If you're like me, you watched tonight's Gotham and wondered, Who the hell is this show for? That question became particularly pertinent tonight when a trio of heavily armed heavies eat poisoned cannoli, but only after one ribs another thusly: "Ain't that right, Dickie?" If that kind of goofy humor was liberally applied throughout this episode, I might have given episode writer Kevin Woodruff the benefit of the doubt. But if anything, it suggests that the series' citywide scope asks viewers to arbitrarily shift their sympathies whenever showrunner Bruno Heller and the other powers that be need us to.
Granted, that's the main conceit of "Arkham," a subplot-rific episode that highlights various different rivals who have the same goals but never work together. The first pair is Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), an odd couple momentarily brought together by Cobblepot's psychopathic ambition. That's right, Cobblepot doesn't want to hurt Gordon, not even after Gordon threw him out of Gotham City. No, Cobblepot wants to thank Gordon, and even become a "secret agent" working with him to clean Gotham up. Never mind that Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), a supporting character who's barely in Gotham, correctly identified Cobblepot's naked ambition in "Pilot." Apparently, Gordon's not that sharp, and at some point, Cobblepot will inevitably get the team-up he so desperately wants. But that won't happen for a while (maybe two episodes, three tops).
Cobblepot and Gordon don't do much together despite the fact that Cobblepot contacts Gordon twice. This is a fair sign of the inertia that makes "Arkham" a sad step back for Gotham after last week's light, clever "The Balloonman." The episode may be superficially more thoughtful; it's also just the foundation for future ones, which is pretty boring, really.
Once again, I blame Gordon, who is still pretty uninteresting. If Gordon weren't so flat, the show might feel a little less like Starring James Gordon and A Cast of Thousands. Instead, Gordon is not only paired off with Cobblepot, he's also pitted against Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), who confronts Gordon after he refuses to tell her who Cobblepot is. Kean and Gordon's spat is the only interesting Cobblepot-related plot point, since the episode otherwise stresses that Cobblepot is eager to climb the Gotham City underworld's social ladder three rungs at a time. Unlike Cobblepot, Barbara actually gets to do something in "Arkham." Which is surprising since, until now, she's lived in Gordon's shadow: She's worried, drank wine, been confronted by a lesbian ex-lover, and then gotten a lot of cold shoulder from Gordon. And then she's done nothing. Until now!
After telling Gordon about her yearlong relationship with Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), Barbara finally — finally! — makes a move. She gives Gordon an ultimatum: tell her who Cobblepot is, or lose her. It's a weirdly satisfying scene, partly because neither Richards nor McKenzie is especially charming. (Can we please give McKenzie something to do other than speak through gritted teeth and prop his hands on hips?) Kean's decision is exciting because she's no longer letting stuff happen to her. It's also the first time that Gordon has been flat-out wrong. We're encouraged to root against him since his reasons for keeping Kean in the dark are flimsy at best. (She's already panicked: Why not calm her down?) Kean's decision doesn't have a major impact, but it is a sign that things could get better later ... maybe.
In the meantime, there are two other significant pairs of rivals, both indirectly related to Cobblepot. Let's get the more tedious of the two out of the way: Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) is hiring, and apparently, she's looking for a sexy lounge-singer with a killer instinct. Yes, you read that right: This is the more boring of the two remaining major subplots. Mooney's just that kind of character, the kind that sounds fun and campy but really isn't. Smith's vamping lacks vigor, especially when she tells two different aspirant singers to "seduce me." Unfortunately, neither one is especially good at singing. In fact, Mooney has to declaratively announce which applicant is the better singer. Naturally, Mooney singles out the one who won't make out with her when she demands insta-seduction (gotta make the competition fierce somehow). But while Liza (Mackenzie Leigh), the other girl, doesn't have "nice pipes and a pretty face," she can suck face really well. And she does, while Mooney's second-in-command enjoys the best moment: a priceless I-don't-know-what-is-this-I-can't-even reaction shot.
Liza and, uh, the other girl both want Mooney's attention, but they predictably have to fight each other in a warehouse to win it. The conclusion of this fight is predictable: Liza beats her rival up something fierce. Which, again, sounds like fun but isn't. There's no hair-pulling, no screaming, no scratching, no grunting, no suggestive hip-undulating, no swearing, and no biting ... it's like a catfight for people who don't like catfights.
Finally, Don Maroni (David Zayas) fought Carmine Falcone (John Doman) for control of Arkham, a developing neighborhood that the Waynes had hoped to turn into low-cost projects and, uh, an asylum. This makes precious little sense given that, in Gotham, Arkham is geographically located in the heart of the city. But no reporters challenge Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) when he announces that he will follow through on the Waynes' plans for Arkham. No, that would make sense, so screw that.
... Where were we? Oh, right, Maroni and Falcone both want to control Gotham's last undeveloped neighborhood. So both hire the same assassin, Richard Gladwell (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), an educated, well-spoken assassin who kills rich dudes with a blow-dart flute-gun thing. Gladwell sounds like fun (you may even want to go drinking with him), but beyond an exciting introduction, he too doesn't get to do much.
Like Cobblepot, Gladwell's only symbolically important. He represents the ties that bind enemies in a common goal. He's also really uninteresting thanks to an unimaginative villain-of-the-week subplot. (How many times do we have to watch Gordon tell a killer's disbelieving next target that he's in danger, get down, scuffle-scuffle, aw, he's dead!) So while it was nice to see wheels turning last night, it didn't go anywhere worth remembering.
- Gladwell to Zeller: "My father used to say, 'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.'" I thought this was going somewhere, Gotham. Is this a metaphor? For you going nowhere, that is?
- Bruce Wayne to Alfred: "I'm looking for a connection between the councilmen's murders and the murder of my parents." And the plot yawwwn thickens.
- Random office girl Gordon draws on: "It's just a box of paper clips, I didn't think anyone would mind." Okay, this was funny.
- Anyone else shocked by the 6–12 shots that Gordon and Bullock fire at Gladwell to bring him down?
- Fish Mooney: because it's fun to say.
- Gordon to Kean: ""Are you sure there isn't another reason?" Get your damn hands off your hips, McKenzie! Stop trying to make me like you, and make me like you!
- Aubrey Jones: "Gotham needs ... no, Gotham deserves a world-class treatment facility." Was that a nod to The Dark Knight? Either way: more Richard Kind!