Despite some negligible problems, this week's Gotham delivered what every other episode has tried and failed to deliver: a serialized neo-noir with Godfather-size scope that also happens to be set in Batman's world. It's the first episode where characters' inconstant behavior is deliberate, and the first to be directed well enough that the episode's canned drama seemed to matter. The war Oswald Cobblepot promised at the end of the series premiere is here, and that means James Gordon has to finally try to do something about the pervasive corruption surrounding him. He doesn't accomplish much, but neither does Cobblepot or his new boss, Don Maroni. And that's this week's big idea, as Cobblepot explains to Frankie Carbone right before he uses Carbone's men to kill him: No one is ever really a traitor since they're always behaving "out of love," and love is capricious by nature.
That thematic clothesline is worth stressing, and one that goes a long way towards explaining why "Penguin's Umbrella" is the best Gotham episode so far, one that Bat-masochists everywhere can gleefully point to when skeptics ask hopefully, "Do I have to give that show a second chance?" The violence was surprisingly heavy, and in a good way. You can see streaks of cartoony sadism left over from earlier episodes, particularly from the kidnappers' subplot in "Selina Kyle." But last night, killing and maiming was thankfully done with a straight face, especially in the scene where Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), Falcone's hired killer, traipses into GCPD headquarters and calls Gordon out.
This scene starts as episode writer and showrunner Bruno Heller's take on High Noon: Gordon takes on a skeptical boss and unyielding colleagues, and stubbornly fills out paperwork. The scene concludes with Gordon gut-shot, and with a bystander's blood on his hands. Episode director Rob Bailey choreographs a halfway decent firefight and makes the death of a cop who gets between Zsasz and Gordon count. The scene's coda is predictable, right down to Zsasz's otherwise gratuitous, fanboy-baiting self-mutilation.
But the broad beats of this week's episode rarely feel rote thanks to Bailey, and not just because it was purty-looking. Sure, several shots looked like they were directed instead of covered, like that brief tracking shot towards Gordon right after he wakes up post-gunfight on a gurney. But Bailey's also good with his actors. Ben McKenzie was finally convincing this week, half-squinting, and half-snarling his way through his showdown with Carrigan. And Carrigan, who frequently threatens to overwhelm his scenes with undercooked hamminess, does a fine enough job, like when he half-whines, half-taunts, "Don't ... be that way" at Gordon.
Bailey's such a good actor's director that he even makes great use of the show's two biggest secret weapons: David Zayas's Sal Maroni, and John Doman's Carmine Falcone. Zayas is too often allowed to stray over the top. But he gave good, (relatively) understated bravado, as in the scene where he and Fish Mooney parlay, and he asks Mooney, "You won't bite [Cobblepot], will you?" It's a perfect line delivery, both icily sarcastic and hysterically goony.
Similarly, while Doman's always been fine, he's never given enough room to be for Gotham what Gene Hackman was for the first Superman movie. You could see a little Hackman in Doman's glare last night, or in the way he rolled certain words around in his mouth before spitting them out, like when he declared to Gordon, "The real enemy is anarchy." Doman gave a savory performance, one that wasn't grounded by inane plot twists — i.e.: the episode's last scene, in which Cobblepot and Falcone's ultrasecret alliance is revealed — but rather by a damn fine performance, properly motivated and foregrounded by a competent director. By Gotham's abysmal standards, Doman's performance was downright magical.
Bailey even made Heller's consistently clunky attempts at Batman: The Animated Series–style humor work — mostly. Case in the point: the scene where Zsasz asks about fresh-baked muffins and then picks up his phone after it rings to the tune of "Funkytown." The sour-milk look on Carrigan's face is priceless, but it wouldn't be worth much if he Bailey didn't allow for that extra pause between Zsasz's phone ringing, Carrigan furrowing his brow, and then reaching into his jacket to answer.
While Harvey Bullock's dalliance with a tipsy prostitute called the Duchess of Devonshire was pretty lame, Donal Logue nailed Bullock's punch-drunk attitude when he apologized to Gordon: "You're still a douchebag, but you have the moral high ground." Likewise, Richard Kind's performance as Mayor Aubrey James was much more funny than the Don Knotts–level "Gee whiz"–isms he's stuck with. Kind's an always capable performer, but here he actually gets to perform to his level.
Best of all, the Alfred/Bruce Wayne scenes finally stopped sucking. Wayne's still not interesting yet, but seeing Alfred take out Crispus Allen was not only funny but also a neat illustration of the episode's greater point: characters' allegiances and capabilities vary as needed. So while Allen just saved Gordon a few episodes ago, it's not surprising to see him in an arm-bar when Gordon visits Wayne Manor.
To be fair, Heller basically apologized for the series' poor characterizations when he made Cobblepot soliloquize like Iago about the importance of behaving inconsistently (as long as you're always looking out for yourself). But that paid off in this week's Wayne scenes, which were surprisingly ... tolerable. Next week may be worse, but if Gotham's weakest link can be strengthened, one can only hope for more where this came from.
- Aubrey James to James Gordon: "You scared the bejeebers out of me. I almost spilled my coffee." Richard Kind, FTW.
- Robin Lord Taylor got in a few good licks tonight, like the little shimmy he does when standing before addressing Falcone, or the Abbott and Costello–style "Honk Honk" exchange. For once, he wasn't the hammiest performer. Carrigan took that dishonor when he, in character, bellowed "Please" at a room full of police officers. That was pretty hard to watch.
- Danny Mastrogiorgio is predictably good as Frank Carbone. But he definitely said "smoe" instead of "schmo."
- Sometimes it's hard to tell if Harvey Bullock's awful one-liners are a product of his character or Bruno Heller's lack of imagination. Last night, it was definitely Heller: "That's a helluva plan. You sit there with a panel of chimpanzees and a bucket of crack figuring it out?" Hoo boy.