Gotham has everything going for it and still fails to make for compelling TV.
It has a talented cast, rich source material, a loyal following, and the security of a second season (which should ostensibly equate to confidence). On rare occasions, these elements converge to deliver an episode on par with its DC cousins on the CW (The Flash and Arrow), but more often than not these aspects are betrayed by Gotham’s chronic tendency to imitate dark TV.
I have never been more disappointed with an episode of Gotham than I am with “Beasts of Prey”. It uses unearned, gratuitous violence like the gritty equivalent of a laugh-track, exploiting audience gag reflexes solely in the name of manufacturing superficial stakes for its invincible cast of regulars.
“Beasts of Prey” is made up of four plotlines, each competing for the most offensive use of Batman licensing yet. Fish Mooney engineers an escape from the plastic surgery asylum run by Colm Feore, Penguin cripples a musician for a chance to buy a revenge bar, Selina Kyle kills a heroin addict, and Gordon is fed to The Ogre – a serial killer whose weapon of choice is gendered slavery.
Though “Beasts” lacks any sort of thematic cohesion, all four stories share the same sickening tone. Gotham has rarely been compassionate, event to its central protagonists, but this week it seems to take pleasure in mutilation, murder and violence against women. The episode’s sadism is only checked once by the rules of Batman, but instead of instilling me with a longing for Gotham City’s redemption at the hands of the caped crusader, it just left me with a phrase stuck in my head: “Fuck this cynical show so hard.”
The winner for most offensive storyline is this week’s A-plot. Jim Gordon is fooled into investigating the murder of Grace Fairchild, the victim of a man known to the GCPD as The Ogre (and sometimes the Don Juan killer). The villain – a radical reimagining of either Ogre from Ogre and the Ape or O.G.R.E. armour from Batman Confidential – has written himself creepy carte blanche by targeting women connected to the cops who investigate him.
A stewing Commissioner Loeb is responsible for the setup – seeking vengeance for Gordon’s blackmail in “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” – and we learn this right at the end of “Beast”. The stakes are explained and Gordon vows vengeance once he makes sure the women in his life are free from the Ogre’s grasp.
That’s pretty much the extent of Jim’s action in this episode (minus some pretty fun conversations with Bullock) since the bulk of the plot is made up of Instagram-filtered flashbacks to the Ogre’s treatment of Grace Fairchild. The killer picks his victim up at a southside speakeasy and abducts her the morning after their romantic encounter. She is then kept as a slave and made to provide him with lamb dinners, until one evening she, weeping, serves him lamb that’s a little too dry. The Ogre then ritualistically murders Grace in a kill room, adding her Polaroid to his secret collection.
The treatment of Grace is stomach turning, evocative of true domestic abuse situations, presented solely to heighten the stakes of unrelated characters in future episodes. It is truly exploitative, treating the guest star as a sacrificial lamb in order to make the audience want the Ogre dead. There is no message here beyond, “Oh man, I bet you’re glad you’re not her, hey? Bet you can’t wait for Gordon to get this guy, hey?”
To a certain extent this same problem exists in the other three plots. Penguin is sent of a fetch quest this week by the owner of a bar he wants to acquire for reasons of revenge. The owner wants Cobblepot to get rid of the guitarist that’s dating her daughter, and when the musician refuses, the hedge pruners come out and fingers are removed.
Meanwhile, in her batshit insane liberation from the Dollhouse, Fish has six men shot to death while she escapes in a helicopter that she flies herself. The slaughter of the decoy escapees is less offensive than the rest of the show’s transgressions, mostly because it’s pretty standard prime time TV killing, but also because the entire island prison arc is so bonkers that the mass murder is overshadowed by Jada Pinkett Smith begging the Phantom of the Opera to not go all human centipede on her.
Back in Gotham, Bruce tracks down Reginald Payne in a heroin den, the man who stabbed Alfred a few episodes ago. Selina is with him, and after Bruce comically pantomimes his desire to push the man out a window, she actually does it.
So to run down: that’s two guest stars murdered without consequence, six nameless extras machine gunned in an action scene, and one innocent guitarist maimed. None of these people are deep enough to warrant any kind of real emotional reaction. Instead they are thrown away as a shorthand for edginess, as inconsequential in life as they are in their gruesome death/invalidations.
Violence can make for great TV. Some of the best shows of the decade (Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, True Detective) use murder and mutilation to great artistic effect. The success of those dark shows is at the root of Gotham’s exploitation fetish. But violence matters in those great shows, carrying with it transformative consequences for every character involved. In Gotham violence is superficial.
The success of Breaking Bad in particular has turned extreme violence and cynicism into a shorthand for smart TV. Essentially, Penguin cutting off that extra’s fingers is the modern crime drama equivalent of saying “Bazinga!” The violence in “Beasts of Prey” is a sadistic laugh-track-style cue, trying to reassure you that you’re watching a smart, gritty show. But you aren’t watching a smart gritty show. No, for some reason you and I decided to watch the nineteenth episode of Gotham, committing the most heinous act of the night on ourselves.
-Anyone else feel like “Beasts of Prey” would look really cool written on their high school binder in black pen?
-Yes, The Orge is played by Milo Ventimiglia, aka ex-boyfriend Jess from Gilmore Girls. Looks like Rory really dodged a bullet there.
-God bless Donal Logue for making this show at least a little bit funny.
-On one hand, inventing a new villain for a multi-part arc in a Batman prequel seems ambitious and adventurous. On the other hand, there are only three episodes left and one is going to be spent hunting down this gross jabroni instead of oh, I don’t know… Orca? Zodiac Master? ANYONE?
-Seriously though, if they absolutely had to do a domestic enslavement episode, they should have introduced Mad Hatter.
-Two plotlines featured characters accusing other people of “setting them up.” I guess there was a theme after all.