Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gotham Review: Season 1, Episode 4, "Arkham"

I started watching this show mostly out of curiosity - I had no real expectations, except that I liked Ben McKenzie from The O.C., a show that I never expected would be something that I'd like. It's been rocky so far, and shows are rarely as good as they'll ever get at the beginning, but this episode sticks out to me as better than previous episodes and more of what the series should be going forward.

In my recent review of Once Upon a Time, I mentioned a frustration with that series's purely serialized storytelling. It may change later, but so far, Gotham is exactly the opposite of that and a perfect example (in concept if not execution) of how to handle A/B storytelling. The larger story for the season has been obvious since the pilot: following the death of the Waynes, rival mob bosses are fighting for position in the power vacuum that resulted from their deaths. Someone in the mob was actually responsible for their murder and for framing someone else to take the fall. The mystery of who killed the Waynes and the fallout from their death possibly leading to a mob war are both important storylines for the season as a whole, but the episodes have treated that as a story to march forward slowly.

The difference here is that there is a main storyline, a single case, that starts off the episode and is solved by the end. This is the A story, allowing people to watch the episode, even without much other context, and get a complete story that should make the episode more satisfying. That's how each episode of this goes, except for the pilot, which spent most of its running time setting up the B story, but dealing with the aftermath of the Wayne murder was the A story in that episode. I just want to reiterate, neither is necessarily better than the other, they're just different approaches.

Now that's all out of the way, I should talk about the episode itself. As often happens with A/B storytelling, the story that takes up the largest part of the episode is not what breeds the most discussion. That said, I liked this case more than the Balloonman from the previous week, though that one had its own insane, campy charm. The killer wasn't quite as weirdly interesting as that, but he served as a great catalyst for the rest of the episode. What he did have was a great sense of brutality - this show hasn't been afraid to go to dark places, but that was mostly left to what was implied (the second episode had very heavily implied pedophilia and cannibalism, just to start). In this episode, they have Gladwell (I don't think we ever get his real name, so let's go with that) stuff a man in a steel barrel, pour gasoline on him, and burn him alive. We don't see it up close or graphically, but they milk every bit of tension they can get out of it. It's also brutal at the end - after setting up the threat that he's going after the mayor, he makes the threat but is stopped by about a dozen body shots from Gordon and Bullock. This scene mostly caught me off guard because, while I expected them to shoot him, I didn't expect them to shoot him that much.

Of course, what everyone is really interested in all happened around this. For this episode, which was titled "Arkham", the area around the Arkham Asylum, which had been closed for the last decade or so, was kind of the focus of the episode. What it did right was that it didn't so much matter what happened there, so much as how it affected everyone around it. The mob families were fighting over who got what out of the area, it had been a project of the Waynes before they were killed, and anyone who's even superficially familiar with Batman knows that it's a very important part of the city. On the side of the Waynes, I think that this is the best way to go with young Bruce Wayne, since it doesn't seem like he's going anywhere anytime soon. Batman has always been about helping the city (out of a psychotic need for vengeance, but credit where it's due), and this is a more sensible way for him to do that, especially for the time being.

On the other side of setting up future characters, they really need to figure out what they're doing with Ed Nygma, the future Riddler. He has been mostly just annoying, partially due to the weird way that he talks, which I feel like they were going for something else with.

Okay, I've danced around it enough - let's talk about Oswald, our future Penguin. Most of the other recaps that I've seen of this show have turned into fangirling over him (yes, I use that word correctly, and no, here is not the place to explore the implications of it), and it's not hard to see why. This guy is something else, as is the actor, Robin Lord Taylor. He doesn't really feel like the Penguin quite yet, but he's working his way up from no one to future crime boss, so he's evolving in the right direction.

