Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Penny Dreadful Reminds us why we care about Fictional Characters

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During last week’s episode I focused on how pacing affects the development and interest in the series and how City of Angels had been doing such a great job of it so far. The same holds true for the third episode, yet I want to change the focus to something equally as important. Going back to the original series, one of their greatest assets was in how well developed and likable their characters were. Now I don’t mean “likable” in that you necessarily agreed with their actions or choices, but rather that you cared about what happened to them. You were invested in who they became and what it cost. This was the shining center of the original series. Be that you wanted to see Vanessa overcome the demonic oppression that haunted her every waking moment or wanted to see the creature either pay for his crimes or find absolution from his being,

This will be one of the most crucial points I have and will be looking at critically as the series continues on. So far I am very pleased with how well John Logan is making us care about a new set of characters while also keeping them so different from his previous stories. My only critique at this point is that, at least in the first two episodes, any character introduced was on either the good or bad spectrum. Yet, combined with a theme of cultural identity, it made sense. Until this episode that is. In this episode, I was incredibly impressed with the way that the writers were able to create situations in which already established characters broke away from their archetypal positions of protagonist and antagonist and were more fleshed out based on their handling of a situation or revelations about said character. In this review, I’ll explore several moments that made me care as much as I did about the original series cast.

The episode opens with the direct aftermath of the night time espionage gone wrong as Lewis identifies his two friends who were shot by the Nazi’s. However, between episodes, it seems that their bodies were burnt to make it seem like a car crash. Obviously the coroner knows this to be false as he pulled four bullets from their skulls. Lewis asks the coroner to keep this information to himself for now, not exactly to lie and omit it completely. Why he wants this kept a secret I’m not entirely sure of yet. We know that Lewis is Jewish and fears the coming storm that is the Nazi regime, but for what purpose he’s hiding his friend’s true cause of death remains a mystery. He mourns them deeply for now; crying and speaking something in Hebrew that we do not understand.

The following scene for me was incredibly powerful. It seems for now, despite his injury and miraculous recovery thanks to Santa Muerte, Raul is back to normal. We see Mateo and him sharing in a laugh-filled conversation about Mateo’s encounter with Fly Rico and being initiated into the Pachuco sub-culture. Raul seems to have no memory of the events after the shooting began and from here the conversation takes a darker and more emotional tone. Mateo bares all to Raul, opening with the revelation that Tiago is the one who shot him. Surprisingly, he does include every detail of what happened and not just said action, showing that while he may not understand the reason why his brother chose his work over family he does at least understand the situation he was put in to. One detail supporting this is that he included that Raul was in a rage and gunning down anything in his path. Yet, it is still clear that he is not forgiving of Tiago’s actions when he states that if he had been Pachuco then, he would have slit his own brother’s throat.

This sets Raul into an emotional outburst as he angrily reminds Mateo that this is his brother and that he has no idea what he is going through. Though Raul has little good to say about the often criminal ways of the Pachuco, it’s his brother’s gross misunderstanding of family that truly brought this out. That if he truly wanted a glimpse of hell he simply needed to look into his brother’s eyes. A man who belongs to neither his own people nor the ones he works for. To be kind. This is quite a different Raul from who we saw in the premiere yet, one thing remains of him that we know will always be true. Family is everything. Tiago enters afterward and asks how Raul is doing. Raul grabs his hand and puts it over his own heart. From this, we know all he is trying to tell his brother: love and heartbreak.

Next, we come to Townsend at the gym, working on his physique for Newspaper photos no doubt. Magda-Alex, of course, works to make sure he is aware that now he needs to be extra careful as to what he says and does in public as he’s going to be under a microscope from now on. Also to prepare for his meeting with the Nazis for which he gives a very sour look. He may be many terrible things, but a Nazi sympathizer he is not. Not soon after, fellow Councilwoman Beck arrives to let her voice be heard that Townsend’s fascist ways will not be tolerated and she will go to war with him. I don’t know which bit I love more in this scene, Beck’s commanding dominance of the scene or Natalie Dormer’s famous smirk.

Sister Molly shows more of her rebellious side as she tries to break away from her rehearsal and her mothers smothering attitude. She is followed by her mothers creature of course. It is obvious she wants to see Tiago again. Tiago, on the other hand, is having a more uncomfortable time being taught a lesson by his boss about not letting the things he witnesses get to him, then orders him to go home. The two eventually run into each other and a light conversation about the pressures of being who they are leads to even more chemistry between them. It’s another wonderful and non-forced scene. It seems the two have more in common than they know, reminiscent of early conversations between Ethan and Vanessa. Before she tries to leave Tiago gives her the offer to be someone else for the day, a no doubt enticing prospect.

