'Strange Angel' episode 04: Surprises unfurl slowly as historical fact and fiction merge

While Susan continues to struggle with her repression, Jack manages to land an invitation to CalTech's prestigious Athenaeum club. But as usual, all's not well with the Parsons.


                            'Strange Angel' episode 04: Surprises unfurl slowly as historical fact and fiction merge

The first three episodes of CBS' 'Strange Angel' laid out a pretty tightly knit exposition that introduced us to multiple facets of the show. We got a glimpse of Jack Parsons' struggle with his dreams and his reality, desperately trying to get a position at CalTech as a pioneer of rocket engineering while tensions arose between him and his partner and friend, Richard Onsted. We also a got a fairly good dose of Jack's wife, Susan's struggle with her repression, torn between the church and the decadence of her Pasadena neighbors. Meanwhile, the Parsons' neighbor Earnest, with his shady dealings has been the subject of most of the show's mystery.

Most recently, in episode three, we got to see the Parsons' curiosity get the best of them as they got their first taste of a full-fledged occult ceremony, but Susan couldn't stomach it and left in a hurry. Jack, on the other hand, joined Susan soon enough but it was clear that he was drawn magnetically to the mysteries of the dark arts, having dabbled with it as a boy himself. The first three episodes slowly weaved an intricate plot while raising several questions. The freshly premiered episode four continues to pile on to that curiosity, (although still at a very deliberate pace), by introducing a few surprising fresh faces, still sticking to the occasional dream sequence every now and then.

The episode is set around Halloween day, 1938 and opens with the infamous Kynette car bombing incident, where the corrupt LAPD Captain Earl Kynette planted a car bomb in investigator Harry Raymond's car. Jack decides to leave his work at CalTech aside temporarily and volunteers to offer his expertise to help piece the evidence together. After he testifies in court, we see Jack get his first taste of press publicity, as he bathes in the bright exploding flashbulbs and proclaims himself "the head of CalTech's first ever rocketry research project." Jack's growing ego, his flair for putting on a show and grabbing the media spotlight is explored further in the show as it becomes a bone of contention between him and Richard, who rebukes Jack for wandering off to fulfill his civic duties instead of working on the project. Yet again in the show, Jack's maverick methods are in direct conflict with Richard's scientific temper, and it seems like a small rift in the partnership is brewing.

But before things turn too sour, there is a celebratory mood as Jack, Richard and the gang at the rocketry lab get an invitation to CalTech's prestigious Athenaeum Club to attend a talk by Herr Breitner. There is a brief moment where the Parsons finally share a moment of joy as Susan dresses Jack for the party, set to take place in "the very same room that Einstein ate in."

 



Meanwhile, a new character makes a pleasantly surprising debut in the episode. Maggie Donovan, Ernest's wife (who the Parsons weren't even sure really existed) casually moves in with Earnest. Much to Susan's astonishment, she walks in on her setting up the house to the rhythm of swing music on a gramophone. Susan's repression has been another major theme in the show, and this time, it's fleshed out even more thanks to Bella Heathcote's (who plays Susan on screen) subtle performance. Maggie is a liberal, dressed in a bandana and slacks. She works at the RKO production studios in Hollywood as a costume designer, and Susan can't help but find herself drawn (and perhaps a bit jealous) to Maggie's independence. 

There is also an interesting historical reference that the episode employs and weaves beautifully into the story. The night of Jack's big dinner party at the Athenaeum Club fell on October 30, 1938, the same day on which Orson Welles' first performance of the radio play 'War of the Worlds.' Jack and Richard, being the geeks that they are, are delighted to hear it on the radio but have to cut it short in order to attend the dinner party.


There is also an interesting historical reference that the episode employs and weaves beautifully into the story. The night of Jack's big dinner party at the Athenaeum Club fell on October 30, 1938, the same day on which Orson Welles' first performance of the radio play 'War of the Worlds.' Jack and Richard, being the geeks that they are, are delighted to hear it on the radio but have to cut it short in order to attend the dinner party.

The party at the Athenaeum Club exposes the politics of the academic elite. While Jack and his team had been desperate for funding all this while, a few political moves by their mentor Professor Mesulam changes that within seconds, leaving the team surprised, delighted but slightly bitter nonetheless. Things take a turn for the worse when Jack is barred from entering the dining hall since he doesn't bear any official CalTech credentials. Jack storms out of the party, and we see the first dream sequence of the episode as Jack pictures a Martian tripod from 'War of the Worlds' land on the CalTech campus and blow the Aethaeneum club to smithereens, soundtracked by Welles' narration on the radio.

The episode is set on Halloween night, 1938, the same night Orson Welles premiered his radio play for 'War of the Worlds'. (Image Source: CBS All Access)
The episode is set on Halloween night, 1938, the same night Orson Welles premiered his radio play for 'War of the Worlds'. (Image Source: CBS All Access)

Jack decides to drown his sorrows at the local bar and phones Ernest of all people to come and share his misery. Jack is defeated and now begins to believe Ernest's prediction that the scientific community will never truly accept him. The seeds of attraction towards the dark arts now begin to sprout. But there is a role reversal between Ernest and Jack at the pub. Suddenly, thanks to his wife's presence, Ernest's behavior has completely changed. Gone is the care-free hard-hitting heavily partying Ernest. The new Ernest is reserved, tense and curt. Jack calls Earnest out for this sudden change and prods him, pointing out how his wife "wears the pants in the house."

The prodding works and soon, the duo ends up in the seedier underbelly of Los Angeles, in a red-lit gentleman's club, complete with strippers in Halloween costumes. 

The episode is a confirmation of Jack's inexplicable attraction to sex magick and the occult. We see multiple signs of Jack being on the edge and losing grip on things. He sees a hallucination of a goat-headed demon at the bar, a recurring vision across at least two episodes now. He cheats on Susan as he goes all in and gets serviced by a prostitute at the gentleman's club. A surprising revelation is that of Ernest's homosexuality, which we learn about as he secretly watches Jack being serviced instead of proceeding with a prostitute that he hires. Things get heated as Ernest wrestles with his sexuality after the prostitute innocently calls out Ernest saying, "we got your kind here all the time."

The episode ends with a tone of reconciliation between Jack and Susan as they lie in bed next to each other.

Ironically, the reconciliation in the marriage comes thanks to more lies between the two. Susan tells Jack about the good news that their prototype has been approved, but chooses to hide her knowledge of Jack being turned away from the party, which she learns from Richard. Jack wishes that he was there to hear the good news, while secretly repenting everything he just did. 

Overall, while the episode does have some tense moments and interesting revelations, it continues to lay the exposition at a very deliberate pace. The narrative is not as smooth this time around and it feels like the development of the characters is less coherent than the opening three episodes. Still, it remains interesting to see what unfolds between the Parsons and the Donovans as they embark on a camping trip that tests their relationships in the next episode, which premieres on Thursday, 12 July on CBS All Access.