How Pennyworth gives a much different take on English history than The Crown
Though Pennyworth is a show about Batman-adjacent characters, it’s set far from the streets of Gotham City. Like all the best fictional butlers, Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) is British, and this coming-of-age story is set in his home country.
But The Crown this is not. Though Pennyworth is set in England in the wake of World War II and features Queen Elizabeth II (Jessica Ellerby) as a recurring character, its conception of historical reality differs quite a bit from the popular Netflix drama about the real-life House of Windsor.
“We’re not really moored to history,” showrunner Bruno Heller tells EW. “It's the DC version of the world, and the DC version is darker, sexier, edgier, more transgressive, funnier. It’s freeing, it's a liberation. The Crown shows both the attraction and the trap of that sort of world. As Meghan and Harry are finding out for instance, it's a box. It's a gorgeous, richly-decorated box. But our queen could never behave the way the queen in Pennyworth behaves.”
One of the biggest elements that distinguishes Pennyworth’s version of 20th century English history from The Crown’s is that in the former’s just-begun season 2, England is in the midst of a civil war instigated by the fascist Raven Society. It makes for an intense watch in the wake of a hotly-contested election in the United States this year, where many have wondered if hyper-partisan divides would lead to conflict. But don’t look for direct political allegories in Pennyworth.
“Any kind of fiction is going to have resonance in the real world. I think for me, this particular civil war was more a kind of internal conflict,” Heller says. “Everyone has a little bit of, and I say this advisedly, everyone has a little bit of fascist in them. Everyone has a little bit of humanist in them. And so the fascists in this show, you never really hear much about their actual political aims. It's more, they represent the dark side that everyone has to some degree. I think the salient fact about this particular civil war, and the reason it happens, is because the army falls in behind. Not to be complacent about it, but the U.S. Army is never going to fall behind someone like Trump. But where the analogy is really sort of tight is that, as happened with Trump, it splits families along generational lines, across brothers and sisters. That's the terrible thing about civil wars: They break up families, they break up households and in Alfie's case, he killed his dad.”
Having killed his Raven Society-aligned father (Ian Puleston-Davies) at the end of season 1, Alfred now just wants to get out of England and avoid this war altogether by building a new life in America. Future Batman mother Martha Kane (Emma Paetz) is a leading figure in the anti-fascist resistance, while CIA agent Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) tries to play all sides. It seems like Bet Sykes (Paloma Faith) is goose-stepping in line with the fascists; the first glimpse we get of her in season 2 is in full Raven Society uniform. But it doesn’t take her long to turn tail and run once the fascists get too evil even for her.
Faith gets to enjoy the alternate-history Britain Pennyworth has created without being moored to DC canon in the way that Alfred, Thomas, and Martha are. We know Alfred will make it to America eventually, and we know Thomas and Martha will marry eventually. But what will happen to Sykes?
“Anything goes! That's what makes it fun,” Faith tells EW. “I think I get even more benefit from that because I'm not playing an already-written character. I feel like some of them have to watch a lot of previous comments on these characters and I just decided, nah, I'm not gonna do that. So for me, as a viewer it's fun, and there's loads of references to historical British people in the writing. Going to work every day is just exciting and fun because you never know what you're going to be. As a big David Lynch fan, I love all the like weird extras in the background, or like when somebody is doing a very serious scene and there's like just two people nearby having sex in the bed. So funny.”
Pennyworth season 2 premiered this past weekend. New episodes air Sundays on EPIX.
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