Penny Dreadful: City of Angels‘ third episode, “Wicked Old World,” starts directly with the aftermath of episode two. Lewis Michener finds out what happened to his two friends who followed the Nazi agent, Richard Goss. Wracked with anger and guilt, Lewis tells the coroner to “lose the report,” trying to buy time to investigate. He then mourns his friends in the traditional way: Kriah, or rending of garments as a physical manifestation of grief. He tears the collar on the left side of his jacket to signify a closeness to his friends (the left side is usually reserved for family) and recites a blessing as he weeps.
In the next scene, a recovering Raul talks with Mateo about the day he was shot - a day which Raul doesn’t really remember, as he was under Magda’s influence. They also speak about Mateo’s brutalization at the hands of the cops, and how he was saved by Fly Rico. Mateo compares Rico to the Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa as a great man. It’s not a terrible comparison; Pancho Villa worked with Mutual Films, a newsreel company, in 1914 and was a revolutionary that could appreciate the importance of the image one presents to the world. Emiliano Zapata, the general of the Liberation Army of the South, and the opposing general Victoriano Huerta, during the Mexican Revolution also worked with newsreels companies as well. These details parallel the subplot of Councilman Townsend using the media to advance his aims. Leaders have been cooperating with the media for almost as long as the media has existed.
Mateo reveals to Raul that he was shot by Tiago, and Raul demands that Mateo show Tiago respect. His logic details the quandary of the Chicano and more specifically, the Pocho, as they are sometimes called derisively by Mexicans. They are, like many people who are diaspora, not fully accepted either by their people or the Anglos of the United States. They are not Mexican enough for the Mexicans and not White enough to be accepted as Americans. They do not truly belong to either culture and have a difficult time with both groups. For Tiago, it is not only being a Chicano but also that he is a cop, especially because the LAPD is involved in the attempt to remove the residents of Belvedere Heights from their homes. He is an outsider from both groups. Raul gently mocks Mateo’s clear hero worship of Rico and his nascent desire to become a Pachuco, noting that if Pachucos were really proud fighters, they would have put their safety on the line with Raul and the other protesters. He derides them as car thieves who wear funny pants. In this, you can see the separation even within the Chicano/Mexicano community that keeps them from uniting as one force and you can see the love that binds the Vega family despite their differences and the fight over their home.
Councilman Townsend has indeed been put on an exercise and diet regime by Alex and is visited by Councilwoman Beverly Beck (Christine Estabrook) during his exercise session. Beck then derides Townsend’s press conference tactics, especially the bloody policeman’s shirt, and threatens that she will not allow him to use theatrics to promote what she considers fascist actions in Los Angeles or the Council.
The arrival of Beck is noteworthy: in 1938, there was no woman on the LA City Council. However in 1915, the first woman was elected to the Council, journalist and socialist Estelle Lawton Lindsey. She was also elected acting head of the Council and thus was acting mayor for a day when the head of the Council and the Mayor were out of town. This made her the first female Mayor of a city the size of Los Angeles. While she was expelled from the Socialist Party for supporting non-Socialist candidates, she was part of a network of like-minded women dedicated to advancing women’s rights and radical causes. I believe that Estelle Lawton Lindsey might be the historical inspiration for the character of Councilwoman Beck. Despite what people like Dinesh D’Souza would have you believe, despite the fact that the Nazi Party was called Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the National Socialist Worker’s Party, the Nazis were not Socialists or Leftists. Hitler and his party used the words Socialist and Worker in their name, not because they believed in the ideals of Socialism, but as an image enhancement in the eyes of the unwary. Nazism is an extreme right-wing nationalist and racist ideology that believes in genocide.
Populism was not originally a right-wing movement or tactic, but the tactics and emotional appeals of populism have been co-opted by right wing politicians starting with Senator Joseph McCarthy. In this context, Councilwoman Beck’s denouncement of Townsend’s use populist tactics, the bloody shirt of the slain policeman, his dishonest claim that the Mexican people shot first, and his decision to name the Arroyo Seco after one of the dead cops to get his way is very relevant for our time. Townsend is using populist tactics not for the betterment of society or the people, but to gain as much power as he can, something that the current wave of populist right wing politicians have done time and again.
Sister Molly bows out of a rehearsal that she clearly finds tedious and goes to find Tiago. They go on an outing to the Santa Monica Pier. The history of the Pier has a lot of interesting twists and turns. Right around the time when City of Angels was set, there were offshore casinos run by a gangster named Tony Cornero. There was a brief “Battle of Santa Monica Bay” in 1939 led by California’s Attorney General, and future Governor of California and Supreme Court Justice, Earl Warren. Cornero surrendered after three days because he “needed a haircut.” (The necessity of haircuts has long been an issue for people in crisis situations in American history.)
While on the boardwalk, Tiago talks about his family’s visit to the pier when he was a child and the loss of his siblings during an outbreak of Cholera. To my knowledge, there was not an outbreak of Cholera in LA during this time period, but there was an outbreak of Pneumonic Plague in the Downtown area and among Mexican Americans. Interestingly, one of the areas affected in the real life outbreak was called the Belvedere district. Tragically, 30 people died, but there was a serum available for the disease, so the outbreak was not as bad as it could have been. (In case you didn’t know, plague is endemic to California, so be careful which wild animals you interact with. Squirrels might be cute, but they might also have fleas that carry the plague.)
