Remember last week when I said I was looking forward to seeing how Barbara Kean’s story would play out, but also feared it wouldn’t turn out as well as it should? Well, here comes “The Anvil and the Hammer” to confirm my suspicions! Tonight’s Gotham is a huge misstep when it comes to developing Barbara, one of the show’s most underutilized supporting characters. It’s a needlessly dumb and exhausting episode, one that is not only unnecessarily illogical, but also trite in its no-stakes cynicism. So the bigger problems with tonight’s episode — like when viewers are encouraged to gasp when Oswald Cobblepot makes a predictable double-cross, thereby confirming the show’s banal, unearned pessimism — don’t feel so important. Instead, bad execution is the real villain tonight.
For a while now, I’ve felt like Gotham has been the kind of show with, how you say, lady problems. The show’s male characters, both leading men and killer-of-the-week supporting characters, are typified by mommy issues, quaintly paternalistic attitudes, and/or outright misogynistic outbursts. So far, these problems have been minor quibbles. Problematic and/or one-dimensional characterizations don’t really matter when the rest of the show is uniformly misconceived.
When you try to enjoy an episode of Gotham, you unfortunately have to grade things on a curve of intelligence and quality. You can’t, in other words, expect uniformly thoughtful scripting, direction, or performances. That’s just the show we’ve gotten in season one. I mean, if Bruce Wayne can pull a fire alarm at Wayne Enterprises and not be noticed by any employees, why should we expect Barbara Kean to have a relationship with a serial killer that makes sense?
There are two problematic aspects to Barbara’s story tonight: her ill-defined bond with Jason Lennon, aka the Ogre; and Jim Gordon’s investigation of Jason’s whereabouts. These two stories are not equally problematic, but their problems are complimentary, if that makes sense.
On last week’s Gotham, Barbara was ushered into Jason’s torture dungeon. It is not just an S&M dungeon, though it does feature sadomasochistic toys and implements, including gags, leather masks, and restraints. It also features several weapons, including a sickle, some axes, and several swords. So you might wonder what Barbara did after she was presented with, uh, a room full of very kinky stuff. This is only vaguely addressed during a coy morning-after conversation: Jason rhetorically asks how Barbara slept, and she says, “You mean the hour we slept?”
That’s the kind of exchange I wish we had more of in “The Anvil and the Hammer.” It suggests that maybe there is something to Jason’s generically psychopathic insinuations about how similar he is to Barbara, how he can show her her true self, and how he’ll prove his love to her because “I’m going to set you free.” I’m sorry, but do we really need another slinky serial killer who seduces his victim-cum-accompliceswith come-on lines that sound like bad Lenny Kravitz lyrics?
But I digress: what happened once Barbara saw Jason’s torture dungeon? This is a family show, I know. But do you really mean to tell me that a show that uses the Fox Glove, a fetish-centric night club, as a punchline is mature enough to only hint at a consensual S&M relationship between Jason and Barbara? The scene where Harvey Bullock is prowling around the Fox Glove is somehow worse than Cruising’s Meat-Packing district nightclub scenes because here, being into fetishes is wacky, scary, and super-kooky. Navigating a room full of leather-loving deviants – they dress like babies, have funny hats, and even pork pigs! – while Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” plays only serves to cheaply reassure viewers, and confirm that fetish-centric sex is weird, and unnatural.
So yeah, it is frustrating to see Barbara resume the role of a helpless victim when episode writer Jordan Harper needs her to. There’s no hint that hey, maybe she knew what she was doing when she had sex with Jason all night long, no suggestion that perhaps she was also into rough play or being submissive or anything like that. Instead, she tries to show that she’s Jason’s partner. Then she gets put in her place when she refuses to have breakfast with Jason. You just can’t reason with Jason, a connect-the-dots psychopath who makes like Stevie Wonder, and claims he’s been waiting for Barbara his whole life, but then pulls a knife on her, and asks her to tell him whose throats she’d like him to slit.
That wouldn’t be so bad if James Gordon’s investigation didn’t reveal him to be an equally basic alpha male in desperate need of a punching bag. Gordon slips up twice tonight, and there are no consequences to his actions. This should be a big deal on Gotham since Gordon is supposed to be the Good Guy whose very presence signals a tipping point in Gotham City’s social hierarchy. He is a white knight, and that’s supposed to be a great thing. So when he blithely beats information out of a suspect, and does it in such a way that we’re supposed to applaud him? That’s Bad! The fact that Gordon beats up an uncooperative witness, one who tries to extort Gordon, makes watching Gordon exit from an interrogation cell with the information he needs that much more appalling. Gordon’s not a good guy tonight, but we’re supposed to applaud him anyway.
Just look at a brief earlier scene where Leslie Thompkins pats Gordon on the back for not thinking to protect Barbara. Whenever Gotham plows into potentially thorny issues or power dynamics, there’s always a dissatisfying solution, or answer. Just look at the way tonight’s episode deals with Bruce’s revelations about his family’s history of tacit corruption. When Sid Bunderslaw tells Bruce that the Wayne family has always capitulated to corporate greed, Bruce is almost immediately reassured that Bunderslaw is not telling the whole truth. Problem posed, problem solved, bif bam pow.
So when Gordon tells Leslie “I didn’t even think of Barbara,” and she re-assures him, “You were just doing your job,” it’s a huge cop-out. We can’t have a white knight with even a little dirt on his armor, not in Gotham. If this show is ever going to get good, it has to either be a little less ambitious, or actually consider the consequences of its characters’ actions.
- Anyone else think Sid Bunderslaw sounds more like a used-car salesman than a corporate mega-villain?
- Oswald Cobblepot’s story is a massive fan-wank. So Don Maroni is just going to play into Cobblepot’s hands by believing Connor, and going after Falcone right after Maroni threatens Mama Kapelput? Yes, Cobblepot is technically protected by Falcone still. But why wouldn’t Maroni think, hey, maybe this is retaliation for the near-stroke I gave to that little kid’s mom?
- I kinda hoped Alfred would have a different reaction to Bruce’s confession about Reggie. That is, I wish Alfred had slapped Bruce. Yes, fine, Reggie isn’t the man he once was. But Alfred is essentially condoning murder! There’s no way Bruce can argue that Selina Kyle acted in self-defense – because she didn’t! Some mentor figure Alfred is.
- And where the hell did Fish Mooney go? Shot in the gut, stolen helicopter, fleeing from a private island prison, ring any bells?
- Another huge missed opportunity: the scene where Sally, the Fox Glove hostess, puts Bullock in his place by telling him that she went with Jason because “I was a hooker” and “he was a rich man.” Sally ultimately resumes her trite role as a subservient freak. But there could have been something to her exchange with Bullock that paved the way for Barbara’s actions (it seems pretty obvious that Barbara ordered Jason to kill her parents…I say this without having seen the season finale, so don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler).
- No Fanboy-ish Speculation this week. I am tired, and all ranted-out.