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The weaponization of womanhood in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
“All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is, is being told he can,” Magda (Natalie Dormer) states in the first episode of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. Sowing seeds of discord, her plan to start a race war is to whisper in the ears of men she perceives as weak. Men might be the target of this shapeshifting demon, but she uses the face of women to enact her vision. Traditional roles, including mother, secretary, and maid, dominate the 1938 Los Angeles setting, but the heavy dose of feminine archetypes is wielded as a weapon within Magda’s grand design.
She isn’t the only character to resort to manipulation via her womanhood; the bonds of family are leveled against radio evangelist celebrity Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé) by her controlling mother. In a world dominated by masculine impulse, women pull the strings even in a restricted sphere of influence. Matriarch Maria Vega (Adriana Barraza) stands defiant against the demon threatening her family, but in this single-parent role, she struggles to keep her children from straying.
In an ambitious season that may be tackling too many things at once, one of the more successful aspects of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is this portrayal of womanhood as both a weapon and a shield within the supernaturally charged chaos.
**SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers ahead for the season finale of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels**
A divide runs throughout the first season, pitting two opposing forces against each other beginning with Magda and her sister Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo). The emphasis is on the weakness of mankind in Magda's quintessential villain speechifying because women during this period still had little agency. The juxtaposition of opposites is threaded throughout events of the first season, whether strength versus weakness, love versus hate, or good versus evil. Light and dark are represented in actions, costumes, and faith. Actual Nazis threaten the core of Los Angeles with racial prejudice seeping into every place of authority.
The so-called “good" cops are far from squeaky clean — they did frame an innocent person for multiple murders — and after a dose of good old fashioned blackmail, City Hall is in cahoots with the aforementioned fascist presence. Headed by Sister Molly, the Joyful Voices Ministry is introduced via the horrifying killings that end up being a bit of a red herring. In the final episode, the real culprit is unmasked, but the Hazlett family's grizzly murder tableau was a means to an end, resulting in one final tragedy.
Sister Molly was having an affair with James Hazlett, a tryst that could’ve brought down the whole church enterprise. The advent of the radio means Molly’s message has wide-reaching capabilities; unfortunately, this scandal would ruin not only her but the entire temple. Having come from nothing, Molly’s worth is packaged in the Sister Molly persona, a role constructed by her mother Miss Adelaide (Amy Madigan) from an early age. Now, Molly brings hope into the lives of many while reaping in healthy contributions from wealthy patrons, although, she does give back to the community through charitable work, such as volunteering in a soup kitchen. It is the backroom of this location washing dishes that she finally feels at peace.
The divide that runs through Penny Dreadful this season goes beyond abstract concepts like light and dark, it also lives in how characters view their obligations with their professions. Detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) is a cop who experiences and ultimately perpetuates the institutionalized racism of his precinct, whereas Molly is torn between the vision of holy perfection her mother has constructed and wanting to live a normal life. Feeling lost makes them kindred spirits even if he lacks any religious beliefs.
White frocks, robes, and a cavalcade of stylish ensembles for her off days show the clear divide in Molly's psyche; her overt femininity is wrapped up in performance. On those rare times away from her mother and the church, she embraces pants-wearing and anonymity from a well-placed hat. A perfect day with Tiago is one of normalcy; he wins her a stuffed toy Popeye at the Santa Monica Pier and they steal a kiss. The fairy tale is broken when the sun sets, Molly is whisked back to her tower — in this case, it is the temple. She is a damsel in distress waiting to be saved, but there is no happy ending.
Early in the season, it is unclear what her motives are or whether she is manipulating Tiago with this sob story. Men from the church follow her at the behest of Miss Adelaide who waits up in the dark to admonish her deviant behavior — she treats her daughter like a child when she is a grown woman. Molly's motives are not fueled by anything shady beyond wanting to experience a life of her own, but femininity is often portrayed as something to be fearful of when the stakes are this high. The period also suggests she could be playing a femme fatale, however, her delicate tearful intonement is not an act to get Tiago into bed so she can use him. Helping his sister Josefina (Jessica Garza) was not motivated by anything other than her desire to offer solace and safety.
In the finale, she informs Miss Adelaide that she is leaving, and in return, her mother resorts to emotional blackmail. First, she brings up a well-worn story of her dead babies that came before Molly, "I wrestled four children out of my womb before you." Referring to her surviving daughter as her "Lamb of God, my blessed child saint," she alludes to the sacrifices she has made to keep her "pure."
Sacrifices? Those murders at the start of the season were done on the orders of Miss Adelaide to "protect" her daughter. Using the shield of motherhood is abhorrent to Molly who has already been wrestling with how to separate the Sister moniker from her persona. Instead of fleeing, she dies by suicide in the baptism pool, killing both parts of herself. Sister Muerta greets her in death, her passiveness continuing to do little more than depict her as an observer.
