First look UK TV review: Pennyworth Season 2
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Ivan Radford | On 07, Mar 2021
Warning: This contains spoilers for Pennyworth Season 1. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review here.
“You used to have moral principles, Alfred.” “I used to have a teddy bear too.” That’s the sound of Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon), years before he would become known as the butler to Batman’s Bruce Wayne. But the strength of this unlikely DC prequel series has always been that its comic book credentials are treated as irreverently as possible; the origins story of Batman’s butler is just an excuse to tell a period spy thriller, and Season 2 of Pennyworth has even more spies and thrills to offer.
A former British SAS soldier who started his own security firm in Season 1, we catch up with him in Season 2 as he now runs a nightclub in London – a rare neutral zone in a London that’s become increasingly divided. Tensions between the English League, defending the crown and the country as is, and the Raven Union, rebranded and now with the military support to overthrow the government, are escalating, and the nation is on the verge of full-on civil war. Or, as Alfie puts it, “there’ll be a proper argy-bargy”.
For all his neutral posing, Alfie is, inevitably, dragged into the conflict, taking on a job to kidnap Colonel John Salt (Edward Hogg), a high-ranking scientist in the Raven Union. Joined by his buddies, Bazza (Hainsley Lloyd Bennett) and Dave Boy (Ryan Fletcher), their mission is a typically gung-ho affair, complete with explosions, shootouts and frosty exchanges with the icily calculating Salt, who points out that Alfred’s main motivation is money. But while he has always had a mercenary streak, Alfie’s aim, we learn, is to save up the money to escape the UK and move to the USA.
It’s that extra layer, worn freely, that gives Jack Bannon just the right conditions to thrive. Swaggering about with a Michael Caine-like cockiness, he’s a joy to watch in action, whether it’s putting fascists in their place or casually waving the world away with a pistol and a drink in hand. But he also carries around emotional baggage underneath that charismatic exterior, still recovering from having to shoot his own dad in Season 1 and determined to leave those ghosts behind. All of which means some gentle awkwardness, as he plans whether to tell romantic interest Sandra (Harriet Slater), plus fertile ground for arguments with his mum, Mary (the brilliant Dorothy Atkinson).
Season 2’s opening episodes give Mary a prominent role to play that only reinforces their bond further, while also introducing another key figure from Alfred’s past – Captain Gully Troy, played with vile charm by a wickedly fun James Purefoy. The balance of back-story and character development with espionage hijinks is spot-on, never letting exposition get in the way of keeping things moving.
That means it’s a little hard to swallow the sudden jump in the Raven Union’s influence and power from Season 1 to Season 2, but it also opens up Pennyworth’s world into an intriguing – and, in some ways, timely – backdrop of unrest, inequality and corruption. While it’s nice to see Detective Inspector Aziz (Ramon Tikaram) climbing up the ranks from the police into the English League, we also get a glimpse of the darker extremes to which the purported good guys have to go to out-manoeuvre the villains, whether it’s CIA agent Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) or English League member Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), both of whom are navigating their own objectives with personal disagreements. And, through this fog of grey morals and compromises, we’re dropped breadcrumbs about the development of a nasty poison gas.
If all this sounds rather serious, don’t fret, because Season 2 also reintroduces the nasty Lord Harwood (Jason Flemyng, clearly enjoying himself), leader of the Raven Union, and the sadistic Captain Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith, turning it up 12), who is too busy boasting of her connection to Lord Harwood to follow orders or intimidate new recruits. It’s almost no surprise that by the end of the first episode, she’s gone rogue with an art student, Katie (Jessye Romeo), and that anarchic energy – while feeling a little bit like a distraction – helps keep Pennyworth from settling into a predictable groove, adding a touch of comic book chaos to counter the occasional James Bond vibe. Thomas and Martha’s relationship can also feel like a drag, serving up a token nod to DC Comics lore, but it doesn’t bog things down either, thanks to Pennyworth’s enduring lightness of touch. If Season 2 can continue to mix its bombastic derring-do with boyish indifference, it’s set to be just as entertaining as the first.
Pennyworth: Season 1 and 2 is available on STARZPLAY, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.