Gotham took a big step forward with “The Balloonman,” a semi-silly but mostly endearing villain-of-the-week episode devoted to the defender of Gotham City before Batman arrived on the scene. In the 1987 comic-book arc Batman: Year Two, writer Mike Barr and artist Alan Davis introduced readers to the city’s first champion, the Reaper, a scythe-wielding antihero who prowled the streets and served as a — wait for it — grim counterpoint to the caped crusader who succeeded him. By contrast, the first pre-Batman superhero on the show, though, is, uh, the Balloonman?
Yes, the Balloonman, a mysterious vigilante who handcuffs Gotham City’s most corrupt public figures to hot-air balloons and kills them by sending them into the sky. Introduced with a creepy Carnival-style mask and a pushcart with warped bicycle wheels, the Balloonman is the kind of goofy character you might find in Batman: The Animated Series. His presence in this week’s episode suggests that the cartoonish nature of the kidnappers from “Selina Kyle” wasn’t just a weird tonal hiccup. Which is a major relief since Gotham, as some readers have pointed out so far, isn’t on cable but is a hard-boiled-ish superhero show. It’s a series where crooked cops interrogate subjects by beating them. It’s also a show that will eventually highlight villains like Poison Ivy and the Riddler. So if Gotham has to have a stylistic model, Batman: The Animated Series is the one to beat.
Admittedly, episode director Dermott Downs doesn’t always do a great job of accenting the Balloonman’s playful nature. On the one hand, it’s great to see Donal Logue, as Detective Harvey Bullock, look away impatiently while partner James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) details the Balloonman’s crimes. But beyond that, nobody seems that off-put by the Balloonman’s presence. Like, isn’t Gordon a little amused that Gotham apparently has a “weather-balloon factory?” And shouldn’t Bullock, a markedly less austere authority figure, at least chuckle when he and Gordon tell Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara) that the Balloonman stole four weather balloons and will therefore strike again soon? Does this show not have a continuity editor? Or creators that care what happens to characters beyond a scene-for-scene basis?
Thankfully, Logue is allowed to cut loose in “The Balloonman,” as in the climactic scene where Bullock handcuffs the Balloonman to his fourth balloon, and Bullock sneers, “How does it feel? You’re hoisted by your own petard!” Logue’s boisterous line-readings suggest that he’s now essentially being encouraged to play the same self-destructive schlub he’s played in almost every one of Logue’s post–The Tao of Steve roles. Which just brings Gotham back to The Animated Series, the series that developed Bullock’s character most after Howard Chaykin and Archie Goodwin created the character in 1974. You can see The Animated Series’ loutish, counts-on-his-hands Bullock in scenes like the one where Bullock drags Gordon around Gotham looking for clues and winds up with nothing more substantial than lunch. And you can see it in the scene where a dim bulb goes on over Bullock’s head and he diagnoses the Balloonman’s crimes thusly: “Not only are the murder weapons in the stratosphere, but so are the murder victims. It’s the perfect crime!” It’s great to finally see Logue doing his thing in Gotham, even if that thing isn’t exactly a challenge for him.
You can also see Batman: The Animated Series’ influence on “The Balloonman” in the episode’s Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) subplot. Cobblepot’s return to Gotham is a bit much, especially since he was told to never come back two episodes ago. Then again, his psychopathic ambition is highlighted throughout “The Balloonman,” particularly when he insists, “[Gotham’s] my home. It’s my destiny,” and adds, “I’m its future!” But individual scenes, like the one where Cobblepot smirks “Home!” to himself as he surveys Gotham’s crime-ridden streets, bear the influence of The Animated Series writer Paul Dini’s nuanced characterizations. Dini’s light but psychologically realistic characterizations are the main reason a villain like Mr. Freeze isn’t a campy one-note joke, like Daredevil’s Stilt-Man or Spider-Man’s Leapfrog. In “The Balloonman,” you can see a similar attention to detail in the scene where Cobblepot stalks a cook at the restaurant he’s dying to work at and giddily tries to steal his shoes. Taylor is responsible for the loopy smile on Cobblepot’s face after the cook tells him he wears size-nine shoes. But Cobblepot’s ghoulish verbal reply — “What a coincidence!” — compliments Taylor’s Pee-Wee Herman–esque line delivery. Finally, an episode where Cobblepot’s story is as good as Taylor’s performance!
“The Balloonman” similarly takes concerns and problems that Heller and the show’s directors have struggled with since “Pilot” and at least perfunctorily addresses them. Even the scene in which Gordon finally stares down Bullock and hectors him about killing Mario Pepper was a relief. Again, Downs doesn’t always do well with the episode’s light touch, like when Bullock and Carl Smiker — the man suspected of being the Balloonman — tussle in a slapstick way. It’s funnier to describe than to watch Smiker’s girlfriend chucking a TV like she’s the second coming of Grace Jones. And the scene should have ended before Bullock cold-cocked Grace 2.0. But there are so many little stylistic flourishes in “The Balloonman” that suggest Gotham is now on the right track, like when Lieutenant Bill Cranston beats up a crook, then tells his victim, “You’re a disgrace to drug dealers.” Gordon’s still an emotional black hole, but hey, Rome wasn’t built in three episodes.
- Excellent casting of Veep’s Dan Bakkedahl as the Balloonman. More character actors playing villains, please!
- Anyone else think the Balloonman looked like the Shadow when he attacked Cranston?
- The “Balloon Man Kills Dirty Cop” newspaper headline makes me want to live in Gotham so bad …
- Priceless: when Logue points to Guevara with one hand on hip as he complains, “Cranston wasn’t that bad!”
- Bullock to Gordon: “I know how to find someone!” And then he goes to some prostitutes.
- “That’s what this Arkham thing’s gonna change: People are gonna see that the Emperor has no clothes.” So … how many more episodes until all these Arkham hints start to pay off? I say two, three tops. I hope.
- Gordon to Barbara Kean: “This city’s sick.” Um, does it need a flu shot or something? Come on, this is second-draft cack.