Lewis goes on another stakeout while perusing the financial records from Sister Molly’s organization and finds Brian Koenig (Kyle McArthur), the young man that Lewis followed from the dinner with Richard Goss. He insists Koenig goes with him to the station for questioning, but instead takes him out in the hills for an unauthorized interrogation. As I suspected from last episode, Koenig’s involvement with Goss has to do with the development of the V-2 Rocket by Wehrner Von Braun, a Nazi scientist. This is yet another troubling development for Lewis in his private mission to foil the Nazi plot.
Alex attends the dinner with Councilman Townsend and Richard Goss. Townsend makes demands of Goss to deal with his rival Beck, his inner tyrant starting to show through his seams. Goss coolly insults him, reminding him who has the upper hand in their negotiations. The councilman leaves abruptly in fear. Alex speaks with Goss and once again suggests that there may be secrets in Townsend’s life that could put his reputation (and his usefulness) at risk.
Mateo decides to go to The Crimson Cat, the Pachuco club where Fly Rico told Mateo to find him, and is enthralled by the spectacle of this forbidden lifestyle. He is introduced to Rio (Natalie Dormer, Magda in disguise again), a Pachuca who is the leader of this particular gang. She is of Spanish heritage. They dance to swing music and the whole club bursts with life and song. Then the cops show up and raid the club, beating people up and destroying the idyll. Fly Rico, Rio, and Mateo escape the raid and, while catching their breath in an alley, they discuss the direction of their group and what can be done about the police. What they can do about the heavy boot placed on the necks of Chicanos. Fly Rico talks of living on the streets, in extreme poverty, and having to hustle anyway that he could. You can see that his pride is hard won, it’s the pride of a man who has had to face degradation and find a way to survive. Magda, as Rio, makes a very good point. She names off many the ethnic and marginalized groups in Los Angeles and says that rather than fighting with each other, the only way that they can get their rightful share is by cooperating with each other as a larger and more powerful block. That they are all the same in the eyes of the Anglos and have more in common with each other than they think, especially in how they are viewed and used by the Anglo community. You can see the wheels turning in both Rico’s and Mateo’s heads. Rio has elevated their ambitions for justice. Why Magda as Rio has done this is not yet clear, but undoubtedly this is part of her plan.
Rio’s character is one that’s based in history. There were female zoot suiters or Pachucas who wore a slightly modified version of the male styles Pachucos wore at the time. One example is La Dora, from a photo that was published by Lowrider Magazine (RIP) in the 1970s.
The Pachuca stands in the photo proudly wearing what was thought of at the time as male attire. While actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Heburn started to popularize the idea of women wearing pants in films in the 1930s, it was actually illegal in many places for women to do so. There were laws that made it a crime to wear pants and “impersonate a man;” there were some laws that were anti-cross dressing for either sex. Yes, women wearing pants was considered crossdressing by many at this point in time and, while not technically illegal in Los Angeles, it was socially unacceptable. This is why Sister Molly made mention of her trousers and felt daring in that simple act, especially as a minister, while at the Pier. The owner of the celebrated Brown Derby restaurant in LA, Robert Cobb, famously refused to seat Marlene Dietrich in 1933 when she showed up at the restaurant wearing slacks. The no pants rule wasn’t struck down in California officially until Pete Wilson signed a bill into law forbidding employers from barring their female employees from wearing pants at work in 1994. Women were not allowed to wear slacks on the Senate floor until 1993. Women wearing pants was thought of as being transgressive, which made it even more of a defiant act by the Pachucas.
After their talk, Rio and Fly Rico take Mateo to “get Pachuco” and their first act is to get him a tattoo. There is a specific tattoo that was thought of as a Pachuco tattoo and that’s the one that Mateo gets while drinking alcohol to ease the pain of the tattoo artist’s needle.
Meanwhile, Tiago finds Lewis drinking at the bar. He has been drinking Gimlets and orders one for Tiago as well. He recounts the story about how the Gimlet was invented by the British Navy as a preventative for sailors aboard ships against scurvy. The story is a little more complex than that but essentially the combination of spirits and lemon and eventually, in 1845, lime juice lead to the creation of The Gimlet which in its simplest iteration is Lauchlin Rose's Lime Juice and Gin.
Some have compared Penny Dreadful: City of Angels to James Ellroy’s novels of Los Angeles. I believe that John Logan’s writing and conception of the show and story reach back further to the tradition of the classic hard-boiled crime writers of Los Angeles, namely the novels of Raymond Chandler, like The Long Goodbye and its detective Philip Marlowe. In this instance, I believe this scene is a specific reference to Chandler and that book. It is particularly relevant since The Long Goodbye uses social commentary as does Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
I think it is important to remember that the show is not a documentary, but a historical fantasy of the time as it reflects the now that we are currently experiencing. There’s the George Santayana aphorism that comes to my mind when reflecting on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, its story, and its central themes. It’s a phrase you are probably very tired of hearing, but one that with the newest rise of fascism, we would do well to remember and live by.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Dolores Quintana is a Chicana actor and writer from Southern California who lives spiritually in her beloved Los Angeles at all times. She has written for Pocho.com, Nightmarish Conjurings, The Theatre @Boston Court and late period Buddyhead. All praise, complaints, celebratory rituals and debate challenges should be directed at the author on Twitter.com.