When Ruby Rose decided to leave her starring role on The CW’s Batwoman after just a single season, I knew it would be no great loss for the show. Her announcement last May sent shockwaves across the entertainment industry, partially due to this unusually abbreviated tenure and partially due to the apparent mystery of her departure, which she later attributed to the physical strenuousness of the job. Rose, an Australian model and chatterati thirst-favorite following her 2015 stint on Orange Is the New Black, brought much fanfare to a series already breaking ground for centering a Jewish lesbian superhero. But her stiffness as a performer shrank her star power and as the series progressed, she was soon eclipsed by her supporting co-stars, including the phenomenal Rachel Skarsten as a demented Alice in Wonderland-inspired villainess. The Batwoman creative team elected to replace Rose’s character altogether for Season 2, leaving me with one lingering question: If Rose’s absence is no great loss, will Javicia Leslie’s presence be a concrete gain?
Based on the two second season episodes available to critics, it remains unclear how the new protagonist will impact the show’s overall momentum, as these opening chapters work to transition viewers to a new narrative schema. So far, Leslie’s character provides some classic “fish out of water” levity to an otherwise self-serious superhero melodrama. That novice energy comes at some cost, however, to the series’ established emotional dimensions, which were always far more engrossing than its baddie-of-the-week crime-fighting. In its first season, Batwoman explored the complexities of sisterhood and created families. The second season will have a lot more to say about class stratification.
Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) is a white patrician heiress with the best combat and survivalist training money could buy… and very little sense of humor to go along with it. Leslie’s Ryan Wilder is a hardscrabble Black orphan trampled by the foster-system-to-prison pipeline but savvy enough to take advantage of the windfalls that come her way. Kate is cushioned by the wealth of a Blackwater-like private law enforcement corporation owned by her father (Dougray Scott). Ryan is an impoverished victim framed by these corrupt mercenaries. So far, though, for every goofy moment showcasing Ryan’s fumbles in the Batsuit, the writing plummets into clunky social commentary that likely reads far more profoundly on paper than it sounds when monologued.
“Trust me, I know I’m not a symbol,” Ryan snaps back at Kate’s unwelcoming associates Mary (Nicole Kang) and Luke (Camrus Johnson), in a winking nod to the current cultural discourse surrounding calls for wider racial representation on TV. Yet, immediately after declaring herself a sui generis alternative, she follows up with a cumbersome stats-laden speech that knocks all her gallantry to the ground. “Because I’m a number. I’m the 327th baby of a Black woman who died during childbirth that year. I’m a $20 a day check to a group home. I’m inmate 40757 — 18 months for a crime I didn’t commit. But I can live with all those numbers because the momma who adopted me? I was her number one. But it turns out she’s just one of a quarter million murders in this country who have not seen justice.” If that’s not literal symbolism, I don’t know what is.
Still, Leslie can at least emote while spouting data. Rose’s face barely cracked while killing her own sister in the first season.
Ryan lives in a van down by the river. One night, tragedy strikes, and she finds herself in possession of the Batsuit. With Kate now missing — and as untraceable as her cousin, Bruce Wayne — her loved ones spiral trying to make sense of her disappearance and the loss of Gotham’s latest vigilante hero. As both a newcomer to byzantine Bat-tech and the city’s glitzy aristocracy, Ryan has a lot to learn and a lot of people she needs to win over, but she’s less interested in all-you-can-eat heroism than taking vengeance on Alice (Skarsten) and the Wonderland gang.
The first season of Batwoman, while wildly uneven, often floored me thanks to a powerhouse storyline that pitted noble Kate against her own deranged twin sister, Beth a.k.a. “Alice,” a woman who was kidnapped as a child and subjected to grotesque, life-changing abuse. Where Kate was withdrawn and taciturn, shut down from survivor’s remorse, Alice was theatrical and animalistic, hellbent on exacting punishment against a family she believes abandoned her. Their warfare, fueled by mutual moral indignation and impeded by their ultimate reticence to hurt each other, was the emotional engine of the series. Skarsten remains magnificent in the role, so committed and explosive she practically ricochets across the frame. But Alice is neutered now that she’s lost her soul nemesis, which leads her on a quest to find an even bigger bad: a supervillain called Safiyah. To keep Alice relevant, the writers wield a cockamamie new revenge plot lacking the audacity of the show’s previous sororal antagonism.
Ryan Wilder may be more porous than Kate Kane, a woman she begins to idolize (and idealize) once she assumes the role of Batwoman herself, but time will tell if Leslie can usurp the supremacy of the ensemble that once dominated her predecessor.
Cast: Javicia Leslie, Rachel Skarsten, Camrus Johnson, Nicole Kang, Meagan Tandy, Dougray Scott, Christina Wolfe
Created by: Caroline Dries
Premieres: Sunday, January 17th, at 8 p.m. (The CW)