“Scarification" is the first episode of Gotham's second season that is, for better and worse, a must-see. First, the bad news: The show's superficially mature target audience is pandered to something fierce during the episode's most flagrantly excessive scenes of violence.
Now, you could argue that there's a narrative function for the sheer excess of Butch's lopped-off hand, or Sid Bunderslaw's missing eye. But Unit Alpha member Luke Garrett's fiery demise establishes the same theme (Gotham's tentative status quo has been blown apart by Theo Galavan's plans to take over and then gut the city) while also feeling totally monotonous and gratuitous. If you felt nothing for Garrett save for a giddy "Holy shit" moment, that's because Gotham's trying to, in the words of show-writer John Stephens, "feel dangerous," by making every scene of violence unpredictable and over-the-top. But when every scene of violence is this over-the-top, none of it actually feels dangerous (more on this shortly).
Which leads us to the good news: "Scarification" is also the first episode since season one that effectively suggests the show's writers are thinking about what motivates and unites the main characters. You can see this in scenes where Butch chats up Selina Kyle, and he admits to Selina that he still has mixed feelings about Fish Mooney ("She loved me too once ... "). Until he was tasked with ferreting out Selina, Butch hasn't had to think about how he sold his boss out because, well, nobody but Selina has called him on it ("Then you shot her"). Similarly, while Selina's last-minute bond with Fish wasn't anything to write home about last season (it was a thing for a hot minute), it's nice to see that bond remembered when Cobblepot uses Selina's in with Mooney to broker a deal with the fire-starting Pike brothers on Galavan's behalf.
You could also see episode-writer Jordan Harper's knack for world-building pay off in the way that Selina butts heads with Bridget Pike (Michelle Veintimilla) and they spell out each other's hang-ups. "What good's family if you're alone," Bridget says to Selina before Selina barks back, "What good's family if you're a slave?" As blunt as this exchange is, it's also the first time in a while that Gotham's characters actually seem to have lives outside of bad, hard-boiled dialogue and unremarkable rivalries.
In fact, Bridget's story line is probably the best villain-of-the-week story in a long while, maybe even the best yet. This is partly because Bridget defines herself against the most believably misogynistic villains the show has seen yet. When one Pike brother threatens to pimp Bridget out — "I would never put family on the street. But if you're not family ... why not make a buck?" — I actually believed it thanks to Harper's relative restraint. Compare this threat with the rant that Jerome Valeska goes on at the end of "The Blind Fortune Teller" back in season one. In the latter scene, Jerome comes across like a helium-inflated bully. In the former, you can see parallels to the woman-loathing men of Sam Peckinpah's Westerns, particularly The Wild Bunch's Pike Bishop and Ride the High Country's Hammond brothers.
Like those earlier macho types, the Pike brothers are defensively cliquish and mulishly stubborn. So when one brother gets blown up, it makes sense that they would not only charge Bridget with taking his place, but that she would get a kick out of being one of the boys. Bridget's refusal to believe Selina when she tries to warn Bridget about how the Pikes are using her is also refreshing. When was the last time that a female character on Gotham, let alone a female character whose identity is defined against masculine authority figures, felt so believable?
But I know what you're thinking: One of the Pike brothers actually blew up? Yes, just when the show seemed to strike a good middle ground between character-driven drama and lighthearted humor — the tour of Merc, a Home Depot–style wholesale weapon-supply store, is especially funny — we get a character exploding. Like, actually blowing up: The littlest Pike gets shot while carrying a purloined explosive, making his body light up like a Grucci fireworks display. Nathaniel Barnes adds insult to injury by confirming that this is supposed to be a grim joke: "What kind of heat are you packing?" he incredulously asks Gordon. This would be funny if Luke Garrett didn't catch fire at the episode's end. One might argue there's a misguided sort of symmetry to Pike and Garrett's death: Pike's death is cartoonlike and light because he's a disposable villain we just met, while Garrett is a cop that Barnes and Unit Alpha care a great deal about.
But wait a minute, didn't we just meet Garrett an episode ago? And how many times have we seen this guy in action? No individual members of Unit Alpha stand out because the GCPD's Strike Force always looks like a relatively well-oiled, ass-kicking machine every time it's rolled out. So when Barnes corrects one of Alpha's members and says that Garrett wasn't going to be, but rather, already "was a great cop," it's impossible to agree with him.
Garrett gets a long, slow death because he's set on fire (!!!), but also because we're supposed to feel like his death has consequences. And yet: Who cares about a generic rookie cop who probably didn't have enough training to be part of an elite team of cops tasked with doing a job that cops with years of experience are apparently too jaded to do? This guy's death was sensational, and every bit as jaw droppingly over-the-top as the last three acts of violence, so why am I supposed to care again? There's nothing to Garret's demise beyond a superficial jolt, making it seem especially out of place in an otherwise thoughtful episode.
- Time for Fanboy-ish Speculation! I loved that Bridget is Gotham's answer for Firefly. Great little twist for expectant fans.
- "Can we get a price check on brass knuckles?" More Merc, please.
- Episode director Bill Eagles also directed "Everyone Has a Cobblepot," one of season one's better episodes. Definitely file Harper and Eagles away amongst the show's better creators.
- What do we make of the Dark Shadows–style backstory about Gotham City's founders? I liked it, I think, but am curious how it treated other viewers.