Welcome back to Gotham City, my friends. I’m surprised as you are that I’m happy to be here, what with its crime-ridden streets, its incompetent police force, its cartoonish villains, its maddening dialogue, and its general insanity. But “Damned If You Do…”, Gotham’s second season premiere, is a definite improvement over season one’s aimlessness, although I worry that it’s just a temporary fix.
Either way, however, Gotham has achieved something I thought impossible. It took Barbara Keen, the absolute worst character of the 2014-15 TV season, and made her interesting.
If you somehow avoided the first season of Gotham, here’s what you need to know: It’s obviously a prequel of sorts to the Batman saga, but it exists in a weird Venn diagram between the unbelievably campy Batman ‘60s TV series, the strangeness of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns film, the violence of the Nolan Bat-movies, all with just a touch of Frank Miller’s resolutely inaccurate All-Star Batman & Robin comic. By this I mean sometimes Gotham often seems like it’s being written as a children’s show, with characters’ actions and motivations presented without subtext; the setting is strange and faux-Gothic, with all the supervillains as esoterically weird as those of Returns; it’s continually punctuated with moments of extreme violence; and that no Batman character on this show acts in any manner like their comic counterparts.
Where the season 2 premiere of Gotham improves first and foremost on last season is that it seems to have finally embraced whatever the hell its vision is, instead of veering wildly back-and-forth between dumb and dark, silly and strange. Again, this weird mix of styles isn’t what I think anyone expected from the show, but Gotham benefits immeasurably from at least feeling like it’s striding purposely down its own, bizarre path.
Happily, this is hardly the only way “Damned If You Don’t…” has improved. The show also appears to have learned the benefit of narrowing its focus. Instead of checking in with all the characters equally—and giving them the same amount of screentime, regardless of whether they actually have something interesting to do—the show instead concentrates on Gordon as he’s kicked off the GCPD force. As Gordon schemes to be reinstated, he’s used to check in on the other characters in a natural way that most TV series know to do automatically. But by sticking mainly with Gordon, and then presenting the new villain Theo Galvin as a threat that will presumably last for a season, not just a few episodes, Gotham appears to have learned to cut away the chaff that made so many of its first season episodes a slog to sit through. Now, I worry this is just a natural benefit of it being a premiere episode, where the story is focused solely because it’s beginning, but I’m crossing my fingers.
The episode begins as James Frain’s Theo Galvin gives a tubby dude (in what looks a bit like the faux-Batman armor the faux-Batmen from The Dark Knight wear) a potion he claims is dragon’s blood. Shortly, the tubby dude is on the streets of Gotham screaming that he’s Zaardon (two a’s) and starts waving a sword about. Gordon, busted down to traffic cop, easily cuffs Zaardon, but gives his lazy partner a mild shove in the process, and that’s all Commissioner Loeb needs to finally kick Gordon off the force once and for all.
It leads to Gordon trying to decide whether he should do something bad for a greater good, like he did about two dozen times last season. And like last season, he asks the Penguin for a favor—to get Loeb to retire so he can be reinstated— and the Penguin asks for a favor in return—namely, to collect money from a reticent former underling of Falcone’s. Gordon says no, but then he eventually says yes, and Gordon also kills the underling in self-defense, and he feels bad about what he’s done and regrets the choice he made.
Now, this is a character beat that happened a lot last season, and was incredibly irritating, as the whole point of the show seems like it should be Gordon trying to clean up Gotham City; it’s not much of a story if Gordon is willing to be as morally compromised as the people he’s trying to save Gotham from. However, I’m giving it a pass here is because Morena Baccain’s Leslie Thompkins actually acknowledges Gordon’s decision as a moral dilemma, something the entire first season of Gotham did not do. Likewise Ben McKenzie is finally allowed to make Gordon look like he’s realized he’s done something wrong, and is nauseous that he’s consented to work with the Penguin and for murdering the criminal, which is something that didn’t happens at all last season, and counts as a Sopranos–level character study in Gotham terms. If Gotham can actually, finally make Gordon realize that he can’t bend the rules in order to make Gotham City better, well, then his character will have finally developed a little, and we’ll be cooking with gas. (Perhaps Gordon can also help teach Bruce that the ends don’t always justify the means, as that will be pretty key for Batman later on.)
But the most delightful surprise of the night is Barbara, who spent the first season being shit on by everyone—by which I mean, by characters in the show and the people who worked on the show. I said it before, but it was as if Gotham actually was trying to make is fictional character commit suicide. Of course, the first season of Gotham ended with Barbara snapping and killing her (awful) parents with Milo Ventimiglia’s moral support.
