NOTE: Spoilers for this episode of, “Pennyworth” are present in this review
Less than a year after Gotham concluded its five-season run on FOX, showrunners, Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon have already launched another prequel to the Batman franchise mythology, this time going even further back than the handful of years before the Dark Knight would come to protect the streets of Gotham City. In fact, Heller’s and Cannon’s new Batman prequel series doesn’t even operate in Gotham City at all, instead going across the pond to a 1960’s-inspired London, England, to instead unfold from the perspective of a young twentysomething Alfred Pennyworth! Pennyworth chronicles the youth of the future Batman’s esteemed butler and childhood caretaker, namely how he first meets Thomas Wayne, and how he eventually finds his life path after leaving a ten-year career in the British military, culminating with time in the SAS.
While it has no direct connection to the events of Gotham, the showrunners at least have claimed that Pennyworth does take place in the Gotham universe to boot, at least in their minds, serving as a prequel to a prequel, and focusing specifically on the young man who would one day become Sean Pertwee’s gruff, hard-hitting legal guardian to the young Bruce Wayne. The series has already concluded its Season One run on its home American network, Epix at the time of writing, but only now is Pennyworth beginning to air its first season in our native Canada after several weeks’ delay, via the Showcase Channel. This is no doubt frustrating enough for Gotham fans, who would almost certainly be eager to see Heller and Cannon spearhead another Batman prequel series to succeed Gotham, but compounding that frustration is the fact that Pennyworth’s first episode is pretty damn good!
There’s a lot going on in this first Pennyworth offering, which runs at a pretty beefy 70-minute or so runtime, not including the commercial breaks that were inserted into the Canadian broadcast on Showcase, bringing the pilot episode up to a staggering 90-minute length here in the Great White North! This is because Heller and Cannon have once again created a very rich, slightly fantastical setting in Pennyworth, combining a 1960’s-inspired London backdrop with the same macabre/steampunk style that often defined Gotham’s take on the titular fictional city. That’s on top of larger-than-life secret societies and political intrigue that constantly runs in the background amid Alfred’s origin story, with an underground fascist movement called the Raven Society conspiring to overthrow the Queen of England and seize power in the country, while a counter-intelligence group called the No Name League appears to work against them.
A young, unmarried Thomas Wayne also happens to be part of the No Name League, chancing upon Alfred after picking up his drunken (never-before-mentioned) sister at the bar that Alfred works as a bouncer for, while Alfred works to set up a security business. At the same time, Alfred also meets a new love interest, Esme, who ends up being kidnapped by the Raven Society, after a narrow escape by Thomas Wayne results in Alfred being inadvertently caught in their crosshairs. This is the shortest-possible recap through which to describe Pennyworth’s surprisingly large-scale pilot episode, which takes Alfred all around London on a chase to reclaim Esme, while also winding up in league with Thomas, after the Raven Society naturally demands that Alfred turn over Thomas to secure Esme’s safe return.
There’s a slick, stylish and fun retro spy thriller feel to Pennyworth, which combines well with something of a coming-of-age story for the titular character, as he properly enters maturity through his first accidental gig with Thomas Wayne. Jack Bannon’s young Alfred is also a constant delight, one who fits with the quaint charm of the period setting, while being exceptionally skilled and resourceful in a scrap, ensuring that he’s an immediately captivating leading man, whom fans and non-fans of Batman alike will likely be immediately interested in following across Pennyworth’s run. Alfred’s military buddies and Thomas don’t get nearly as much development in this first episode, by contrast, but we do at least get plenty of time with the Raven Society, who are up to something sinister underneath London. This conspiracy is primarily perpetuated through one of the Raven Society’s main masterminds, Lord James Harwood, who seems more interested in hiring Alfred than killing him, as well as Bet Sykes, the sociopathic enforcer that proves to be a worthy and memorable foil to Alfred, being the one to primarily carry out Esme’s kidnapping.
None of the show’s characters outside of Alfred and Thomas have any connection to Gotham, nor the DC Universe and/or Batman mythos at large, and this may be the only sticking point in an otherwise strong pilot episode. Pennyworth is an interesting and entertaining origin story, but its small handful of Batman/DC connections could have been removed, and not much would have been lost. Likewise, as awesome as Bannon’s Alfred is, there isn’t really much explored in this first episode that presents new or interesting dimensions to Alfred’s character, even if the young Alfred is undeniably a charismatic and cool badass here. As a result, Pennyworth is so far functioning better as a cool period thriller than a character-driven drama, even if it’s nonetheless carving out a distinct and noteworthy niche, one that provides yet another unique experience for DC fans that are consistently eager to consume great DC-inspired television, as well as non-fans of Batman/DC that just like a good spy thriller.
You don’t need to have seen Gotham, or have any familiarity with Batman mythology nor Alfred’s comic book history, to enjoy Pennyworth, which is a really compelling show on its own merits as much as it is another very entertaining Batman prequel series from Heller and Cannon. This pilot episode doesn’t totally justify its bloated length, particularly with such tenuous connections to the future Batman, and no connections whatsoever to the Dark Knight’s beloved rogues gallery of villains, but it’s a fun watch that finds its place in the ever-expanding glut of modern DC shows. Alfred himself is a great leading man here, and the spies-and-seditionaries-laden retro London setting makes for a great backdrop to what’s sure to be a rich series of conspiracies and fisticuffs. We’ll have to see if Pennyworth ever truly manages to provide more unexpected and intriguing dimensions to the tragic working relationship between Alfred and Thomas, but for now, Epix’s new Batman prequel series is at least a jolly good time, regardless of your level of existing attachment to the Dark Knight and his family unit.
- Bannon's young Alfred is a likable, hard-hitting delight
- Rich world-building with a great retro spy thriller feel
- Intriguing storytelling that doesn't require Batman knowledge/fandom to enjoy
- Doesn't currently add much to Batman lore, nor Alfred's backstory
- Pilot length is a little bloated