We need to talk about Bruce Wayne.
Until “The Mask,” Bruce has not been one of Gotham’s most interesting characters. In fact, he hasn’t really been more than the show’s figurehead. Bruce is the human catalyst that motivates James Gordon, the show’s real lead protagonist, to wage war on both the mob and Gotham’s mobbed-up guardians. So it’s a good thing that Bruce is more prominent in “The Mask,” an episode where Gordon reaffirms his crusade against everything corrupt in Gotham: “Falcone, Maroni, every cop that’s dirty: I’m gonna get ‘em.” More important, Gordon finally gets help from his fellow GCPD officers, and not just partner Harvey Bullock. Captain Sarah Essen makes a very public display of solidarity with Gordon when she offers to help Bullock look for Gordon when he goes missing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In tonight’s episode, Bruce Wayne stepped out of Gordon’s shadow and started to deal with his own anger issues. This automatically makes “The Mask” the most interesting episode of Gotham so far, though its conclusion also makes it the most problematic episode. Once again, the show’s main characters seem to hail from different shows, a problem that is most strongly accented in the disconnect between Bruce’s needs and his guardian Alfred’s response.
Since we already know who Bruce is going to be when he grows up, one can’t help but look at the consequences of his actions as the start of something greater. There is, in that sense, nothing simple or innocent about the actions of bully Tommy Elliot (Cole Vallis), a snotty rich kid who can’t resist picking on Bruce. He gets under Bruce’s skin by talking about his parents, asking if he saw their bodies’ guts hanging out. That gruesome detail pushes Bruce over the edge. And while he tries to keep his temper under control, Tommy stops him from walking away from an ensuing confrontation. So Bruce loses it and slaps Tommy down. “Don’t talk about my mother,” he screams.
As Bruce, actor David Mazouz does a fantastic job of stressing his character’s desperation. Bruce is out of control, and later on, he recognizes that, bashfully confessing to Alfred, “I’m angry all the time.” Alfred knows that’s a big problem, so he tries to help Bruce to cope. But the way he helps Bruce is questionable at best, and rock-bottom deplorable at worst.
After Bruce shamefully admits that he’s being bullied at school, Alfred takes decisive action. He drives Bruce to Tommy’s house and encourages him to confront Tommy. This isn’t theoretically such a bad idea. In fact, a confrontation could be constructive, as is suggested when Bruce tells Alfred, “I’m visualizing what I’m going to do.” Alfred also tells Bruce flat-out: “You don’t have to do this.” As a sign of encouragement, he gives Bruce his father’s watch. Alfred then lets Bruce approach Tommy’s door on his own. And then he does nothing when Bruce uses Thomas’s watch as a weapon with which to pummel Tommy.
Okay, okay, calmly, let’s go over this. It’s obvious that Alfred let Bruce approach Tommy on his own because he wanted Bruce to stand on his own two feet. But the fact that that Alfred did nothing once Bruce started to beat Tommy up says a lot. Likewise, when Bruce comes to Alfred and asks him to teach him how to fight, Alfred beams a big paternal grin before he happily agrees. Think about that in light of how scared Bruce was when he beat Tommy up. When Bruce trounces Tommy, he’s wailing. He’s not really defending himself, though he thinks he is. So he screams at Tommy, telling him again to never talk about his mother. In this moment, Bruce is not a hero: He’s a scared kid with an improvised weapon in his hand and a lot of rage in his heart. That rage arguably motivates him later when he asks Alfred to make him a fighter.
The fact that Bruce empathetically self-diagnoses his own anger issues makes it hard to easily shrug off what I would argue is the big takeaway of Bruce’s story: Bruce stood up for himself, and is therefore now on the path towards becoming a superhero. That sentiment would be true if Tommy committed a great social injustice. But he didn’t— he’s just a garden-variety bully. If Tommy was a real monster, it might be possible to understand his punishment as Bruce’s first step toward crime-fighting. Heck, if we had seen Tommy apologize for his behavior, Bruce’s actions might even look genuinely heroic.
But it’s hard to see Alfred as a positive role model, since he essentially gets pats Bruce on the head. He even tells Bruce that his actions were justified when Bruce says, “I enjoyed hurting [Tommy],” and he rejoinders with, “Of course you did. He deserved it.” I’m still shaken by that, and am really looking forward to hearing what fellow viewers think about Alfred’s actions. Because for better or worse, the Alfred/Bruce relationship just became the most interesting thing about Gotham.
• I liked that Bruce’s life lessons mirrored the ones Gertrude Kapelput gave her son Oswald Cobblepot. Then again, the scene where Cobblepot tries to make peace with Fish Mooney is much more interesting than the one where Cobblepot takes advantage of Mooney’s “one weakness” by beating up her new assistant. I credit Lord’s performance for that, mostly. His performances generally fluctuate between great and abysmal. But he was really on point this week.
• Fish Mooney’s subplot was pretty dull.
• The Richard Sionis fight-club action scenes were not bad, though that’s more to do with attitude than execution. I appreciated that they weren’t overedited to death. But the actual fight choreography could have been better. I mean, yes, these guys aren’t supposed to be sophisticated fighters. But that doesn’t mean their action scenes wouldn’t benefit from a little more coordination.
• Kind of interesting to note that Black Mask is the first villain-of-the-week villain that comics fans already know. Also kind of interesting to see Tommy “Hush” Elliot show up. Does this mean that Gotham will now aspire to be more like Arrow and the Flash by doling out fan-service-y references to established characters and events? Curious.
• “Run all the prints […] this one, too?” Does Edward Nygma not know how to do his job? This would explain a lot … yes, Edward, even that one. Especially that one!
• Anyone else feel like the GCPD took Gordon back into the fold a little too quickly after last week’s episode?