Gotham finally proves Batman can be more than just one man
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be checking in with some of the various superhero shows that have assembled across the airwaves, as part of a mini-series we’re calling State of the Caped Crusades.
Today, Bryce Rudow takes on Fox’s Gotham.
Lena Dunham is currently neck-deep in critical and Twitter praise for Girls’ second wind of a fifth season. Episodes like “Japan” and “Hello Kitty” have been some of the series best, and with “Panic in Central Park”# Dunham somehow discovered a way to make even Marnie seem
likable watchable again. By steering into the curve of her characters’ respective natural chemistries, Dunham has been able to organically branch out their storylines while still giving the people what they narratively want, breathing new life into her show’s penultimate run.
However, there’s another show that recently steered into a curve and out of its own skid that isn’t getting the kind of credit it deserves for an equally impressive mid-career course-correction:
Fox’s Gotham, currently churning through the latter half of its second season…
After a first season that was more miss than hit (and which featured way too much Jada Pinkett Fish Mooney#), Gotham has consciously and successfully found its true identity by embracing the notion Oswald Cobblepot pondered all the way back in Season One:
“Perhaps it’s not our friends, but our enemies who define us.”
By focusing on the supervillainry we were so desperately craving when Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock were forced to take on the likes of The Balloonman and The Electrician back in the early, criminal-of-the-week drudges of the first season, Gotham has been able to leverage its keen casting choices into eclectic narratives and some incredibly nimble storytelling within its “timeless, hyper-stylized ‘dark deco’ setting.”
A show about Batman that doesn’t actually have Batman in it will always sound a little “Show About Nothing”#-y when you say it out loud, but with six episodes to go in its sophomore season, Gotham has finally proved Batman — and the story he’s a part of — can be about more than just one man…
Given a season to figure itself it out, it can be something else entirely.
It’s not a revelation or a secret the best supervillains are in some way foils to the hero they are antagonizing. Lex Luthor is the ‘ultimate’ human, so his refusal to accept the alien Kal-El represents Superman’s deepest insecurities about being an ‘other’; Magneto is the fascist, xenophobic counterpart to the pro-coexistence mission of Professor Xavier; Venom is basically Spiderman, only way, way cooler.
With Batman though, it somehow feels like all his rogues perfectly represent some warped defining aspect of his (or Bruce Wayne’s) character: Joker is the mad agent of chaos to Batman’s insistence on order#, Two-Face is the uncontrollable randomness that can leave your parents shot in an alley#, Man-Bat is a lazy joke taken to impressively far levels#.
Only Gotham hasn’t even begun to play with these big baddies yet. And, impressively, it hasn’t needed to.
Instead, it’s relied on the simultaneous origin stories of less-beloved transgressors Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot and Edward “Riddler” Nygma to carry not just the narrative weight of this current season, but the brunt of its emotional, comedic, and thrilling moments, as well.
Through them — not Bruce Wayne, not Jim Gordon — have we seen the show’s rawest, most touching moments of loss, despair, and revenge…
Who would have guessed that the twitchy guy from Accepted# would make for a suitable surrogate symbol of total loss, but one could argue Robin Lord Taylor’s tragic Oswald Cobblepot is really the main character of this series.
His How To Make It In America-meets-Game Of Thrones continued rise and fall within the Gotham underworld has been the most satisfying narrative so far, and the relentless emotional and psychological blows he has suffered at the hands of Fish Mooney, Carmine Falcone, Sal Maroni, Theo Galavant, Tabitha Galavan, Hugo Strange, and Julie Cooper might actually be more damaging, thus more sympathy-inducing, than any strand of broken pearls could ever be.
In terms of range, no one is asked to do more than Robin Lord Taylor. Throughout the course of the series, Oswald Cobblepot has already had to play the role of “fruitcake leprechaun,” “umbrella boy,” “king of Gotham,” “grieving son,” “returning hero,” “comic relief,” “psychiatric malpractice victim,” “rehabilitated criminal,” and “grieving son” (again). That’s quite an arc for a man whom we know has decades of mischief and misadventures still to come.
Nevertheless, it has done the job of painstakingly fleshing out one of Batman’s most inhuman human antagonists into a champion of the common man’s resilience and ability to survive.
When Edward tells Oswald, “Your mother is dead because of your weakness, but what you need to realize is that your weakness was her,” it has all the air of a superhero donning his cape for the first time:
“A man with nothing that he loves is a man who cannot be bargained, a man that cannot be betrayed, a man who answers to no one but himself,” Nygma reminds his new cohort. “That is the man that I see before me. A free man.”
And Edward Nygma knows a thing or two about recently-freed men…
It has been an absolute delight to watch Cory Michael Smith’s off-the-leash descent into The Riddler over the course of this second season.
Edward Nygma has always been a more cerebral villain of the Dark Knight, challenging Bruce Wayne’s mantle as the Greatest Detective Alive, but the show’s decision to throw him into his own Dexter-esque bubble of old-fashioned, well-intentioned homicidal schizophrenia has led to one of its most endearing and eerily enjoyable performances:
Between his nebbish tendencies and uniquely dapper attire, Cory Michael Smith simultaneously gives the show a quaint charm and an uncanny valley sort of uneasiness. I always thought Jim Carrey deserved another shot at a darker, more broken Riddler, but not only is Smith’s split-personality take on Nygma’s “compulsion” a perfect blend of The Mask and Me, Myself & Irene, he was able to channel the heart-wrenching best of Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind during Miss Kringle’s untimely, well-shot demise#.
