‘Batwoman’ Finds a New Identity — and Purpose — in Season 2

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The CW’s hit Batwoman was put in a nearly impossible position when star Ruby Rose announced she was leaving after Season 1. How do you continue a superhero show without the lead, one who is not only plot-wise intrinsically tied to every other character on the show; but also a show identified with Rose’s performance, which brought Batwoman into live action for the first time?

The answer, as ably laid out in the first two episodes of Season 2 provided for review, is: you don’t.

Instead, what showrunner Caroline Dries and company have smartly done is essentially reboot the show, now with Javicia Leslie as the lead, playing an original character named Ryan Wilder. Though the season premiere far from ignores the absence of Rose — the title of the episode is “What Happened to Kate Kane?” to give you an idea of how prominent she still is in the plot — it’s Ryan’s show, from the very first scene.

Ryan, unlike Kate, is dirt poor and all apologies to Chris Farley, living in a van down by the river. There’s a lot more to her to unspool over the course of the episode, but that opening image is clear, and the show swiftly refocuses to revolve around Ryan. Like Kate, Ryan is an out and proud Lesbian — a flashback with her adoptive mother doubles down on the show’s core mission of putting sexuality front and center without shame or recrimination. She’s also highly trained in combat, and has a strong, though underdeveloped moral compass.

She’s also Black, something that is highly important to at least the early going with Ryan. Though Kate Kane was also Jewish, the story Dries was telling on Batwoman always revolved around her, as a superhero, constantly struggling with either remaining in the closet, or coming out — superheroics as metaphor for sexuality. Having dealt with that in Season 1, it assuredly won’t go away, as other characters on the show still embrace the same struggle. But Ryan allows the series to recenter on racial politics, and dig deeper into the character’s lack of trust of law enforcement.

The Crows, led by Kate’s father Jacob (Dougray Scott) and ex-girlfriend Sophie (Meagan Tandy) have been an antagonistic force throughout the series, hunting Kate as Batwoman, and often throwing a wrench in the carefully laid plans of her team. But that divide becomes even more pronounced with Ryan, who has previously been wrongly sentenced to jail. A line in the second episode is especially pointed, as Ryan notes that if the villainous Alice (Rachel Skarsten) wasn’t white, she would have been killed a long time ago.

This is the second part of what Dries and Co. do so well, and something that addresses at least one of the major fan concerns about replacing Kate in the cowl instead of recasting the role: giving Ryan a good reason to be there, and a fresh, new relationship with every character. Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), initially mistrustful of Kate taking over Bruce Wayne’s role in Gotham, now finds himself as a fierce loyalist, butting heads with Ryan. Mary Hamilton (Nicole Kang) is also skeptical, but quickly finds a bond with Ryan over a shared experience in their past. Sophie and Jacob come right up against Ryan as a former “criminal,” and as someone who is taking on the batmantle. Even Alice, intrinsically tied to Kate by virtue of them being sisters, has a past with Ryan that makes sense within the continuity and sends the newly suited hero-in-training crashing into her path (quite literally).

In fact, Skarsten’s unhinged Alice has always be the highlight of the series, and the lack of Kate drives her even deeper off a cliff than usual. While Ryan is dealing with earning trust and learning the ropes, Alice is spiraling out of control without Kate — the one person who cared for — in the picture. Enter a villain more dangerous than Alice, and some huge emotional turning points for Alice right off the, uh, bat and you’re once again reminded why it’s so great to have Skarsten on our screens.

Will every concern raised by fans be addressed in these first few episodes? Definitely not, and the show seems aware of that, taking its time to bring Ryan into the fold, bit by bit. But there won’t be any concerns about Leslie’s ability to lead the show after the first hour. She’s got the physical prowess, the presence, and an emotional softness that are immediately engaging on screen, all of which quickly begin to rope in the characters, and will most likely do the same with viewers, too.

Kate means a lot to fans, and she means a lot to the characters on the show, as well. Dries has promised she’s not being killed off, and part of the mystery of what happened to Kate will drive the story this season. But for now, and going forward: Javicia Leslie is Batwoman. Welcome to the new Gotham.

Batwoman returns to The CW Sundays at 8/7c starting January 17.

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