Leave it to Gotham to chase one of its best episode with one of its worst. At its best, "Everyone Has a Cobblepot" pushes the series' plot along, though usually in the most predictable way. Tonight's investigation-of-the week plot is the exception that proves that rule (more on that shortly). But for the most part, "Everyone Has a Cobblepot" is an untenable tonal stew. Let's start with the best of tonight's subplots, and end with the worst.
Jim Gordon's search for evidence that he can use against Commissioner Loeb is mostly decent, thanks in no small part to episode writer Karen Mostyn-Brown and director Bill Eagles. Two scenes where Gordon confronts Loeb are also tense, thanks to actors Ben McKenzie and Peter Scolari. McKenzie is especially exciting to watch; he makes Gordon's default De Niro–esque posturing — hands on hip and eyes rolling every way but up — work.
But the scenes set at Loeb's safehouse are also mostly atmospheric, particularly the ones where Marge and Jude (Becky Ann Baker and Dan Ziskie), two killers in Loeb's employ, genially interrogate Gordon and Cobblepot. I also liked the scenes where Gordon coaxes the truth about Loeb's daughter Miriam (Nicholle Tom) out of her. These scenes are largely compelling because they're atmospheric enough to be both grim and surreal, two qualities that Gotham's creators often strive for but rarely achieve.
Tom's tic-riddled line-delivery is weirdly riveting — she reminds me of Crispin Glover — and that makes up for a lot, given that she has to sell a sub–Norman Bates backstory. The bit where Tom describes twisting birds' necks until they pop approaches but isn't quite as bad as Jerome's proudly unpleasant speech in "The Blind Fortune Teller." Still, Tom's scenes work thanks to Tom's delivery, the pacing of her character's talk with Gordon, and the way Eagles films their conversation.
That being said: Gotham usually falters when it comes to goony humor, and Gordon's story isn't exceptional. There are a couple moments of cartoonish violence in tonight's episode, but only some earn their cheap laughs. The scene where Bullock threatens a lead by holding his head outside of a moving car's door is okay, though predictable (haven't we seen Bullock use this exact kind of torture before?).
But the preceding scene — where Gordon and Harvey Dent try to put pressure on Xi Lu (Perry Yung), one of Loeb's known associates, and wind up running away — is absurd. So Gordon and Dent show up. And they're chased away by a group of knife-wielding mah-jongg players. These mobsters are especially ridiculous in light of the serious way that they're introduced. Lu gets a mysterious phone call, then prolongs tension by announcing to Gordon and Dent that the person on the line knows who they are. Lu then gives a signal and, uh, a room full of mah-jongg players descend.
The concluding image of Bullock driving away from a mob of angry heavies is wobbly, but not terrible. What is memorably bad about this sequence is its weird Benny Hill–meets–David Fincher tone. Between the phosphorescent lighting and the show's typically bombastic score — the scene seems to be serious enough. But again: Knife-wielding mah-jongg players are at least a little funny. You don't have to read too much into this scene to laugh at the sight of grown men armed with carving knives chasing after Gordon's getaway car. The scene either works for you in a campy sort of way or it doesn't work at all. Unfortunately, this gamble really doesn't pay off here.
Which brings us to the worst part of “Everyone Has a Cobblepot”: Fish Mooney's prison escapades. Like Gordon's story, Mooney's subplot revolves around a character who is not sure how much of her principles she wants to sacrifice to get what she wants. Except, wait: Mooney never really had principles. Mostyn-Brown shakily tries to address this crucial shortcoming by having Mooney reassure her fellow inmates: "Family's built on trust, and that's what we are — family."
Realistically, Mooney acknowledges that she hasn't changed overnight when she talks to Dr. Francis Dollmacher (Colm Feore), her prison's owner. Here she bares her naked ambition and announces her candidacy as the new prison manager. Mooney's still looking out for herself ... but what about the scene where she barks at a prisoner who questions her authority? I don't believe Mooney's line about working with Dollmacher to sacrifice a few prisoners for the sake of saving the majority. I know, we're not supposed to take Mooney at her word. Dollmacher certainly doesn't, as he explains in the episode's last scene.
But in order for Mooney's rebuke to her fellow prisoner to be effective, I have to believe that at some point, Mooney believes what she's selling. I don't think she does, and that makes her speeches about "family" that much more unbelievable. We may very well find out that Mooney doesn't care about her fellow prisoners (and I bet we will in a future episode). But if tonight's subplot is to going to work, I have to believe that Mooney's momentarily sincere. I don't because Mooney's Benedict Arnold in one scene and Eva Perón in the next.
Gotham's tonal inconsistencies are still its biggest problem. Its creators try to be simultaneously brooding and goofy, and the result is a show that suffers from a bad identity crisis. Take, for example, Jeff Combs's final scene. The manager's pitiable state — his arms and torso have been replaced with lady body parts — is ghoulish, to be sure. But it's also not surreal enough to be effectively macabre. The best Batman stories are a weird mix of superheroics and gothic storytelling, so the notion of mixing a hard-boiled noir's self-seriousness with Batman: The Animated Series–style humor is not out of bounds. Still, whiplash-inducing stylistic choices don't excuse the pseudo-shocking sight of poor Combs as a Franken-woman. I know what tone Gotham's creators were going for in that scene: They just don't make it work.
• So Ivy Pepper steals food from hospital patients? How does ... what does ... oh, never mind, this show only makes sense when it's convenient.
• Jude: "Damn raccoons." Okay, that's genuinely funny.
• Is anybody else confused and frightened by Cobblepot's new mohawk?
• The Brazil homage — "We threw in the face for free" — during Mooney's story is cute.
• Gordon's second confrontation with Loeb in tonight's episode is one of my favorite scenes in the show so far. From performances to scripting, this scene gets a lot done.
• Poor Edward Nygma. Then again: Good googly-moogly, it took way too long for Kringle to crush his spirit.
• Time for fanboyish speculation! The Dollmaker is boring. Sorry, that's not really speculation, more of a general observation.