“A mask hides the face but frees the soul. A mask speaks the truth.”
-Richard Sionis, only half right
Where there’s money, there’s violence in Gotham City. Where there’s honesty, there’s lonely heroism. And where there’s a mask, there’s a human soul hiding behind it.
In “The Mask”, which signals a return to Gotham’s procedural format (albeit a new and improved version of said format), three men from different and rich backgrounds explore death and violence in their lives. No one walks away bettered by the experience, but in episode eight the audience gets a fun hour affirming conventional comic book knowledge: a mask never hides a face, it only reveals a soul.
What’s most interesting about “The Mask” is how it defines it’s bare faced protagonist. Jim Gordon has been characterized as heroic because of his lack of a symbol, and Gotham is a better show for it.
The Black Mask
The main crime of the week story introduces one of Batman’s more mirror-like villains: The Black Mask, a.k.a. Richard Sionis (played by Todd Stashwick who really nails the role). Just like Victor Zsasz in last week’s episode, Black Mask is practically a super villain by the time we meet him, having taken Sun Tzu’s The Art of War a little too seriously with regard to the hiring process at his investment firm.
“The Mask” begins with a cold open in an office-turned-battlefield. A potential dollar jockey dons a balaclava and fights to the death with another masked man in an arena of empty cubicles. It’s brutal business, with the loser having his neck hacked into with a paper-guillotine repurposed as a sword.
It’s a brutal opening scene, executed with style, acting as a living, bleeding metaphor for the current real life North American job market. The unlucky soul who won’t be getting a second interview was Coleman Lawson, a Gotham barista hoping to get started on a career path in the financial district.
In a reveal that once again hints at his natural talent for morbid theatricality, Ed Nygma finds a thumb in Lawson’s discarded body’s mouth (“I’m guessing I should run all the prints?”). That clue leads Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock to Sionis Investments, the Black Mask’s financial firm.
He’s the first “Bruce Wayne gone bad” of the episode. Completely dedicated to an ideal, so rich it’s silly, and solving his problems with violence, Richard Sionis is what happens when Batman gets a business degree instead of attending Ra’s al Ghul’s Academy for Gifted Orphans. Gordon and Bullock catch up with him in the villain’s office and it’s immediately clear to Jim that Sionis is a man that loves killing.
The meeting of Gordon and Sionis is the heart of “The Mask”, offering the kind of Batman comic philosophy and distilled tone that has been rescuing Gotham in recent episodes.
Gordon and Sionis stand face to face and see in the other a familiarity with murder; Jim having killed in war and Richard being a cut throat business man (literally). The villain accuses the hero of being the same as him, possibly addicted to killing, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two men. One is wearing a mask and the other is naked.
A major obstacle that Gotham has needed to overcome has been differentiating Jim Gordon from just some plainclothes Batman surrogate, essentially answering the question, “What makes the Commissioner so special?” The answer is that he’s the only character who derives his heroic qualities by not dressing up. Gordon is pure, honest and lawful – the transparent hero.
Politically, this is a big statement given the context of “The Mask”. Gordon is inevitably captured by Sionis and placed into combat with three masked interviewees. The combat is being broadcast to the Sionis Investments office where Gotham City’s money movers watch on and cheer.
Gordon dispatches all the aspiring Wall Street Wolves and, after a really well choreographed katana fight, The Black Mask himself. Gordon wins because he has nothing to unleash and nothing to hide. He is incorruptible, unlike a symbol. He’s complex, honest and imperfect, which is difficult to rally behind, but it’s because of his willingness to show these attractive qualities that he can be trusted.
Little Bruce Wayne is dealing with his own volatile inner symbol in “The Mask”. Alfred, trying to be the best guardian he can be, wants Bruce to grow up a normal as possible, so he forces the boy to go back to school.
Bruce, as humorless as he’ll ever be, snaps at Pennyworth:
“Define normal and make a good case for it.”
But Alfred doesn’t have to. The dark, wimpy billionaire heir is quickly popular with his female classmates but becomes the target of a one Thomas Elliot: another worst case scenario of Bruce Wayne in the making, and about the best argument one can make for orphaning the heirs to massive fortunes.
