way. It’s a population control … They put them in a ghetto, and then they will put another free-way around the coloreds and then Judes and then the Chinese. They are not building roads. They’re building walls. This is not the United States of America.”
Is it a coincidence that a wall is going to be built to separate Mexicans from Americans in the story and also in the reality of today’s US?
Councilman Charlton Townsend is the leading political figure behind the road. A weak man who is getting financial and political support from a foreign country (Germany). He can also be compromised by a sex film recorded by agents of the Germans.
Is it again a coincidence that like Townsend, Donald Trump is also allegedly supported by a foreign country in the election, and there is a rumor about a sex tape that can compromise him?
The Councilman and the current president have other similarities too. Both are enjoying the support of a conservative society of Christians with controversial financial resources. Sister Molly and her temple are the equivalents of evangelicals in US today.
Both of them tell colored American citizens to go back to their own countries. Both of them hate media and like to punish them for revealing the truth about their plans.
As we see, supernatural figures and events don’t have an essential place in the story, as well as other detail of history. Logan used Mexican beliefs and some historical facts to tell a story that is happening now.
John Logan and his co-writers Andrew Hinderaker and Krysty Wilson-Cairns used today’s real events and situations to write a story that happens in 80 years ago. They recreated a polarized society in 1938, inspired by the current circumstances in the United States.
Changing the time the story helps them to avoid boycott and direct attacks by Trump, his supporters, evangelicals, and republican party. But the series still is a direct narrative of political, social and racial challenges we see in the United States.
Alex, Elsa, Rio and Magda (Natalie Dormer), all are luring agents of hate and anger against outsiders of each and every race. Still, their provoking speeches are the reflections of Trump and his allies against Latinos and Black population of the United States. Even giving supernatural characteristic to these four characters can not hide the intentions of creators of the series to connect them to a specific political movement in the United States.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels may not be a brilliant production comparing to its parent show, but it is still unique in portraying a different view of the history of the current United States.