Difficult, challenging times often inspire defining moments. Think of Bruce Wayne and the death of his parents or how his recent loss of income in the Batman comic series has recommitted him to becoming a symbol of hope for Gotham. Yet, Bruce is hardly the only member of the Bat-Family to face tragedy and hardship. In fact, as viewers of Epix’s Pennyworth can tell you, Batman’s trusted assistant and surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth, has dealt with no small shortage of it himself.
Set in a fictional version of London in the 1960s, Pennyworth’s debut season found the young butler-to-be starting up a personal security business and getting drawn into a covert war between two opposing organizations—the Raven Society and the No Name League. In the process, Alfred’s fiancée, Esme, was brutally murdered and Alfred was forced to shoot his own father when it was discovered he was a Raven Society operative and was about to bomb the royal palace.
Things aren’t looking any brighter in the upcoming season two, which makes its premiere this Sunday, December 13th. The war between London’s secret societies has exploded into the open, with the authoritarian Raven Society quickly gaining the upper hand and seizing control of most of England. North London remains the sole holdout, with Alfred and his friends running a black-market club in the West End Neutral Zone.
“The Ravens have got some real atrocities planned, and I think that tests Alfred’s loyalty,” offers Jack Bannon, who plays Alfred on the series. “But really, he’s created a third side, which is him and his family and his mom. That’s where he is at the moment.”
Alfred’s club, the Delaney, is a posh, cabaret-like nightclub where everyone, regardless of their side in the war, is welcome. Anything goes, except for two things—politics and firearms. It’s an impressive business, but Alfred’s pragmatic attitude doesn’t always mesh well with other people in his life, like his mother and his more idealistic friends, Martha Kane and Thomas Wayne.
“Martha feels a bit disappointed with Alfred at the top of the season,” explains actress Emma Paetz. “She thinks that Alfred’s someone who knows better, and I think she does inherently respect him as a person and thinks he has integrity, but she doesn’t respect the decisions he’s making. I think in wartime people find different slots for themselves that don’t necessarily align with who they are in peacetime. Martha probably had a very different idea of what sort of person Alfred would choose to be in these circumstances.”
Part of the problem is undoubtedly due to the end of season one. This war began after a failed assassination attempt by Alfred’s father, which was only foiled by Alfred discovering the plot and shooting him. The young Pennyworth’s relationship with his dad was undeniably fraught, but being forced to pull the trigger on one of your parents would be a hard thing for anyone to overcome, if not outright impossible.
“I think Alfred is on a dark path,” says Bannon. “He never quite recovered from Esme. He does all right, but that’s always going to be there. That hole will perhaps never be filled, but he kind of doesn’t want to replace her, so maybe that’s fine. But where we leave him at the end of season one, having shot his dad, I think that’s a completely different thing. He’s trying to be soldierly about it and see that his dad dug his own grave by the choices he made, and sometimes you have to do horrendous things to help the greater good, but it’s still his dad. He has a constant reminder of what he did when he looks at his mom and the state that she’s in.”
This darkness and internal strife manifests in different ways in the upcoming season, including in Alfred’s continually violent behavior. In Pennyworth’s first season, Alfred said several times he wanted to get away from violent jobs, but he was never truly successful at it, and when the series returns, it seems he’s dropped that notion completely.
“I think he’s sort of addicted to violence,” shares Bannon. “It’s all he knows, and he keeps being drawn back into it. You think you want to get away from it, and you do, but he’s drawn back into it because of the company he keeps. I think he’s slightly addicted to the rush that it gives him, and really that’s all he knows. So, as much as he professes to want a quiet life, it’s not happening right now.”
Of course, with a war ravaging England, a quiet life would likely be difficult to find regardless. Alfred claims to be neutral, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll stay that way, especially considering he does have ideals and the Raven Society, which are poised to take control of England, champion some truly terrifying beliefs. Ben Aldridge, who plays Thomas Wayne, sees Alfred—and his relationship with Thomas—as key to the resistance’s success
“I think Alfred is always going to be a huge asset for the CIA,” he says. “Thomas has won him around to working with him in varying degrees of success in the past. I think that’s still Thomas’ main mission, but I think he also wants to be liked by Alfred, and we assume he’s never going to get there.”
Alfred’s life remains as complex, layered and surprising as ever, only now there’s a lot more at stake, for his family, his friends and his country. So far, young Pennyworth is a pretty far cry from the wise, gentle butler we know he becomes. Will it be his experiences in this war, including his role in the death of his father, that finally sets him off down that path?
Series creator and executive producer Bruno Heller thinks that’s possible.
“It’s complicated, isn’t it?” he ponders. “If you ever shot your father, you’d know. Eventually, it will be a growing experience. Eventually it will be something that helps him become a man in his own right, but as we join him in season two, he’s still very much caught up in the kind of oedipal angst that you would have if you’d shot your father, despite doing it for very good reasons. It’s made him more cynical, tougher and harder. It’s given him a self-protective shell that he’s going to need to break out of.”
In other words, no tea and cucumber sandwiches for Alfred yet. But as any citizen of Gotham can tell you, even the darkest nights give way to a brighter tomorrow.