Everyone who sucks is dead and Bruce found the Batcave. In my recap of Gotham’s terrible pilot episode I started things off with Jack Nicholson’s immortal line from Batman (1989):
“This town needs and enema.”
Well, after 22 episodes of middling highs and rock bottom lows, that’s exactly what “All Happy Families Are Alike” is, a massive enema. And while it’s an hour filled with discomfort and shit, the episode’s final scenes bear the marks of a show that has cleansed its most offensive toxins and blockages.
I am so sorry for that unpleasant imagery, but here’s hoping the worst is behind us.
“All Happy Families Are Alike” inspires in me conflicting feelings. I never want to watch that episode again, because it’s not fun, features strange incoherent plotting, and focuses on a lot of Gotham’s worst aspects. Yet, at the same time, I can’t wait for the season two premiere.
The action of “Families” is spread across three main story lines during the Falcone-Maroni mob war that kicked off last week. The mafia-fight itself takes up the brunt of the episode, featuring the demise of Fish Mooney, and concluding with Penguin’s ascent to the criminal throne of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Barbara and Dr. Thompkins have an episode-long pretend therapy session that ends with the latter (hopefully) killing the former and Bruce turns the study in Wayne Manor upside down, trying to find his dead father’s secrets, eventually uncovering the secret passage to the Batcave.
“Families” is filled with tedious plotting, character inconsistencies and cliches that would make for pretty funny jokes if Gotham was actually a parody show. The most wonderful of these storytelling sins occurs during a final rooftop confrontation between Penguin and Fish. They are interrupted by a gun-toting Butch who, thanks to the brainwashing of Victor Zsasz, can’t decide which master to shoot, as if his targets were a lover and her evil twin. This is silly camp on par with Colm Feore’s plastic surgery prison island, and that it’s treated with such heavy seriousness only makes it more comical.
The weird relationship that Gotham has with violence is also on display in “Families”, and while it is much less exploitative than usual, it’s never been so condemning of Jim Gordon. Falcone is hospitalized at the top of the episode after a close encounter with a rocket launcher, and Jim ends up saving the mob boss from Penguin and Butch, who had planned to murder the old man in his hospital bed. Our hero goes to great lengths to avoid the death of all three evil characters, but when a bunch of enemy goons show up, Gordon just shoots them all in the head like he doesn’t even give a care.
Later, Falcone and Gordon are standing on the balcony of Barbara’s condo and the old mob boss gives the young detective a gift and some advice. Carmine gives Jim a knife that belonged to the good cop’s father – he was a good man, but even he carried a knife. The scene itself is pretty good, almost touching. John Doman is great at giving wisened monologues about morality, but the message falls flat given the context. Jim Gordon does not need to be told that sometimes good guys need to be violent, he murdered like, ten people earlier that day and has already forgotten it. He’s the last person who needs to be told violence can solve problems.
Therein lies the consequence of exploitative TV violence: if your main character can kill without remorse and still be framed as a paragon of moral good, then you can’t take any of his conversations about ethics seriously. Gordon has murdered away his right to be an interesting case study in morality, and it’s too bad, because the moment on the balcony would have otherwise been a pretty sweet button on his season one arc.
Violence and silly cliches aside, the mob war plot was a net positive. It resolved its story lines in an exciting way, killing off Sal Maroni and Fish Mooney, and putting Penguin at the top of the criminal ladder. The same can be said about the condo therapy scenes, though they were not as easy to watch.
Dr. Thompkins and Barbara are confined to the condo this week in some sort of weird deathfight over Jim Gordon’s affection. Posed as necessary therapy after Barb’s Ogre encounters, their scene exist to manufacture a way for the doctor to kill her patient. Dr. T loses all of her medical clout in this face-off, clearly not aware of how therapy works on even the most basic level, but she kills the series’ most frustrating character, so some kind of balance is struck. The scenes are nearly unwatchable, but the effect they have on the future of the show is great.
As wonderful as the results of those two main plotlines were, nothing inspires confidence in the future of Gotham like this week’s Bruce Wayne story. Motivated by the clues Lucius Fox dropped last week, Bruce is convinced his father was a good man in spite of his knowledge of Wayne Enterprises’ criminal activity. After turning the study upside down, Bruce has a revelation and looks to a book of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy, uncovering a stereo remote control. Activating it, Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights (from Romeo and Juliet) starts playing from somewhere deep in the manor and the fireplace shifts to reveal a cave from which the music is playing.
That this is the last scene of Gotham’s first season is mind blowing. The show has re-imagined much of its source material, and while it has shone bright in moments of confident storytelling, it never looked like Gotham was going to play with real deal Batman stuff in any significant way. With “All Happy Families Are Alike”, though, Gotham has opened up a secret passage that might lead to greatness.
The implication in Bruce finding the Batcave, complete with an epic sound system, is huge. Behind that fireplace is unexplored territory, which can be seen as a remedy to the limitations of Gotham’s being a prequel. Instead of filling in the gap between the Wayne murders and the first lighting of the Batsignal, Bruce’s discovery could mark a turning point for the show. With all the terrible aspects of the show dead, and the promise of a Bruce who’s becoming more bat than boy, Gotham is poised to be the show I wanted to see from the beginning. It could be a new, long-form origin story.
In the end, after 22 episodes of mostly terrible quality, we are left with this: Penguin is king of Gotham City, Jim Gordon has permission to kill, Ed Nygma’s gone certifiably mad and Bruce Wayne has a Batcave. Everything else – Barbara, Fish, the spinning wheels of the Gotham mafia, the Orge, Colm Feore’s plastic surgery island – it’s all gone. Washed away in the light of a new bat-day that is just starting to bat-dawn.
-Disclaimer: I am aware that Fish and Barbara could easily be written back from the dead, but I’m choosing to be hopeful here.
-Amazing choice of music for Bruce’s discovery.
-So that Bullock and Fish romance sure didn’t amount to anything. Maybe her death will stick in his craw next season.
-I’m really happy Kristen figured out the acrostic poem Nygma left her. Cory Michael Smith’s breakdown was fantastic and I am very psyched to see his turn as the Riddle Man next season.
-Though I am happy to see Fish and Barbara leave the show, I will miss Sal Maroni. David Zayas played a charismatic villain.
-Gotham City goons have terrible self esteem, getting bossed around by a 14 year old. This city needs a new class of criminal.
-Which villains are you excited to see introduced in season two? I think Mad Hatter would be a great fit for this show.