‘Batman’ Prequel ‘Pennyworth’ Goes Into the War Zone for a Stylishly Fun Season 2
Epix’s “Pennyworth” is a perfect example of modern pulp entertainment. On a shallow level it’s just another spin-off meant to bank on a mega popular franchise, in this case “Batman.” Season one of this Epix show promised to give us the biography of Alfred Pennyworth, the butler who can oversee Batman’s operations, save him when needed and still keep Wayne Manor spick and span. Going into season two, the show proves it’s more enjoyable as a standalone alternate history. Familiar names are tossed around to appeal to the caped crusader fan base, but at heart “Pennyworth” is old-fashioned B entertainment.
We’re back in a ‘60s London in the middle of an English civil war provoked by the fascist Raven Society, led by the steel-nosed Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng), which has conquered various cities and is inching towards the capital. Still fighting against the dark tide is the English League, while in the distance the United States officially sticks to a neutral stance. In London’s neutral zone, young Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) has opened a Soho club, the Delaney, which becomes a “Casablanca”-like magnet for espionage and intrigue. Alfred is still processing the events of last season, when he killed his father for trying to assassinate the Queen for the Raven Society. It’s best to leave it all behind and Alfred’s plan is to amass enough funds to leave for America with former army buddies Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) and Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett), as well as mum Mary Pennyworth (Dorothy Atkinson). A new job comes up when Detective Aziz (Ramon Tikaram) hires Alfred to snatch a Raven Society figure, Colonel Salt (Edward Hogg). The mission will threaten to pull “Alfie” deeper into a conflict he just wants to get away from.
While “Pennyworth” is a DC production capitalizing on the ongoing wave of comic book dominance in entertainment, the average viewer is bound to like it more for its mix of action and vintage camp. Creators Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller are churning a whole blender of influences, from comics to alternate history shows like “The Man in the High Castle.” It’s a glossy noir where Raven Society thugs get into brawls at the Delaney and Alfred steps in like a serious, all-knowing underworld operator. The décor features low-budget “Blade Runner” lighting with ‘50s production design. “Pennyworth” may prove to be a fun training ground for emerging directors since the shots are so well-composed and we can bask in British plotters never just smoking, but posing with their cigarettes.
As for the plot, it may throw off fans of the first season considering this new batch of episodes opens a year after the events of the previous round. Cliffhanger moments are brushed aside. Doctor and CIA operative Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) survived that gunshot from the finale with the mysterious shooter disappearing into the TV ether. He is still carrying out orders from the CIA, including recruiting none other than master of the dark arts Aleister Crowley (Jonjo O’Neill), to conduct an operation to silence a priest protesting U.S. production of the hydrogen bomb. Speaking about bombs, the Raven Society is developing a deadly new weapon with the code name “Storm Cloud” which allows for malevolent scenes involving human experiments and noxious gasses. Paloma Faith’s Bet Sykes gets a darkly funny but somewhat endearing storyline involving her uniformed role in Raven Society territory when she helps a prisoner escape and leads her through a corrupt, smoldering war landscape. There are also some new characters introduced including Captain Gulliver Toy (James Purefoy), another British intriguer hanging out at Alfred’s club.
Alfred’s character gets the best treatment in that he has to balance between his tough guy attitude and remaining haunted by the death of his father, as well as the demise of his romance from the first season, Esme. Dorothy Atkinson has some strong scenes expressing her despair at her and Alfred’s situation, and he’s so out of it he even refuses to take a call from the Queen (Jessica Ellerby). His obsession becomes getting to America, but when it turns out that Colonel Salt is a more important figure than he was allowed to believe, Alfred decides to take a surprise route with the assignment that simply nets him deeper into the swirl of conspiracies going on. The rest of the cast are updated with less than major updates, at least in the first four episodes. Martha Kane (Emma Paetz) is still running around like a resistance fighter, manning the barricades, meeting with English League officials and scoffing at Thomas Wayne. “Pennyworth” is a typical show of “winks,” where we smile because we know Martha and Thomas will eventually shack up and give birth to Bruce. Like “Gotham,” this is a spin-off with little sense of subtly in how it supposedly connects to the franchise. At some point expect the Joker’s father or mom to no doubt make an appearance, or maybe the Penguin’s grandparents?
Still, “Pennyworth” is TV popcorn escapism that allows for its team to shine in its look and pace. You can tell the costs are being carefully monitored considering last season the Raven Society was nearly destroyed, now in season two they’ve conquered most of the U.K., meaning the show simply skipped over most of the war. With this kind of show it hardly matters unless you’re one of those diehard DC scholars who study the Batman mythos at the level of a classics course. Bottom line, it’s fun to look at, the actors fit their roles and the music is superb. In a locked down world it’s not the dullest distraction for an hour or two.
“Pennyworth” season two premieres Dec. 13 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Epix.