Since its first episode, in which Carmine Falcone all but proclaims “This goddamn city is one hell of a character,” Gotham has been going through a weird identity crisis. It has tried on a whole bunch of different personas, and at first it seemed like a case of a show struggling to find its voice. But it did find its voice for a glorious few episodes and then continued on its frenzy of tonal shape shifting. Now, Gotham is struggling to keep a cogent tone within the span of an hour and the result has turned from infuriating to fascinating.
“The Blind Fortune Teller” is unique in that the various faces it displays are directly reminiscent of other shows that unlike Gotham are widely considered the best that television has to offer.
This week Jim Gordon and Dr. Leslie Thompkins go on a date to the circus and bear witness to the violent glory that is a performance from the Flying Graysons. Casual Batfans will recognize the family of trapeze artists as the clan that will leave the first Robin an orphan in the care of Bruce Wayne, but tonight the tragedy is much less heart breaking.
As a clown car enters the ring to transition between highwire and low brow entertainment, a drunken man emerges and starts a brawl. Turns out that a family feud over a stolen horse has been raging between the Flying Graysons and a tribe of clowns known as the Lloyds since before World War One. Tensions have reached a breaking point though, as men from each family have built up affection for the circus’ snake charmer, Lila, and performers start to riot.
The initial mystery of it all, as Jim and Leslie try to get to the bottom of the assault, along with the oddball circus episode atmosphere brings “The Blind Fortune Teller” quite a bit of good will right off the bat. Gotham, as most things Batman, sometimes has trouble with humor, and its quite refreshing when things get silly.
Jim and Leslie’s date night detective work leads them to the snake charmer’s bastard son Jerome, played by Shameless actor Cameron Monaghan. Jerome seems broken up when his mother’s dead body is discovered, at least enough so that he’s left off the prime suspect list while Jim arrests the entire circus and interrogates them with the help of Bullock, who kind of gets the shaft this week in terms of screen time.
The casting of Jerome works pretty great on paper – Monaghan looks the part, with music video levels of attractiveness – but before the episode is done it’s made abundantly clear that this beautiful ginger is being built up as a potential future Joker and that just simply isn’t going to work.
Jerome’s final scene of the week sees him breaking into uncontrollable rage-laughter and speaking in a weird affected Heath Leger impression as his eyes roll back and he performs that special kind of TV crazy that doesn’t actually exist. His scene partner, the titular blind prophet Mr. Cicero (Breaking Bad’s Mark Margolis), has been revealed as the boy’s true father, and the reveal is being played as brain-breaking, but it just doesn’t land.
The failure of the Joker tease is owed to a number of factors. Monaghan can’t seem to nail the signature laugh and all the “jokes” about his mother’s promiscuity and death are really more descriptions. I understand that, assuming Jerome actually is the Joker, he’s still pretty young, but you’d think that the teen Clown Prince of Crime would at least understand that a joke is more that just describing why you hate someone.
What’s really crazy about the Jerome problem in “Fortune Teller” is that in Shameless Monaghan is currently doing a pretty alright job of portraying a character in the throes of the manic stages of bipolar disorder. The disappointment of him not landing the Joker performance filled me with two emotions: first I felt sad as a Batfan, this is not the Joker; second I realized I’m one episode behind in a better show called Shameless and I’d rather be watching that.
As I mentioned above, there’s not a lot of Bullock in this episode. Aside from being a damn shame, since Donal Logue is always among the better parts of any given episode of Gotham, it’s also an indication of a new identity the show is trying on for now. Ever since Gotham came back from holiday hiatus, Jim has been developing a relationship with Dr. Leslie Thompkins and this week the two get to go all Nick and Nora from the Thin Man on the case of the week.
Immediately in “Fortune Teller” the crime scene circus vibe evokes a similar tone to one of the most famous early episodes of The X-Files, “Humbug”, in which Mulder and Scully have to solve a travelling freakshow case of the week. The tonal similarity is made even more uncanny as the episode takes Jim and Leslie away from the circus, back to work, onto another date and into the field on a tip from beyond the grave that leads them to suspect Satanists might be the guilty party of the week.
Yes, there is the obvious buddy detective procedural with romantic potential happening, one of the characters in the pair is a medical doctor and the male counterpart is always being laughed at for his unconventional approach to his job (which in this case equated to being an honest cop), but there’s more here. When, during dinner at her house, Leslie decodes the riddle that leads Jim and her to a garden under a bridge the conversation turns to the G-word. Leslie Thompkins believes in ghosts and is open to the possibility that a circus fortuneteller can speak to them in some sort of undead riddle-speak.
Now, the one-to-one comparison is given the switcheroo in terms of skepticism, since Gordon is the eye rolling skeptic and Leslie’s acceptance of otherworldly forces is nothing if not Mulder-esque, but the unfortunate primary X-Files trope remains intact: the man is always right, and damnit if those partners aren’t pretty even if they can’t solve a case on their own. The difference is, where Scully at least is given the benefit of holding the more rational world view, Thompkins is dealt a losing hand. Leslie doesn’t only have to go through the humiliation of acting on her belief in riddling ghosts, but she has to be proven wrong by a man who thinks she’s too fragile for the job.
