❉ As Starz’ DC origins series returns to screens, can it keep up the impressive quality for a second run?
Following an outstanding mix of action, drama, pop culture in-jokes, alternative history and great music in its premier, 2019 season, Pennyworth returned for a second batch of genre-busting episodes last Sunday (28 February). The first season of the early adventures of Batman’s faithful butler – here a young, ex-soldier turned security consultant and freelance hit man, living in an imaginary 1960s London – ended on an absolute high: ‘Alfie’ (Jack Bannon) was last seen carrying the unconscious Queen (Jessica Ellerby) from the burning ruins of a country house, as Sid Vicious’ My Way pummelled into the end credits. That one scene summed up the whole show’s dramatic daring and refreshing pop cultural larkiness.
In Season Two’s opener, The Heavy Crown, it’s a year after the bomb attack that the Queen survived but which wiped out most of the government. As befits the first instalment of a season, there’s a lot of laying in of plots for the coming episodes, the most significant being that the fascist Raven Union, led by Jason Flemyng’s Richard III-riffing Lord Harwood, has staged a successful revolution. Things don’t look good for the defenders of liberty as London is under siege from Harwood’s heavily-armed forces, with the threat of a final, decisive assault on the city any day. (It’d be a crime if The Clash’s English Civil War doesn’t make it on to the soundtrack at some point, especially since London’s Burning accompanied the Ravens’ first takeover bid in Season One).
Consequently, the tone is noticeably bleaker than before, particularly with the introduction of the Ravens’ ‘detention centres’ (translation: torture complexes), the sight of sociopath Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith) confident in a Raven military uniform, and the introduction of a major new character, Colonel John Salt. Coolly, academically and callously played by Edgar Hogg (definitely an actor to watch), he is the Ravens’ Dr. Mengele, whether it’s performing lethal gas experiments on prisoners or torturing George Orwell (Ben Fox).
When Salt says to the captive Orwell that he used to work in a torture chamber called “Room 101”, you can see that Pennyworth hasn’t lost its touch when it comes to playing around with history, art and culture. The chutzpah of the sequence is inspiring: here is Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the definitive dystopian novel, on the receiving end of the kind of treatment his anti-hero Winston Smith experienced in the Ministry of Truth and, eventually, Room 101. More impressively, when Salt rebuffs Orwell’s plea that he’ll “sign anything” to be released, the Colonel insists that the writer must recant “in his heart”. It’s the same principle that the Party applied to Smith, as they knew that rebellion was a belief that had to be extinguished in the individual.
This intelligent, subversive self-awareness is one of the joys of the show. Even though we’re only on the first episode of Season Two, there are other other enjoyable examples: the Ravens are fielding propaganda newsreels clearly modelled on the ‘fascism is fun for all the family’ bulletins that the Nazis issued in the 1930s, while Alfie’s new club is called The Delaney. Presumably this is a nod to Shelagh Delaney, author of the ground-breaking social realist play A Taste of Honey (1958). Closer to home, the Ravens appear to be based in Norwich, which just happens to be the home city of leading man Jack Bannon.
Pennyworth is just as strong on character. In Season 1, Alfie was all about principles, fair play and honour, even reusing to betray Bet to the police because she saved his life. He did, though, lie to his parents about the nature of his work, which was the beginning of his slide to the amoral Alfie seen in The Heavy Crown. He now does killings and abductions for the highest price he can get, which initiates a genuinely shocking plot twist towards the end of the episode. After the events of the last season, Alfred is clearly not in a good place – “This whole city’s nothing but sad memories” – and he wants to leave the violence behind and emigrate to America with his (reluctant) mum and stalwart buddies Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher) and Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett). Jack Bannon is as engaging as ever as Alfie – a man who hides what he’s really feeling behind an insolent quip – and handles the new, darker Alfred well.
Elsewhere, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ dynamic between repressed CIA agent Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and fiery adventuress Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), Batman’s future parents, is back on. This show loves its Romeo and Juliet-style couplings, and fuel to the fire is added by Thomas being ordered to cosy up to the Ravens, while Martha works for the resistance. Doubtless these two will get it together again, and they’re fast emerging as a top-notch double act. Witness Martha’s response to Thomas’s comment that they had “a relationship”: “I had your cock in my hand for maybe two seconds and then you got shot”, which is just about the best line in anything ever.
Class is still a theme, both humorous and horrific: Alfie is fobbing off phone calls to his mum’s house from an infatuated Queen (if you’ve watched the first season, you’ll know why). The officer class of the Ravens, meanwhile, from Lord Harwood on down, are upper class (reflecting real-life members of the British Union of Fascists, like its leader Sir Oswald Mosely and Sir Jocelyn Lucas). The patronising attitude of the working class Bet’s commanding officer – “put the kettle on” – proves too much for her and she beats his head in with it.
In this scene, Pennyworth continues its sometimes uncomfortable blend of the domestic and the bloodcurdling. In other examples this week, a cup of tea accompanies a prospective rape, and currant buns are available at the reception desk of the Ravens’ Norwich torture centre. The Ravens’ tyranny is clearly a very English one.
It is, though, one of the essential ingredients that makes this show so watchable, entertaining and smart, and to say I’m looking forward to seeing where this second season of Pennyworth goes is a whopping understatement.
❉ A new episode of ‘Pennyworth’ is available every Sunday on STARZPLAY. ‘Pennyworth’ can also be seen on Amazon Prime with a Starzplay subscription (£1.99/month for 6 month(s) and £4.99/month thereafter): https://amzn.to/3bw2mRR
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.