As a neo-noir/gangster drama starring popular Batman-related comics characters, Gotham expects viewers to judge the show’s plot and characterizations based on what they already know about various Bat movies, comics, and TV shows. That is the source of the show’s biggest problems: How much knowledge should a viewer come to the show with, and what tone should the series take in order to simultaneously stand apart from and also capitalize on the success of previous Batman iterations, particularly Christopher Nolan’s? It’s a tricky balance, and one that showrunner Bruno Heller and various writers and directors still struggle with.
But looking at “Rogues’ Gallery,” Gotham’s midseason premiere, I still can’t help but wonder whom this show is for. You might think having Jim Gordon demoted and made to work in the newly established Arkham Asylum might afford the show’s creators a few good opportunities to introduce new characters. Moreover, the title of tonight’s episode implicitly promises new villains. That promise wasn’t really fulfilled tonight unless you were somehow expecting Aaron “Amygdala” Helzinger (Kevin McCormick), a brain-damaged mental patient, and a new, manipulative villain named Jack Gruber (Christopher Heyerdahl).
Realistically, there’s nothing substantially wrong with a show that futzes around with established characters and events to create something new. But what Gotham’s creators have made so far is … well, frankly, both teasing and underwhelming. None of the major subplots in “Rogues’ Gallery” paid off substantially, particularly Oswald Cobblepot’s foiled coup and Fish Mooney’s murderous scheming. Do we need another reminder that Mooney, a scheming up-and-comer, is surrounded by unstable, duplicitous men like Butch? Or that Cobblepot’s road to underworld success isn’t easy?
To give credit it where it’s due: watching Cobblepot get repeatedly put in his place by everyone from Harvey Bullock to Don Maroni was kind of amusing. But once Maroni made his big speech and episode writer Sue Chung baldly overstated the episode’s main concern with characters’ knowing their place — “Let this be a lesson to you. You’re a smart monkey, but you’re a monkey. And I’m the zookeeper” — the episode stopped being charming.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Since Maroni’s line gives “Rogues’ Gallery” its thematic clotheslines, it’s worth looking at tonight’s major subplots in that context. Cobblepot gets put in his place while Butch, Mooney’s new right-hand man, courts and then assassinates Saviano (John Enos III), a childhood friend. Saviano is a threat to Mooney, so Butch rises to the occasion and kills him. I liked the moody wide-angle photography used during the scenes where Butch nervously chats up Saviano: The city skyline is evocative whenever Chung’s dialogue simply isn’t.
But that’s the problem: As it’s presented, I didn’t get a clear read on Butch’s emotions. This isn’t clever ambiguity; it’s poor storytelling: Is Butch, as Mooney suggested, looking out for himself by killing Mooney’s rivals for her? Or is he a loyal grunt who knows his place? Butch’s speech to Saviano, the one where he reveals he always felt guilty about a childhood slight, should presumably tell me. But episode director Oz Scott didn’t really reveal how conflicted Butch is. Instead, Scott accented the brutal nature of Butch’s actions. He didn’t pause long enough to show us what a man who all but sobs, “You were like a brother to me,” is feeling before he kills his friend (a friend we just met this episode, I hasten to add). Is Butch seriously that cold, or is he a social-climber like Cobblepot? Presumably, we’re going to find out … in a later episode.
Gordon’s subplot is similarly frustrating. Violence and trauma are underscored for their own sake, since Gordon’s search for a dangerous scientist/surgeon in Arkham doesn’t do anything except set up a villain who will presumably be dealt with … in a later episode. Technically, Gordon benefits from not knowing his place, since he’s the only one bold enough to defy director Gerry Lang (The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and get the GCPD involved in the investigation of Arkham patients’ mysterious shock-treatment injuries. But the culprit ultimately escapes, and bureaucracy inevitably prevails. Maybe that’s the lesson for “Rogues’ Gallery:” Change may be coming to Gotham City, as Butch tells Saviano, but it’s going to take a while to get there.
So while it may seem childish to object to the fact that “Rogues’ Gallery” promises one thing and then holds off on delivering, that’s basically what’s been going on throughout season one of Gotham. The series’ creators suffer from a general shortsightedness that prevents Gotham from paying off either in the long or the short term. Case in point: Maroni’s rant was a disappointing conclusion to Cobblepot’s story because it was thematically unfulfilling and a tacky, unfunny stab at PG-13, hard-boiled humor. If it were just one bad line, like when Maroni calls Cobblepot a “limping little chicken-butt second banana,” that’d be one thing. It would be equally bearable if it were just two bad lines, like when Maroni admonishes a GCPD grunt by rhetorically asking, “What am I, talkin’ Hungarian? Open the cage, mook!” But the combination of those two lines with the “And I’m the zookeeper” capper to “You’re a smart monkey, but you’re a monkey. And I’m the zookeeper,” was lethal.
The fact that Gotham is treading water wouldn’t be so bad if it were immediately enjoyable. But it’s not fun beyond a few good supporting performances — Donal Logue was on-point tonight, and so was Isaiah Washington Jr. — and twist-reliant investigation-of-the-week subplots (Gordon’s story was diverting, mostly thanks to Ben McKenzie and co-star Morena Baccarin’s onscreen chemistry). In the space of one episode, the show’s creators have pissed away any momentum they developed during the show’s the midseason finale. Welcome back, Gotham — it’s like you never left.
- Ivy Pepper to Barbara Kean-Gordon: “I’m a friend of Jim’s.” How does Barbara not hear that Ivy’s clearly insanely young? That is, why is she so threatened by a girl that clearly sounds like a girl?
- Harvey Bullock to Oswald Cobblepot: “It’s soothing. Like a bonsai tree.” See, this was funny and random, and not completely forced. But that’s mostly thanks to Donal Logue’s delivery, no?
- Time for: Fanboyish Speculation. Anyone else wondering if Gruber is actually Hugo Strange?
- Butch to Saviano: “Just like old times. All we’re missing is a bottle of applejack.” I loved the nervous energy in actor Drew Powell’s line delivery. That was a pleasant surprise.
- Butch to Saviano, again: “Since we were kids, I loved you like a brother.” This line should presumably tell me more than it does. But it’s a place-holder. Powell doesn’t have enough time or space to make the line stick.
- Oswald Cobblepot: “You’re beginning to irk me.” Week in, week out, Robin Taylor Lord is the best match of character and performer. Cobblepot is, accordingly, the only protagonist who doesn’t seem to be a focus group away from being completely different.
- Gerry Lang to Jim Gordon: “Think you can’t fall any further?” More Isiah Whitlock Jr., please! Sheeeeit.