For all its exploitative tendencies in regard to violence, Gotham still has a bit of Batman in it, even if he’s hard to find. The Caped Crusader’s strong belief in the sanctity of human life, even criminally insane life, can’t be removed from the DNA of the Bruce Wayne story. In “Under The Knife”, the show’s twentieth episode, we finally have this conversation about killing bad guys, and though it does feel refreshing after the laugh-track-violence of last week’s “Beasts of Prey”, it seems a bit hypocritical coming this late in such a kill-happy season.
The episode’s four plotlines all deal with some kind of negative reaction to violence, but in two cases that reaction results in even more killing. When the kill count doesn’t go up, the promise of violence is still there making the Bruce Wayne no-murder guarantee seems incredibly arbitrary.
The boy billionaire and Selina Kyle have a blunt conversation about the ethics of murder at the episode’s half-way point that essentially boils down to:
BRUCE: You can’t kill people.
SELINA: Uh, I’ll kill people if I have to.
BRUCE: Well I’ll never kill a guy.
SELINA: Well that’s idiotic.
Rather than actually delve into the intriguing discussion whether or not Bruce’s ideological pro-life mandate makes him a hero or a psychopath, Gotham frames it as a regrettable limitation. The show glorifies violence, we’ve seen this all year long, and when the Batman code of conduct is alluded to, it feels like the writers are saying, “Bat-dad’s gone for the weekend, let’s a have a murder party.”
“Under The Knife” continues the case of the Don Juan killer – aka The Ogre – a radical reimagining of an obscure DC comics villain. He’s feeling smothered by Jim Gordon’s investigation into his unsavory activities and has therefore turned his predator-sights on the love of his life: Barbara Keane – Wait… What?
Yes, in a comical case of not doing enough research, The Ogre seduces Barbara in an attempt to hurt Jim Gordon. This is funny on two levels. First, The Ogre’s mistake undercuts him as a threatening villain. He’s just some angry perv. Gotham’s Ogre isn’t a supervillain unless you count a low IQ and misogyny as special abilities.
Second, Barbara isn’t a sympathetic character to anyone, including the audience. I am about as strongly opposed to Gotham’s violence fetish as one can get, but even I can’t conjure up any amount of investment when it comes to Barbara Keane’s safety. At one point she literally says, “…if a bus hit me tomorrow, no one would care,” and she’s right on every possible level.
Yet Barbara survives the hour in what appears to be some kind of team-up twist. After rebuking The Ogre once, Barbara is stalked by the killer to the Wayne Enterprises Charity Ball. He asks her to dance, whispers something in her ear, they go back to his place and she sees his kill room. But instead of screaming, she smiles. I can’t tell whether her expression is saying, “Nice, let’s get Gordon together,” or “How did you know I’m into axe-play?”, but it’s clear she’s down with what’s going on.
Barbara’s life hangs over the episode as Gordon and Bullock, motivated by the false impression that The Ogre will target Dr. Leslie Thompkins, scramble to put the pieces together in the case of the past two weeks. It’s actually quite amazing: the Gotham writers have managed to engineer a situation with life or death stakes that will have little-to-no effect on the characters in either outcome, while keeping the plot moving at its usual 15 locations per episode speed.
When Jim finally finds out Barbara is the target he goes after The Ogre publically threatening him via a press conference. It looks like he cares, but he’s actually relieved to some extent. Murder is all about optics in Gotham.
Penguin also grapples with deadly PR this episode, when Sal Maroni pays a visit to his club and poisons the duck footed menace’s mother’s ear with tales of Oswald’s killing habit. Penguin goes to great lengths to keep his mother from knowing he’s a career criminal, and his rival mobster spills the beans to poor old Gertrude Kapelput, who faints upon hearing the information
Once they’re safe from slander in Gertrude’s apartment, Penguin reassures his mother that he’s just a gentle club owner. Immediately after, though, Sal sends a messenger with flowers addressed to Ms Kapelput – the mob boss equivalent of your single mom’s boyfriend calling you “son” – and Penguin just fucking stabs the guy right in the neck with some glass.
Here again we see that murder looks bad, but Gotham firmly stands on the side of it being entertaining and easy. The flower man’s corpse is dragged away with Ms Kapelput none the wiser.
Ed Nygma has to grapple with the optics of murder this week too. He stakes out the home of Kristen Kringle – his office crush that he just found out is being abused by her new jock boyfriend – and when he confronts his abusive love-rival a knife comes out and makes its way into the lesser character’s gut, repeatedly.
The cop dies gasping the prophetic final words, “Riddle Man”, and Ed has a little freak out. He works for the GCPD, he can’t be a killer. This blood looks bad on his hands now, but when he undergoes his long-awaited transformation from forensics lab tech to Mr. Question-Mark it’ll just be the bottom line of his notorious CV.
The morality of murder in Gotham is situational, and that’s why, when Selina and Bruce have their wordy exchange on the Batman code-of-conduct, it feels shallow. Bruce’s rejection of murder feels like a reflex rather than an ideology, and Selina’s vote for capital punishment is clearly in line with the show’s overall view on killing people: it’s the thing cool people do, but we’ve got to pretend it’s not fun because of the kid.
- So it turns out The Ogre used to be ugly, then had plastic surgery to look just like Jess from Gilmore Girls. Wouldn’t it be great if this whole Barabara team-up is leading to a full fledged reimagining of The Ogre and The Ape? What would have to happen in the next two episodes for that dream storyline to come true?
- How did it take Bullock so long to find the decomposing Ogre-mom body under those bedsheets? Did I miss the Se7en-style shot to a thousand air fresheners hanging from the ceiling?
- Please, please, please let us have some serious riddling before the season ends. That’s all I want from this show right now.
- It seems so easy to get away with murder in Gotham City, I wonder if the only thing the kept Maroni alive in Penguin’s bar was the presence of Ms Kableput.
- Speaking of Gertrude, Carol Kane is so great. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt really endeared her to me (she plays Kimmy’s landlord, Lillian).
- Really happy to not have anymore Colm Feore plastic surgery island. That storyline was really killing the show.