Now she’s in Arkham—which 1) dresses its inmates like prisoners from a 1920s cartoon and 2) is apparently a coed prison for the insane—and she doesn’t give a fuck. It’s great. When she arrives, she completely ignores the stares of the other (uniformly male) prisoners. When Jerome arrives trying to pressure her into partnering with him, she seduces a big meathead in about 30 seconds and returns to reading her newspaper. She gets a contraband phone just to call and mess with Gordon, and when that doesn’t work, instantly uses it to threaten Leslie over her answering machine. And when James Frain—er, Theo Galvin breaks Barbara, Jerome, Sionis, and a few others out of Arkham using a Dark Knight reference by way of Batman ’66, Barbara happily goes along for the ride and the chance to cause some mayhem.
I can say without fear of hyperbole that she has more agency in her few scenes last night than she did in the entirety of the first season. I doubt Gotham intended to turn her into a villain when the show began, but as an actual wild card among all these eventual Bat-villains whose fates we know—she’s the most interesting of the group. Let me say it again: Barbara is interesting. It’s a goddamned miracle!
But every time I started getting too excited, I remember Gotham’s biggest problem was its inability to tell a story over time, and I realize it’s far too soon to say Gotham is “good.” However, for now it’s certainly much better; also, James Frain is also far more interesting than the bland mobsters of the first season, if only because James Frain can play a super-villain in his sleep. (It helps that he presumably has plans for Gotham City beyond “be a mobster.”)
So “Damned If You Do...” its definitely a good start. But is Gotham going to be a place we actually want to stay, or will it just be a place we want to visit?
• Just in case anyone doubts my Batman Returns, Batman ’66, Bat-Nolan, All-Star Batman & Robin theory: First of all, the entire show screams Batman Returns. Gotham City itself is faux-Gothic, and the villains are all as broader and sillier than Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but about on par with the sequels, Penguin, Catwoman, and especially Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck. Batman Returns is the baseline for the show.
• Batman ’66 campiness = The Arkham inmates in 1920s cartoon-style striped prison outfits; the bright purple knock-out gas escape from Arkham; the entire process of Bruce blowing up the door to his father’s hideout.
• Nolan Bat-movie violence = Zsasz produces someone’s severed head; Theo’s sisters the Tigress butchers Sinonis, and gore sprays on the Arkham escapees.
• As for the All-Star Batman/characters acting completely out-of-character = Both Bruce Wayne and Gordon are super-willing to compromise their principles for a greater good in some shockingly heinous ways; Alfred high-fives young Bruce. GAME SET MATCH, MY FRIENDS.
• Meanwhile, Gotham continues to be written by an alien who’s translator is still having problems with colloquialisms and insults. Penguin is called a “fruitcake leprechaun” at one point, while Bullock calls Jim “Slurpy.”
• Of course, Bullock’s use of “Slurpy” is Gotham at its most enjoyably nonsensical. Gordon downs two shots in quick succession; Bullock says, “Slow down, Slurpy!” as he’s pouring Jim another drink before Jim even asks for one.
• Check in with Riddler! The good news is that he’s developing a split personality, and his split personality, while evil, otherwise talks like a regular human being. The bad news is that Nygma is still obsessed with Ms. Kringle, so we’re not done with that painfully dull storyline yet. (Although it’s weird that the Riddler has a split personality when the guy who plays Harvey Dent has just been made a regular, right?)
• Young Bruce discovers the secret passage leads to a door with a keypad. After trying at least a few dozen numbers and failing, he and Alfred make a homemade bomb and blow the door to hell. Inside is his dad’s pretty innocuous-looking office, and a letter address to Bruce because apparently Papa Wayne was feeling morbid and suspected he might die. His message: “You can’t have both happiness and the truth.”
• The best part, however, is the note reveals that the passcode to the door was—wait for it—BRUCE. WORLD’S EVENTUAL GREATEST DETECTIVE, EVERYBODY
• The second best part was that Alfred was truly worried his former employer had a secret sex dungeon.
• The third best part is when Alfred catches Bruce bringing in fertilizer to make a bomb and points out that Bruce doesn’t actually know how to make a bomb. Bruce’s response: “I READ A BOOK, ALFRED.” I cannot wait for this kid to become Batman.
• I totally laughed when Zaardon called Jim Gor-Don.
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