Yet before that, we return to Lewis who is now stalking the same student he was in the previous episode. He gets him in his car under the guise of needing to see the police. It’s obvious he’s doing this to get his own answers. In California film fashion, Lewis brings him to an isolated highway off a cliff and precedes to give him a severe beating. He threatens him to get information. The only information we are given is the Wernher von Braun and the conversation goes on unheard.

We return to Tiago and Molly as the two enjoy a sort of date on the Santa Monica boardwalk amusement park. The Popeye scene is especially adorable. The two talk more, Tiago about his childhood and how much he loved this particular place. It reminded him of when his father and another brother and sister were alive. The latter two passed of cholera.

Dr. Craft did not get as much screen time as previously in this episode. It seems Elsa-Magda did not show up for her appointment. Whether because he is obsessed or generally concerned for her well being, he advises his nurse to cancel all his appointments for the day. It’s pretty clear where he is going. Upon arriving he sees fake Frank crying outside of the house and when he knocks on the door, she opens it. Bruised up and bloody, the victim of a beating. She uses Franks’s misfortune in school, being bullied by Jewish children to definitely appeal to Craft’s Nazi sympathies. The trend continues on her playing to his German pride and his sense of identity. He invites her and Frank to his son’s birthday to try and help give a sense of community to her and her son.

Townsend’s meeting with the Germans commences with a certain uncomfortable atmosphere as the Nazi’s refuse to give him the hows in his rise to mayor-ship. He does bring up Beck and how she needs to be dealt with. Although he is a terrible person, it seems Townsend is above killing his opposition but instead he throws it in the Nazi’s faces that unless they do something about it she could ruin everything. Threats are exchanged and dominance established by the Nazi hosts. It also seems that this indiscretion is a thorn in Magda’s side. For which we see her wroth.

The last big chunk of the episode is a beautifully choreographed display of Latino dancing and is a wonder to watch. Mateo finally taking on Fly Rico’s invitation is captivated by the energy of the party-goers as he finally gets to meet the de facto leader of the Pachuco movement, Reina, another persona that Magda is taking on. This revelation just goes to show us that she is literally pulling the strings behind every corner in the tensions rising ever higher in LA. It’s very clear both how out of place yet how much in common he has with the flamboyant lifestyle as he’s made fun for his dress and values yet, Fly Rico can see in his heart that he is Pachuco. Reina-Magda is clearly using this to her advantage as we are treated another beautiful dance.

That is until the police crash the party with the excuse being that the group is breaking curfew and of course being led by Reilly. This causes Fly Rico to start a riot and the three eventually get away. In the aftermath the three converse about what Pachuco culture truly means to them, From Fly Rico, we can feel the honest truth, the hardships of growing up with nothing, and doing what he had to survive. From Rio-Magda we know it’s all lies but they’re so well told that it fires up Mateo. Hopefully, in the coming days we won’t see him become her pawn as she calls for justice and vengeance.

The finality of Tiago and Molly’s adventure is melancholy as it seems she is waking from a dream. The Popeye doll she cannot keep because it is not her world is heartbreaking. She must return to being who she is. Her feelings seem genuine as she cries under the pressure of knowing her feelings for Tiago but not being able to act upon them. That is until Tiago meets Lewis at a bar. Lewis lets him know that he’s going to be taking some time off to bury his friend but when Tiago makes it obvious about his feelings for Molly, he is given a rude awakening. According to Lewis, based on the evidence he’s been looking over, Molly was having an affair with Hazlett. Exactly like the unheard interrogation with the student earlier, we are not privy to know what this evidence is other than that Hazlett was misappropriating church funds into a “love nest” in Malibu.

This raises several questions about Molly and Lewis. For one, could Lewis be using mostly conjecture in coming to that conclusion? Perhaps it had something to do with what the student told him during the interrogation. The second being Molly’s true intentions with Tiago. Is she taking him along this ride for a particular reason or is Lewis completely wrong in his conclusions? It’s hard to tell with the scene showing Tiago looking over the same evidence and making an expression of pure hurt. I guess we’ll have to see in the coming episodes.

One last scene that was very quick but is worth mention is Townsend’s night-time prowl. He meets another man in the dead of night and it obvious that it is for sexual reasons. It’s a revelation that Townsend is either gay or bisexual which given the time period was, unfortunately, something he had to hide. It gives us an insight into a possible reason why he’s against the Nazis more so than because he is an American, as he stated. Truth be told, there’s a lot of ways this information can be used going forward and I hope it isn’t for shallow storytelling. Representation is always important in any story but it should be used to tell us who our character is not why we should feel a certain way about them.

Image courtesy of Showtime

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