Fans of the Batman comics will recognize Elliot as the boy who will one day become Hush, a Batman villain who knew Bruce as a child and tried to murder his own parents for a massive inheritance (failing at this becomes the core of his villainous motivation). Immediately when Tommy appears on screen, it’s clear that he’s a tad demented. His method of bullying betrays his jealousy of Bruce, digging for details about how his parents died and what it felt like to be orphaned.
The bullying turns into a fight, and Alfred is less than pleased when he sees a bruise on his young master’s chin. Bruce is driven to the door of the Elliott home, given his father’s watch and Alfred’s approval for what he’s about to do. He knocks on the door and beats Tommy bloody on his doorstep, using Thomas Wayne’s watch to sharpen his impact (first bat-gadget ever!).
Tommy attempts to accuse Alfred of letting Bruce try to kill him. Pennyworth agrees and, with the terrifying certainty of a man threatening a child, tells Elliot to remember that he let it happen.
At home, Bruce asks that Alfred teach him to fight. So much for defining normal and making a good case for it.
The Penguin and The Fish, The Bro-Up and The Breakup
The rest of “The Mask” keeps playing with the virtues and sacrifices that come with honesty exploring Jim’s relationships, while making sure momentum continues to build in terms of the mob war storyline.
Penguin and Fish Mooney clash during the cold open, as he revels in the delicious winning hand he’s dealt himself and she stabs a recently gifted broach through his hand. There are a few interesting parallels between the rival villains this week, both confiding in their mothers (who seem to be the only people either of them truly love) and each scoring vital information on their enemies.
Fish gets her weaponized henchwoman Liza to successfully snatch some crucial info from Falcone using the liberal application of sleeping serum and tea. Meanwhile, Penguin discovers the existence of Mooney’s mole in the Falcone organization with the application of knives to the man who took up his old umbrella holding responsibilities, Timothy.
Jim’s relationships throughout the episode evolve too. Bullock has found himself transformed by Gordon’s heroism, ashamed of how the GCPD left his partner hanging when Zsasz came knocking last week. Captain Essen is also feeling guilty for the same reasons. When time comes for the rest of the department to step up and help Gordon when he’s being held as a gladiator in Sionis Industries, Harvey turns the shitty cops into good guys with a monologue and some shame throwing.
Barbara, on the other hand, is facing the opposite problem. Because she misunderstood the dangers of naked heroism in “Penguin’s Umbrella”, she is suffering from some post-Zsasz anxiety. After almost shooting Gordon out of panic in the condo, she decides to leave Gotham while Jim continues his crusade.
Episode eight of Gotham shows us that there is a sacrifice that comes with wearing a mask. Your identity is cast aside for something greater and more powerful, a distillation of a value or an icon of something undying. That’s Batman’s cup of tea.
To choose to be yourself instead, to stand for more complicated ideals of honesty, transparency and humanity, that’s a higher stakes kind of game. That’s what makes Jim Gordon hero we need in a world under assault by masked men.
- Bullock line of the episode: “So you don’t like Gordon. Fine. He can be a total asshat, but he’s still a cop!”
- Anyone else getting a Gilmore Girls vibe from the Bruce and Alfred arc? This is definitely the right way to go with that story line.
- I have so much sympathy for Edward Nygma every time he’s ignored. I don’t want to prematurely victim shame, but when he eventually snaps, the GCPD is going to bear a lot of the blame.
- One of the more interesting aspects of watching Gotham is seeing which characters the showrunners choose to make adults and which to make children. By the time Tommy Elliot and Ed Nygma team up, the Riddler’s going to be what? Fifty? Fifty-five?
- Speaking of Batman’s contemporaries, next week’s episode is titled “Harvey Dent”.
- The showrunners sure are dragging this Selina Kyle arc out as long as possible aren’t they? For a character that supposedly has crucial information in the Wayne murder case she sure hasn’t been capturing my interest. It goes to show how much Gotham has improved in the past few episodes that I really have no interest in the initial mystery laid out in the pilot.