Pennyworth has been an exciting prospect for any DC fan. Aside from delineating the origins of the Dark Knight’s most trusted ally, we get to see an aspect of the DC universe that is seldom given the spotlight: the period drama. When Epix released the first three episodes OnDemand, I couldn’t wait to see how this new DC prequel from the team behind Gotham began.
Pennyworth begins with Rupert Longbrass, a banker for the notorious Raven Society, being captured by series villain Bet Sykes. After a rousing opening sequence that brings to mind the underrated DC adaptation Human Target, we find our titular hero waking up from a nightmare which we are led to believe is the result of PTSD from the war. After attending a comrade’s funeral (which is revealed to be a suicide, much to Alfred’s horror,) with his friends Dave Boy and Baz, he goes to work at a club and gets ready to start up a security business. It doesn’t take long for Alfred to get into a fight with a couple of unruly patrons who are accosting Thomas Wayne’s sister. The latter serves as an intriguing twist to the Batman mythology. After he and Thomas exchange info, Alfred goes back in the club and meets Esme, an aspiring actress. The two begin dating, which ultimately feels a bit rushed throughout these three episodes. That being said, she does at least help give Alfred a reason to go after her once she becomes Sykes’ captive, whom Sykes wants to exchange for Thomas. Sykes tries to have Thomas killed once Rupert confirms he leaked information to him, which lead Sykes to Alfred’s card. Granted, it felt a little contrived, but at the very least he helped not only keep Thomas and Alfred in the forefront but also expose the latter to his first run-in with a corrupt police department. This is something he will have a lot of experience with in the future. Alfred finds Thomas and immediately sets up an exchange. The next morning, as the two begin to connect, Sykes’ team arrives without Esme, and after Alfred stops them, he sets up another exchange, which Thomas says won’t work. Dave Boy takes matters into his own hands and finds out where Esme is, much to Alfred’s chagrin.
Alfred goes to get Esme (who nearly got away and got Sykes in trouble) and meets with Lord Harwood, played by the great Jason Flemyng. Harwood tries to get Alfred to join his side, but unfortunately for him, our hero doesn’t like violence, which leads to another fight and Esme’s rescue. As they leave, Alfred meets detective Aziz who is investigating the Raven Society and takes Esme to safety. Alfred heads home to find Sykes holding his parents hostage. In another plot contrivance, Esme shows up and is retaken hostage, only for the Pennyworth family to take down Sykes and her men. After rejecting Thomas’s offer to work for him, Alfred receives a medal from the Queen, who insists he must keep what happened quiet. The pilot ends with Harwood proclaiming that he’ll be back.
The second hour, “The Landlord’s Daughter,” opens with a man running from someone called Mr. Ripper. After the credits, we rejoin Alfred in the club, where Thomas offers him a job that he flatly refuses. After seeing Harwood interrogated, we get a look at what Sykes’ life is like behind bars as she manipulates one of the guards into doing her bidding. Alfred supports Esme as her show is about to open. He’s getting nowhere in trying to find a new job – that is, until he gets a job trying to get a man to leave the landlord’s daughter alone, which will lead him to the dreaded white chapel, much to his chagrin.
After he watches Esme’s play, Aziz approaches Alfred, who tells him they’re getting ready to hang Sykes and that somebody will approach him with a proposition, which, of course, brings Thomas to mind. I really like the fact that, despite it being the early days, Alfred is already looking out for the Waynes. The next day, Alfred, who has promised Esme he’ll try to come and see her play again, goes to speak with Jason. The latter has been bothering Sandra again, only to end up in a fight, declaring his Uncle will hear about this. While Esme’s most recent performance is well received, Alfred goes to see Ripper as Dave Boy and Baz intimidate him into telling him about his Uncle. It is revealed that Alfred has brought the Uncle along, who has become incensed by his nephew’s cowardice. Ripper and Alfred discuss what comes next, and the former tries to intimidate our hero, but Alfred’s not having it, making himself a reputation, as well as an enemy in Ripper.
