Remember last week on Gotham when the show’s creators failed to capitalize on the momentum they developed during the mid-season finale? Well, true to the show’s almost-but-not-quite M.O., tonight’s episode “What the Little Bird Told Him” gets the series’s first wobbly season back on track. Then again, you could tell from its opening that tonight’s episode wasn’t going to be more of the same. Your mileage may vary, but it seems impossible to not instantly perk up when you see a guy walking purposefully toward, well, anywhere (in this case, Irwin’s Electronics) to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”? You don’t start an episode with that kind of song cue unless you feel you’ve got something loyal viewers want to see.
Thankfully, the rest of the episode mostly delivers on that promise. There’s still lots of room for improvement (see: Carmine Falcone’s subplot), but this week seemed more even-tempered, more patient. This is the first episode where the show’s cast seems to have been uniformly allowed to inhabit their roles instead of just asked to hit their marks on a scene-for-scene basis, and it’s the first one that makes me feel unabashedly optimistic about the show’s prospects. (Then again, as Don Maroni might put it, one week this show’s on autopilot, the next it’s firing on as many cylinders as it’s got.)
Helmed capably by Eagle Egilsson (Arrow, Nikita), “What the Little Bird Told Him” is charming because, thanks to its director’s solid follow-through, it feels purposeful in ways that most other episodes haven’t, even if you ignored the episode’s central plot in which Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock try to appease rarely present Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) by tracking down Jack Gruber. Egilsson’s direction is quietly confident, as in the brief, moody funeral scene that begins Carmine Falcone’s story.
I’ve foregrounded Egilsson’s contributions because it would be too easy to say that “What the Little Bird Told Him” was satisfying just because it pushed the series’s plot along farther than most other episodes have. Yes, it was great to see Carmine Falcone finally deal with Fish Mooney, since her recent scheming has gone from quietly conniving to impossible-to-ignore. And yes, it was equally satisfying to see Gordon’s story accelerated to the point where his contrived demotion was resolved. But none of these stories would be exciting if they were simply put through the show’s usual meat-grinder paces. If you asked me to tell you which episodes of Gotham stood out, I’d struggle to answer, since so few feel like they’re competently directed. “What the Little Bird Told Him” is exceptional in that I could see a consistency of thoughtfulness in its direction, and not just in big, showy moments, like the episode’s introductory song cue and Gruber’s more spectacular set pieces (the scene where he attacks police headquarters was especially good). The show’s supporting actors, particularly John Doman and Cory Michael Smith, carry the show whenever poor, over-taxed Robin Lord Taylor isn’t onscreen, and this week it seems like Smith has been given enough room to play Edward Nygma as a wounded loner who also happens to be defined by his quirky behavior. That distinction is important since Nygma’s tics have, until now, largely defined him in the same way they define other peripheral antiheroes, like Ivy Pepper and Selina Kyle.
Still, just look at Smith’s blank expression after Nygma’s colleague Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack) rebuffs his bewildering gift of a bullet-topped red velvet cupcake. You can see Smith, as Nygma, trying to keep it together as he barks back, “Thank you for the file, Miss Kringle!” His line delivery is immediately funny, but also a little sad. In previous episodes, Smith was always a little funny, but never as quietly affecting as he was tonight.
Likewise, while Doman, as Falcone, necessarily enjoys a lot more screen time tonight, his role also feels more substantial than ever, as not just a function of plot, but also proper directorial follow-through. Egilsson deserves credit for encouraging Doman to the point where major Falcone-centric scenes, like Falcone and Victor Zsasz’s pre-showdown conversation, feel eventful. I love that you can actually see scenery-glutton Anthony Carrigan (Zsasz) stopping himself from over-stressing key words like respect. But I was even more ecstatic to see a world of weariness in Doman’s bemused glare. That kind of subtle performance gives weight to throwaway lines like, “They all want me to go live in the country with Liza. I want that, too.” For once, I actually believed that Doman’s Falcone is a major player in Gotham.
That being said, Falcone’s subplot also ends in a way that feels like a failure of execution rather than imagination. I’m thinking specifically of the scene where Falcone strangles Liza after telling her, “I’m sure you’re a good, honest girl.” That brutal act of violence should feel shocking — here’s Falcone proving that he doesn’t need anyone to do his dirty work. But as presented, Liza’s death just seems absurd. Thanks to over-editing, it lacks an important operatic oomph, and doesn’t place strong emphasis on either the killer or his victim’s emotions. Liza’s death just happens … and then stops happening. In that sense, “What the Little Bird Told Him” reminds us that while Gotham is making modest steps forward, it’s not necessarily ready for unqualified praise. Tonight’s episode is the show at its best, so here’s hoping for more where it came from.
- Time for fanboyish speculation! So Jack Gruber wasn’t Hugo Strange; he was the Electrocutioner. What a “Rogues’ Gallery”!
- Anyone else distressed to see Renee Montoya admitted into the men’s locker room at police headquarters? Oh, the desk sergeant said it was okay, sure. But — wait, what??
- Oswald Cobblepot to Fish Mooney: “Hello, Fish.” Another basic line delivered with just enough style. That’s not an Egilsson thing, but a Robin Taylor Lord and Egilsson thing. Still, Egilsson deserves praise because he’s smart enough to treat Lord, the show’s real star, as such.
- Lots of weirdly sadistic throwaway gags tonight, like Don Maroni regaling his troops with a teeth-pulling anecdote, or that random thug getting shocked by the Electrocutioner because the crook made the mistake of holding on to his cell’s metal bars. Wonder what that’s about?
- Speaking of Don Maroni: David Zayas’s performance was also restrained in all the right places. Nice to see, since Zayas is usually perilously undervalued.
- Anyone else curious about Gruber’s whole “rape-murder beef” thing? That piqued my curiosity.