The Dark Herald Does Not Recommend Pennyworth
BUMPED: due to a busted knuckle. (12/8/23)
Pennyworth caught my attention in passing. There was something else on Epix,* I wanted to watch when I spotted its thumbnail. I appear to have become something of a branch swinger so far as the streaming services go. I enroll in one for a month, watch its halo properties, and then cancel and move on to the next service, leaving the last one sobbing in broken-hearted misery.
DC’s Pennyworth was clearly supposed to be about Bruce Wayne’s faithful and loyal butler, Alfred. OK, I thought to myself, maybe there can be something to this. After all, who hasn’t wondered why Alfred puts up with all the crap from Bruce that he does?
Let’s face it, Alfred doesn’t just go the extra mile for his employer, he goes the extra death-march. He is pretty freaking far from just being just a Butler, he appears to keep Wayne Manor shipshape and Bristol fashion all by himself, he is also a friend, confidante, surrogate father, and was the legal Guardian of Bruce Wayne during his minority. He acts as a steadfast moral anchor for a superhero that is very shaky on his ability to consistently choose the right path.
Where did such ferocious all-consuming loyalty come from? Why did he give his life up for his employer’s boy? Why did the Waynes entrust a servant with their son’s care and well-being in case of their deaths? They are known to have had other family members but they trusted Alfred before anyone else with their most cherished treasure, their only son.
When introduced in 1943 Alfred was little more of a bumbling comedic figure. Apparently inspired by Nigel Bruce from the Sherlock Holmes movies.
But intriguingly Alfred became as prominent as Batman in his own right. It grew to be unthinkable to have Batman without his faithful and dryly sarcastic butler waiting for him in the Batcave. Alfred’s public persona grew and gained a layered depth of character without any single, one writer being the one to reshape him. It was in large measure, fan expectations that did this. Past a certain point, Batman’s various writers could only portray Alfred in a certain way without breaking ‘head-canon.’
Alfred Pennyworth became that most unusual of creations, a character who was writing his own back story.
So, I freely admit, I was intrigued by the concept of a story that showed where young Alfred’s relationship to the Wayne family came from.
I ran through a few possible scenarios in my head. Did they meet when they were both in the service? Were they comrades with shared joys and horrors? Perhaps the relationship between Thomas Wayne and Alfred was like the relationship between Galahad and Eggsy in the Kingsmen. A pseudo father relationship developed for whatever reason between Thomas Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth. One that would leave the young butler utterly heartbroken when Thomas and his wife’s murdered bodies were found in a Gotham City alley. Of course, someone with that kind of relationship with the Waynes would step in and do his best to raise the orphaned Bruce.
There’s no getting around this, a prologue to an established story can be pretty tricky. I felt that Pennyworth had the advantage of being a story that was largely devoid of fixed events. That can be extremely limiting for a story that has to end at the beginning of another story. The audience knows that events A, B, and C have to happen in that order, with C being the final triggering event for the next story to begin.
Classic example; the Star Wars prequels. You knew going in that Obi-Wan was going to have impenetrable plot armor from beginning to end, as would Anakin. You knew that Padme was likely going to die in the last movie. You knew that Palpatine would become the emperor and get deformed somewhere along the line. The Jedi order would fall. And you also knew that Anakin was eventually going to take a quick dip in a volcano and pop out as Darth Vader. It was a narrative where you knew every single plot point. Had a pretty good idea where they all had to go and in what order. It suffered from being completely predictable and that is death for any story.
Pennyworth on the other hand didn’t appear to be under any such constraints. And the setting of a London that takes place in an alternative history was rather intriguing. It was Swinging London but it had a more oppressive political atmosphere. There were people in stocks and televised executions where the condemned would be hung alive, then disemboweled. There is also a radio broadcast that mentions that the Netherlands had been granted home ruled by the German Reich. Indicating that either Hitler never fell or that Wilhelm the Second did a lot better in World War One. Regardless neither one’s been made clear yet.
The series starts off with Alfred fighting in the jungle. possibly, the Malayan Emergency? Regardless that’s never been made too clear either. Then it turns out that it was a flashback, and that Alfred has just been ‘demobbed.’ He is now starting up his own private security company.
This show is very dark and gritty, of freaking course. Honestly, they should change it from DC to DG it would fit better. We run into Thomas Wayne in the first episode and it quickly becomes very apparent that there is no reason at all for Alfred to like this jerk. As the series progresses it becomes even more clear that this is not a front on Wayne’s part. He really is simply a rich and dislikable dickweed.
I was interested in this series for a bit but the nihilism became oppressive and all-pervading. The only reason I was sticking around at all was that I was looking for the answer to my question of why would Alfred give up his life to raise the son of Thomas and Martha Wayne?
The series was canceled before we could a definitive answer to that one. Although, I strongly suspect the plan was for Alfred to knock up Martha. It’s not terribly Woke but I hate any show with that much nihilism. I get the feeling that the show runner was a big fan of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General. You get presented with characters that fit the image of heroes but at the end of the day your expectations of heroism are subverted everytime. It’s not a decent introduction to Batman and this isn’t remotely the character of Alfred.
And now it’s over after three seasons.
The Dark Herald Does Not Recommend.
*I wrote this review in 2021, before Epic was bought by MGM, and then MGM was bought by Amazon. Pennyworth is now owned by MAX.