Gotham's first season ended with a death that signaled a welcome sea change: Joylessly campy Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney was shoved off of a tall building, leaving Robin Lord Taylor's note-perfect Oswald Cobblepot in charge of the city's criminal element. This seemed like a stabilizing step in the right direction for the show's tone, which generally vacillates between over-the-top, pseudo-mature camp, and light, Batman: The Animated Series–style humor. The appropriately named "Damned If You Do ..." suggests that no such tonal shift is forthcoming.
If anything, tonight's episode felt like show creator Bruno Heller's way of declaring that last season's bizarre tonal goulash ain't broke, so he's not fixing it. Rather than settle on a more sustainable tone, Heller, who also wrote tonight's episode, has chosen to throw a couple more fan-service-y villains at viewers, and reset Jim Gordon's story without any indication that there are forthcoming consequences for that hard reset.
Gordon's story is most troubling since he's the heart of the show, and the character who, until season two, enjoyed the most screen time. That balance of power seems to be shifting based on tonight's episode, but we'll see whether Cobblepot and Muppet Babies–style villains like Edward "Riddler" Nygma, and Jerome "Joker" Valeska are going to be treated as anything more than recurring, oversize cameos. Still, for the moment, Gordon's the lead protagonist, as we see when he forces himself to help Cobblepot collect a debt so he (Gordon) can be reinstated at the Gotham City Police Department.
Gordon's road to redemption is predictably belabored, but it brings back unwelcome memories of the consequence-free actions he got away with in the name of gallantry and good intentions. Harvey Bullock and Bruce Wayne respectively play Angel and Devil on Gordon's shoulders after Cobblepot tells Gordon that he must help him collect money from not-especially-kinky sex club owner Ogden Barker (Otto Sanchez). But while Bullock and Wayne either tell Gordon to walk away from or abet Cobblepot, they both agree that helping Cobblepot would be against Gordon's nature. This is best expressed by Wayne, who sums up Gordon's dilemma nicely: "... you must do something ugly. And your personal honor forbids that."
But hey, wait a minute: Remember when Gordon beat up a witness/suspect in "The Anvil and the Hammer" and was never called on or punished for it? Or what about when he forgot to keep an eye on ex-fiancée Barbara in the same episode, and was forgiven by current-girlfriend Leslie Thompkins? You'd be forgiven if you forgot about those particular out-of-character moments because, well, Heller wants you to. Still, this is what should worry viewers of tonight's episode given that Gordon has just committed a much greater sin by killing Barker. Then again, Heller's characterizations were wildly inconsistent throughout season one, so why should we expect anything different from season two?
By episode's end, Gordon is basically back on his high horse, and poised to help newly appointed Commissioner Essen to stop the impending deluge of super-villains created by dissembling good-guy industrialist Theo Galavan (James Frain) and his sister Tabitha "Tigress" Galavan (Jessica Lucas). In an ideal world, Heller would deserve the benefit of the doubt, and we would just wait for Gordon to gnash his teeth, and regret his decision to help Cobblepot. But it's more likely that Gordon will be absolved in the most expedient and un-introspective way possible. This is Gotham, after all, and while the balance of power may constantly seem to be shifting within the show, it has yet to really change.
Case in point: Gotham's new budding rogue's gallery, many of whom speak to the show's not-so-latent lady problems. Never mind that "nice guy" Nygma has officially become a generic talks-to-himself-in-the-mirror psychopath (that line about "soft, trembling flesh" is especially gag-worthy). Or that mommy-slaying Jerome, a character whose facial tics speak louder than any of his actual dialogue, is now a major recurring character. And never mind the predictably pseudo-erotic charge that Tabitha gets when she takes out Richard "Black Mask" Sionis, who was one of season one’s biggest fan-service-ready villains.
Instead: What's the deal with Barbara Kean? Kean has apparently been transformed by her encounter with Jason "The Ogre" Lennon into a disengaged villainess, someone who will gladly use men like Jerome and Sionis to do her bidding. But wasn't Barbara supposed to be exploring a side of her personality that she couldn't even acknowledge last season? That idea is sadly expressed through lame threatening phone calls. Because apparently "I just wanted to say that I hope you die screaming, bitch. Byesies!" is now the best we can expect from Barbara, one of the show's most undervalued assets.
Then again, what do you expect from a show that predictably buries the decent (albeit underdeveloped) Wayne story arc, and chooses to emphasize pseudo-adult/shocking acts of violence, like Barbara's cursing, or Sionis's brutal death? Or how about when Commissioner Loeb's home is invaded, and his bodyguard's severed head is manipulated like a puppet by Victor Zsasz, Cobblepot's new enforcer? That kind of tacky shock tactic returns us to a question that Heller never gave a satisfying answer to in Gotham's first season: Who is this show for? One can't help but unfavorably compare Gotham to the other DC shows that showrunners Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg have been developing for the CW and now CBS.
Even a show like Arrow, which has sometimes felt too much like a Batman/Christopher Nolanified version of the Green Arrow character, has consistently courted a lighter tone thanks to key supporting characters, particularly love interest Felicity Smoak and partner John Diggle. By contrast, analogous Gotham characters like Thompkins, Kean, and Bullock have always felt like interchangeable obstacles to keep Gordon's generic hothead hero from being submerged by a rising tide of paradoxically tame, but also desperately violent villains. Welcome back to Gotham, where everything looks different, but nothing has changed.
- Sean Pertwee's accent gets goofy when Alfred gets stressed: "You're 'avin' a laugh! A bum?!" He sounds a bit like Inspector Clouseau! "Yes, that's what I said, 'e is a mad bummer!"
- Why do all of Gotham's sex parties look like they take place in the same spa? Do all these guys rent out Soho House, or David Barton's Gym? Also, where do partygoers get their lacy, pseudo-kinky accouterments? Is there an adult party store in Gotham City?
- David Mazouz instantly reminded me of why I think he's one of the show's greatest assets when Wayne hastily changes the subject after Gordon points out that he and Alfred are "dirty": "I imagine you have something important to say." Mazouz's jittery line-reading is terrific. More Mazouz, please!
- Bullock to Gordon: "It's the job, Jim. Makes us angry. Makes us hard." We love you, Donal Logue, but please never explain again how hard your job makes you.
- Anyone else wonder who set up the computer in Papa Wayne's subterranean citadel? Like, is there a power generator in the basement? How were electric bills handled in the Wayne household? Didn't anyone catch on?
- Time for: Fanboyish Speculation. Are we supposed to think Barbara Kean is going to become Harley Quinn? I tend to doubt it. Instead, I bet Jerome kills her, and Gordon remembers Barbara by giving her name to his first-born daughter (with Leslie Thompkins; she's there too).