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The Story of Batman's Alfred with 'Pennyworth' on Epix
July 28, 2019  | By David Hinckley

An origin story for the butler might feel like sweeping up crumbs from the story table, but as Downton Abbey proved when it told us that Carson the butler once anchored a dance team in music halls, that’s not necessarily always the case.  

It isn’t with Pennyworth,which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Epix and explores the youth of Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon, top), who would grow up to become the proper and ultra-loyal adult companion of young Bruce Wayne, better known as Batman. 

The Alfred we know from dozens of Batman incarnations was “just” a butler the way Clark Kent was just a newspaper reporter. Alfred became Bruce Wayne’s guardian, protector, mentor, and general go-to guy after the murder of Bruce’s parents Thomas and Martha. 

The latest TV incarnation of Batman, Fox’s Gotham, painted Alfred’s relationship with the young Bruce as often contentious, while Bruce was finding his way into a dark and menacing world. Still, Alfred remained Bruce’s rock, because that was his job and mission. 

Pennyworth rewinds the clock well before those years. At the start of Pennyworth, in 1960s London, Thomas and Martha Wayne are young themselves, and Bruce Wayne doesn’t yet exist.

Alfred is a relatively young man himself, fresh from ten years in the Army and an unidentified war that has left him with some degree of undiagnosed PTSD. 

Back in civilian life, he’s starting a private security firm – much to the disappointment of his father (Ian Puleston-Davies), who thinks he should go into domestic service and perhaps work his way up from footman to, say, butler. Now that, says Dad, would be a good job. 

Father knows best, eh? But that’s the long game. Short-term, Alfred works as a doorman at a nightclub to pay for rent and food. As a bonus, he meets an enchanting dancer with whom he is quickly smitten, Esmé (Emma Corrin). 

This would seem to point his life in a solid, if routine, direction, except he also meets Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge), an American billionaire who seeks and gains Alfred’s discretion in the wake of a minor but untidy incident involving Thomas’s sister Patricia (Salóme Gunnarsdóttir). 

In one of those six-degrees-of-separation plot threads, Alfred’s brief encounter with Thomas Wayne sucks him into a menacing national and international conspiracy involving a group of sometimes violent activists called the No-Name Society (NNS), which seems to want to overthrow everything. 

Guided by Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith, right), the NNS seems to have some sort of vague link to the corrupt Prime Minister (Richard Clothier). Hint: Good guys are scarce on both sides of this relationship. 

Thomas Wayne also seems to be somehow involved in these high-level shadowy manipulations, though he may be cleaner than the hard-core players on either side. 

Soon enough, to no one’s surprise, things turn ominous and lethal, with graphic violence to match. This is where Pennyworth can’t avoid becoming a reluctant player, on the periphery of a game that has no periphery.  

The complex setup requires more than one episode, and some viewers may find the machinations hard to follow. They make sense, however, in a way that later seasons of Gotham did not. 

We know where Alfred Pennyworth will end up. We also see that he’s got a lot of road to cover before he gets there, and he’s traveling in some interesting company.

Since Pennyworth began as a comic book, the TV adaptation by Bruno Heller retains some of those elements and that tone. It feels less like a cartoon than most comic adaptations, and the fact Alfred has no superpowers or extraordinary physical abilities makes his life more interesting, not less. 

Most importantly, the seeds of the familiar Alfred clearly took root in his younger self. The butler’s scrapbook is worth a good browse. 

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