The very beginning, between Penguin and Gordon, was just a great way to start the episode. I more expected the first scene to set up the case of the week and this to come later, but I think it ended up being a good idea for them to wrap up that cliffhanger from the last episode. It also was a much stronger start to the episode. The scene in the apartment had a hidden tension, while the scene in the alley gave that tension the opportunity to explode. Jim's voice got a little too raspy and similar to Bale's Batman, but I'll forgive it that - when used right, it's a good way to intimidate someone.

I have to give great compliments to the casting for this show. The main thing everyone is talking about is how great Robin Lord Taylor is, a lot give great credit to Donal Logue, but in general, I honestly can't find anyone who seems miscast in a role. I find this especially important for the more supporting characters, such as Falcone, Moroni, and the Mayor (whose name I've never actually noticed). From just their looks, you can tell who they are supposed to be, saving the show from having to stop and explain who they are - the mob bosses look like mob bosses, the mayor looks like Richard Nixon, so half the storytelling is done the moment they walk on screen.

This episode is also trying to be a major story point between Jim and Barbara (maybe I'll eventually get used to her being his girlfriend, not his daughter, but that's quite a shift), which I'm not sure if it works. I know a lot of people didn't like it, but while it felt like it didn't get the impact they were going for in the moment, it fits together better in retrospect than I expected. Jim is mad about Barbara lying about her relationship with Montoya, and not at all because Barbara had a relationship with a woman - it's because she never told him about it, when it could have a direct impact on his life. He refuses to tell her who Oswald Cobblepot is, and this bothered me when I was watching the episode - shouldn't he just tell her the position he was in, then be honest about how he handled it? Then I realized it: she has an even stronger moral code than he does. Jim is the shining example of morality in the Gotham police department, but he has been willing to at least pretend to play the game where some people are involved. In episode 2, when he told Barbara about the investigation into the missing children and it being hidden from the public, she called in an anonymous tip. He's afraid she'll do that again, which could lead me down a rabbit hole of ethical dilemmas, but she's already proven that she's not necessarily trustworthy when it comes to playing the game in Gotham. Because of all that, while I was not as drawn in by it in the moment as I wanted to be, it's started to grow on me a little more.

Looking ahead:

I saw a lot of people talking about Fish Mooney in this episode with confusion. Part of this is definitely the fact that she is an original characters, and therefore we have no idea where she's going to be going in the future. But the more important part for this episode is about the girls that she was auditioning to be her "weapon", which was not explained explicitly. I don't know what they're doing either, but it seems like all the pieces are there: Mooney is looking for a girl to turn into a femme fatale, or something similar. We saw in the first episode that she has thugs and enforcers, but almost everyone else trying to work against her is male and presumably straight, so how is having someone who can seduce anyone not an extremely valuable asset? This doesn't account for the singing, but that doesn't preclude this theory, either. I could be entirely wrong, what with Mooney being a complete mystery to the viewers, which only makes this more interesting to speculate about.

Barbara leaving Jim at the end of the episode is unlikely to stick, which is probably part of why it didn't work on people very well. The thing that worries me about this is probably something that is a result of a little too much speculation on my part, but it's a concern nonetheless. Since Bruce becoming Batman is well off into the future, there's no way that she's going to be Batgirl, but she's also been another character that seems to me to fit a little better: Oracle. Short version: Joker shot her through the spine, was left paralyzed, made up for it with her incredible intelligence and ability to process and manipulate information. Even though it was the tiniest hint, her calling the tip line in episode 2 seemed to be a nod in that direction. Joker isn't part of this universe yet, but with all of the mob involvement and Jim being the one cop who is not playing the game, it's just a matter of time until one of them sends Jim a message through her, right? The preview for the next episode also hinted at things getting bad and starting to spiral out of control, I just hope that they don't go for this too early. Make it towards the end of the season, after they've had time together to really make an impact on us, and especially to make us really care about her before she's paralyzed. I admit that this is all speculation, but it seems like the most likely place for them to go with her story, and I'd much rather they take their time and do it well than jump right into it.
Until next time...

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