Sunday, June 16, 2024

Penny Dreadful Shows us the Benefits of Great Pacing

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One of the most common downfalls of movies or television series is pacing. We’ve seen it happen to the best of features. However, it is not always a death sentence. For example, viewers fell in love with the character development on display in Andy Muschietti’s, It: Chapter One and with an average blockbuster run time the pacing was on point. However, the sequel came two years later and the results for some left a lot to be desired. The cast, of course, was phenomenal. Especially when you consider they had to adopt the behaviors and mannerisms of a much younger group of actors setting a standard for the role. Now this should have been what made the movie so well done, however, it was completely overshadowed by the films poor pacing across a nearly three-hour run time. At least to critics. While still a great movie in my opinion, I did find myself feeling unsure of where we would be taken to next and not in the suspenseful, eye glued to the screen sort of way.

While City of Angels is not a feature-length film, it is still going on for several episodes and has to maintain a good pace and balance to keep viewers interested without rushing what is appearing to be a very character-centered story. The second episode of this season proves that the creative team behind the series knows exactly what kind of story they want to tell and how well to tell it. They completely understand that pace is the key. Where the first episode threw us headfirst into several social and political themes that would carry the show: racism, religious cults, corruption, and cultural identity; the second episode slowed down the how’s in favor of the who.

We are given a much more grounded turn of events as fewer new characters are introduced and the ones we are already familiar with are expanded upon. The plot of course, is still moving forward but unlike Magda who is creating the best situations to serve her needs, we are shown how our main characters are handling what is thrust upon them. Especially for Tiago in the aftermath of the shoot out from the previous episode that caused him to gun down his own brother. Before we step through that door, know that the racial tensions between the LAPD and Mexican-Americans is running high and that the racism shown in this episode is absolutely infuriating but not unrealistic. As I said in the review for the previous episode, racism is a major enemy and entity of its own in this series.

Let’s focus on Tiago for now. When we last saw him he made the immensely difficult decision of choosing between letting his partner die or gunning down his own brother. While this kind of choice is never easy, there are ramifications for either one. Had he let Lewis die, no doubt one of his less accepting brothers in arms would have reported his inaction or worse, blamed him directly. Also, while under Magda’s influence there would be no telling if Raul would have turned his gun to him next but there was no way that Tiago would know that. Instead he did take him down and we are moved directly to the aftermath, a hospital filled with four dead officers and countless dead Mexican-Americans.

Tiago arrives on the scene before he’s stopped by Lewis who is nursing his gunshot wound. He first tells Tiago that he shouldn’t enter because his fellow police officers would see him as just another brown face but when he exclaims that his brother and family are in there, he advises him to take the back way in. We have to love Lewis for caring about Tiago’s well being but we also have to understand that he does understand what prejudice looks like. We find out later that he is Jewish and that is a main motivator in his investigation wall in the previous episode. When Tiago gets to his brother’s bed he’s told by his doctor, in a matter of fact way, that he was treated only after the police officers. Why this was emphasized on is obvious and horrible, but then he learns the bullet only grazed Raul’s skull but the pieces there are causing pressure on his brain and without the respirator he was on, he would not live. The doctor also lets him know that he will only be on it for two or three days and that he should begin to make arrangements.

While his mother and sister are happy to see Tiago alive, they are grieving Raul in their own ways, Maria being sure that he will not die. His younger brother, however, who saw Tiago pull the trigger lets Tiago know that if Raul dies, he will no longer be apart of the family. You can see the pressure and guilt eating away at Tiago as he breaks down on the stairway in the hospital. Things only become more infuriating when Tiago and Lewis meet up with their commander and he shows a deep disregard for the Mexican-Americans who died in the shoot out. It’s made even worse when he mentions city hall wants the Hazlett case (the quadruple murder from the previous episode of Hazlett and his family), concluded, not solved. Specifically, he tells them to “…bring me a Mexican head on a plate”.

From here we get our first connection in Magda’s web drawing together the characters of the series. The following scene shows Councilman Townsend and Magda-Alex arguing over the ramifications of the riot and the building of the thruway, that was apparently being funded by “Hazlett” and who is now dead. This is apparently the same Hazlett being investigated by Tiago and Lewis. We get to see Natalie Dormer expertly weave a new web in influencing Townsend to use the four dead officers as a symbol for the continued building of the thruway, to appease and enhance the people’s xenophobic attitudes towards Mexicans so that he may be their champion. Eventually he will exploit this as far as naming the thruway after one of the dead police officers, whose wife seems to understand the shameless opportunism.

