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Pennyworth: To Protect and to Serve

Pennyworth: To Protect and to Serve

By Tim Beedle Thursday, October 17th, 2019

Welcome to the Couch Club, our column devoted to all things #DCTV! This week, Tim Beedle looks back at the first season of Pennyworth, discussing how the idea of service is incorporated throughout its ten episodes.

I’m not sure what any of you expected to see in an Alfred Pennyworth prequel series, but I’m pretty sure none of us expected that. I mean, sure, we knew Alfred would be meeting the eventual Thomas and Martha Wayne for the first time and we assumed the series would delve into his military past. But if any of you guessed that we’d be seeing Alfred as a soldier (and occasional assassin) for hire who gets caught up in a shadow war between two secret societies while occasionally working for the descendent of Jack the Ripper, you’re either involved with the show or are hiding some super powers of your own.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t been watching Pennyworth, the Batman spinoff series focusing on a young, pre-butler Alfred Pennyworth that just concluded its first season on EPIX. There are likely a couple of reasons for that. EPIX is a subscriber-based network, so there are probably many of you who simply don’t subscribe to it. In addition, I suspect many of you don’t understand why a show like Pennyworth exists in the first place. Do we really need a show focusing on Batman’s butler, of all people?

Well, no, we don’t need an Alfred show. But we don’t technically need a Flash or Supergirl TV show either. We don’t need a Watchmen series, even if it’s on HBO. All of these are just characters or groups of characters that Hollywood has decided have an interesting story to tell, and who’s to say Alfred doesn’t as well? Certainly not me now that I’ve seen Pennyworth. True, this isn’t what I expected Alfred’s story to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate for the character. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that Pennyworth is the perfect story for a man destined to spend his life serving one of the world’s greatest superheroes.

That’s because the entire series seems to be about service.

Almost every character on Pennyworth lives their life in service to something or someone. The most obvious would be Alfred’s father, who works as a butler serving England’s ruling class. But he’s not the only one. Thomas Wayne serves the CIA. Martha Kane serves the No Name League. Bet and Peggy Sykes serve Lord Harwood. Inspector Aziz serves Scotland Yard, Mrs. Pennyworth serves her family and that strangely subservient elderly couple clearly serves Peggy with a level of loyalty that would be admirable if it wasn’t so freaking disturbing. Heck, even Aleister Crowley serves a master.

The only major character who isn’t big on service in Pennyworth’s first season is…well, Alfred Pennyworth. Or rather, he says he doesn’t want to serve anyone, but he clearly does. In fact, this entire season seems to be at least partially about him looking for someone who’s worth serving unconditionally. He thought he had found it in the tragically doomed Esme, but when she’s murdered, Alfred becomes unmoored and for the next several episodes, his service drifts to a variety of subjects that clearly aren’t worthy of it—John Ripper, Inspector Aziz, revenge for get the picture. In the process, he winds up first in jail and eventually on the lam, cut off from everyone he cares about.

In other words, Alfred’s resistance to service doesn’t work out very well for him. But blind loyalty in the world of Pennyworth doesn’t seem to work out well either, at least when it’s given to an unworthy cause or individual. There is a dark side to service, as Alfred and his fellow PTSD-suffering former squad mates could tell you. Often, you wind up used, discarded and left to suffer the damage stemming from your service on your own. All of Alfred’s flashbacks to his time in the Royal Army serve as a reminder of this, but this dark side is also demonstrated by none other than Alfred’s father, whose terminal cancer and support of the Raven Society ultimately leads to him killing himself, the prime minister and most of the royal family.

It’s an alarming climax to the season, but don’t let it confuse you. The bottom line is that service can’t be seen as a bad thing in a show about Alfred Pennyworth. Rather, it’s a matter of who and how you choose to serve. While it’s uncertain how Alfred’s…um, generous service to the Queen will ultimately conclude, it’s clearly demonstrating a loyalty to his country as a whole and what it represents rather than to any of the various factions fighting to control it. More important, it feels like the right choice for Alfred after quite a lot of questionable ones. That’s not to say its an easy choice—let’s not forget that Alfred had to shoot his own father—but in the midst of all of Pennyworth’s dramatic twists and raised stakes, Alfred gradually regains the moral compass that was badly damaged with Esme’s death. It’s this compass that leads him to spare Thomas and Martha and to twice risk his life to rescue the Queen.

It’s a compass he’s going to need when he finally gets to Gotham.

Pennyworth Season 1 can now be watched in its entirety on EPIX or the EPIX app. For more news, features and conversation on Pennyworth, click here.

Tim Beedle covers movies, TV and comics for and writes our monthly Superman column, "Super Here For..." Look for him on Twitter at @Tim_Beedle.