If nothing else, "Viper" confirms what even the most hopeful viewer has to begrudgingly admit about Gotham: It's only really good at treading water. Both last week's episode and this week’s are thematically cogent but dramatically inert. Which, again, is at least preferable to the shapeless collection of tangents that was the series premiere. But eventually, the training wheels have to come off Gotham, and the show needs to be judged on its present merits, or lack thereof. This is that point. Face it: We're five episodes in, and the show's most promising episode has been "The Balloonman," an endearingly goofy villain-of-the-week story. Yes, it's nice to finally have an hour where Gordon and his problems aren't the center of attention. But otherwise, this is just more of the same time-marking, Godfather III–esque campaigning and back-biting.
The clothesline that supports all of tonight's subplots is set up in a conspiratorial conversation between Fish Mooney and lackey Liza, who tries to curry favor with her boss after failing to impress Fish with her rendition of the by-now ubiquitous "O Mio Babbino Caro" aria from Puccini's Gianni Schichi. She calls Fish "Mama," but Fish sees through her: "You may be my baby girl, but I ain't your mama. Not yet." Fish's message is clear: You need me more than I need you, so know your place. For now, Fish wants Liza to be her "secret weapon," so she teaches Liza how to flatter men. Liza is her boss's parrot, as we see in a later scene, where Liza is applauded for successfully mirroring Fish's lines and tone. Without Fish to put words in her mouth, Liza's a useless foil.
Which is a problem, since Fish isn't very interesting. Jada Pinkett Smith's strained, pseudo–Eartha Kitt vamping is bad enough to suck the juice out of a ripe admonishment, like, "You're still putting too much sex on it." But watching Fish try to insinuate herself into another boring anti-Falcone plot is worse still. She gets into a pointless and instantly forgettable spat with Nikolai, Yakov Smirnoff's second cousin and one of Falcone's other lieutenants, at a warehouse meeting. And then she bumps uglies with Nikolai at episode's end. This isn't a devious reversal so much as it's a way to do something with Fish, a milquetoast villain with a long-term (i.e.: too convoluted to even start to make sense in an episode's time) plan.
Oswald Cobblepot comes a little closer to overthrowing his boss Sal Maroni, but not much closer. At least Cobblepot tries to make a move, cozying up to Maroni (though Maroni's already forgotten Cobblepot's name). Cobblepot suggests a way to break into one of Falcone's casinos, helping Maroni hit Falcone back after last week's failed power play. Problem is: Maroni's vicious, and seriously paranoid. So when Cobblepot tries to show off by telling him his backstory, Maroni beats him up and tracks down Gordon, just to verify Cobblepot's story.
But Cobblepot's plight is only so convincing since Maroni doesn't pose much of a threat. Zayas does a good job of ham-handedly bullying the truth out of Gordon. But Cobblepot never seems to be in real danger, and that's Maroni's fault. Sure, Cobblepot whimpers when Maroni threatens to grind him into deli meat. But there's no follow-through on that threat, no suggestion of explicit violence that suggests Cobblepot could be a goner. Even the relaxed tone of Gordon's testimony does nothing to establish, by contrast, that Maroni is a credible threat. So, again, Cobblepot and Maroni's master/slave, push/pull dynamic is only so interesting since Cobblepot is inevitably pulled down by Maroni's bland but ostensibly irresistible force.
The most convincing failed power-play in this episode is carried out by mad scientist Stan Potolsky's war against former employers WellZyn. Potolsky's clearly tilting at windmills: WellZyn, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises, is an evil pharmaceutical company represented by Taylor Reece, an unforthcoming bureaucrat who speaks fluent PR-ese. Reece is a natural counter to Potolsky, a glassy-eyed burnout who wanders around Gotham City distributing vials of a dopey green gas that looks suspiciously like Dr. Herbert West's Hair Tonic.
Potolsky should be the more charismatic of these two characters, since he establishes that you can't fight City Hall, not even if City Hall is Gotham City's answer to Pfizer. London gets one good scene, wherein he fatalistically proclaims his freedom from Gotham's hierarchical food chain and then commits suicide. But Reece is more charming ,since she's somehow more nuanced than her ex-underling foil.
Reece is a middleman. She lords over Potolsky's disgruntled prole, but her strings are pulled by WellZyn's never-shown owners. Colin doesn't get more than a scene to establish her character, but in that time, she suggests that there are shades of grey when it comes to office politics in Gotham. This is especially true when Gordon grills Reece, asking about any employees "with a mangled ear." Colin makes the most of a hiccup-size pause before she answers: "Full disclosure: That does ring a bell." It's a stonewall of a reply, and Colin scales it expertly.
Ultimately, the most charming character in this episode is Harvey Bullock, who doesn't have much to save for comic relief. Donal Logue can do that in his sleep, and often does. But sometimes, he sinks his teeth into a line and makes you want to root for Bullock, like when he shouts, "What's 'altruism'?" at verbose suspect Isaac Steine, after Gordon asks Steiner a series of who-what-where-when-why questions. Bullock's his own boss, an enviable position given how poorly every other self-made man and woman has fared in Gotham.
- Anyone else wonder how Gordon could be so chummy with Bullock? Fiancée Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) did just leave him ...
- Hoo boy, now Bruce Wayne has a serial killer/disturbed-mind corkboard of his very own. Bat-Computer begins!
- I really dug Danny Mastrogiorgio as Frankie, Maroni's lieutenant. He also stands out in Dito Montiel's seriously underrated Fighting.
- While I'm sure the "Breathe Me" label on Viper's proto-venom was supposed to make me think of Mad Hatter, I'm not so sure the "Do not vex me, mortal" line was supposed to evoke Maxie Zeus ... just writing that made me go through puberty again.
- Taylor's seizurelike eye-rolling was a bit much when Maroni asks Cobblepot if he doesn't like his "Penguin" nickname. Bullock's not wrong when he says "you really can have too much of a good thing."