Pennyworth Stops Itself From Being the Great Crime Drama It Could Be
It's a no from me, Alfie.
Major spoilers for Pennyworth season 1!
One of the things I enjoy about the Batman franchise is that you can choose how you immerse yourself in it and gain access to a never-ending supply of lore with its plot threads and characters. Comics, cartoons, movies, television, video games, The Caped Crusader has done it all. Along the way, we’re introduced to an incredible cast of characters, many of whom could tell their own stories and go on their own adventures, arguably, without Batman.
Such is the case with Epix’s Pennyworth, which is currently in its second season.
Unfortunately, as engaging as actor Jack Bannon’s portrayal of the Wayne family butler is, there are story elements that make the series a messy watch — and not in that fun way where things get bonkers but you’re still invested because it’s entertaining, I mean in that headache-inducing way that makes you nope out of the series before you reach the last episode.
Full disclosure: that’s what happened to me. I was over halfway through season 1 when things just became too much. As much as I want to see how Alfred goes from badass to butler (but still badass) I didn’t enjoy the journey that will, inevitably, lead him to Gotham City.
The uneven ties to Batman
Back when I watched Gotham (also by Pennyworth’s Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon) one of the things I wanted was more Thomas and Martha Wayne. I’d hoped that since it was before Bruce Wayne dawned the iconic cape and cowl that we’d get to see the Wayne family BE a family before that fateful night in Crime Alley. Sadly, the series started with their deaths, a young Bruce Wayne scarred for life and … you know the rest.
Fortunately, Pennyworth does the opposite … but I’m not quite sure I like what we’re given.
While we most certainly do get to see a lot of Thomas and Martha, Thomas is actually a CIA agent who goes undercover in the No Name League (the rival group to the extremist Raven Society that’s trying to overthrow the UK government). Martha is also a member of the league.
I’m not sure I’m a fan of them being more involved with undercover work, mostly because one of the great tragedies with them is that they were ordinary people (albeit, RICH AS HELL) at the wrong place at the wrong time. As it stands, these two are more involved in a Batman-esque lifestyle than Alfred is, in fact, Alfred wants nothing to do with them but is constantly pulled in by Thomas and Martha wanting him to do missions for their organization.
With all the connections they have why does it HAVE to be Alfred? Especially if Alfred doesn’t want to be there. Like … let this man get married in peace stop bothering him!
Now see, if Thomas and Martha had NO ties to any sort of secret agency then I’d fully believe that they’re just impressed with Alfred’s combat skills because they’ve never been exposed to something like that before. But Thomas is CIA, y’all, and when we first meet Martha she’s basically acting like the detective side of Batman, getting Alfred to do her bidding without him even knowing the full scope of what’s going on. One of the first things she does is trick police officers to release wrongfully imprisoned men so she can get them to safety.
Going in I kinda assumed Thomas and Martha would be normal people in need of protection because of their wealth and status. Instead, they go on dangerous missions and Alfred keeps unwillingly getting dragged along for the ride. Why? Well …
The treatment of women
So why does Alfred keep going on these missions?
For a woman.
Insert image of me rolling my eyes into the heavens because this is, admittedly, a big thing that killed the series for me.
And that’s not to say I am opposed to romance, but Alfred’s main love interest (he has several) is the kind of female character who you know is only there to further the leading man’s plot. After two weeks of being together, Esme Winikus is meeting Alfred’s parents. Also? She’s in love with Alfred. Also? She gets kidnapped so the series can give Alfred a reason to fight when he’s trying to walk away from that sort of life (he’s already rejected Thomas Wayne’s advances — take that however you want).
That’s all in the first episode. By the second episode, Alfred and Esme are engaged.
By the third episode, they’re breaking up, then making up, then moving in together.
By the fourth? Esme’s dead.
That’s just a quick summary, here’s a deeper dive into how nonsensical this is along with the mishandling of the rest of the female cast.
Because it’s not just the fact that their “romance” moves so fast, it’s the relationship the two have with one another. It reads like a couple who needs to pump the breaks, and, well, they do need to slow down, and I’m so focused on that that I can’t get into them as a couple. Alfred accuses Esme of being ashamed of him and that being the reason why she doesn’t want to introduce him to her family, meanwhile, I’m screaming at the TV like, “It’s only been TWO WEEKS!” But sure, let’s say I’m on board with meeting the parents after only two weeks into a relationship (I’m not), dinner with Alfred’s parents went so horribly that it’s no wonder Esme wants to hold off on another parental get together.
It’s actually more than that, though, because we find out that Esme wants nothing to do with her father.
Somehow, that makes Alfred decide to try and get his permission to marry Esme anyway? Even if she walked away from her father and his wealth to live on her own? So why would she care if her father agrees with the marriage? She doesn’t care about Alfred’s money or status, which leads to … Alfred taking a job to make a lot of money and buy a big house to show Esme that he’s worthy of the kind of approval that she doesn’t care about.
Lovely. Great listening skills there, Alfred.
But honestly? It’s not just Alfred who’s infuriating in the relationship.
Because Esme does one of my least favorite romance tropes of all time. She breaks up with Alfred as a test to see if he’ll come after her. Not because he insisted on talking to her father when it made her uncomfortable. Not because of the number of times he leaves her alone when she’s traumatized after her kidnapping. Not even because she’s worried about the kind of work he’s doing since her life was at risk.
But because she wants to see if he’ll chase after her.
And I know some people might think I’m putting too much weight in the romance for a crime thriller about a Batman character, but if this woman is such a big part of his life that she is the reason why he returns to fighting (and the reason for his depression after her death and his single-minded revenge quest), I need the series to care about her more.
