Gotham City is caught between two opposing forces, but they aren’t good and evil. No, the big war in Gotham is between camp and grit, and in the battle of “Selina Kyle,” nobody wins. Writer/executive producer/creator Bruno Heller delivers a script that once again has extreme difficulty balancing two dramatically different takes on the Dark Knight’s world, and that tonal dissonance becomes more abrasive as this week’s episode moves forward.
The major players fighting for the forces of camp this week are Fish Mooney and villains-of-the-week Patti and Doug, two child snatchers dressed like a 1950s school marm and police officer. Jada Pinkett Smith is the highlight of the pilot, but her over-the-top characterization begins to grate this week because the script gives her very few opportunities to vary her behavior. Like the majority of the cast this episode, Fish Mooney is very angry, and she has two ways of showing it: The first is by attempting to hide her rage, exaggerating her sensuality and graciousness to the point that it becomes obvious she’s wearing a mask to hide her true feelings. The second is by playing the anger at full volume, clenching her fist, furrowing her brow, and biting into each word of her hilariously explicit dialogue to make Fish a character that feels like she belongs in Dick Tracy’s world rather than Batman’s.
The campiness of Fish is put up against the gritty backdrop of a brewing gang war in Gotham City, something that people keep talking about, but we have yet to see evidence of. Fish’s scheming shows that there’s internal strife in Falcone’s family, but rival crime boss Sal Maroni has only been mentioned at this point, giving the audience little idea of the current climate of Gotham’s underworld beyond what the characters are saying. I’m sure the show will dive deeper into that aspect of the plot as the season continues, but if the gang war is a key element of the series, it should really be established as firmly as possible as early impossible. It’s easy to forget important plot points if they are only represented by bland dialogue, especially when those topics are buried in the first half of an episode and then never brought up again.
Once Fish disappears, it’s up to Patti and Doug to keep the powers of camp alive as the show tries to overwhelm them with increasingly gritty character elements. Patti and Doug are a clean-cut, unassuming pair, using exaggerated positivity to trick children and abduct them for an overseas buyer by the name of “The Dollmaker.” With their retro costuming, they look like they walked off the set of the 1960s Batman series, but that attitude clashes with the severity of their storyline.
If Patti and Doug’s aesthetic was part of a larger gimmick, it would be easier to accept the absurdity of their characters, but they’re really just homicidal workers of a child slavery ring dressed in silly costumes. They have no problem killing people in cold blood, and they keep kids locked in a pharmacy storage space that could double as a Saw location. (When “the heat” arrives at the scene, the pharmacy owner orders that the children be disposed of and the room hosed done, because nothing says “Batman” like the threat of children being shot and dumped down a hole.)
Jim Gordon saves the group of homeless kids from their deaths, but that’s far from the end of the child snatching ridiculousness. Mayor James (Richard Kind) responds to the recent abductions by rounding up the city’s remaining homeless youth and putting them in “the loving arms of juvenile services,” which he later clarifies as meaning foster home for the cute, undamaged ones, and juvie for the rest. Mayor James is horrible at his job and doesn’t care, and that type of complete disregard for the obligations of a career runs rampant through Gotham City.
The GCPD is incompetent. Except for Jim Gordon, none of its officers appear to have any interest in doing any actual investigative work, and upper management takes a similarly dismissive position. Commissioner Essen isn’t just aware of the corruption within her unit—she appears to be in active support of it. “Jim, it’s not like I can order you to break the law, but this is Gotham,” Essen says when Jim comes to her with concerns about Bullock’s interrogation methods. “If you don’t bend, you’ll get broke.”
All of Gordon’s suggestions regarding the case are met with begrudging approval, as if it’s a major burden that these servants of the law have to perform some sort of actual service for the city. That would explain how Patti and Doug are able to steal an entire bus full of homeless children from right under the GCPD’s nose. Every new development in this episode makes the Gotham police look worse and worse, and if it weren’t for Jim Gordon’s flash of inspiration regarding the logo on the pair’s truck, those kids would be on an overseas boat ride to The Dollmaker.
Tonight’s episode is called “Selina Kyle,” but she’s not the focal point. Like the pilot, this week’s script splits time between the show’s very large ensemble, and the titular character ends up sneaking through the background until two-thirds through the story. That’s when Camren Bicondova finally delivers her first lines, spoken with a sassy personality that proves this show is really trying to bring adult Catwoman’s attitude to the pre-teen Selina, who goes by the nickname “Cat” because this show is just that obvious. When she’s not playing Metal Gear Selina, Cat can be found threatening GCPD officers with false sexual-abuse allegations, upping the episode’s awkward quotient while also expanding on the show’s current motif of abused children.
Some of that abuse is self-inflicted, as evidenced by this week’s Bruce Wayne subplot. Those wondering how Gotham is going to incorporate Bruce into its weekly stories now have an answer: clumsily. “Selina Kyle” opens with Bruce testing his fear by burning his hand on a candle, a plot thread that is left dangling for most of the episode before Alfred goes to Jim Gordon for assistance with his emotionally unstable, self-mutilating ward. Sean Pertwee is a solid Alfred, but the writing for the character is very confusing, particularly the butler’s explosive reaction when he sees Bruce’s burned hand. “God, you stupid little boy!” Alfred yells before immediately changing his tactic, and it’s a very strange choice for the character. But it’s a choice that goes with the general emotion of this show: angry.
Heller’s script vacillates wildly between camp and grit, but the visual style is all about embracing the latter, using lots of filters to give the series an imitation David Fincher look. Director Danny Cannon’s visuals would lead one to believe that this show is a semi-realistic crime drama, but this show has more similarities with something like Once Upon A Time than it does Law & Order. Once Upon A Time’s concept asked for a similar negotiation of campy fantasy with gritty realism in the beginning, and the show went through serious growing pains as it tried to find the right mix. (In the end, campy fantasy won out.)
Gotham needs to find the correct balance of those two governing elements in order to succeed, but more importantly, it needs to start delving into the characters in a real emotional way. The show has to stop telling us how characters feel and start showing us how they feel, because after two episodes, none of the relationships or conflicts feel fully formed. Who are these characters when they’re not working? Who are they outside of their connection to a vigilante who won’t appear for years in this world? Once the show starts committing to answers for these questions, it might pull itself out of the hole dug by these first two chapters.
- The writers clearly have no idea what to do to give Barbara Kean agency. This week she appears to recap Jim’s weird behavior over the last few weeks (another case of “show, don’t tell”), and she gives the plot the tiniest push forward by leaking the child snatcher story to the Gotham Gazette. She’s there to serve her fiancé this week, and does nothing else.
- In other Marginalized Character news, Montoya and Allen investigate the disappearance of Oswald Cobblepot by visiting his mother, a scene that perfectly embodies the uneasy relationship between generic cop drama and the more heightened (in this case, Burton-esque) world of Batman. It’s an inessential scene, reminding the audience that the Major Crimes Unit cops exist and hinting that there may be some Oedipal stuff in Penguin’s past.
- The Dollmaker was a major player in the New 52 Detective Comics storyline that began with the Joker having his face cut off and nailed to a wall. Let’s see this show try and make that shit campy.
- Zooming out to show Gordon and Bullock intensely arguing in the middle of the GCPD office is an unwise directing decision, revealing just how ridiculous TV blocking is when viewed from a distance.
- Oswald hitchhikes, rents a trailer, and kills people this week. The plots beats are so rushed that they barely merit mentioning.