It took me a few weeks, but I think I’ve finally nailed down the biggest weakness this show has to overcome, thanks to this episode.
I mean, it’s not a bad episode overall, but it highlights what is currently the show’s biggest shortcoming.
Like so many other Batman adaptations out there, it’s hard to make the city’s good people anywhere near as memorable as its villains. Arkham shows us that Gotham is having the same issue.
After last week’s “out there” storyline about the vigilante known as The Balloonman, this week sets its sights on something a little more grounded, and frankly a lot more involving. The show has been mentioning it for several weeks, and this week finally starts making good on Oswald’s warnings about a coming gang war in Gotham. Now that the show has taken the time to set up the Falcone and Maroni syndicates and their influences, it’s starting to build upon it.
Which, for a start at least, somewhat makes up for the fact that last week’s Oswald cliffhanger didn’t really go anywhere. This is now two weeks in a row where the show set up a big bombshell at the end of an episode, only for it to lead nowhere the subsequent episode. The reasoning in each case does at least work in character (in this case, Oswald’s attempts to reason and ally with Gordon are rebuked by the latter’s realization that, so long as the former lives, they’re both in danger), but it’s a trick that you can only play just so many times before people stop caring. So, for their own sake, I hope the writers don’t plan to come back to this too often.
Anyway, back to my original point. This episode is both helped and hurt by the “making the good sides of Gotham compelling” problem. It hurts for the obvious reason: while they’re not bad people, characters like Gordon, Barbara, Montoya, and Bruce tend to come across as bland. It helps that, in trade, we still have characters like Oswald and Fish Mooney on hand to keep the show watchable and interesting.
I did finally figure out just why Gordon’s not sitting right with me, despite the best efforts of Ben McKenzie. The big problem is his campaign to bring good to Gotham honestly feels so impersonal. One of the big things that’s helped Gordon in other depictions (Batman: Year One comes to mind) is that we get a good sense of what’s driving him and keeping him above the corruption that’s infested so much of the rest of Gotham PD. He has a family to face at the end of the day and wants to do right by them – it’s an old hat, but it works. Here, the only real ties we see Gordon have is his relationship with Barbara – which right now mostly just amounts to her grilling him about the fact he may have killed for the mob – and Bruce, who seems to largely function independently of him. And he’s the most fleshed out of the good characters.
By comparison, Barbara, Montoya, Allen, and Bruce are all still pretty unremarkable (though the sparring session with Bruce and Alfred last week was a refreshing dose of humanity back into his storyline.) The only ‘good’ character that has really left much of an impression so far is Bullock, and that’s largely because the show isn’t above actually showing us his flaws rather than telling us about them. On top of which, he owns said flaws. There’s no need to make himself into a role model or pillar of support – he simply is a person who has accepted the system, for good or ill. It doesn’t make him a good man, but it at least makes him more interesting than his contemporaries.
On the other side of the coin, evil is more interesting, but not perfect. The regulars continue to be in top form. The rest of this cast could be dull as dishwater; so long as they kept the current arc with Oswald, I’d be set to come back regularly. Robin Lord Taylor has done a great job reinventing a character whose live action record has tended to lapse into caricature, giving a man who can alternate between menacing and a conniving suck-up at the drop of a hat and make both halves believable. Thanks to both sides, we see him stepping up his game in a considerably more ruthless manner this week, playing the part of anonymous tipster to stoke the flames of a gang war– one which leaves him poised for advancement. For currently being a low person on the villainy ladder, his ascension up their ranks is still the show’s best running plot so far.
Meanwhile, after laying low the last few weeks, we see more of Fish Mooney this time around. She’s not running a particularly major scheme, but it’s a great chance to see Jada Pinkett Smith reveling in the amount of power Mooney commands in Gotham. She even manages to take something as simple as an audition between, ostensibly, two singers at her club, and has it culminate in a rather ruthless brawl for supremacy. From her discussion, it’s clear this girl is being chosen to help make a move against Falcone, so there’s a longer game in this as well, but it’s still morbidly fascinating to watch how Mooney picks and handles her subordinates in this story.
This week’s case-of-the-week, on the other hand, is kind of a fumble. Not entirely, because it does still work on some levels, but not all. In terms of an individual antagonist, the perpetrator this week really doesn’t bring a lot to the table beyond a good performance by Hakeem Kae-Kazim. As a hitman hired to kill politicians voting regarding an upcoming decision to remodel Gotham’s Arkham district, his whole persona is that of the cold-blooded professional. As well as Kae-Kazim nails that, it really doesn’t do much in the long run. As far as the episode is concerned, he’s a plot device, a means to an end. In the end, the bigger danger is less what he is doing and more what it could lead to – his targets are politicians with connections to Gotham’s two major crime families. Gordon and Bullock’s big incentive to end this first and foremost is the fear that the killings could lead to a full blown mob war that would consume Gotham. So the overarcing mob story is actually a great turn of events for the show, it just means the individual plot this week suffers for it.
I find myself overall pretty torn on this episode. Outside of Oswald and Fish, the cast really aren’t up to snuff for a lot of this week’s story, which does hurt. On the other hand, after the last few fairly contained cases, this week gives us another look at something that risks threatening to boil over into future events, which is the kind of risk this story could benefit a lot from depending where it takes it. If they can just start putting that much effort into making the rest of the cast interesting beyond the former two and Bullock, this show could really kick some proverbial ass.
I know they’re still working through some growing pains. I can cut it some slack for being new, but I can only let that go just so far as we move further into the season – especially now that Fox is reportedly giving them a full season episode count. The show’s still watchable, but I’d like to be able to see them putting more effort into the gang rivalry plot in the future, if only because it would be nice to be tuning in for other reasons besides the murderous adventures of Oswald Cobblepot.
In either case, I will be coming back to see if the show picks up again next week with Viper.
-Cobblepot’s rise to power continues to be the most interesting plotline
-The signs of a coming mob war in Gotham present interesting future developments for the show
-Oswald, Fish, and Bullock aside, the cast still mostly uninteresting
-Despite a good performance by Kae-Kazim, this week’s case mostly only remarkable for it’s ‘It’s Chinatown’-style conclusion