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The original Penny Dreadful was a series about monsters, mostly of the literal variety, featuring stories about witches, werewolves and other dark creatures right alongside real-life versions of Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. Its sequel series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, tells a similarly dark tale, but chooses to set its story in a land filled with sunshine, a world whose monsters wear beautiful fashions and bright surfaces often cover rot underneath.
At the center of this beautiful, complicated mess sits Magda (Natalie Dormer), a shape-shifting demon whose love of chaos and violence appears to be as rooted in the joy of breaking things and making messes she doesn't have to clean up as it does any hard and firm spiritual guidelines.
"There will come a time when the world is ready for me," Magda intones in the series' opening moments, predicting a dark and dire future for humanity that involves global conflict and fratricide.
The world she's referring to is 1930s Los Angeles, which teeters on the verge of tearing itself to pieces as a race war bubbles in the streets and fascists creep toward positions of governmental authority. But in the larger world of our television landscape, her presence makes a similarly outsized impact from her very first scenes.
Magda, it would appear, is not here to punish or destroy so much as to illuminate, to sow the seeds of chaos that might prove to her reclusive holy sister Santa Muerte that humanity is unworthy of her. Why? Well, we don't entirely know. But in every folklore, aren't there always divine beings who are simultaneously symbiotic partners and rivals, who dance around their hatred for and need of one another for all eternity? Given that Santa Muerte, to date, hasn't seemed terribly interested in diverting her sister's quite literal highway to hell, it seems safe to assume that's in some way what's happening here.
But what makes City of Angels so interesting isn't the relationship — or lack thereof — between these two women. (Sadly, the show seems rather content to ignore that aspect of its story completely, which is a topic for another day.) It's Magda herself, and the way she subverts so many expectations about what a character like her is meant to do in a story like this.
Magda's original form is one of a traditional villainess: beautiful, cunning, ruthless, and utterly impossible to look away from. A slinky femme fatale who wears a black pleather dress and trails literal fire in her wake, she's everything we've come to expect from a dark fairytale goddess, only turned up to eleven. But the other, more human versions of herself which actually populate the story of Penny Dreadful are very, very different.
As a shapeshifter, Magda is a monster who can literally take any form to walk among humanity. She could mold herself into whatever she wanted — a film star, a vision of beauty that would make men the world over worship her. She could write a version of her story where she wields power and command in her own right. She could craft herself into someone that could claim riches, fame, and popularity, and remake the world in her own image. But she doesn't.
Instead, Magda consistently and repeatedly assumes the roles of those whom humanity is most likely to belittle, mistreat, or never even see. A mousy political secretary, a battered wife with a sickly child, a bisexual runaway — these are the faces she deliberately chooses, the kinds of unassuming women that society (read: men) expects nothing from and largely sees as disposable in various ways.
Part of what makes Magda so much fun to watch is that she gives these sorts of women a voice and a power they traditionally lack, and that feels entirely on purpose. It's fun to see her manipulate the egotistical Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis), a sexist jerk and generally terrible person. There's something satisfying about watching her so easily draw Dr. Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear), a man who may wear a kind face, but still keeps a Nazi uniform in his office closet, into an affair. The police officer she encourages young Mateo (Johnathan Nieves) and his Pachuco friends to kill was a rapist and sexual predator who got off on making vulnerable young women drug addicts and probably deserved everything that happened to him.
For all of Magda's darkness, there's an avenging angel quality to her behavior that's really difficult not to root for at times.
Unlike many of the monsters in the original Penny Dreadful series, Magda is an appealingly removed figure. Most of the time, she doesn't put her finger on the scales of fate and she keeps an appropriate distance from the worst actions of her targets. She's meddling in activities that run the gamut, from racial violence and murder to city council meetings and Nazi rallies, but she's a temptress for the most part, not a direct actor. (There are several important exceptions to the rule, however, such as when she murders a man to coerce Dr. Croft into helping her-as-Elsa cover it up.) She offers a choice to greedy, selfish people who want an excuse to indulge their worst selves — so how much of it is truly her fault when they say yes?
"All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is, is being told he can," Magda says in City of Angels' first episode — and the rest of the show seems relatively determined to prove her right.
It's not like she has to work super-hard to find corrupt cops, overly ambitious politicians, and other generally idiotic men to help bring her plans to fruition. For most, it takes little more than a well-timed comment, a few offhand whispers, an affirmation of something they already believe to be true. For others, Magda doesn't even need to do anything at all.
The racist cop who assaulted and humiliated Josefina Vega was plenty monstrous all on his own without any demonic urging. Most of the Los Angeles police force appears to be various shades of racist or corrupt, and the supposed good guys, if there are any, are generally too lazy to speak up or stop them. This is a world that barely needs Magda to break it apart at the seams.
But perhaps we as viewers do. We don't yet know for sure what Magda's ultimate City of Angels end game looks like, or if she even has one. Is it chaos for chaos' sake? Does she truly want the city to burn? Or is she simply here to remind us all that, in the real world, evil doesn't trail fire behind it or rock pleather formal wear. Instead, it most often looks a whole lot like us — even if it's wearing a false face.