Magda does not have a physical presence in the church or the police station, but everything she is doing via her three human forms is infecting these arenas too. Using her sexuality and fragility, she wields her womanhood to exert control through traditional archetypes.
In each case, another woman thwarts her plan; Maria Vega is seen as an extension of the Croft family she works for and can’t be dismissed by feminine eyelash fluttering or sowing seeds of racist hatred. Maria's home life is equally as fraught as her bond with each of her children is tested, but ultimately they return to the homestead in one way or another.
Whispering into the ear of Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Townsend) as the mousy political aid Alex, all the political pieces have shifted into place. Glamour isn’t required in this set-up; a lack of femininity ensures she is taken seriously. Unfortunately, she didn’t factor the councilwoman who refuses to back down and will gladly resort to blackmailing Townsend regarding his sexuality. Using different tools for each target, she turns on the charm, smarts, or waterworks to suit the man in question. Men are Magda's prey to manipulate — however, the same cannot be said for the women she keeps coming up against.
Using a sickly child as her means of an introduction, German expat Elsa is a blonde doe-eyed beauty who needs rescuing. Her husband is physically abusive (she makes sure to note he is an American), and she spins a story portraying herself as a victim of American circumstance. What she needs is a German hero. She "kills" her husband in self-defense, calling Dr. Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear) to help bury the body, which further deepens his desire to protect and play the hero. Nevertheless, when he moves Elsa and Frank (Santino Barnard) into his home — having his alcoholic wife institutionalized first, what a charmer — it doesn't initially go according to her plan.
The secret past that Peter is hiding is his family owned a munitions company that supplied most of Germany’s weaponry during WWI. Seeing the devastating effects caused by these weapons first-hand led to him turning his back on the family business. Elsa keeps demanding he become the strong man she thought he was, laboring the point by asking him to protect their family. Portraying herself as the weaker sex, she plays into these tropes while needling him into abandoning his "love not hate" position. The start of the season painted Peter as an insidious Nazi, but it takes work for Elsa to get him to this Hitler-saluting position. In the finale, he finally relents after his sons were threatened and she demands he “be a man.”
Bringing up her abusive husband — the very personification of America, in her opinion — she reiterates the wrongs this military man did to her body, the shame she felt, and how Peter made her feel like a person again. Using the children to labor her point, Magda as Elsa points to the fairy tale family image of a father teaching his sons how to be strong. She is both wielding her supposed feminine “weakness,” while imploring him to be the masculine model of courage. Teaching their sons love and tolerance is not an option when Elsa paints a picture of the terrifying American man and the even more horrifying immigrants (though not them, of course) who ran amok through the streets of Los Angeles.
Her campaign to get Maria fired is less successful. Instead, Peter shows his rare backbone by giving his housekeeper a raise. This doesn’t make him a hero (far from it), but Magda has to rethink her strategy in getting him to go full Nazi. Maria is the one character that knowingly faces off against Magda. No, not when she is having to play subservient maid to Elsa's juice-spilling whims, but against the pleather-wearing demon herself. Calling on Sister Muerta throughout the season, Magda finally rocks up to offer taunting platitudes in Episode 7, "Maria and the Beast."
The dynamic between sister demons is half-baked at best, and this scene is the furthest the writers go in developing it beyond the season opener. And while this is certainly a let-down, Maria switching into protective mode is a striking use of motherhood. While Miss Adelaide tries to use her daughter as an excuse for committing multiple murders, Maria's defensiveness streak puts her body in danger rather than anyone else.
She stands up to Magda and doesn't desert the Craft home that has been infiltrated by the malignant presence. When her children choose different paths, such as a different church or running with dangerous figures, she yells but never goes further than verbal anger. After Josefina is sexually assaulted by a police officer and doesn't feel she can turn to anyone in her family, she is moved by Sister Molly's sermon. The comfort she finds in Sister Molly's teachings and this community is a temporary fix. Peace is broached in the penultimate episode and a tender scene between mother and daughter in the finale reveals a sad truth: Maria cannot protect her daughter from the evils of the world no matter how hard she tries.
There is still plenty of story to tell, so while Penny Dreadful: City of Angels has yet to be renewed for Season 2, if it does get picked up, hopefully the narrative will be less sprawling. Magda still has her demon heart set on lighting the world on fire, but the number of formidable women she comes up against has not made this an easy task. She uses womanhood as a tool to manipulate men, however, she is far from the only person using these attributes to their advantage. In a world full of darkness and tragedy, hope still finds a way thanks to the Vega matriarch. "Maria and the Beast" offered a taste of a Magda versus Maria showdown. Now we need the headline act.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.