However, it quickly turns out it’s an intimidation tactic as he rejoins Esme, who has received a letter from Sykes. After briefly returning to Sandra and her father, who are grateful for Alfred’s work, we check in with Harwood, who’s being sent away. Following a rushed proposal, we see Sykes being hung, only for it to be revealed that Sykes’ sister, who had also received one of her letters, has assisted her in escaping.
The final hour, entitled “Martha Kane,” briefly rejoins Harwood, who isn’t faring any better than he was last time. After another brief flashback to Alfred’s time in the war, our titular hero meets Esme’s father, who tells him he will disinherit her should he go through with the marriage.
As Sykes settles into her “new” life, Esme and Alfred argue about her father, which culminates in their engagement being broken. A gay couple, Ian Thurso and Sam Shaye, is arrested as they discover their old-fashioned computer works. Martha Kane meets Alfred, who says she needs him to act as a driver/bodyguard.
As Alfred begins the job, Dave Boy gets drunk and ends up putting Baz in a bad situation during a card game. Martha and Alfred go undercover to get Ian out of his predicament and save him from being castrated. Ian refuses to leave without Sam, who is giving a “victims statement.” Martha gets them both out, and they return to the computer. Martha reveals that the government wants to keep Sam and his creation under lock and key. As the situation with Dave Boy escalates, Baz tries to deduse the situation, which ends up with Baz’s opponent dead.
Alfred demands answers from Martha, who tells him she works for the No-Name League and works with whoever they tell her to. After the Raven Society comes after Thurso and his work, Martha decides to fight them, against Alfred’s counsel, so he tries to talk his way out of it. Meanwhile, Baz calls in a favor to clean up Dave Boy’s mess, which shines a light on Dave Boy’s struggles since coming home from the war. Alfred manages to buy Martha and Thurso more time. However, he knows that the Raven Society is planning to ambush them, so in a rather clever scene, they set up a makeshift landing strip for the plane that will take Thurso and Shaye to safety.
After Ian and Sam leave, Alfred agrees to work with Martha again in a capacity not too dissimilar from his future in the Wayne household, sans the butlering. He quickly delivers the good news to Dave Boy and Baz. After we get a glimpse at Sykes’ plan for Esme, Alfred confronts his father, who continually reminds him that he isn’t good enough for Esme. Threaded through this scene is the revaluation that his father is an abuser. While he and his father nearly come to blows, his mother cools things off. The episode ends with Alfred renting a place for himself and Esme, and offering the ring again, as well as some brief progression in Harwood’s storyline.
As a whole, these episodes are good, positioning Alfred as a James Bond-type figure, and echo Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Given the way Ben McKenzie sometimes came off as Gordon in Gotham, I was worried that Jack Bannon might have the same problem in Pennyworth. However, I’m pleased to say that so far this isn’t the case at all. In fact, oftentimes it feels as though Bannon was born to play the role. He imbues our future favorite butler with an archetypal sense of heroism that is seldom found on television today. While he’s able to throw a punch, he much prefers not to, an ideal that permeates the show. Pennyworth enthralls the viewer with action and the character in equal parts, particularly in a genre where it is often one or the other. Major kudos must also go to do Paloma Faith, Ben Aldridge, and Emma Paetz, who play Sykes, Thomas, and Martha, respectively. I particularly like how they establish individual relationships between Alfred and Batman’s future parents, which seems to be leading toward Alfred being the conduit through which they meet each other. All too often, Martha doesn’t get much development of her own and we only get to see her through Bruce’s eyes, so it’s nice to see her take charge in this series. In addition, having Ripper feature in this show reaffirms early interviews that stated this version of London will sometimes separate itself from the course of history as we know it. Unfortunately, the writing sometimes brings things down.
While writer Bruno Heller does a great job establishing this world and most of the characters, all too often he relies on various plot contrivances and an extremely rushed romance for Alfred and Esme. While I understand that there are only ten episodes to work with, the romance often feels shoehorned in. Yes, the talk of different stations in life was interesting, but it seemed to be at the expense of the plot and characters. All that being said, Danny Cannon’s direction really shines here, evoking the period and truly transporting the viewer into Alfred’s world. This is something Bill Eagles, the director of the third episode, continues with aplomb.