"This is Gotham: You don't bend, you get broke," insists Captain Sarah Essen declaratively at the start of Gotham's second episode, "Selina Kyle." She's not wrong, and thankfully director Danny Cannon and writer/series creator Bruno Heller are a little more flexible here than they were in the pilot. Individual subplots are still, unto themselves, fairly mediocre. But in "Selina Kyle," the show's characters feel a little less like walking plot points, and their stories are integrated more capably than they were last week. The show's improvement is particularly felt during scenes involving Selina Kyle. All in all, Gotham’s sophomore effort is just generally more engaging.
That having been said: Don't get your hopes up. "Selina Kyle" thankfully doesn't seem to have been picked over by the Prequeltron 3000 creative committee that processed "Pilot." But the show's biggest assets still aren't being used as well as they should be.
Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) personifies all of last night's successes and shortcomings. After James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) spares his life, Cobblepot waddles away from Gotham City. On his way, he gets picked up by some frat boys. Let the chintziness of that spectacularly dopey plot point settle in: A young super-villain-in-training is picked up by drunk jocks while hitchhiking. These are the kind of guys that stop and then douche-ily accelerate the first two times Cobblepot catches up to them. Taylor's deliriously campy performance makes these scenes bearable. Once again, he's way more interesting than the material he's being given. (He walks like a Penguin? Who saw that jab coming?) There's not much to scenes where Cobblepot cowers from and then inevitably threatens the kind of bullies you might find in bad '80s slasher films. But Taylor tears up lines like "I'll be back, stronger and smarter than ever."
Thankfully, Taylor doesn't have to do all of his character's heavy lifting. As Gertrude Kapelput, Cobblepot's mother, Carol Kane brings some much-needed comic relief to Gotham. She makes you want to care about Cobblepot's clichéd backstory. In the eyes of Kane's thickly accented immigrant, Cobblepot is a nice boy who wouldn't hurt a fly. She blames his bad behavior on outside influences: "Some painted slut has him in her clutch." It's not an inexplicable assumption, really, though Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) does put miles of distance between herself and Cobblepot when she later insists she wants to kill him — again. But more important, as we see in his obligatory serial-killer/tortured-mind yarn-and-pins corkboard o' newspaper clips, Cobblepot's not exactly Mooney's boy anymore either. The word bitch, penned over Mooney's photograph, stands out as if it were scrawled in neon. Cobblepot's resentment makes a lot of sense, even if it is a psychologically simplistic extension of his identity as a social-climbing mama's boy.
Small but significant details make the Gotham City of "Selina Kyle" a place you actually want to see more of next week. Because, while it's nice to see some loose threads from "Pilot" addressed — oh, yeah, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) did witness the Waynes' murder, didn't she? — other threads are still inadequately picked up (e.g., Gordon's not that miffed at Bullock for being made to kill a man). Realistically, the biggest improvements in this week's episode were baby steps.
For example, watching Selina evade child-snatchers Doug and Patti (Frank Whaley and Lili Taylor) is only so interesting on its own. But Taylor and Whaley make you want to care, twitching with menace behind broad smiles. Their performances brought to mind the cartoonish but psychologically realistic film-noir villains that Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini specialized in. (I half-expected them to reveal that Doug and Patti work for the Ventriloquist and Mr. Scarface.) Too bad Heller's writing isn't as consistently sharp as Dini's.
Case in point: Kyle's clamors of "I need to speak to James Gordon" fall flat because Bicondova just isn't charming enough. She's perfectly okay, but there's also nothing to write home about here, not even when she finally meets Gordon. Because she's apparently stalked him from afar — we couldn't see some more of this last episode? — he doesn't recognize her. "Hi,” he asks. "What's your name?" But even after spending much of the episode looking for him, Selina issues an aloof reply: "Why is that your business?" There's no cool calculation behind Bicondova's sinkhole-sized eyes, and that holds Kyle's character back more than any of Heller's perfectly unmemorable dialogue.
"Selina Kyle" similarly works best when its cast gets to show off. Donal Logue gets a little more room to pace and shout histrionically, which makes the scenes where he roughs up suspects a little more bearable. And thank goodness for veteran character actors Richard Kind and John Doman, who respectively do a lot with a little as Mayor Aubrey James and and mobster Carmine Falcone. Only poor Bret McKenzie has yet to come out of his shell. Here, he smolders self-righteously, then stares pissily off-screen, like a room-temperature Robert De Niro. If, like me, you only previously knew McKenzie from a few scattered episodes of Southland and The O.C., you might wonder why he's Gotham's star. But Gordon's the heart of the show, so here's hoping McKenzie gets to bend a little more next week.
- "I'm testing myself." Oh no: Batman's emo! I mean, okay, fine, it kind of makes sense? Especially the heavy-metal music and the distressed notebook doodles. But really, Batman was a cutter? And nerds thought Kevin Smith's Batman comics were bad!
- Was anyone else confused about tonight's villain? The Dollmaker made an appearance in season two of Arrow, and presumably, this is why we don't see him in person — Arrow is on the CW, and Gotham is on Fox. But couldn't they have picked another Bat-villain for this? It had to be fourth-stringer like the Dollmaker?
- More Richard Kind, please. And lots more Carol Kane, stat.
- Fish Mooney to James Gordon: "You're just a little sinner like the rest of us." See, even Fish Mooney is surprised at Gordon's actions! Why isn't anyone else making a point of this? You can't honestly tell me Bullock is so jaded that he's not a little shaken by what happened last week.
- The kidnappers' hilariously gross behavior — "Get rid of 'em now ... and hose down the room" — really saved the Selina Kyle subplot. The best example of that? Lili Taylor saying, "Oh, fudge!" God bless you, Lili Taylor.