This Penny Dreadful: City of Angels review contains spoilers.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Episode 4
Magda takes a back seat in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels episode 4, “Josefina and The Holy Spirit,” while her vehicle careens across the track she laid. The episode opens with Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), wearing her sadness as prominently as her white flowing lace, as she walks into town, unseen but by an innocent child. The little girl actually turns to look at the Saint of Death just as the audience is wondering whether or not the other townspeople can see her. Santa Muerte knows what we are thinking before we think it. That’s why she’s at the scene of every crime long before the criminals.
Tiago is also in close quarters with suspected criminals, at least close enough to get between them and the cops who are interrogating them. Captain Ned Vanderhoff (Brent Spiner) runs a don’t-look-don’t-tell kind of squad room, and dead kids don’t solve their own murders. Daniel Zovatto plays Tiago from both sides. He is intent on solving the crime, but is very reluctant to examine certain clues. He doesn’t want to know what he suspects because every piece of knowledge comes at a price. This applies to his family, the other cops, and the mysterious woman he finds himself drawn to.
He puts on a good show for her though, demanding answers from Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) about her relationship with a married man, murdered along with his family. But Tiago is no match for the charismatic evangelical minister. She can speak in tongues and can lick him with nothing but affront. She backs it up by pouring on the guilt of the privileged minority. “I never want to see you again, detective,” Molly tells him after she skirts his questioning. Can you even say that to a cop? I guess there are different rules for different neighborhoods.
Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis) is far more evil than meets the eye. Yes, he wheels and deals with Nazis, and puts in orders for rivals’ executions, but those are out of ambition. His desire to pave over the Mexican part of town when there is a perfectly viable route which doesn’t uproot whole families is just punitive. He wants to punish an entire segment of his constituency just because they’re there. He exceeds his authority, however, when he makes louds demands of his personal assistant, Magda, the darker sister of Santa Muerte in a business suit. When Townsend yells “Do what I tell you, woman,” all of City Hall turns into an old EF Hutton commercial.
Detective Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) and his friend, a lady who goes back to the Ulysses S. Grant era, are the front line against the Third Reich in Los Angeles. They lost two of their foot soldiers in the Beverly foothills, and go for the biggest gun in town, the gangster Benny Berman (Brad Garrett), obviously a stand-in for Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. The mobster towers over the cop, is maybe twice his height and more so at the shoulders. But he doesn’t need to physically impose himself. The gangster does it with banter, something Lane can do better than almost anyone in entertainment. But he doesn’t even have to be generous for Garrett to prevail in a subdued acting TKO. After the cop brings up mob legend Meyer Lansky, Berman reminds him, “There is no Mr. L. There is you and there is me, and if you continue to waste my time, there won’t be you much longer.” The scene is short, and in the scheme of things it is fairly minor as far as action, but it is my favorite interaction on the series so far.
What is Dr. Craft (Rory Kinnear) thinking, bringing his not-yet-mistress to his own home? He’s not, obviously, all the blood that’s supposed to be in his brain went south for the afternoon. The doctor’s wife hardly misses a thing. But she barely finishes telling Elsa not to measure for the drapes before Magda’s motherly alter-ego is showing the doctor how nicely she matches the carpet. Natalie Dormer is amazing in these scenes. She wears her ambitions nakedly. Elsa wants the good life the doctor lives, the pretty things in his home. You can almost feel her pulling Dr. Craft to her through her furrowed brows. They are fully dressed while they do it, standing up, furtively and hungrily, which only adds tawdriness to the pristine setting.
The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. Elsa’s son, whose roots actually extend into his mother, doesn’t offer temptation to the children at Dr. Craft’s son’s birthday sleepover. He brings a dark gift wrapped in a blonde Children of the Damned wig. The kid is a natural storyteller who doesn’t know the meaning of happy endings. While Elsa has already appeared in Dr. Craft’s dreams, her offspring gets a playroom in his sons’ nightmares. The bedtime tale he tells is the same one that keeps Captain Vanderhoff up at night, which ends with a little girl’s limbless torso and sewed-up eyes. Equally as frightening as the true-crime story the child tells is how much he resembles his mother in the shadowy glow of an upturned flashlight while he tells it. It leads to the gothic highlight of the night.
The most horrific scene is actually done in the light of day on a city street, and the monster is the racist cop Tiago pulled off the young Pachuco in the interrogation room. In full view of Tiago’s younger brother Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), who is actually held by another cop and forced to witness it, the cop sexually assaults and humiliates their young sister, Josefina (Jessica Garza). The scene is painful, revealing more with less. Josefina is squeezed out in the family battle she is central to and, in one additional spiritual coincidence in the Vegas families’ growing list, finds herself raising her voice at the Sister Molly’s Joyful Voice Ministry. Garza is amazing as a convert. All the sadness in her eyes becomes devoutly transformed as the vision of the radio evangelist fills them.
To be fair, Sister Molly is a powerful force onstage. She is positively riveting and Kerry Bishé throws her eternal soul into the role. She makes you fear for Molly’s sanity as the spirits take hold and send her into an orgasmic climax. This reviewer was initially disappointed we didn’t get to see her actually speak in tongues, but her abrupt denouement is so startlingly unexpected it erases all thoughts of disappointment and is simply captivating. This is even more effective because we also see her in the moist canvass of Josefina’s eyes. The scene is almost a religious experience. Had the episode been edited differently it could have gone in the direction of the baptism scene which ends The Godfather.
Just prior to the scene we get the councilman’s seduction, which is loaded with suspense. Ripped from an encounter which screams illicit, he blubbers all the way to the bottom of a far more dangerous liaison. It’s all suitable for framing and the soundtrack goes from turgid peril to the happiest of pop jazz. Directly after, we get Detective Michener’s reunion with gangster Berman, a chilling scene in the seafood section of a refrigerated warehouse. Nobody sleeps with the fish here though. They hang with them like bait on a hook. While Michener turns down the nibble, the scene is a great lure.
The through line is the Pachucos’ revenge on the cop who humiliated Josefina Vega. Mateo doesn’t just make his bones, he hacks away at the marrow. To call the scene overkill is an understatement. It may be one of the most brutal displays of rage to ever grace the small screen. It’s not that it’s gory, it is and deliciously so, as much as it’s clumsily performed. This kid doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s not a killer. Until he is and then, man, does he let go. It’s positively exhausting.
“Josefina and The Holy Spirit” is the best episode of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels so far. It’s got sex, suspense, more than its share of violence, just enough supernatural subtext to keep us on our toes, and the clipped patter of two master comic actors slumming in a drama. Some of it is tastefully hard to watch, the rest of it is painful fun to witness.