NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Pennyworth” are present in this review
Alfred has been predictably ruined by the murder of his fiancee throughout Pennyworth’s fifth episode, and that naturally proves to be a reliable way to take the toast of London’s security business out of the game, at least for a bit. “Shirley Bassey” sees a depressed, shiftless Alfred struggling to cope with Esme’s death, following a time jump to several months later, at which point London has become engulfed in full-scale street violence by citizens, each taking sides for the No Name League or the Raven’s Society. This has tensions between the two organizations coming to a head, as their puppetmasters grow anxious, and big moves are made against the leadership of both factions.
Sadly, we don’t get another exciting mission with Martha on this latest Pennyworth episode, with Martha instead failing to convince Alfred to give any further allegiance to the No Name League, for real this time. Martha and Thomas happen to observe Esme’s funeral from the background initially, with Thomas in particular later reporting to a CIA handler, who instructs him to push for a No Name League victory in the coming battle. Thomas already hinted that he was in the CIA’s pocket earlier in the show, so this isn’t much of a shock, but Martha struggling with her guilt over her passionate moment with Alfred, and blaming herself for Esme’s death, makes for better character material, even as Martha’s presence ends up subsequently minimized in this episode.
Alfred himself stays away from his regular security gig in this case, preferring to wallow in misery around the Pennyworth house. Despite the shortcomings of Esme’s character, the show does take at least some time to illustrate Alfred’s grieving process, even if it sometimes does so with mixed success. Alfred literally seeing and yelling at the ghosts of his former military buddy, and the woman from the cafe that he accidentally killed, feels pretty hokey for example, even by the standards of the Pennyworth/Gotham universe. It’s not until John Ripper makes a return to the Pennyworth house, whereupon he forces Alfred to jog around London with him, that Alfred’s story arc picks up a bit more. Even then, the pacing with said arc is slow, but I do have to admit that the payoff is worth the wait.
It also turns out that Alfred has temporarily left his job as a bouncer for his exclusive London club, with Dave Boy leaving soon afterward, after Thomas offers him and Bazza a big payout to assassinate Raven Society leader, Frances Gaunt. Bazza turns down the job, but Dave Boy is all too happy to take it. On a related note, Pennyworth also sets the stage for Dave Boy’s assassination job by finally introducing us to the proper leaders of the No Name League, who, as it turns out, are a married couple, Julian and Undine Thwaite. The Thwaite’s are just as much in favour of Dr. Gaunt’s assassination as the CIA and the White House, and this puts Thomas into a pretty tight corner, since he’s now out of options when it comes to ending the growing dispute between the Raven Society and the No Name League in any kind of peaceful manner.
Regardless, John’s favour begins to play out alongside Dave Boy’s attempt to kill Gaunt in a neutral restaurant, which you can probably predict a bit in advance. Despite taking out Gaunt’s bodyguards just fine, Dave Boy hesitates with Gaunt herself, and ends up being gut shot, ultimately failing to kill the Raven Society’s leader. It’s revealed however that one of the nearby masked guards is actually Alfred, who makes sure that Dave Boy has been stabilized, before suddenly unloading his local barkeep’s shotgun on Julian Thwaite’s face, killing him instantly! The shock of Alfred’s bold-faced killing doesn’t have time to set in though, as Alfred must shoot his way out, carrying Dave Boy with him, while Gaunt escapes again. Like I said, this was a fantastic payoff, particularly when Alfred really appears to snap here, even going as far as to aggressively have sex with the barkeep’s daughter in the back, while Dave Boy keeps bleeding out in a nearby booth! For Gotham fans especially, this is no doubt a key moment for Alfred’s backstory too, especially when it could very well be the murderous moment that Alfred referenced during Bruce Wayne’s own murder-related downward spiral on the events of that show.
Whatever the case, more great payoffs are had as the episode winds down, most notably the fact that the prime minister and the queen appear to be unmoved by the events at the restaurant, believing that both the Raven Society and the No Name League alike need to be put down, so it’s a win for both of them. This is also when we learn that Undine Thwaite single-handedly takes over management of the No Name League, and better still, Undine apparently planned the killing of her husband herself! It was actually Undine that put John up to perking up Alfred, and turning him into a blunt instrument through which to kill Julian, in exchange for Alfred getting a name that could point him to Esme’s murderer. Even better is that Undine and John are apparently lovers, confirming that John is most heavily tied to the No Name League over the Raven Society. This was a great first appearance by Undine, particularly when she effortlessly seizes membership of the No Name League in an impressive and shocking way, even at the cost of her own husband’s life at her hands!
“Shirley Bassey” had several slow stretches, and its first half especially still relies heavily on several lead characters grieving for another character that never did much for Pennyworth’s overall narrative. Still, the ultimate payoff to the slow burn storytelling is worth it, especially regarding the big shake-ups at the No Name League. If the loss of Esme can provide any benefit for Pennyworth at this point, it could be the chance to present a darker and more ruthless Alfred for the season’s back half, which we already got a great glimpse of, after he murdered a man without blinking, just to get a chance to be pointed toward whomever killed Esme. Bet and Peggy gradually rehabilitating a mentally broken Lord Harwood also worked well as a twist in the fallout of Esme’s death, even if Bet’s perceived relationship with Esme simply ends up more or less cast aside in the end. Regardless, even when he appears to directly strike hard at the No Name League, Alfred appears to remain firmly in the pocket of the No Name League, which, on top of Bazza being a drug addict, and Dave Boy now being critically injured, makes one wonder exactly how many friends Alfred truly has left at this point.
Pennyworth shifts to a slow burn, grief-fueled storyline in, "Shirley Bassey", an episode that compensates for its tedious stretches with some truly great payoffs.
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THE GOOD STUFF
John perking Alfred up, and bringing out his killer instinct
Ruthless, ingenious murder plot by Undine
Effective rising tensions across the political factions
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Alfred literally seeing ghosts is pretty hokey
Bet's fixation on Esme feels too quickly cast aside