There’s a surprisingly well-directed interrogation scene on last night’s Gotham. James Gordon sits ex-fiancée Barbara Kean down for a one-on-one conversation. Their dialogue — scripted by episode writer Jim Barnes — is full of cliches, but this sequence is also genuinely stylish and well-paced. You can feel the passage of time through relatively long reaction shots that precede characters’ admittedly lousy rejoinders (you know you’re in trouble when “It must be killing you, all that righteous indignation with nowhere to go” is what passes for thoughtfully provocative banter).
Viewers can similarly feel time passing thanks to the omnipresent buzzing of the overhead halogen bulb, the only apparent source of lighting in the scene (the characters both wear black, and appear to melt into the room’s engulfing shadows). These images, and the sheer storytelling craft here — all due praise for episode director Jeffrey Hunt —is engrossing enough that you can zone out and just enjoy how the scene works, and not what it’s about.
At least until the plot kicks in, and James Gordon kisses Barbara Kean while current girlfriend Leslie Thompkins looks on behind a two-way mirror. “Rise of the Villains: Tonight’s the Night” constantly brings viewers back to Earth with bathetic, nonsensical reminders of just how dismal and shock-intensive season two has been. The episode’s plotting is overly reliant on canned decisions and cheap cop-outs. Hunt’s direction is admirable in spots, but it’s not so impressive that it compensates for an onslaught of wishy-washy, imaginatively challenged conflicts.
Let’s focus on Gordon and Kean’s story since it’s not only the most prominent subplot in tonight’s episode, but also the most consistently frustrating. Okay, so: Gordon kisses Kean in full view of Thompkins, partner Harvey Bullock, and Captain Nathaniel Barnes (the only people missing are Gordon’s accountant, butcher, and grandmother). And it’s implied that this is part of Kean’s revenge since she looks right at Thompkins in spite of the one-way nature of the two-way mirror separating the women. Barnes, who is supposed to be the straight-arrow hard-ass that brings order to the GCPD, does not bat an eye. In fact, when Thompkins protests that Gordon shouldn’t be allowed to escort Kean out of custody, and into what everyone and their mother knows is a trap, Barnes hears both sides out. Slapping around a witness is bad, but listening to an emotionally disturbed ex-fiancée? Totally an option worth exploring.
So, after episode writer Jim Barnes writes Nathaniel Barnes into a corner, he gives Chiklis’s character two opportunities to exonerate himself as Gotham’s voice of reason. First, he protests to Bullock when it becomes obvious that yes, Kean is in fact leading Gordon and his partner into an indefensible position. Bullock plays loose cannon and defies orders, pretending that he doesn’t hear Nathaniel Barnes’s orders to abort the mission. This understandably does not end well. Then, when Bullock figures out where Kean has taken Gordon, Nathaniel Barnes reminds him that he doesn’t want anything to do with Bullock in light of his insubordination. (“This was a direct order. You don’t belong here anymore. Go home.”) Then Bullock yells, “I know I am right,” and Barnes picks up his coat, and says, “Let’s go.”
We pause here to stick our heads out the window, and scream bloody murder.
If Barnes’s illogical about-face wasn’t stupid enough, how about the way that Kean and Gordon keep trying to screw with each other mentally, but all she can come up with is an out-of-thin-air psychological profile of Gordon, a character whose inner life is apparently so complex that we’ve pretty much never seen him actively deal with the darker aspects of his personality? Kean previously teased viewers by hinting at Gordon’s “dark side” in “Rise of the Villains: The Last Laugh.”
But she goes much further in “Tonight’s the Night.” In tonight’s episode, Kean tells Gordon that she knows what he’s like: “I’m Jim Gordon: I’ll find a way to win — or die.” It’s tempting to write that line off as psycho-babble from a demented mind, especially since Kean proves that she’s an unreliable judge of character later in the episode when she threatens to “carve [Thompkins’s] pretty face off your skull. Then you will both understand what true love is.” But even Thompkins makes claims to understanding Gordon’s “dark side” when she psychoanalyzes him: “You see an abyss, and you run toward it. That’s not healthy.” If Gordon were that complex a character, and not just a workaholic idealist who seethes, yells, and throws tantrums all the time, this would be an entirely different show.
The biggest problem with Barnes’s approach to Gordon and Kean’s head-shrinking contest — he tries to get in some digs, too, telling her that Theo Galavan is “laughing at [Kean]” — isn’t that it’s specific to these two characters. Instead, it’s symptomatic of Gotham’s approach to storytelling shortcuts, like the way that Edward Nygma’s corpse-burying expedition improbably leads him to Oswald Cobblepot’s woodland hideout, or how Theo Galavan upends Bruce Wayne’s world when he offers Wayne the identity of his parents’ killers in exchange for control of Wayne Enterprises. All of these stories require viewers to have selective memories, and to focus on whatever of-the-moment conflict is currently unfolding. Because it apparently doesn’t matter that the show’s writers can’t commit to consistent characterizations, or instantly resolved conflicts whose stakes are ultimately far lower than they initially seem. Viewers are just expected to accept one improbable twist and/or ham-handed fight after another, and accept that whatever big confrontation is on the docket next is the most important one.
Will we see Gordon get to explore his dark side in future episodes? Probably. But why would you trust Jim Barnes and his fellow series writers after you see the way that they wrap up Kean and Gordon’s mortal struggle? He breaks his bonds with the ol’ rubbing-raw-the-rope-that-has-me-tied-to-a-chair trick, and somehow manages to accidentally push Kean out of a stained-glass window. She lets go, but in the space of a commercial break, is revealed to still be alive somehow (the bushes broke her fall, apparently!). Barnes can’t even commit to such a hackneyed shock ending, confirming that nobody on Gotham knows which direction they’re going in.
- Anyone else think the hole that Edward Nygma tries to bury Kristen Kringle in was a mite bit shallow?
- Bullock’s insistence that Kean is “sharp as a tack” since she’s leading Gordon into a trap is nonsensical. So … she’s not crazy, because she knows what she’s doing in this one regard? Right, okay, sure.
- Theo Galavan to Bruce Wayne: “What a young tiger you are!” Find an adult, Bruce!
- Why is Nathaniel Barnes okay with Gordon punching Theo Galavan right before he cuffs him, but not okay with Gordon torturing witnesses during interrogations?
- Kean to Thompkins: “The Jim Gordon you know is an act. He’s like an addict.” Okay, which cliche are we going with? Pick one, and commit to it, please.