“Batwoman” didn’t have many great options going into season 2. Not only did the CW series lose its star when Ruby Rose decided to leave, but the first season wasn’t able to be filmed in its entirety once the coronavirus pandemic shut the industry down last spring. Even though the last episode to air (“O Mouse!”) ended with a decently intriguing cliffhanger, it still didn’t have nearly enough time or foresight to wrap up everything that needed wrapping before jumping into another character’s story.
In that respect, the premiere of the second season has a series of extremely tough jobs to do, narratively speaking. “Whatever Happened to Kate Kane?” has to explain the absence of Rose’s Kate Kane, deal with the fact that her psychotic sister Alice (Rachel Skarsten) has outfitted one of her goons with Bruce Wayne’s face (played in this disguise by Warren Christie) and, most crucially, pass the Batwoman torch from Kate to Ryan (Javicia Leslie), who will be wearing the Batsuit until further notice. Any one of those storylines could have individually powered an entire episode, but the extraordinary set of circumstances that brought the show to this point mandates that they all need to collide onscreen simultaneously. The result is messy, as was maybe inevitable — but it’s also not particularly satisfying, which was much more avoidable.
The immediate aftermath of Kate Kane’s disappearance unfolds as could be expected. Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson) and stepsister Mary (Nicole Kang), Kate’s coworkers in vigilante justice, are in shock. Her father (Dougray Scott), a police commander who made it his business to declare war on Batwoman, is disoriented and in denial. Her ex Sophie (Meagan Tandy) is devastated to the point that her new love interest, Julia Pennyworth (Christina Wolfe), starts asking questions. Meanwhile, Alice spends her waking hours furiously scuttling about in the sewers in elaborate mourning costumes and plotting revenge on whoever stole her chance to kill Kate on her own terms.
Skarsten is as committed as ever to making Alice the show’s own unhinged twist on the Joker, but her twitchy brand of villainy grates even more when Kate — her obvious foil and preferred target — is nowhere to be found. At one point, she even meets someone’s “why are you doing this?” question with a shrugged, “no reason at all, because reason doesn’t matter!” Chaos for chaos’ sake isn’t unfamiliar villain territory, but for a serialized show in which she’ll presumably remain the biggest antagonist, it’s neither sustainable nor particularly compelling.
Still: the first two episodes aren’t about Alice, as even Alice herself seems to realize in her sporadic fits of fury. In fact, the biggest issue (as Alice would probably agree) is that they’re mostly about Kate — even though they’re ostensibly laying the groundwork for her replacement to take over.
We first meet Ryan as she sleeps in her van, which we quickly learn became her home after she was framed for selling drugs and her adoptive mother was murdered. She is not, as she and the show often remind everyone, Kate Kane, whose riches supported and insulated her during her time as Batwoman. With so much else happening in the show, the first two episodes of her season barely have time to develop Ryan in much depth, let alone let Leslie build a believable performance. We find out in passing that she, like Kate, is gay, and that she also has extensive martial arts training, thus sidestepping any initially awkward fight attempts. And since she doesn’t have anyone in her life to talk to besides a plant, there’s not much we can learn about her life organically outside of her own flashbacks and clunky exposition from other characters with Google. Every so often, she gets to quip at the bad guys in a way that’s more Spider-man than Kate Kane, but it’s not long before the show’s preexisting mythology intervenes and swallows her back up in it. And while it’s important to the story that Ryan has to quite literally hit the ground running as Gotham’s new Batwoman, it’s nonetheless disappointing how much the show rushes her discovery of the suit, its powers and her feelings about it all.
With precious little time to devote to Ryan’s introduction, “Batwoman” takes some far from subtle shortcuts. After seeing a flashback in which she gets horribly beaten up, for instance, we see her looking at herself wearing the Batsuit and declaring, “Time to be powerful!” When Mary asks her why she thinks she’s “worthy” of becoming Batwoman, for another, Ryan replies with a righteous speech about how she’s not “a symbol, or a name, or a legacy.” It should be an inspiring moment — and almost is, especially when Ryan points out that her life, unlike Kate’s, has prepared her to understand how Gotham’s seedy underbelly thrives. But it’s her next frustratingly blunt explanation is that she’s “a number,” giving her inmate intake number and the fact that she was “the 327th baby of a Black woman who died in childbirth that year” as explanations. Given enough space to breathe, this information could make for compelling character moments. Without that, it feels like the show ticking boxes that prove why Ryan is A Different Kind of Batwoman before barreling into another nonsensical plot twist that does her character no favors.
The season will have far more road for Ryan to go down, and hopefully Leslie will get to explore more parts of her character beyond her foundational traumas. But if not, her Batwoman just might get lost in the margins of Kate Kane’s story after all.
The second season of “Batwoman” premieres January 18 on the CW. The first season is currently available to stream on The CW and HBO Max.