It's true! "The Fearsome Dr. Crane" is Gotham's best episode in several weeks, thanks to a solid villain, the Penguin (as usual), and just a smidge of total insanity. Sure, it was plagued by a lot of terrible writing, but who knows when we'll get an episode this good again? Let's focus on the positive.
The titular Dr. Crane is of course the father of Jonathan Crane, the future Bat-villain known as the Scarecrow. He's creating a solid legacy of villainy for his son by secretly attending a phobia support group, kidnapping their members, and then forcing them to them to confront their worst fears while murdering them. It begins when he takes a man scared of heights, ties him to a chair, wraps a noose around his neck, and tosses him off a building. As we find out later, he's cutting out his victims' adrenal glands immediately after their deaths — perhaps doing some early research on what becomes the Scarecrow's eventual fear toxin?
Gordon and Bullock's investigation isn't bad, but it isn't particularly notable either; suffice it to say Bullock meets and falls immediately for a support group member played by Maria Thayer, who I will always know as the redhead from Strangers with Candy. She's how they figure out the support group is being targeted after the second, pig-phobic victim is taken — herded by a baby pig-carrying Dr. Crane, and then trapped in a disgusting slaughterhouse room with several adult sows and a man with a giant disgusting pig mask on in what is easily Gotham's most delightfully creepy scene to date (also, this is where we got that shot of what everybody assumed was going to be Professor Pyg).
Of course, Maria is the third target; she's scared of swimming pools after nearly drowning in one as a kid, which is of course where Crane takes her. There, we discover that young Jonathan is a semi-willing accomplice in his father's nefarious deeds; he runs in to get more change for the meter (don't ask) and looks at his father, clearly about to drown a struggling, tied-up woman. He's perplexed, but not so much he doesn't leave to feed the meter anyways. Of course, Gordon and Bullock show up after Maria's has been thrown in the pool, where Bullock saves her, while Crane gets away from Gordon to torment the citizens of Gotham next episode. I'm happy about this: Crane is the first Gotham villain that seems to have an agenda beyond just being evil, and the fact that young Jonathan is an accomplice here means that this is shit that has direct bearing on the future Scarecrow and, as a result, Batman himself. It "matters" in a way that most other Gotham episodes have not, and the episode is vastly improved because of it.
But that's not all! We get Penguin at the top of his game tonight. Now, that's not to say the Penguin is completely in control, as he very much isn't. Fish calls Maroni from her bizarrely lavish room in her fishing trawler to rat out Oswald, and Maroni takes the future Penguin upstate for 1) oatmeal and 2) a game of Truth or Dare sans Dare. It's weird and about as subtle as a knife-wielding maniac in a pig mask; Maroni all but screams "I KNOW YOU'RE A TRAITOR" while Oswald responds "I KNOW YOU KNOW!" Oswald tries to get the upper hand by secretly stealing one of Maroni's guns, but of course he's filled it with blanks for this exact scenario.
That's the bad bit. After a day at the murder n' breakfast, Maroni just up and puts Cobblepot in a car in a car crusher and sits and watches. I was honestly baffled as to how the Penguin would get out of this, especially when he calls Maroni from the car while it's being crushed, and Maroni hangs up on him. But then Oswald sees the sign for the scrapyard he's in and its phone number, calls it, and convinces the guy controlling the crusher he'd be better off running from Don Maroni who's right freaking there than incurring Don Falcone's wrath. This requires so much nonsense to work. Why doesn't Maroni have any minions with him? How does the scrapyard's company phone connect to the crusher operator's cellphone? But it's so damn fun to see Cobblepot somehow survive an absurdly impossible situation that the cheating seems worth it, especially when this storyline ends with Oswald found sleeping under a pile of leaves by a church bus group of black women from the 1950s, who take him back to Gotham on their church bus while singing hymns. It's ridiculous.
Even Nygma gets a delightfully surreal subplot this week, one that doesn't have to do with him stalking a woman! Yay! When the Medical Examiner catches him examining another corpse — which is not Nygma's job, apparently? — the M.E. forces the Chief, who is back to being terrified of rocking the incredibly corrupt boat of the GCPD, into suspending Nygma. Nygma very calmly sneaks into HQ and fills the ME's locker with severed limbs (from cadavers, not fresh ones) and of course the dude is immediately suspended and the Riddler brought back. It's silly, but still, watching a pile of severed limbs fall onto a dude is the sort of striking moment Gotham could always use more of.
And that's not to mention the craziest moment in the episode, which literally has nothing to do with anything else. At the very end of the ep, Fish Mooney is on her boat. She hears gunfire, and then some kind of armed pirate-terrorist bursts into her cabin. He and Fish stare at each other for half a second, then scream, then run towards each other at full force — then credits. WHAT THE FUCK. Is this a pirate? An old enemy of Fish's? Is it a terrible fake-out and it'll be some former lover or something and she'll collapse into his bullet-adorned arms? I have no idea whatsoever, but by god if I don't really, really want to know what the hell happened.
So all this is pleasantly ridiculous! Again, there's a lot of so-so plotting — why would Crane steal a victim from the phobia support group when Bullock is right there, and has already announced himself as a cop? — but it's really nice to have some genuinely creepy, funny and just plain crazy moments to balance the scales. I doubt Gotham is ever going to be the smart crime procedural we want it to be (and know it can be, thanks to the Gotham Central comic) but if it can continue providing a few memorable moments like "The Fearsome Dr. Crane" did, then, well, at least I won't develop a phobia about recapping it every week.
• Bruce makes an appearance this week to tell Gordon he's gotten nowhere on his parents' murder, and he can basically go fuck off. Bruce has a point.
• Gordon stops by Barbara's apartment this week to drop off his keys, discovers Cat's been crashing there, and she tells him she lied about seeing the Waynes' killers' faces. So… thanks for wasting our time with that for several weeks, Gotham.
• Barbara is a no-show this week. Narratively, this is a fundamentally good idea — to not include characters when you have nothing interesting for them to do — but the masochist in me misses her delightfully awful, meaningless scenes.
• I like that Dr. Crane's first murder is to dangle a dude off a roof to terrify him, just as Batman will do pretty much ceaselessly 20 years later. Of course Crane kills his victim, but it's a nice, subtle reminder that like all of Batman's best villains, the Scarecrow is yet another mirror of Batman.
• Oh, Dr. Crane is played by Julian Sands, best known as the Warlock of Warlock. He does some solid work with Crane with very little — you really get the sense that he's more of a scientist than a psychopath, which is far more interesting than most of Gotham's bad guys.
• That said, is the Scarecrow's dad's first name really "Tod"? That… that is not a particularly menacing name.
• Next week, it appears Oswald and Nygma finally get their first scene together! Maybe it's because I thought this episode had some high points, or maybe I'm just an unrepentant nerd, but I'm actually pretty excited by this.