The thematic clothesline that props up "Red Hood," one of the best episodes of Gotham to date, is blessedly simple: What empowers the people of Gotham City? Each character answers that question differently, because each of them is after different things. (This has been your Yogi Berra–ism of the week.)
For its owners, the titular red hood — a garish balaclava that's treated with as much reverence as Thor's tesseract — means invincibility. A group of bank robbers stumbles into infamy and fortune after enterprising member Gus Floyd (Michael Goldsmith) wears a red mask to their first job and survives two different attempts on his life. The most daring of these two escapes — he avoids a hail of bullets from a near-sighted security guard — makes it seem as if Floyd is protected by his mask, making his superstitious, cowardly gang fight for control of his red hood. Floyd's subplot is the lightest in tonight's episode, and probably the most entertaining. It's been a while since the show's creators not only tried but also achieved a Batman: The Animated Series–like tone, but this story nails it.
I thought of Paul Dini, one of The Animated Series' head writers, during Butch and Oswald's story. Dini is a detail-oriented creator: He's meticulous when it comes to character-driven conversations and shrewd enough to know how to be psychologically realistic without being overwhelmingly self-serious. Gotham usually lacks that level of thoughtfulness and detail, but you can see it in "Red Hood" in any scene where Butch outfoxes Oswald and gently steers him away from making potentially lethal mistakes.
When Oswald's club runs out of alcohol, Butch explains that Don Maroni has cut him off. Oswald is understandably suspicious of Butch in light of his loyalty to Fish Mooney. But Butch breaks things down for his new patron without unnecessary hyperbole: He wants Oswald to succeed, because he originally helped Mooney develop what is now Oswald's club with his own "blood, sweat and tears." Butch also succinctly explains to Oswald why none of Maroni's competitors will help Oswald get back in business: Nobody likes Cobblepot enough to piss Maroni off.
Watching Oswald learn to trust Butch and use him as his ace in the hole isn't exciting unto itself, but it's done in a surprisingly thoughtful way. For starters, executive producer/episode writer Danny Cannon and director Nathan Hope both tamped down Oswald's flamboyance to the point where he doesn't feel like he's in his own show. That kind of stylistic integration is crucial because it makes you want to suspend your disbelief. It's refreshing to see Butch talk about how Maroni's actions affect Cobblepot, and then later make decisions based on that knowledge. That kind of deductive plotting suggests that at least one of the show's writers knows what they're doing and is capable of showing their work. The scene where Butch stops Oswald from buying alcohol from third-string bootleggers is a perfect example, particularly Butch's satisfying explanation: "I always keep a few uniforms in the closet. Kinda cleaner than going in guns blazing, don't you think?"
Compare that story with Fish Mooney's, which actually holds together longer than I expected it to. Here, Mooney meets her prison's "Manager" (Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs!), and he tries to mollify her with showers and other creature comforts. This standoff works because the burden of Mooney's story is largely carried by Combs's masterfully quirky performance. Jada Pinkett-Smith doesn't have much to do, just react to the Manager, and interject periodically with an suspicious question every now and then (presumably we're going to find out why she cares about her fellow prisoners' deplorable conditions later on ... I predict Mooney's episode will involve abuse and/or lots of flashbacks).
But Mooney's story goes off the rails as soon as she gouges her left eye out with a tablespoon, and then steps on it while Combs howls in anguish. This is the kind of goofy shock tactic that one should unfortunately expect from Gotham: Don't know how to get our attention? Hurt somebody in a senselessly deplorable way! There's nothing wrong with violence in the right context, but it's telling that Mooney's story ended this week with her little power play. We're supposed to gasp and wonder what's going to happen to her, because the show's writers want us to care about Gotham's least interesting character. Sorry, but until Pinkett-Smith is given full rein to vamp it up and be fun at the same time, Fish Mooney will remain a dull antagonist.
Compared to Mooney's desperate story, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle's subplots were both models of restraint. Bruce's story ultimately ends with some over-the-top violence (which worked, I should add), and Selina's story concludes with a stinging oh-snap rebuke. But Bruce's story is entertaining because it relies heavily on David Mazouz's typically sensitive performance, Sean Pertwee's smouldering, and Scottish character actor David O'Hara's winningly skeevy turn as Alfred's old friend Reggie. An effective twist ending — Reggie reveals himself to be a mercenary hired by Wayne Enterprises — is also satisfying, though clichéd. Bruce's story, however, is subtle and moody in ways that Gotham normally isn't. Why can't this show always be this good?
- Time for: Fanboyish Speculation! So the Dollmaker is the Manager's boss, eh? One question: Why? The Dollmaker already appeared on Arrow, and it's not as though Batman lacks villains. Why is everybody always picking on the Dollmaker?!
- Reggie's Eastwood Lite story — "I see them at night, Alfie, all the people I killed! I'm a war dog, I tells ya, just like you!" — was so corny, but O'Hara makes it work.
- Jeffrey Combs should be in every episode of Gotham.
- No Fruit Brute sightings tonight. Frustrating.
- What's the deal with the bank teller that fawns over Floyd after the Red Hood gang's first robbery? She seems weirdly excited by the gang, but her story goes nowhere ... I smell a lead-in to a future episode.
- I'm experiencing Richard Kind withdrawal. Bring him back, please.