SPOILER WARNING: There may be spoilers in this review of the first four episodes of Pennyworth Season 2. The Beat reviewed and recapped this show in its first season and came away with a different opinion than I did. So, if you’re looking for a different, more positive perspective on the show, check his pieces out.
Throughout my watch-through of Pennyworth’s run (so far), I found myself wondering “What in God’s name is this show about?!” See, I wanted to review it because it seems fitting that a site founded to report on comics look at a show that wishes to be a representation of the backstory of one of comics’ most famous characters. That character being, of course, Alfred Pennyworth. I watched the whole first season before diving into the new second season episodes, and by the end of the first season, found myself regretting this assignment I’d given myself.
For while Pennyworth, with its gorgeous cinematography and excellent fight scenes, could fit itself into the well-made TV arena, it can’t really. Because well-made TV still needs writing that makes sense. Pennyworth is set in an oddly defined alternate history where England has fascists rising to power after World War II, with a rather complacent Queen Elizabeth II still on the throne (while she’s never named, it’s pretty clear). It’s also an England which still grotesquely hangs and disembowels people right after the hanging and broadcasts those executions live on “BTN” (this universe’s version of the BBC, I presume).
If you’re an avid watcher of The Crown, like I am, the whole complacent to fascists Queen is more absurd history than alternate, especially since her Uncle Edward (or a figure similar to him), still exists in this universe. His abdication is attributed to his marriage to an American divorcée, not the fact that he was, y’know, allegedly a Nazi. Admittedly, the villains are the ones who discuss his abdication, but seeing as the discussion around his potential Nazi sympathies was so well done in The Crown…I must ask the creators of Pennyworth, what are you doing?
The worldbuilding is weak, to say the least. The acting is far better. Particular standouts are Jack Bannon as the titular character, who sincerely sounds like Michael Caine’s Alfred in speech, if not in actions, most of the time. Emma Corrin (who just played a brilliant Diana on The Crown) is good as Alfred’s put-upon actress girlfriend, who gets fridged, of course.
But that’s all the first season, which is mainly build-up to the fascist Raven Society’s takeover of most of England. Apparently, the Blitz didn’t happen in this universe, although it’s made clear somewhere in the first season that the Nazis still exist, so who knows. The Queen is a ditz here, as she mostly just flirts with Alfred and lets men walk all over her autonomy. The only character I really came out of the first season and first half of the second liking was Detective Inspector Aziz (Ramon Tikaram) who might just be the only rational character in the whole story.
Did I mention Thomas Wayne is in the CIA and the future Martha Wayne is some kind of resistance fighter? This show is ostensibly set in the Gotham universe, which creator Bruno Heller also developed. The idea that these two would get murdered by some random Gotham goon is baffling.
Indeed, The A.V. Club wondered in their initial review whether or not Pennyworth needed the Batman connection, and I have to agree. At the same time, it never would have gotten picked up without the DC association.
The first half of Pennyworth Season 2, which has yet another fridging of a main character, is equally confusing. Bet Sykes (a very creepy Paloma Faith) turns against her Raven Society pals, basically adopting a young subversive artist after the artist is threatened with rape. The show’s treatment of women is honestly kind of horrifying, again and again. Why Bet turns is unclear to me, having watched her own despicable actions in the first season.
Why the CIA and America, in general, in this timeline care about a disintegrating England and why the US seems fine despite the rest of the world being in tatters, is also confusing. There’s a whole plot about Alfred and his pals wanting to escape to America (and I assume he’ll get there), but with how bloodthirsty this Alfred is, I really hesitate at the idea of him raising little baby Batman.
Did I mention the gore? I think I did, but there’s this disturbing trend of the premium services that aren’t HBO thinking they can get away with anything and Epix is seemingly no exception. (Starz has Outlander, one of the rapiest shows on TV…sorry if you’re a fan.) If you have a delicate stomach, I wouldn’t recommend Pennyworth, but even if you don’t have a delicate stomach, I wouldn’t recommend this show. Go read a Batman comic or watch literally any other portrayal of Alfred.
Pennyworth Season 2 premieres on December 13, 2020, on Epix.