Monday night’s Gotham is only useful as a place-holding declaration of intent. Which is to say: Nothing substantial happens in “Beasts of Prey” that won’t happen at greater length next week. This is sadly typical of Gotham lately. Various important subplots are progressing, particularly Bruce Wayne’s search for Reginald Payne and Fish Mooney’s escape from the Dollmaker’s island prison. But while last week’s episode suggested that various characters are on their way to getting what they really want, tonight’s episode makes it seem as if progress won’t come to Gotham City without a lot of throat-clearing.
So in an episode like “Beasts of Prey,” it’s tempting to say that the best subplots are the ones that show the most signs of narrative progress. But that’s not necessarily a great way to gauge the worth or success of the show’s inter-related stories. Instead, I want to try to judge each plot thread on its own terms. That’s not a great one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to evaluating a long-form, serialized drama. But I often feel like the writers of Gotham write with that end in mind.
To be fair, Gotham’s writers are not exceptional in the way that they compartmentalize various subplots for the sake of stretching things out. But watching tonight’s Gotham, I can’t help but think that, with three episodes left in season one and a second season already green-lit, his show’s still not really going anywhere in a hurry. And the best way to grade a series that draws its plot out by emphasizing distracting pseudo-shocking moments — tonight it’s Mooney’s gunshot wound and Payne’s murder — is by treating big climaxes as parts of small, discrete wholes.
Wayne’s story is the most satisfying in “Beasts of Prey,” mostly because it feels the most self-sufficient. Wayne tries to keep calm, but when Jim Gordon comes by, you can see him struggling. As Wayne, David Mazouz has gradually become one of the show’s most valuable cast members, and you can see why when he stammers to Gordon: “That’s what you’re here for, is it?” Mazouz’s thoughtful performance in this sequence makes the sequence where Alfred’s knife wound spontaneously reopens seem that much more gratuitous.
Still, another scene of contrived violence works in the favor of Wayne’s story: the death of Reginald Payne. Payne’s murder isn’t shocking unto itself, but there are a couple of things that make it feel genuinely surprising. The first is Eagle Egilsson’s direction. The way he films Wayne’s view of Payne’s body after Selina Kyle pushes him out of (what seems like) a tall building is striking. Filmed from Wayne’s perspective, Payne looks like a broken toy. Secondly, the violence in this scene feels like a natural extension of Kyle’s character, and therefore a good (though predictable) way to highlight the difference between Wayne and Kyle. Finally, Payne’s death matters because Wayne can’t just walk away. It feels like an organic escalation of events rather than an ostentatious way to mark time until the season finale.
By contrast, the worst subplot in “Beasts of Prey” is probably Gordon’s story. Oswald Cobblepot’s acquisition of Lydia’s bar doesn’t pack much of a punch, and the same is basically true of Mooney’s boring prison break (more on Mooney shortly). But Gordon’s investigation of Grace Fairchild’s death just feels pointless. So much time is wasted here on flashbacks that feel like the love children of Hannibal and Fifty Shades of Grey. The insecurity-driven crimes of Jason Lennon (Milo Ventimiglia), the serial killer the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD) know as “The Ogre” or the “Don Juan Killer,” aren’t especially interesting. Ventimiglia delivers a hopelessly stiff performance, making it that much harder to watch yet another sadistic villain who is exclusively defined by his messed-up lady problems (he wants a “real, unconditional, intense love,” which apparently means Leave It to Beaver, but with more bondage, murder, and misogynistic violence! Feh.).
More important, Lennon’s flashbacks completely overshadow Gordon’s investigation. This is a problem since this plot thread starts and stops with Gordon. Catching the Ogre is Gordon’s way of furthering his crusade to clean up the GCPD. So it makes sense that Gordon is manipulated into taking up Fairchild’s case in the name of his cause.
But there are no real consequences to Gordon’s investigation, not even after he realizes that he allowed himself to be taken advantage of. So in this case, focusing on the Ogre’s unimaginatively psychopathic encounters with Fairchild effectively lets Gordon off the hook. It is, after all, a lot easier to let Gordon redirect his anger toward the show’s big bad guy when he only has time enough to blame one person, and that one person isn’t the show’s hero. In a show that wastes so much time stretching certain stories out — especially Cobblepot’s! — tonight’s Gordon-centric investigation feels weirdly slapdash, especially since Gordon and Loeb just struck a deal last week.
This leaves Mooney’s story, a dull tangent which is only as memorable as it is climactic. Mooney is literally shot down after weeks of crawling to the top of the Dollmaker’s organization. I confess: This climax felt good. The scene where the Dollmaker gets the drop on Mooney, draws a gun, and threatens to blow her away is well-directed enough, but nothing else that leads to Mooney’s helicopter escape is satisfying — not even her predictable betrayal (seriously, didn’t these other prisoners notice last week when Mooney sold out other prisoners for the sake of keeping the peace between the inmates and the Dollmaker?). But yes, while I don’t particularly care about the character who pulls the trigger — seriously, they call him “The Catcher?” Is he related to Mike Piazza? — watching Mooney get shot actually felt consequential. Here’s hoping this isn’t another change that gets immediately swept under the rug.
-There’s actually a bad guy named “Bunderslaw” now?? That guy must have had a rough childhood …
-Time for: Fanboyish Speculation! Next week’s episode is about Edward Nygma, so it’s probably one where he “becomes” the Riddler. Which just raises the question: How was he holding it together this week given last week’s crushing rejection? Does nobody in charge of Gotham’s narrative get paid to care about this stuff?
-Gordon’s barbed reply (“Depends on the president.”) to Wayne’s innocent question of “What does the president of the Policeman’s Union do?” is clever. I liked that you could see Gordon’s white-knight huffiness come out here … that aspect of the character is often downplayed on Gotham.
-Cobblepot: “It’s simple: This is where I’m going to kill Don Maroni.” How is that simple? What exactly is “simple” about that? Guess we gotta wait and see! Sigh.
-The diva-ish way that Jada Pinkett-Smith wags her finger when she says, “And you bettah not — leave me,” is really embarrassing. Is anyone going to miss this character? This is a serious question!