Upon coming to Hazlett’s church we and Lewis instantly think, cult. I also have to correct a mistake I made in the previous review. They are radio evangelists not televangelists. While trying to ask one Sister Molly questions about Hazlett they are led to her mother who is less than helpful. We learn from her that Hazlett was a deacon and a bursar with the church. While he handled church donations as well as owned a construction company, we can infer that he was funding Townsends project. This is one of the points where pacing is important. In a show with some overarching mystery, it’s important to allow your viewers to try and figure things out for themselves. The episode never explicitly yells “Hey! Look over here at this connection”, it gives us just the right amount of detail in the right amount of time for us to work it out ourselves. There is nothing more satisfying than eventually learning your hunches were correct.

In his best Nathan Lane charm, Lewis manages to get her to show him Hazlett’s office, giving Tiago time and privacy to look around the church. The following scene introduces us to Sister Molly. Charismatic and a talented singer and songwriter; it seems our dear Tiago is instantly enamored with her. Upon leaving, Lewis gives an anecdote about a film where a French foreign legion strings up dead bodies around their fort to con an invading Arab army. He compares it to this case, the ritualization, the writing in blood. It’s a deflection from something else, a distraction from someone who wanted Hazlett dead.

In the following scene, we return to Dr. Craft on a beach where his sons are building a sandcastle. While Craft is reading Gone With the Wind he suddenly notices Magda-Elsa with her fake son. It is so blatantly obvious that she’s working to seduce him but to what end we are not sure. We know that Magda-Alex is working with Townsend to help the Nazi spy ring but even though we know Craft is a Nazi sympathizer himself, we aren’t given enough to learn what his greater role is. Only that he sexually desires her enough to see her when making love to his wife and that she uplifts his German identity. Especially their cultural identity post first world war. Yet we know there is a connection, perhaps not literal, yet one of Craft’s sons seems to mention the same story Lewis just told us. Curious.

We also learn that there is a subculture presence in LA. In another bit of disgusting racial tension, Tiago’s brother, Mateo goes to buy a bottle of soda. He’s confronted by the same racist officer who spat in Tiago’s face along with a few others. Before they arrived he was being overcome with the pain of his situation and the officer jumps on his tears, asking if he’s crying about the dead officers. He moves to call him various racial slurs and physically assault him until a flamboyant Mexican-American youth comes flipping open his switchblade. The officer abusing Mateo, named Reilly, seems to know the boy and doesn’t let up until he mentions there’s a city of him. Reilly backs off and tells the boy, Fly Rico, “one day”. He’s apparently part of the subculture of Mexican-Americans called Pachuco and invites Mateo to meet him at “The Cat”. Mateo who seems to know him by name agrees and when he asks why, Rico only replies it’s because he didn’t scream. That he’s a Pachuco.

The next scene is by far my favorite in the entire episode. Tiago finally catches up with Sister Molly in a volunteer center while she washes dishes. He not only opens an interrogation with simple, kind, even flirty conversation but it seems the same slight attraction he has to her is reciprocated. Not exactly romantic but very friendly. Unlike her mother she is easy going and very easy to talk to. This is one relationship I would like to see nurtured by the writers. The actors have very good chemistry with one another. She seems to have been thrust into this life, in which more often than not one wishes for an escape. I don’t want to put all the details here because it is just too good to watch. Yet one can wonder if it is another deflection?

The final bits of the episode move it in a direction that will surely change the pace up next week. For one we see Lewis and a couple of his friends staking out a building where Richard Goss is leaving with an engineer from CALTECH. They split up to tail one and the other. While Lewis and his female friend follow the engineer to Pasadena, he follows him to a physics department with explosive warnings everywhere. The man seems upset and frustrated over papers laid over his desk. The other two aren’t fortunate and follow Goss until he baits their tail causing the two to lose their lives via gunshot from the Gestapo man. Secondly, we are shown Maria trying to evoke Santa Muerte to save her son only for her wish to come true. Raul returns and that folks is how to create an explosive end to a greatly paced episode. I can’t wait to see the ramifications of Raul’s return. Will he remember that Tiago shot him? Is he truly alive or are we in for some Pet Semetary mischief? What is this scientist doing for the Nazis? Hopefully, some of these questions are answered, but hopefully not all of them.

Image courtesy of Showtime

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