I’m sure that Mulder, at some point during the 90s, said something horribly misogynistic to Scully while at work, but it was never out of a weird clingy place of assumed ownership. When Jim and Leslie are on the fake-ghost trail, she remarks that he’d probably rather have her at home baking cookies. He jokes that, actually, he’d rather her be at home making a pie. Fuck you Gordon, you may have your moments, but you’re no Fox Mulder.
Rhymes With Freak
Possibly the easiest comparison to draw between Gotham and superior shows is this week’s Penguin plot. “Fortune Teller” is peppered with little cutaways to Oswald Cobblepot’s newly won club and, sadly, its mismanagement. Having his mother sing on stage, playing Heart and Soul on piano himself and committing other common entrepreneurial follies (like publically murdering hecklers) lands Penguin on the list of Victor Zsasz’s places to fix up for the big boss.
It is at this point we see the return of Butch and evidence that the Gotham writers room has an HBO subscription. Zsasz brings news that Falcone is displeased with the fiscal performance of his Penguin-managed asset, but instead of threatening him with murder, or more likely some sort of weird sexual punishment as is common on this show, he’s sent some help in the form of Theon Greyjo- I mean, a reprogrammed Butch.
Standing there on Penguin’s club, twitching from trauma, the old ally of Fish Mooney’s does a pretty great Alfie Allen impression. That said, the shorthand used here is built directly on top of the cultural precedent set by Game of Thrones. Audiences know that an enemy can be reprogrammed into a pathetic slave thanks to Ramsay Snow’s treatment of Theon Greyjoy, so when Penguin tells Butch to dance and he does, we (sort of) buy it.
This isn’t the first time that Gotham has been Game of Thrones-ish. In the past the comparison was much more flattering, as Penguin’s ascent into the upper ranks of the mob and the machinations of the Gotham mob families evoked the politics of the Iron Throne. With the Reeking of Butch though, the comparison points out Gotham’s flaw.
In Game of Thrones a character can be transformed through torture and the audience will accept it because that’s the kind of show GoT is. There is a precedence for transformative brutality, and the show, though incredibly bleak and violent, never wastes its mutilation and murder. Gotham is not that kind of show. Torture, sexual abuse and murder are invoked all the time to the most shallow of ends, so when it finally happens to Butch it feels like it’s for purely aesthetic reasons: Gotham cosplaying as Game of Thrones. If a better show hadn’t done it first, it wouldn’t have landed.
Where Are We?
The scenes described above, despite deflating after comparison to the shows they invoke, are not without redeeming moments. Penguin’s offscreen dispatch of his mother’s heckler is incredibly comic booky and wonderful, the Flying Graysons storyline is a small example of how fun Gotham can be, but whatever the fuck is happening to Fish Mooney in the weird organ harvest prison is like watching a terrible episode of Lost.
I draw the comparison here because for the third week now, a significant portion of screen time is being devoted to a character in a mysterious setting trying to pull a power play on her faceless captors and that’s the subject of seasons two and three (the least loved seasons, by the way) of Lost. The difference here is that Lost made it’s claim to fame through it’s long teased mysteries, while Gotham has already trained viewers to expect answers to questions within the hour.
Even when Lost was good it was frustrating, but at its worst it felt like showrunners spinning their wheels and investing too much time in whatever crazy shit they could think of. Fish’s queen of the prison arc is the latter kind of Lost episode. It is (as of this writing) completely separate from the main plot and propelled solely by the questions, “Where are we?” and “Who is the man behind the curtain?” Only, to compound things further, Fish is a new character in the Batman Universe so having her stranded on her own little story island feels like a completely different show that is somehow worse than Gotham already is as a whole.
Next week it looks like there will be some answers in regard to this plotline, but I would still much prefer to see Fish back with the regular cast, if Gotham really needed to go on a Lost-ish detour, then I’d at least prefer a series of flashbacks about her origin.
I Am Batman
Gotham’s own identity did show through the seams a bit this week, with Bruce addressing the board of directors at Wayne Enterprises in another series of great Batboy scenes. Barbara made her return too in some scenes so ridiculous they could only be from Gotham. The show’s at its best is here, and at its worst.
But let’s look at the bright side here. Bruce, despite initial expectations, has become the Gotham’s most intriguing character and he hasn’t even had to dress up once. That’s because he’s the only person involved in Gotham, real or fictional, who seems to understand that the first rule of being Batman is to be yourself.
-BARB WATCH 2015: Barbara Keane returns to her condo and finds two homeless children squatting there. Her reaction is to eat serial on the couch and have a chat. Sure.
-For the record, despite using it as a negative point of comparison I really do love Lost.
-I ragged on Bruce’s notebook doodles when he was drawing them in a fit of cliched trauma rage, but seeing them again on his meeting notes was a really sweet note. What a cutie, that Batboy!
-It was pretty fun to see Penguin and Zsasz getting along this week.
-If Jerome actually is the Joker then that brings the series super villain count to 10. That’s Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, The Electrocutioner, Two Face, Penguin, Riddler, The Joker, Black Mask and Zsasz. If you count lesser villains Falcone and Maroni that’s 12. Throw in the reference to Bane in episode five and that’s a cool baker’s dozen. Is there a villain from the comics known for evil baking? He should be next.
-The star crossed lovers plot between Robin’s parents was cute even if it was under the morbid shadow of their eventual death.