While we’re just now getting a taste of what the “clue-leaving, bomb-exploding” Nygma is capable of, to watch him come to terms with his own fractured self this past season has been nothing short of beautiful…
In fact, the casting as a whole has been fantastic in Season Two.
The hard-nosed, by-the-book Captain Barnes they introduced this season is played by The Shield’s Michael Chiklis, who appears to have been told to “go out there and do Michael Chiklis things”#; Hugo Strange is played by B.D. Wong, who appears to have merged his characters from Mr. Robot and Law & Order into one terrifying version of the manipulating therapist#; Theo Galavant (the show’s hybrid of the St. Dumas and Court of Owls storylines) is played by a James Frain champing at the bit to prove it wasn’t his fault The Cape tanked so hard#.
Even those further down the call sheet have made the most of their time in the spotlight, like Chris Chalk as the perfect balance of stoic, skeptic, and supporter that is Lucius Fox# or Lori Petty as the show’s daring nod to a Jerome-inspired, not-quite-Joker yet not-quite-Harley Quinn:
Meanwhile, first season stalwart Donal Logue continues to bolster his “most underrated that guy in Hollywood” resume as Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock#, while Camren Bicondova as Selina has distinguished herself as a promotion-worthy hire for whomever picked her out from the America’s Best Dance Crew masses#. Sean Pertwee, another man asked to do a lot in this show, has developed his Alfred Pennyworth into such a gentlemanly badass# he deserves his own James Bond-meets-Agent Carter style spinoff when Gotham finishes shooting Season 3.
Bruce, too, is finally starting to Master what it means to be a Wayne…
After a debut season full of literal and metaphorical growing pains, David Mazouz has hit that golden awkward age in male adolescence when his testosterone is visibly overdosing his underdeveloped body and he doesn’t know why but he hates everyone and shut the hell up he just wants to be alone. In other words, exactly how Bruce Wayne would be at that age.
Puberty has also come with a nice maturity in Mazouz’s performance, as he’s starting to understand what parts of Bruce are innate, what parts are learned, and what parts are meant to be hidden.
In episode 13 of Season Two, he has an appetent exchange with Dr. Thompkins (resident mirror for all of Gotham’s mentally disturbed):
Still, what’s made Gotham so interesting, and ultimately successful, this past season is that it finally grasped how to disregard the “perfect,” most well-known origin story as a definitive, Big Bang-esque beginning.
Instead, it made Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murders just one of many indiscriminate repercussions of the butterfly effect some call fate, desultory and timeless as it is.
Before The Shot Heard Round The World started a war, there were the Intolerable Acts; before The Batman began, there was, seemingly before time itself, Gotham City, its inhabitants all equally-vulnerable potential victims of the city’s chaotic whims and erosive natural order.
Gotham claims to be about Jim Gordon’s pursuit of justice and self-forgiveness in a city that feels like a villain unto itself#, but really, this whole show is about highlighting, appreciating, and coping with the indiscriminate repercussions of the flappings of wings you can’t control or comprehend.
It can undoubtedly get a little heavy-handed when it comes to some of its allegories, deeper meanings#, and “see what we did there?” moments, but it also does a nice job of turning what other shows use as easter eggs into nifty ways of tying together its historically-incestuous, cause-and-effect universe: Tommy Elliot, the bully at school, receives Bruce Wayne’s first cathartic beatdown #; Ivy Pepper, in all her creepy kid glory#, is an orphan (indirectly) because of the Waynes; Wayne Enterprises owns the Ace Chemical that makes the chemical Victor Friese uses in his rampage and Indian Hill, Hugo Strange’s paranormal laboratory.
Like Matches Malone tells Bruce:
“If I did what you think I did than I made you what you are, just like Gotham made me, just like the rich folks like your parents made Gotham.
I might as well call you son.”
In Gotham, everything is a direct result of something else, the product of a chain of events unfathomable to foresee and prevent. Every resident of the city — from the King of Gotham, to its favored son — is tenuously yet thoroughly woven into its foundation through tangled happenstance and circumstance, not one singular defining event or action.
And they are all, even the ones you’d least expect, always only one bad day away from having it all fall apart…
No matter what you think of his decision to be included in the show, the tale of Jerome Valeska might have (in fitting you-know-who fashion) stolen the show when it comes to representing Gotham’s categorical ethos.
We were all so sure — this was Fox, after all — that we knew the plan#. We thought they said he was gonna be…
Instead, with one plunge of the knife only three episodes into its “Rise of the Villains” season, Gotham went for the jugular and scored its first real ‘holy shit’ moment by showing us that all these rising and wrathing monsters are indeed just men, as susceptible to the incalculable destruction of twisting free will and chance as Thomas or Martha Wayne.
While Penguin is busy stabbing mayoral candidate Janice Caulfield to death midway through episode four of the second season, Butch — one of the best parts of this show (and whose recent pairing with Tabitha is Jessa/Adam-level genius) — is asked by a crying, devastated staffer of Caulfield’s why he and Penguin are doing this. He replies, ski mask on and arms around the staffers like he’s their best friend, in a thick but jovial Gotham accent:
“Darling, I got no frickin’ idea. We’ve been doing crazy stuff all day long.”
In Gotham, it’s just another beloved figure brutally and inexplicably murdered by an unrepentant criminal.
Same old story you’ve heard a thousand times before…
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