Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 18, 2023)
On the surface, a series that tells the “origin story” for Batman’s butler sounds absurd. Actually, it feels that way beneath the surface as well.
At least that seems like the case for those of us who grew up with Alfred Pennyworth as the fussy elderly man seen in the comics for so many years. However, via Gotham and other more recent tales, DC has changed this.
As such, maybe TV’s Pennyworth will work. The series takes us to London in the 1960s to follow the younger Alfred’s evolution pre-Batman.
This three-Blu-ray set includes all 10 of Season One’s episodes. The plot synopses come from IMDB.
Pilot: “Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon), a young man just out of the British Special Air Service and at loose ends, endeavors to start a security company. At the same time, Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) offers him his first real job.”
Though Pennyworth technically comes set in the 1960s, we get signs that it doesn’t quite adhere strictly to the real world. For instance, at one point we hear a brass band play a version of the Jam’s 1978 song “The Modern World”.
Most of the episode sticks with a gritty thriller/spy vibe, though. That side becomes moderately intriguing.
Really, all I ask from a pilot is that we get a decent introduction to characters and themes, and this one pulls off those attributes. Although I can’t claim this opening episode acts as a terrific launch to the series, it does enough to succeed.
The Landlord’s Daughter: “Alfred turns down an offer from billionaire businessman Thomas Wayne and instead accepts an assignment that puts him in the crosshairs of John Ripper (Danny Webb), one of the East End's most dastardly figures.”
Expect “Daughter” to offer a decent plot-thickener. It develops some potential narrative threads in a largely positive manner, so I find myself more curious to see where the season will go. We also get another hint that Pennyworth doesn’t take place in our universe when we see that they televise executions, reality TV style.
Martha Kane: “Alfred accepts an assignment from photojournalist Martha Kane (Emma Paetz) that turns increasingly dangerous.”
Even casual Bat-fans know that Martha Wayne becomes Bruce’s mother. Three episodes into Pennyworth, we find ourselves with the question of whether Martha Kane someday turns into Martha Wayne.
This program doesn’t answer that, of course – and with 27 more shows to go in Pennyworth, I have no idea if it’ll ever spill those beans, though I suspect it will eventually. In any case, Martha delivers a lively new character who adds spark to the series and helps propel this into a solid show.
Lady Penelope: “Alfred and Martha Kane take a train ride into the countryside on an assignment, while tragedy strikes in London.”
To a degree, “Penelope” feels like a plot-thickening episode, one that acts more to push along exposition than to stand out in its own right. I don’t mind that, however, and the show manages to push along matters in a concise way – and the tragedy mentioned in the synopsis acts as a major event as well.
Historical footnote: “Penelope” appears to formally place Pennyworth in 1968, as a news item indicates that breakup of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. However, given that Pennyworth clearly exists in an alternate world, we can’t assume that it follows a precise calendar. Still, I found this willingness to specifically “date” events interesting.
Shirley Bassey: “John Ripper presents Alfred with an offer. Meanwhile, Lord Harwood's (Jason Flemyng) fate takes a curious turn.”
The “major event” that concluded the prior episode becomes a primary focus here, mainly as it continues to impact Alfred. That makes “Bassey” gloomier and less dramatic than usual, but the show pushes along matters in a positive way.
Cilla Black: “Martha and Patricia Wayne (Salóme Gunnarsdóttir) attend a debauched party with famed magician Aleister Crowley (Jonjo O’Neill).”
The introduction of Crowley feels like a potential misstep, as that real-life person doesn’t seem like a logical connection to the series. In addition, the party comes across like an attempt for the series to go all Eyes Wide Shut on us. Still, I remain open to further developments, and the Raven/No Name elements add intrigue.
Julie Christie: “While Martha and Thomas confront Crowley over his strange party and the return of Patricia, Alfred and the lads track down the identity of a wanted killer.”
The Crowley-related elements show some twists, but I still think they feel gimmicky and not especially strong. At least the remaining plot points fare better, especially connected to growing drama among the dueling societies.
Sandy Shaw: “While Lord Harwood returns to take control of the Raven Society, Alfred, Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) and Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) form an unlikely alliance with sisters Peggy (Polly Walker) and Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith).”
As Season One nears its conclusion, and the conflicts between the two societies intensifies. We also get twists related to that major death from earlier in the season. All of these add up to a show that helps push toward the finale well.
Alma Cogan: “Alfred, Thomas and Martha become entangled in an assassination plot against Lord Harwood.”
Created during the Trump administration – with the 2020 election in the then-near-future – it becomes difficult not to see the Ravens as a reflection of the MAGA “movement”. This subtext becomes more obvious during “Cogan”, as the Ravens and No Names take their arguments to the ballot box.
All of that leads to major drama, and Alfred himself goes through some major events. These point toward the season finale in a positive manner.
Marianne Faithfull: “After a member of the British royalty is abducted, Alfred must take a side in the struggle. Meanwhile, Lord Harwood uses those closest to Alfred to remove him from the game.”
Season One wraps on a vaguely cliffhanging manner here. Not that it leaves threads dangling in a frustrating manner, but while it doesn’t provide a neat and tidy finale.
Which seems fine, as this leaves us interested to see where matters progress in Season Two. I went into S1 with some skepticism but Pennyworth proved pretty solid through this initial batch of 10 episodes. We’ll see if S2 continues this trend.
Note that Season One of Pennyworth can be purchased either on its own or as part of a seven-disc "Complete Series" package that also includes Seasons Two and Three. The latter comes with nothing unique but it offers efficient "one-stop shopping".