'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' Episode 3 Review: A day off in LA highlights the period setting's beauty
The episode slows its pace down, giving a closer look into what makes its many characters tick with a spectacular, old fashioned club scene
Spoilers for 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' Season 1, Episode 3 'Wicked Old World'
Three episodes in and it's hard to say who exactly this show is for. It's not for the original 'Penny Dreadful' fans, with its complete lack of literary myths brought to life in strange and horrific new ways. Though on the surface it may appear to be a murder mystery, it's not quite that, either - the mystery is, at best, another thread in the tapestry and an excuse to move certain plot points along. It's too colorful and too bright in too many places for it to be the LA noir that the rest of its aesthetic claims to be. At some point, though, the beauty of the sets and the faithful recreation of the period makes you forget all that and you find yourself completely immersed in a golden and corrupt time that has long since passed.
The strength of the series is that immersion. In this episode, as each of the show's characters gets some version of a day off, the tumultuous events of the previous episodes slow down a bit and some care is given to each of the show's many divergent plotlines. Raul Vega (Adam Rodriguez) returns from the brink of death seemingly none the worse for the wear. Mateo Vega (Johnathan Nieves) takes his first steps into joining a pachuco gang; Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) does an off-the-books investigation and between Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and Sister Molly Finnister (Kerry Bishe), a romance blooms. In the meanwhile, we're introduced to the third and as far as the promotional material is concerned, the final version of Magda (Natalie Dormer): Rio.
There are a lot of characters featured on the show and the show does an impressive job of making each one of them feel important. Their stories aren't crammed together, each of them is given their time to breathe and their time to develop. Against it all is the background of 1930s LA, from the piers to its restaurants, to its underground jazz bars filled with progressive youths. If there's a scene that shines more than any of the others, it's that last one - the dance scenes in the club are saturated with style and there's an impressive amount of storytelling done there, too, in the way people dance. Rio's movements are fluid but controlled, the mastermind at the heart of the chaos around her. Fly Rico (Sebastian Chacon) is all flash, glorifying his place in the world and the life he leads. Mateo, eager to prove himself, happy to be there - his movements are fiery and passionate - a fire Rio is ready to stroke into a rebellious flame at a moment's notice.
It's a little uncomfortable, watching Natalie Dormer as a Caucasian woman take on a leadership role in a pachuco gang, taking on their lingo and much of the accent, even more so than her over-the-top German accent, but when you can get past that, the performance itself is compelling. In all her roles, Magda is doing everything in her power to get LA to tear itself apart and she is most definitely not a patient goddess.
It's about as difficult to tell where 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' is going as it is to identify its target audience, but the show is in no rush to prove itself. It tells its story with the pacing of a series that's completely confident in the story it is telling. There are a lot of moving pieces, yes, but the show's themes are returned to again and again, as steady as a beating heart: what makes a man a monster, a freak, or an outsider? What will save them and can they be saved from themselves before it's all too late? 'City of Angels' knows exactly where it's going but it's in no hurry to get there. It's best to enjoy the scenery in the meanwhile.
The next episode of 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels' airs May 17, on Showtime.