“Do you believe that Gotham can be saved?”
– Bruce Wayne
The difficulty with prequel chapters to stories is that they destroy any credible stakes for an audience. In the case of Gotham, a viewer who has even just a passing familiarity with Batman has no reason to sweat the life and death stakes presented to any main character that will eventually play a role in the Caped Crusader’s life. Oswald Cobblepot, Selina Kyle, Edward Nygma, Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Carmine Falcone – these names are part of the Bat-fabric that makes up Gotham’s future, living myths protected by the sanctity of canon.
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the Bat-characters are the only ones worth tuning in for. Those who have a date with the Dark Knight are untouchable, but everyone else – Fish Mooney and other new characters – they’re all expendable.
So, every Monday at 8PM when Gotham airs we are deciding to watch a story about our favorite characters from comic books past struggle against nothing of real lasting consequence. If the traditional way of illustrating a plot arc is a steep mountain that peaks at a tale’s climax, a series like Gotham should be like a super high speed train ride across a flat plain to the base of the incline. Fast, efficient and with very few brushes with death, it’s a recipe for boring TV.
That said, Gotham is finally starting to make that formula work in its favour.
“Arkham,” the show’s first fully recommendable hour of television is proof: Gotham, at its best, is going to feel like watching a super slow motion HD trainwreck; the transformation of just another shitty city into an ungodly hulk of insanity and violence whose only hope of deliverance is a billionaire who dresses up as a bat and fights the criminally insane.
“Arkham” depicts the first moment of impact, in which decisions that at first seem like they are going to mitigate the chaos and destruction inevitably make everything a million times deadlier.
Episode four begins where we left off last week, with Oswald Cobblepot at Jim Gordon and Barbara Kean’s door. He’s here to offer an alliance with the future commissioner, and after Jim gives the Penguin a welcome back beating in the alleyway, the duck-footed supervillain convinces our hero that a war is coming to Gotham as the crime families vie for control over what happens to the Arkham district, which is slated for revitalization. Jim reluctantly accepts Oswald’s offer to be his off the books secret agent.
Meanwhile, on the top floor of a parking garage, a flavourful hitman uses some sort of giant needle to kill a councillor who was aiming to vote for the Arkham development plan favoured by mob boss Carmine Falcone. Gordon and Bullock are on the case the next day, and our hero is quick to make the connection between Penguin’s warning and the high profile puncturing.
As the detectives chase down the hitman, the episode is coloured by the many sides of the Arkham district issue. Falcone wants it used for low income housing, Maroni wants waste processing, and the late Waynes wanted a new state of the art mental health facility.
Things aren’t so clean cut however, and when the hitman gruesomely murders Councillor Zeller, who’s on the other side of the voting scheme, the fun that “Arkham” brings to Gotham reveals itself. Everything that’s happening is happening because the Penguin wants it to.
Rather than opting for the three-plot structure of the previous two episodes, “Arkham” tells one big event in Gotham City’s history: the decision to compromise on the titular district’s revitalization plan in order to appease both major crime families. At the centre of the conflict, exactly in the blindspot of everyone else, is Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin.
It should come as no surprise that a Penguin-centric episode finally gets Gotham firing on all cylinders, he has so far been the only reliably exciting aspect of the show. There’s an immense morbid pleasure to be had watching Oswald orchestrate the war he’s constantly prophesying even when he’s not on screen.
Cobblepot is conducting his deadly symphony from the restaurant dishwashing job he murdered his way into last episode, eavesdropping on all of Maroni’s most critical conversations and seeing where all the money gets laundered. With hired goons, Penguin stages a robbery while he’s working, has his manager shot dead, and makes it look like he protected one of two big sacks of dirty money while the other is spirited away to an apartment hideout.
This powerplay gets Oswald promoted from dishwasher to restaurant manager and he celebrates by feeding his cronies back at the hideout a trio of poison cannolis. The scene in which he shows up at the apartment door with the pink box of deadly desserts is handled with a subtlety uncharacteristic of Gotham, trusting that the audience has seen this Walter White-esque letting go of employees enough times to just sit back and enjoy seeing Penguin’s plan go off without a hitch.
While Penguin’s busy getting a raise, the other pieces of his prophecy fall into place. Fish Mooney spends the episode auditioning for a seductive singing weapon she intends to sick on Falcone the first chance she gets. After narrowing it down to two candidates she pulls a page out of the Joker’s recruiting process and has them fight (maybe to the death?) for the job.
The manhunt for the hitman, who the detectives eventually learn is named Gladwell, leads the detectives to intervening in a high profile attack on the mayor. Gordon and Bullock shoot the psycho killer to death and the mayor is moved to make a compromise on the Arkham development: fifty percent Falcone, fifty percent Maroni, and nothing for the dead Waynes who are incapable of ordering contract killings.
As Bruce and Jim watch the Mayor fold under mob pressure on TV, the detective explains to the Batboy that even though the compromise is not ideal for Gotham’s future, it may have averted an all out crime war in the city. It’s a moment of wonderful irony, knowing exactly how badly Gotham needs a state of the art mental health facility. In ten years, Gordon’s gonna owe Bruce a Coke for that one.
Sadly, Gotham’s fourth episode falls just short of reaching its full potential with the familiar problem I’ve come to call “The Condo Effect” – scenes between Jim and Barbara, usually set in their condo, that distract from the plot. In “Arkham” the domestic trouble stems from Jim’s reluctance to tell Barbara that he in fact didn’t kill Oswald Cobblepot on orders from the mob, and devolves into an ultimatum: Gordon has to choose between his fiance and his secrets
The choice doesn’t matter. Gordon’s happiness in his relationship doesn’t count as stakes when we know he gets married and has a daughter that will grow up to be Batgirl. All that matters in this show is the slow destruction of Gotham City as its proverbial train crashes into the mountain that is the story of Batman.
“Arkham” – showing the beginning of that slow motion crash – presents viewers with a paradox worthy of Edward Nygma. It’s clear by the end of this episode, when Penguin closes the door on his poisoned pals, that Gotham can be saved only by embracing the pleasure in knowing that nothing anyone can do do can save Gotham.
- Speaking of Ed Nygma, he sure was looking disgruntled this week. I wasn’t expecting a Riddler payoff this season, but the way he was framed in the background as Jim and Bullock mulled over his evidence has changed my mind.
- I was really expecting one of Penguin’s goons to say something like “This Penguin guy’s poisoning us!” Cutting away on Robin Lord Taylor’s face was a great choice.
- The barrel burning of Councillor Zeller seemed a little gratuitous. I’m all about having cartoonish violence on network TV, but when it takes place between two guest characters it doesn’t seem earned. When Gladwell mercilessly tortures a redshirt only to find himself dead within the hour, Gotham is missing an opportunity to live with its consequences. I’m much more curious to see how that kind of violent act would affect my view of Penguin, or maybe Bullock.
- Turns out Fish Mooney can be interesting when she isn’t just describing her thoughts to henches. Who knew?
- Anyone else enjoying the original music in this series? The theme underscoring the cannoli scene is definitely reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s score for Batman Returns.