It’s Natalie Dormer’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
That’s largely the feeling one gets upon watching Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, in which she plays a shapeshifter that wears a half dozen different identities over the course of the series’ first six episodes, meddling in storylines that include everything from murder to Nazis to a street-level race war.
It’s a wonderfully fun, energetic performance, sly and complex in a way that will delight anyone familiar with the actress’ work from such previous outings as Game of Thrones and The Tudors. Her character Magda—a demonic chaos agent—is beautiful, manipulative, cunning, ruthless, and utterly impossible to look away from. (Plus, the outfits! Swoon!) We may not yet understand how the many pieces of City of Angels ultimately fit together yet, but it’s obvious that Magda sits at the center of it. And, if we’re honest, we’re all probably pretty okay with that.
Showtime’s original Penny Dreadful series was a Gothic delight, a psychological thriller that featured everything from real-life versions of famous literary characters and dark creatures to stories of magic and faith. While City of Angels shares much of this narrative DNA, this show is very much its own beast, both in terms of focus and storytelling.
Where Penny Dreadful was a reinvention of Gothic horror, City of Angels attempts to do the same to detective noir, unspooling a gripping murder mystery even as it interrogates Los Angeles’ increasingly violent racial divide and depicts the rising presence of fascist sympathizers in the city. This is a period historical piece as much as it is a tale of monsters, and the uncomfortable view of mankind it reflects back at us is both predictably and painfully bleak.
The story is vast and sprawling, a labyrinthine plot built around the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway and the introduction of the first Chicano detective to the Los Angeles police force. There’s political corruption and graft, spies and espionage, German separatists. Nazis and a strange cult-like church that sells God via radio evangelism.
?And that’s all before you get to the literal goddesses involved.
This is a Penny Dreadful show, so there are still plenty of horror elements present, largely framed around the existence of two supernatural sisters: Santa Muerte, a holy angel of the dead, and Dormer’s Magda, a demon who revels in chaos and destruction. Where Magda is all performative flair, her sister is quite the opposite, silent, lurking, and largely removed from world. Their relationship is built from the same sort of symbiotic cloth that has long pit divine beings against one another for nebulous reasons throughout virtually every culture’s folklore.
Dormer steals the show from her first moments onscreen, clad in a pleather dress and dragging fire and death in her wake. But though Magda in all her various forms is clearly a key part of the story this show is telling; she isn’t its main character. She’s a temptress, like the serpent in the garden of old, there to offer humans the very dreams that will ultimately cause their ruin. She, herself, rarely puts her finger on the scales of fate. Because most of the time, she doesn’t really have to.
“All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is, is being told he can,” she decrees in the series’ opening moments.
And so far, Penny Dreadful seems determined to prove her right, repeatedly testing its main characters in moments of deep moral crisis and finding them wanting. Magda is an appealingly removed sort of villain, if you can call her a villain at all. In the lives of greedy, selfish, broken people, she simply offers them a choice. Is it her fault when they give in to their worst instincts?
Magda is an antagonist who can take many forms, yet she repeatedly chooses to walk among humanity as those it is most likely to ignore and belittle. A battered housewife, a runaway lesbian, a mousy secretarial assistant—these are the faces she deliberately chooses to bring down the powerful, male-driven forces of America. But why wouldn’t she? These are the people no one expects anything from except obedience.
But if Dormer’s performance is the electric engine that powers the show, then Nathan Lane’s beleaguered, hardboiled detective Lewis is its heart, a character who feels as though he’s stepped fully formed from some classic detective novel. Known largely for his comedic and theater work, it’s lovely to see Lane get the chance to tackle a more serious role, and his performance is intriguingly nuanced underneath all the deadpan cynicism. Lewis is a man of many flaws, but he’s also one of the few characters who consistently tries to do what he considers right, whether that means standing up to his racist colleagues on behalf of his new Chicano partner or hunting Nazis in his spare time with a truly delightful lady friend.
If anything, City of Angels is perhaps guilty of trying to do too much. It’s a show that asks its viewers to keep up with a lot of competing plot threads, and to accept on faith that the pieces of its story will eventually intersect in a meaningful way. (I’m more than willing to do this, but others will likely write the series off as a dramatic road to nowhere.)
A subplot involving a charismatic young religious woman who serves as the face of a local evangelical church feels almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the series. And while Rory Kinnear’s presence is a welcome bridge between both halves of this Penny Dreadful universe, in the six episodes available to screen for critics, it’s also unclear how his role as a German doctor with isolationist leanings will play into the rest of the story. And for all that Magda is fascinating, the show doesn’t appear to be any hurry to tell us what her larger plans are, beyond creating a mess for the sheer joy of breaking things.
City of Angels is fascinating to watch, set in a world that’s richly imagined and beautifully brought to life, populated by sharply drawn characters who consistently wrestle with ideas of right, wrong and everything in between. The show may have yet to reveal the full scope of its larger ambitions or thematic plans, but while we wait, there are definitely worst ways to spend your time than watching these plots spin out in the sun.
City of Angels premieres Sunday, April 26th on Showtime.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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