“There is a much better way to do this.”
-Edward Nygma on the organization of information
Gotham has too much content. Every episode so far, to some extent, has suffered at the expense of representing each of the show’s major ongoing plot lines. That’s why the most encouraging characteristic of Gotham’s exceptional sixth episode is its use of restraint. “Spirit of the Goat” eschews the usual no-character left behind tri-plot structure in favour of an hour’s worth of character development that manages to indirectly further the series’ macro story arc. What’s most eyebrow raising, however, is how the episode seems to be aware of how exceptional it is in comparison to those that have come before it.
In “Spirit of the Goat” we get to see Harvey Bullock for, the first time, as something other than a crime noir caricature. All the while, the men who will one day each bring Gotham City to its knees, play the role of critics. Edward Nigma and Oswald Cobblepot (ahem, sorry: Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot) are given plenty of screen time in episode six and all of it seems devoted to commenting on how restraint, attention to detail and humour can greatly benefit Gotham.
The episode opens with a flashback. Ten years in the past, Bullock and his seasoned partner Detective Dix (Dan Hedaya) are on the tail of a serial killer that calls himself the Spirit of the Goat. He is ritualistically murdering the first born children of Gotham City’s one percenters, about to do it again, when Bullock goes all heroic and saves the latest soon to be double spoiled youth of Gotham. In a twice unfortunate turn of events, it turns out Harvey’s too late and he’s forced to shoot the killer to death before getting any answers.
It has long been a staple of televised storytelling that episodes meant to flesh out supporting characters employ a back and forth between a present day and a past formative experience (see episodes two and three of The Flash for examples). Since Gotham hasn’t been into breaking any molds, I was expecting to see the adventures of Young Harvey Bullock at least three to five times in “Spirit of the Goat”, but the cold open is all we need, so it’s all we get.
That’s the kind of restraint I’m talking about. Ben Edlund, the writer credited with episode six, roped the usually excessive Gotham in, bound it to a land mark, and killed my remaining doubts about whether or not the show could fully recover from it’s terrible premier. As the creator of The Tick and writer of one of the best episodes of The Venture Brothers, Edlund is the perfect guy to handle this kind of episode.
After the title card, Bullock and Edward Nygma are at a crime scene that perfectly fits the modus operandi of the Goat who Harvey slaughtered a decade ago. A clever beat between Nygma and Bullock lets us in on the importance of slowing down, taking your time and being observant, the future Riddler posing the question:
“Detective Bullock, do you give up? My riddle. A man has to cross a river with a wolf, a cabbage and a goat.”
Bullock interrupts him before he can finish, but it’s pretty clear that Ed Nygma Sherlocked the crime scene. The full riddle implies something a bit deeper through. The solution (which you can work through for yourself over at MathCats) requires restraint. In order to prevent the dog from eating the livestock and the goat from eating the cabbage, extra trips need to be made with special attention being paid to each item.
“Spirit of the Goat” takes it’s time carrying Bullock’s story. Where up until now, Gotham has been keeping plotlines that don’t sync together in the same episode and auto-cannibalizing, episode six takes extra care to get things right. After all, what’s the rush? We have 16 more episodes of this show left and Fish Mooney doesn’t need to be in all of them.
While Bullock struggles with his deja vu, Jim Gordon is stuck at home working out his differences with a surprisingly tolerable Barbara Keane. There is a bit of retreading waters here, since Barb was AWOL last week, but progress is made. We can see that the city is wearing Jim down now that he’s been trapped between his lie about killing Penguin and mob boss Sal Maroni’s blackmail. He’s finally been squeezed close enough to a breaking point to allow Barbara into his secret life.
Jim’s called to the crime scene of the Goat before he can drop any important details on Barb, something that would have ended up saving his ass by the end of the hour. If he’d just taken a bit more time he would have given Keane enough information to exonerate him from Detective Montoya’s righteous investigation that, with the help of an eye witness, has picked up enough traction for an arrest.
