When Gotham isn’t digging its teeth into the mob power struggle that’s propeling most of the action this season, it’s struggling immensely to find a compelling tone or narrative. The show has no definitive voice yet, no innovative or interesting rules, tropes, or tics that remind us why we’re investing 44 minutes every week across 22 episodes. As evidence by “The Mask,” Gotham is settling into a welcome groove when focused on the city’s underground forces–Falcone, Cobblepot, Maroni, and Mooney–yet still can’t find a way to make its case of the week feel significant, either in terms of larger narrative arcs or the character development of Jim Gordon.

This week’s villain is essentially Jordan Belfort with a penchant for murder and samurai swords, a big investor who runs a fight club of sorts in an abandoned building, where job applicants fight for the right to work under the big boss. The most recent battle results in a death, and so goes the introduction to another bland procedural. All the hallmarks of the milquetoast genre are present: an opening scene that shows the murder yet doesn’t let us know exactly what happened; smash cut to the body of the victim, and the forensic team on site; cut to Bullock spilling coffee on himself and saying “what a way to start the day”; cut to Edward Nygma making a joke about fingerprints while dislodging part of a finger from the victim’s throat; cut to opening credits and theme by The Who (ok, maybe that last one didn’t happen, but you get the point).

Very little comes of the procedural this week. It may not be as ludicrous as the Balloonman, but there’s little to no stakes here. Sure, Gotham tries its damnedest to get us to care about Gordon’s ongoing battle to ”stand up for the city,” giving Bullock a speech (though he wouldn’t call it a speech) that rouses the police force to spread out across the city and find Gordon, who’s gone missing while investigating the fight club. When Sarah Essen shows up at the episode’s end and helps save Gordon, it doesn’t feel like a triumph of the system, or a sudden turn for the GCPD towards actual policing. Instead, it’s a tidy end to an episode that’s supposed to make us cheer for Gordon, but only continues to outline how sloppy and inconsequential these procedural storylines can be. Where’s the tension or insight?

Still, “The Mask” did have its fair share of forward momentum. As usual, Gotham is finding dramatic tension in the complex relationships of its big baddies. The ongoing struggle for power in the city, divided between Falcone, Cobblepot, Mooney, and Maroni, has the kind of stakes and thematic depth that the procedural portions of this show lack. There’s elements of class division and gentrification built into just about any mob storyline, and this one is no exception.

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Doman’s presence is sorely missed this episode, but it does give Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor room to ham it up. The scene where Cobblepot attempts a halfhearted reconciliation with Mooney is verbose and colorful, finding just the right balance between gritty mob drama and cartoonish superhero villainy. It also serves to further enhance the dramatic stakes going forward. We understand why Mooney and Cobblepot are in this, and what they’re fighting for. There’s narrative clarity here, which works to the show’s benefit.

The theme that ties all the storylines together in this episode is fighting; fighting for what you believe in, fighting for what’s right. Gordon fights for what he thinks is best for the city, and also for his life. Bullock fights for respect for his partner. Cobblepot and Mooney fight for the upper hand in their ongoing war. The best distillation of this theme though is Bruce Wayne’s storyline, where Lil’ Wayne (is it cool if I call him that?) goes back to school, and like all private schools on television, the children are all their to bully him and make fun of him for having dead parents. We’re introduced to Tommy (later to be Hush), a particularly villainous child who wants to know if Bruce saw any blood and guts when his parents were shot. Later, after enduring more verbal humiliation, Bruce has had enough and hits Tommy. They fight, and Bruce comes out with the worst of it. He doesn’t know how to fight. Thankfully, Alfred, that punchy old Brit, is there to see to his revenge. He drives Bruce to Tommy’s house and gives him permission to knock Tommy’s teeth out. Alfred’s complicity in the attack is interesting, in that it further develops the bond between him and Bruce that we all know blossoms into the future, while also suggesting that maybe Alfred knows more than he’s letting on. Is he letting Bruce fight because he needs to teach him a lesson, or does Alfred know more about the ongoings in Gotham than your average butler? Does he understand that Bruce may have to defend himself, and his family’s name, in the future? We’ll find out in time, but for now, “The Mask” serves as the embodiment of this show at its best (character study) and worst (police procedural).

Stray observations:

  • Selina Kyle is back, and is still a terible thief. Or she’s trying to get caught because Gordon is dreamy.
  • Barbara’s leaves the apartment at episode’s end. What are the odds she’s captured and used as a hostage at some point in a future episode?
  • Donal Logue is getting better as Bullock with each episode; more sarcastic, but also a better policeman. The closer he comes to being Hank Dolworth the better.
  • The score is so overbearing on this show. That triumphant build when Gordon might kill the wall street bro? Ugly stuff.
  • Bruce, like any good future superhero, wants to eat pizza after punching a dude in the mouth.
  • “I’d give you a good cop routine, but it’s not in my tool kit.”

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