NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Pennyworth” are present in this review
Despite being a DC show that’s loosely inspired by a handful of Batman franchise characters, Pennyworth has mostly operated with a higher level of realism up to this point, at least outside of its fantastical take on London, and a few elements of its political lore. The show departed more significantly from its relatively grounded style with, “Cilla Black” however, which suddenly brings in elements of the occult, and adds a strange new layer of mystery to who killed Esme, something it achieves with mixed success. At the same time, Martha encounters her own seemingly supernatural obstacle, when she decides to tag along with Thomas’ sister, Patricia to a party hosted by none other than Aleister Crowley. Yes, that Aleister Crowley!
This is already pretty weird, since Aleister Crowley was a real person, and an occult enthusiast that founded the religion of Thelema. He also died in 1947, which means that he should probably be dead by the time the 1960’s-era events of Pennyworth are unfolding. Then again, the Pennyworth/Gotham universe does appear to be operating in some degree of hyper-time, much like DC’s comic book universe, so whatever. In any case, this storyline kicks off when Thomas is conscripted by his CIA handler to negotiate a sincere truce with Dr. Gaunt and the Raven Society. Inconveniently though, Patricia stumbles into Thomas’ apartment shortly before the operation, begging for money. Left with no other option, Thomas thus has to stash Patricia with Martha, shortly before Patricia (somehow) talks Martha into going to a party with her.
Here, we seem to have come to the sole reason why Thomas suddenly has a sister in the Pennyworth/Gotham universe, a sister that he never previously had in any prior DC media; So that she could get Martha to this weird party hosted by Aleister Crowley. Martha has no reason to go to this party, and if she was meant to be motivated by her guilt over Esme’s death, then the episode didn’t explain this very well. Likewise, Martha suddenly going along with Thomas’ clearly drunk/stoned sister, when she just has to stay in her apartment for a few hours, like Thomas said, feels inexplicable and out-of-character, even considering Martha’s grief. Still, Crowley naturally takes a liking to Martha at the party, and when Martha inevitably gets creeped out and wants to leave, she loses Patricia, and suddenly finds herself in a maze of stairs. Shortly afterward, Martha is set upon by the entire party, marching her to a mysterious multi-eyed goat-headed man, before Martha wakes up naked outside of London. Yeah, this is a very weird story turn, and one that definitely doesn’t fit with Martha’s prior story material on Pennyworth. I’m sure that the show is going somewhere with this, but for now, it’s definitely out of left field, to say the least!
Alfred’s core storyline also comes out of left field, with said storyline going into motion after John Ripper directs him to a woman named Baroness Ortzy, who is imprisoned underneath a psychiatric hospital. After Ortzy claims that she’s a witch, Alfred dismisses her, and initially leaves in disgust, subsequently accusing John of playing a trick on him. Why John would do this, I don’t know, but you can obviously see where this is going. Left with no other leads, Alfred resumes his old bouncer job, and, after a quick fight, he happens upon a severed left hand of a murderer, and a red rose, two things that Ortzy requested of him beforehand. After taking these spoils back to Ortzy, Alfred then undergoes a dream sequence, wherein he seems to identify the old captain that he embarrassed before as Esme’s killer. This yet again comes out of left field, but at least Alfred’s storyline’s hint of occult elements for Pennyworth is done a lot better than what the Martha/Patricia subplot offered, while also putting Alfred back on the mission to avenge his dead fiancee.
Disappointingly though, Alfred felt like he was all over the map in this episode. He blows off the barkeep’s daughter like an asshole, then desperately goes to John, then dismisses John’s lead, then decides he’s going to move on, then becomes a respectable person again, then chances upon what he needs, putting him right back where he started. Likewise, Thomas also feels like he’s stumbling around aimlessly in this episode, simply doing whatever the script demands. Even the negotiation between Undine Thwaite and Dr. Gaunt is disappointingly uneventful, with the two deciding to draft a statement for the newspapers, and hammer out the terms of their truce later. Really? That’s it? I’m fine with Pennyworth wanting to take a break from action for at least one episode, but if it’s going to do that, it needs to provide a better sense of intrigue and mystery. Instead, the characters just feel like they’re clumsily being bounced around, so they can get to certain narrative places in time for the back half of Pennyworth’s debut season to start working towards a climax.
The only other development of note in this episode is Harwood regaining his memory after seeing the Prime Minister on a television broadcast, which also happens too suddenly to be truly satisfying. Granted, Harwood, Bet and Peggy undertaking a trip to London for their own agendas is fairly promising, but Pennyworth’s antagonists also seemed to suffer from the show seemingly writing itself into a corner, and running out of episodes to properly establish the stakes for whatever’s meant to occur at the end of the season. This leaves, “Cilla Black” as Pennyworth’s weakest episode so far, despite the valiant attempt to expand the show’s scope outside of more relatively grounded sensibilities. If Pennyworth ends up being renewed for a second season, it will no doubt have to come up with a new obstacle for Alfred and the other protagonists, so perhaps introducing occult elements to the show is a logical move when it comes to increasing the scale of the storytelling. As it stands though, the transition to dealing with supernatural and mystical elements is clumsy and ham-fisted here, and probably should have been left for a potential second season. Hopefully, these weird developments are at least going somewhere noteworthy though, so this odd episode can at least serve as a foundation for something better down the line.
- Baroness Ortzy manages a decent air of mystery
- Thomas getting an opportunity to deepen his trust of Martha
- Alfred getting fully back on track in his professional life
- Why in the world would Martha ever attend a Satanist party with Patricia?
- Inconsistencies in Alfred's character
- Disappointingly uneventful truce between Gaunt and Thwaite