Hey, you know the phrase "the inmates are running the asylum"? In response to last night's mid-season premiere of Gotham, I'd like to suggest a change: "The inmates are somehow running a major primetime TV series." It's not quite as catchy, but I think it works.
Hey, I'm Rob Bricken, the author of io9's silliest articles and profanity enthusiast. Charlie Jane has tasked me with taking over the Gotham recaps, which I jumped at the chance for. I actually like Gotham, overall. I recognize it's a flawed show with some extremely problematic writing, but I love that it doesn't take itself too seriously, I love how it channels the 1989 Batman movie (especially in its design), and of course I adore Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin. But man, Gotham works overtime to be unlikeable sometimes, and last night's episode — "Rogues Gallery" — is a prime example.
Let's start with the basics: Gordon, having made the mistake of trying to singlehandedly fix the most corrupt city government in America, has been busted down to security guard at the new Arkham Asylum for his troubles (although when I say "new" I mean "reopened but not cleaned"). The Penguin, Fish Mooney and the bosses are still jockeying for power over the city's organized crime, albeit slowly. Barbara has left Jim because the writers literally have no other ideas for what to do with her. And young Bruce Wayne… well, he doesn't even appear in this episode, although he is presumably reading files in Wayne Manor's sole room.
The trouble begins when someone starts performing unapproved electroshock therapy on the Asylum's patients, rendering one guy effectively brain-dead. Jim wants to call the cops, but Arham chief Dr. Lang — played by The Wire's Isiah "Sheeeeeeeiiiittt" Whitlock Jr. — refuses, mainly because he's comically evil; he hates Gordon for no reason, and even declares the first victim okay because he's still technically breathing on his own.
It's not much of a mystery — Gordon looks for inmates who may have stolen a guard's keys, while a few more inmates gets shocked with less horrible results — but the episode does serve to introduce Dr. Leslie Thompkins, whom Bat-fans will recognize as one of Bruce Wayne's other early mentors, and one who is far less supportive of his eventual nocturnal activities. Played by Morena Baccaran, Thompkins doesn't really have much to do here except give a shit about her patients, but given this makes her essentially the first person Gordon has met who shares his desire to do good and help people, they develop a quick connection that should be fun to see unfold.
The culprit seems to be Dorothy Duncan, an inmate masquerading as a nurse; when Gordon figures out she's a fake, Duncan manages to free all the inmates before being trampled in their desire to escape. Happily, this incredibly obvious suspect is a bit of a misdirect on Gotham's part! It turns out the obviously creepy fake nurse wasn't actually responsible (she was just crazy) but in fact it was an inmate named Gruber who was trying to create loyal minions by shocking their brains using the trial-and-error method. Gordon and Thopkins manage to keep the inmates from fully rioting, but Gruber manages to escape — it appears he'll be on the next episode (in two weeks), with some kind of electricity gadgets and calling himself The Electrocutioner.
But let's return to Duncan for a second. I appreciate that Gotham didn't actually make her the villain because it was so obvious, and kudos for the fake-out. But this twist wasn't actually as clever so much as it was a relief that Gotham didn't go for the most clichéd answer possible — she's so clearly supposed to look crazy from her first scene that its obvious she's involved in some way. And moreover, this "twist" required so much stupidity to set up.
Look, I know this is a show about a boy who eventually dresses up as a bat and fight bad guys, and I know eventually a bunch of these people will turn into super-criminals, sometimes with super-powers. I have a suspension of disbelief, but that doesn't mean I can accept when characters don't even manage to act like human beings. Are you telling me that Gordon worked all those weeks at Arkham and no one ever told him the lady in the nurse's outfit was a patient? That he somehow never saw Duncan do anything that would indicate she wasn't part of the staff? Moreover, someone with medical skills has started attacking the inmates, and NO ONE THINKS ABOUT THE PATIENT WHO MASQUERADES AS A NURSE?! I'll accept the bat costume and Ivy's eventual plant powers, but this is so dumb, so unlikely, so impossible in world where people are supposedly at least smart enough to retain short-term memories that it shatters my disbelief, breaks the pieces with a hammer, and then sets what's left of 'em on fire.
Gotham has a significant and recurring problem with its characters acting like barely rational human beings. Too often these people do insane, ridiculous, completely moronic things for no other reason than to serve the plot, and it's really, really rare that these plots are ever worth the trouble. The best example — and what has to be the new front-runner for the dumbest Gotham moment of all time — is in this very episode, when Barbara calls Gordon's apartment, and Ivy answers, pretends to be Gordon's girlfriend, and Barbara not only falls for it but is devastated.
Let me rephrase: Barbara calls Gordon's apartment. A child answers the phone. This child pretends to be Gordon's girlfriend for no apparent reason other than to upset Barbara, even though Ivy has no idea who is calling or why. Barbara somehow does not realize she's talking to a child, and despite Ivy's completely unconvincing performance, Barbara accepts everything the kid says at face value and abandons her entire relationship with Gordon based on a 30-second phone call. WITH A GODDAMNED KID.
What the hell was Gotham thinking? Who thought this was a good idea? Who thought not only made sense, let alone was somehow compelling drama? Who wrote this, and how many people edited it and allowed it to be filmed? Why did no one ever point out how hilariously moronic this was? And for what? To keep Barbara away from Gordon for another goddamned episode? Ugh.
I was kind of hoping that Gotham would use its mid-season break to fix some of these problems, but apparently not. Of course, there's plenty of time for improvement — and oh so much room — and truth be told even if it never does, I'll keep watching it. I just find it charming. I suppose that's crazy, but hey, at least I'll have company.
• I don't want to get into a thing where we all bag on Barbara as another horrible female character like Lori from The Walking Dead. The problem isn't with the characters so much as the horrible writing their respective shows provide for them. They exist only as love interests for the main characters, and the shows have no idea what to do with them otherwise, so they essentially make them crazy and terrible to fill time. So let's not bitch about Barbara, let's bitch about how the show has failed to provide her with any agency or decent material.
• That said, Renee Montoya breaks up with Barbara because she's toxic, meaning either one or both of them drinks a lot and does drugs (prescription). Apparently this was a major issue the first time they were in a relationship that Montoya somehow forgot about. Sigh.
• Protip, Gotham: We don't care about any of the criminals other than the Penguin, Fish, Maroni and Falcone. Devoting the B plot to their minions is a waste of air time.
• Did Robin Lord Taylor piss off the make-up department? Because his black eye was absurd.
• Dr. Lang was killed by Gruber, so it looks like Arkham needs a new director. Sheeeeeiiiiiiit.
• One more example of Gotham characters not acting like human beings: Maroni calling the Penguin a "limping little chickenbait second banana." Jesus, Gotham. Do you even listen to yourself sometimes?