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'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' Episode 3: Unlikely 'femme fatale' Sister Molly could subvert the noir trope

Sister Molly is dragging the hero, Tiago, into danger, as a femme fatale does. But not because she is evil or a corrupting influence but because she is a prisoner in a golden cage
Kerry Bishé as Sister Molly (Showtime)
Kerry Bishé as Sister Molly (Showtime)

There is no doubt that there is more than a hat tip to LA noir in John Logan's 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels'. However, so far, it seems to have served up the genre tropes with a twist.

Instead of the morally ambiguous Sam Spade-like hero, we have Detective Santiago "Tiago" Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the tortured Chicano detective whose ambiguity lies not in his morals -- he is a boy's scout if there ever was one. Instead, the ambiguity in his character stems from his divided loyalties.

He is part of the police force, which represents keeping the moral and physical order in the city by delivering justice. On the other hand, he is also part of his Latinx community and his loyalty to the police force is challenged by his love and loyalty to his own family and neighbors. He recognizes how often the city's order and progress always seem to target people who look like him.

In this week's episode, in a telling statement, Raul Vega (Adam Rodriguez) tries to make Mateo Vega (Johnathan Nieves) less angry about Tiago shooting him. He tells Mateo that to see hell, all you had to do was look into Tiago's eyes. "He is not one of them and he is not one of us," he says.

So, Tiago fits the noir profile of the shuttered loner investigator but for entirely different reasons than the ones that usually haunt the white leads of crime thrillers. Similarly, everything is Episode 2 points to a similar redeeming arc for blonde, statuesque Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), the unlikely femme fatale.

At the end of the episode, Detective  Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) introduces Detective Tiago to a gimlet. Over drinks, he shatters Tiago's conception of Sister Molly. He hands Tiago a briefcase full of evidence to show that James Hazlett, the murdered man whose death they are investigating, used church funds to buy a love nest for Sister Molly. "You didn't really believe her spiel, did you?", he asks Tiago, warning him of the "wicked old world".

Tiago goes through the evidence in his house and looks defeated as if conceding that Sister Molly had something to do with Hazlett's death. However, unlike a traditional noir that keeps the mystery around the femme fatale character intact till the very end, we are given an insider's perspective on Sister Molly's life. 

Sister Molly, the money-making machine for "The Temple", has been in the church revival circuit since she was a child. She tells Tiago she has been molded by her mother, Miss Adelaide Finnister (Amy Madigan) to be "a freak". Tiago, like every noir detective, has already fallen for her charms but her charms are of an innocent variety, rather than the usual sexy razzle-dazzle you expect from a femme fatale. She can't go two sentences without invoking the Lord, is humble and so very sweet.  

Wishing for just one normal day, she escapes the clutches of her "money-counting" mother to meet Tiago. We still don't know if she is meeting Tiago to ferret out what he knows about Hazlett's death but it doesn't seem like it. She never talks about the murder even once and instead seems eager to get to know Tiago. 

She, of course, inspires men to protect her from harm. When as we see The Temple's henchman, Randolph (David Figlioli), follow her and Tiago, we realize she might need the protection. When she returns home, her mother is waiting and sings her the 'Popeye the Sailorman' song, quite creepily. Sister Molly shuts herself in her room and shudders and cries uncontrollably as her mother stands outside her door aggressively, still singing the song. 

David Figlioli as Randolph and Amy Madigan as Miss Adelaide Finnister in 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' (Showtime)

Sister Molly's reaction of dread when her mother confronts her is telling. Till now, her mother is the one who has suggested to the cops that it was Mexicans who killed Hazlett. She also seems to hold all the power and treats Sister Molly as a lucrative golden goose and monitors her every move. 

It could be that Hazlett merely sympathized with her and wanted to help her escape the abusive clutches of Miss Adelaide. The house he bought with the church funds could have been a safe house that Sister Molly could escape to. His murder could also be Miss Adelaide's way of warning her daughter that she could never ever get away and anyone she turned to for help, like Hazlett and now Tiago, would turn up dead. 

So in a sense, Sister Molly is dragging the hero, Tiago, into danger, as a femme fatale does. But not because she is evil or a corrupting influence but because she is a prisoner in a golden cage. Hopefully, in the next few episodes, we will get to know if the evidence against Sister Molly points to her being a murder suspect or an abuse victim.

'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' airs on Sundays at 10 pm ET, on Showtime.