The tragedy of it all is that Bullock doesn’t exactly need Gordon either. With the help of Ed Nygma, the salty detective goes from tortured by his past to hero of the present, connecting the crimes of ten years ago to the current ones with some fascinating research about hypnotherapy and a visit to his old partner.
It turns out that the Spirit of the Goat is a violent crusader, brainwashing vulnerable maintenance workers into doing her dirty work through hypnotherapy. Her argument is that the city sees the one percent as a disorder that needs to be treated. Sure, she’s not doing a great job rehabilitating her human patients, but in her mind Gotham City needs therapy, not its citizens.
Bullock further endears himself to me, not taking any of this “the real character is the city” bullshit and saves the day.
Sadly, by the time he gets around to closing the case of his career, Jim Gordon is dragged into the GCPD by major crimes, under arrest for the murder of Oswald Cobblepot. When Harvey intervenes he also gets the collar, apprehended as an accomplice.
Of course, since Gotham can’t have its main characters taken off their beat for an episode, the Penguin himself (who has been getting a bath from his mother all episode) walks through the door, recently cleaned and with a nicely steamed suit. With a contagious smile he hangs the episode from a cliff as we all await next week’s excitingly titled “Penguin’s Umbrella”.
I can’t say that “Spirit of the Goat” is perfect. There is a missed connection between the story of the hypno-killings and what we see on screen which makes the episode end up feeling pretty exploitative. We are consistently told that the first born of Gotham City’s financially elite families are the Goat’s targets, but none of the three victims shown are men. If it weren’t for a tiny reminder scene at Wayne Manor in which Alfred explicitly tells Bruce that he could be the next brat to bite the dust, you’d think that the episode’s title killer was only targeting rich young women.
In addition to being sexually exploitative – the fact that the victims are presented on city monuments literally serves to make these dead women into objects – it confuses the message in an otherwise negatively tight episode.
And when I say tight, I mean, so tight that it knows it’s tight. The episode is peppered with Ed Nygma scenes in which this sociopath finally has a chance to bring his unique brand of meta humour to the show. Mostly taking place in the GCPD Records Annex, Nygma’s scenes involve him being faced with a daunting amount of hard copy forensics files and seeing a better way to organize them.
It’s not for his own sake that he wants to organize these records more organically. Ed’s bent on bettering things because he thinks it will benefit his love interest, the creeped out Kristen Kringle. She doesn’t want it though. Nygma’s non-linear thinking doesn’t work for her. She insults Edward as he tries to explain why his way is the better way, he leaves, and she’s left to put everything back to the inefficient way it was before the Riddler made his own improvements to the system.
Gotham is like that Records Annex. Right now, it is filled with a daunting amount of information, and until “Spirit of the Goat”, there was a tendency to cram as much of it into an episode as possible. Putting a more organic structure on the show – investigating a character while peripherally advancing the series’ plot – shows a comforting amount of restraint that makes the story easier to follow and invest in at the expense of being more direct (which is overrated anyway).
Just like that proverbial sailor with his boat and practical math problem, if Gotham can take its time, everyone wins and no one gets eaten.
- Line of the episode award: “You’re under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder, coercion and frankly a few thinks we’re probably going to have to name after you.” -Harvey Bullock
- Why this show is at least better than Dark Knight Rises award: “Humour is so important don’t you think?” – Edward Nygma
- To me, Dan Hedaya will always be the commanding officer from Alien Resurrection.
- Penguin’s middle name is Chesterfield. Chesterfield!
- Oswald sure got creepily affectionate with his mother in the bathtub. Help me out: Is this the first time Penguin’s been portrayed as Oedipal?
- For a good portion of the episode I was convinced that Nygma was behind the Goat killings. I love how apparent it is that he’s miles ahead of his GCPD colleagues in terms of detective ability. It’s almost frightening.
- In a decision befitting an Arkham inmate, earlier this month Fox ordered a whole bunch of additional episodes of Gotham. Season one will now be 22 episodes long. They better take a lot of cues from “Spirit of the Goat” if they want to stretch this show out that much without a clip show.