With the dust barely settled over Gotham and the Batman Universe, Epix’s latest Batman-prequel series Pennyworth explores the background of Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. With a distinctly noir feel, bordering on old spy thrillers from the 70’s, Pennyworth feels both very familiar yet refreshingly original, with a story that bears no resemblance to the superhero world, save for the character names.
A brief prologue begins the series with charismatic, cockney villain Bet Sykes kidnapping a rich man from his estate. This sets the foundation for the series to follow.
We’re then introduced to a young Alfred pennyworth, a man determined to make it big as a businessman. Working security at a nightclub, he stops two thugs from going after the Wayne family before exchanging cards with Thomas Wayne outside the club. After seeing some flashbacks to his brutal time in the army, Alfred wakes up the next day to find his Father grilling him over his decision to start a business. After suaving his way into a date with aspiring actress Esme, we learn more about her and Alfred thanks to their cleverly written dialogue.
From here we learn that Bet Sykes actually works for the Raven Society, a shadowy group that want to overthrow the current regime in England. A brutal interrogation underground at their base sees the victim give up a name – Thomas Wayne.
While the society set to work tracking him down, we cut forward in time to see Esme and Alfred continuing to date and grow closer together. They meet Alfred’s parents and his father is disapproving of her. After an awkward dinner date, she tells him she wants more from their life but gets more than she bargained for when the Raven Society kidnap her, offering a trade for Thomas Wayne. Along with new recruits Dave boy and Bazza, Alfred bursts into Wayne’s house and phones the number for the trade.
They agree on a time but after a botched deal that sees the society try (and fail) to assassinate Wayne, another time and date is set at the tube station. However, this is also another trick so Alfred tries a different tactic while Esme breaks free and escapes. She makes it to the dining room where a large group are gathered but they pay her no mind as she screams at them for help.
Alfred eventually does rush in to save her but consequently gets himself captured. However, it’s here we learn about Lord Harwood and his role as top dog in the Raven Society. Alfred does eventually manage to save Esme and thwart the threat of the Society for now, going on to discuss matters with Wayne who offers him a job.
Except for the name, Pennyworth bears little resemblance to the DC universe or superheroes. The series revels in distinctly spy thriller territory, feeling like a cross between Peaky Blinders and James Bond. It works really well too, with the dialogue disguising exposition naturally and some of the establishing shots of London doing well to sell the time period and mood. Zeppelins fly overhead, thick clouds of smoke choke the atmosphere and neon-lit streets bustle with formally dressed men and women at night.
Pennyworth is a strange kettle of fish. If it changed the name of its characters, I actually think this show would work better. Right now though you can’t help but feel a distinct lack of tension or peril to Alfred’s dilemmas as you know he’s going to survive everything that’s thrown at him. The throwbacks to Gotham City’s lore, given the character names and shadowy Raven Society, actually work against the show and ironically those who know nothing about Batman or Gotham will probably get more out of this.
Still, Pennyworth delivers a very intriguing and strong opening episode here, one that sets the foundation to come by injecting the show with just enough charm, swagger and compelling writing to make it a wholly original and stylish crime thriller in its own right.