This Batwoman article contains MAJOR spoilers for what’s aired so far, including the Batwoman pilot.
Batwoman is a notable addition to The CW’s superhero lineup for several reasons. It stars an openly LGBTQ lead, whose loves and dating life are an intrinsic part of its story. It officially introduces Gotham – and Bruce Wayne, in a roundabout way – to the Arrowverse. And it features the best, most complicated villain that this universe has put forth yet—in seven years of storytelling.
As a whole, the Arrowverse hasn’t always featured a ton of memorable villains. Sure, the series have each featured some iconic names from the DC Comics rogues gallery, but in general, this universe hasn’t been terribly interested in telling stories about the adversaries of their heroes. There have, of course, been a few specific and notable exceptions – The Flash’s Eobard Thawne and Arrow’s Deathstroke spring to mind – whose journeys into darkness have been presented as important tales worth telling in their own rights. But Alice feels like something altogether different…
In the Batwoman series premiere, we are introduced to Alice: a dramatic, high-strung criminal who loves to quote Lewis Carroll and leads a gang of underworld thugs who sport fanciful animal masks. She’s got a vendetta against Jake Kane’s security company, a flair for violent performance art, and the sort of rag-tag, Miss Havisham-esque costume cosplayers everywhere dream about. In short, Alice Is a ton of fun, right from her very first frame.
To its credit, Batwoman doesn’t try to sugarcoat or hide this particular reveal, dropping it in the final moments of the series’ premiere. It’s a shock that works on multiple levels. It immediately makes viewers want to tune in the following week, and it establishes the series as something very different from the other shows in the CW superhero universe. Because Batwoman isn’t interested in hiding the identity of its primary antagonist, as so many of its previous properties have done. Rather, it wants to explore the reasons behind how she became the person she is now. It’s not enough that Alice is Beth, the more important question is how her quest for revenge will drive both Kate’s development as a hero and the series’ overall story going forward.
Many fans have naturally drawn parallels between Alice and the Joker, Batman’s similarly mad and strangely pale nemesis. But the personal connection between the Kane sisters is what makes this relationship particularly compelling, as well the idea that, maybe, at the end of the day, they’re not as far apart from one another as they think they are. (They are twins, after all.)
That being said, Alice’s role in Batwoman isn’t just about serving as an antagonist for her sister’s new crimefighting mission while the two sort out whatever they are to one another now. It’s also a philosophical and moral struggle about what’s best for Gotham and how to achieve those ends, played out in the most personal of arenas. Thus far, Kate is a traditional hero type, which means she’s fairly morally inflexible and largely set in her beliefs regarding what’s right and wrong.
Alice is the opposite, understanding precisely and personally how necessary it can sometimes be to bend and change in order to accomplish one’s goals, or even just to survive. To her credit, she also sees the flaws inherent in the existence of Jacob Kane’s Crows and the problems they present for Gotham, even if that awareness is largely driven by latent anger over the fact that he failed to save her so long ago. Alice is more than a little mad, it’s true; and her vendetta frequently crosses over into dangerous and even murderous territory. But that doesn’t mean she’s entirely wrong, either, and it’s a duality that Batwoman freely acknowledges.
Because Alice isn’t just a villain. She is a bad, dangerous person to be sure – that’s undeniable. But thanks to nuanced writing, and a tremendous performance from actress Rachel Skarsten, Alice is also sympathetic, broken and deeply, recognizably human. She’s calculated and cruel, yes, and fueled by an almost righteous rage. But the thing that still drives her, way down deep, is love.
Sure, that love has become twisted over the years, warped by a lifetime’s imprisonment at the hands of a monster, but it’s still there. Alice clearly still cares about Kate, enough so that killing her is not on the table even when she realizes she’s Batwoman. (In fact, she even actively saves her life at one point.) And the two women do share genuine moments of what seems to be affection with one another. But that warmth is also tinged with anger and jealousy, as evidenced by her violent reaction toward Mary’s mere presence in Kate’s life, and her sister’s continuing need for their father’s approval.
Batwoman spends the bulk of its fourth episode on Alice’s origin story, slowly beginning to unravel the mystery of what precisely happened to Beth Kane. Thankfully, the show doesn’t try to cram over a decade of Beth’s absence into a ten-minute montage, nor does it behave as though the mystery of her character’s motivations is suddenly solved because something bad happened to her once. (Looking at you, Savitar from The Flash.) There’s a definite sense that this is a story we’ll revisit several times over the course of the season, if not over the entirety of the series’ run. But there’s enough here for viewers to begin to understand Alice a bit better, without making excuses for the monster she’s become.
Because, and not to put too fine a point on it, Alice is still a monster. And Batwoman never lets us forget that fact, even as it encourages us to enjoy and even sympathize with her at various points. No matter who Beth Kane once was, she’s now a woman who brazenly commits murder, who robs and kidnaps others, who does all these things repeatedly, with various levels of glee and lacking anything that might be called remorse. (It’s an actual plot point that she can’t manage to avoid killing someone for even a single day when Kate asks her to.)
But Alice is also a woman who’s been through an almost unimaginable trauma. And that has indelibly shaped who she is now – in ways we, as viewers, and Kate as her sister, don’t even fully understand yet. But Batwoman seems committed not just to telling us what happened to Alice, but to exploring how those experiences still impact the (often terrible) decisions she makes now. The show doesn’t just want us to realize that Alice is a villain – but to understand how she became one, and the ways in which what she’s trying to achieve in Gotham ties into both those experiences and her relationship with Kate.
Can Alice be redeemed? Maybe. At some point in the distant future. But she doesn’t need to be, and it feels as though Batwoman already understands that. Alice can stand on her own, both as a character and as a villain, in a way that few other figures in this universe have been able to do. Many TV shows barely take time to figure out their protagonist in their first seasons, let alone their antagonist. Batwoman is already demonstrating such confidence and complexity in its Alice storytelling so early on in its inaugural season; her presence is a breath of narrative fresh air in a fictional universe that’s needed it for far too long.