And clearly, it doesn’t, because the way she dies is so offensive.
It’s bad enough that she dies, but the scene before that is Alfred and Martha … kissing.
After the two get back from a mission they kiss then awkwardly leave it at that because Alfred is ENGAGED. Not like either of them really have to face the consequences, though, because Esme dies right after the exchange. Sure, there’s guilt, but the one they feel bad for betraying doesn’t get a say in the conflict at all because she’s been taken out of it. It makes the whole thing feel pointless. Why add this “affair” element if as soon as it starts you kill off Esme?
After this, Martha feels so bad that she just kinda … stops doing anything until Thomas Wayne tries to get her to convince Alfred to work for them again (which is all kinds of cruel, I’m not sure why she even agrees to do it). Martha has the nerve to tell Alfred something about how she has to keep working to keep going in an attempt to get him out of his depression, and I’m so pissed at the both of them that the whole thing feels cheap. And sure, she and Alfred should feel bad, but I’m more frustrated at the fact that neither one really talks about the kiss. If they at least made a sloppy attempt at discussing whether or not the kiss meant anything, there’d, at least, be some sort of payoff from that moment.
WHY did they kiss at all if you’re gonna run away from the implications of it and kill off Esme?
Instead, Martha returns to the plot again when Thomas asks her to watch his alcoholic sister (no, I don’t know why he has an alcoholic sister). Thomas’s sister, Patricia, takes Martha to a Satanist party, and Martha wakes up, naked and alone, in the middle of nowhere, with no idea how she got there.
I noped out after this episode.
Because watching Martha go from competent, to crushing on Alfred and kissing a man who’s spoken for, to … this … was too much.
Most of the other main women on the good guy side of the series is in need of saving. Alfred’s mother is in an abusive relationship with his father. The girl at the pub (Sandra) is being harassed by a man who Alfred saves her from, then later, Alfred sleeps with her to get over his grief about Esme and dismisses her afterward because he’s too busy developing his revenge quest.
Then there’s the antagonist, Bet Sykes, who was the one who kidnapped Esme and fell in love with her.
Yes. I said love.
Because Bet’s convinced that they had a deep bonding moment and the series does, admittedly, do some interesting things like seeing Esme’s funeral from Sykes’ POV. But even she takes a backseat in favor of trying to help the former Raven Society leader return to power. This is after she was smart enough to seduce a guard so she could escape her public execution (yes, there are gruesome public executions, because … edgy?). She just kinda … sits back until she finds her former boss and teaches him how to human again (he was on the streets being treated like an animal).
In a show with numerous female characters, having the only remotely interesting one be the clearly unstable villain as the others are in the background, fridged, in unnecessary affair plot threads, or abused is … not great.
Bloated plot threads
There are directions the plot goes in that baffle me, the biggest one being the man behind Esme’s death. Up until that point, there are quite a few characters it could’ve been, but the series decides to add another antagonist: Alfred’s former army captain who’s mad because Alfred humiliated him once.
Because I guess an entire society out to destroy the UK isn’t enough? Or the woman who thinks she and Esme are besties? Or Alfred’s abusive father? Or The Ripper.
And yes, I said The Ripper, who Alfred has connections with for … reasons? I dunno, if you’re trying to get away from a violent lifestyle maybe don’t make friends with a man like this? Alfred’s a bit of a … perplexing character, to be honest. He wants to run a security business and be on the up and up … yet takes on freelance jobs that have him going up against the worst of the worst. He makes connections with The Ripper on his FIRST job. That’s well above a security business, I would think. The Ripper job isn’t even a situation where Thomas or Martha were trying to get Alfred to work for them, it’s all Alfred’s doing.
I also don’t know why Esme had to die in the first place. I guess so Alfred could sulk and go on a revenge quest? I’m unclear on why he needs one. I’m also unclear at the series adding… witchcraft? In his quest to find out who killed Esme, Alfred is sent to consult with a woman who claims to be a witch, and by completing her trials she shows him visions that lead to him finding out that Esme’s killer is his old captain. This is the same episode with the Satanist party. Because … again, edgy …? Adult …? I dunno!
And the series, instead of exploring the stories it’s establishing, implements time jumps to move things forward. After Esme dies we skip to five months later, there’s fighting in the streets, and the No Name League is losing the battle against the Raven Society. Um … how? How did things get that bad? I’m not seeing how Alfred had that much of an impact on things, like, the series hasn’t done enough for me to feel like that THIS is society’s last hope. And honestly, when he comes back, his main adversary is his former captain and he STILL doesn’t give a shit about the No Name League. In fact, he gives LESS of a shit than he did before.
And um … I’m sorry … WHY is Thomas Wayne trying to go to a blubbering mess like Dave Boy since Alfred isn’t available? Dave Boy is one of Alfred’s war buddies who, in one episode, is such a disaster that he accidentally shoots a man during a game of cards. There’s no real point to that scene, either. It never gets addressed. Dave Boy being unhinged is just a thing everyone accepts. And really, if the story wanted a message where Alfred is done fighting because war is hell, there was plenty of material with how messed up Dave Boy is, how messed up ALL of them are (Alfred keeps having nightmares) but sure, fridge a fiancee, I guess.
I honestly don’t think the series knows what it wants to do, and from what I read from this review by CBR’s Ian Cardona it doesn’t do much to fix it at the start of season 2.
Sometimes, you just know when to quit a series, and this was one of those moments for me.
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