Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about how Gotham has been trying to find its tone- the mixed results. The Balloonman introduced a bit more of the comic book feel to the show and while parts of it worked, it clashed with the preceding episodes. By comparison, Arkham tried for a more serious feel that made for an interesting overall story, but characterization varied wildly as a result.
With Viper, the show seems to be trying to set a balance between those two styles. There are definitely some elements that seem more at home in the comics – most notably with regards to the titular drug – but we’re also seeing build on the long game storyline it set up last week.
First and foremost, I have to give this episode praise for one big achievement over previous episodes: I’m finally starting to like this Jim Gordon. He’s still something of a boy scout, don’t get me wrong – He wouldn’t be Gordon if he wasn’t – but this is the first week where he’s honestly felt human to me. I’m not sure how much of that was the writers still feeling him out and how much was Ben McKenzie still getting into character, but he’s shed a lot of the wooden nature he had in the first four episodes. Part of this may also be thanks to the people he has to interact with this time around. We’re given a week’s reprieve from Barbara this week (I want to make this clear – I’m not opposed to her or her story as a concept, but the execution so far has been utterly flat) and instead we largely see Gordon on the job or dealing with Gotham’s underworld. As a result, this means most of his interactions tie him in with the parts of this show that have been working: investigation with Bullock and his dangerous relationship with the mob and Oswald Cobblepot.
Besides Gordon, this episode also has other elements in its favor. Logue and Lord Taylor continue to deliver as Harvey and Oswald, with the latter’s growing influence in the Maroni crime family taking an interesting turn this week. After the last few weeks, it’s interesting to see his plan hit a snare here – especially since it’s one which ultimately relies on Gordon to save him, even if it’s largely to save himself in the process. This week also brings back the earlier references to a conspiracy to have Thomas and Martha Wayne killed. It’s naturally still too early to give answers here, but the show is building on it – first cluing in the Maroni syndicate, and then slowly drawing in Bruce Wayne. Prior to this week, I’ve seen Bruce as sort of an odd man out in this show’s story. It’s not that he has no attachments, it’s the fact that, as a child, there’s only so much he can do to affect things. This week finally found a good way to keep him relevant in the wake of last week’s episode: by getting him to ask what’s happening with his family’s business. Even though much of his time this week is Bruce chasing papers and following the money, it’s the most interesting he’s been on this series so far. On top of which, Sean Pertwee seems to finally be getting the hang of Alfred here, wrestling between trying to talk Bruce out of his crusade and seeing how much it helps him. Rounding out the larger stories, Fish is finally starting to make her move on Falcone this week. It’s not a big plot so far, but it does provide Jada Pinkett Smith some good opportunities to chew the scenery and play off a few cast members along the way, most notably the singer she’s trying to turn into her catspaw. It ends on a note that has me curious to see where things go from here.
I’m mixed on this week’s individual story. I think it’s an interesting idea – both just as a straight up story and a comic tie-in, but it’s one that tests the show’s budget. Continuing to vary up the case of the week format, this week sends Gordon and Bullock on the hunt for a drug called Viper – a substance that grants its user extreme strength and a euphoric high, but at the cost of a pretty unpleasant death afterward. As a concept, it works great – especially in terms of how the GCPD responds to it (among other reactions: Nygma is fascinated by it, Bullock is in favor of hunkering down and letting it burn its way through Gotham’s underbelly, Gordon, of course, wants it stopped). The big problem comes in how it’s presented. When I say extreme strength, I mean superhuman here. For those who want a good example, the episode later refers to Viper being a test version of a drug that will later be refined into the substance Venom, a drug Batman fans are sure to recognize (For those who don’t get it, two word hint: “BREAK YOU!”). This presents a problem for the show’s effects budget, especially in the Viper-related death we see. It’s the kind of concept that’s great on paper and works in a comic, but is tricky to make look good on screen. Without giving too much away, the fatal flaw in users of Viper is, essentially, a breakdown of their skeletal structure. In this first case, it happens as a would-be thief has a ripped out ATM over his head. Between the set-up of the moment and the CGI involved in the skeletal breakdown, the scene’s budget becomes visibly strained as the man turns overtly CG before cutting away to look back in a moment that looks akin to the first witch’s death in The Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, it’s not bad enough completely ruin the episode, but it’s a distracting element to what’s otherwise been probably the show’s best episode to date. The effects aside, the only other element of this episode that really felt that off was a scene leading up to the climax, wherein we see an old man taking Viper. Again, conceptually there’s nothing wrong with it, but visually the scene does get a bit silly for the show, though it does lead to probably one of the biggest laughs out of Bullock in the episode (just coming in second to “It’s lunchtime!”).
All in all, the show is finding its footing. If this is the direction it wants to take, I will actually be happy with things from here out. There’s still a few elements that could use some polish, don’t get me wrong (again, when it comes to visual effects, The Flash is still leagues ahead here) but this week is actually the most promising the show has been since the pilot. If they can continue to maintain this balance of a serious longer story with enough lighter moments to keep the show from bogging into just a bog standard procedural with Batman easter eggs (speaking of: I will admit to loving the shot of Nygma with the question mark on his coffee mug) then it will fix a lot of the problems the earlier episodes have had.
Again, it’s still early, but if this is a sign of things to come, I will admit I’m feeling better about this show than I was this time last week.
With that, I’ll be back next week to see if the show can keep up this momentum with Spirit of the Goat.
-Show finally seems to be getting the hang of balancing the police procedural with the comic book
-Characters like Bruce and Gordon are finally starting to find some footing and grow into interesting cast members
-As the show’s first foray into full blown effects, this looks pretty bad. Especially in the same season that’s giving us The Flash
-While he plays his role well, Peter Maloney’s Viper rampage is just too ridiculous to take seriously