We’re almost a quarter of the way through Gotham’s first season, and the character that has seen the most development is Bruce frickin’ Wayne, the emo Encyclopedia Brown. And the only reason he has the most is because he’s getting any at all. By cloistering him off in Wayne Manor with Alfred, the show has actually been able to explore Bruce’s emotional scars and define his personal motivations, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the cast.
That’s not to say that the Bruce Wayne threads are particularly intriguing; they’re primarily there to serve as a constant reminder of what the boy will become, keeping the show firmly in Batman’s shadow instead of letting it become its own animal. The thing that makes Bruce Wayne’s story stand out is that it’s asking an essential character question that is being forgotten everywhere else on the show: Why? Why is Bruce Wayne obsessed with finding his parents’ killer and learning if their murder was part of a larger conspiracy? Because his parents were gunned down in front of him, and we saw it happen in vivid detail.
Why is Jim Gordon so committed to cleaning up Gotham City? Why doesn’t Harvey Bullock give a shit about anything that doesn’t personally impact him? Why do Fish Mooney and Oswald Cobblepot want power in Gotham’s underworld? These are massively important questions that should be addressed from the characters’ first appearances, and the longer the show goes without providing sufficient answers, the less I care about what happens to anyone on this show.
The show has offered tiny crumbs in regards to these questions: Jim has a strict moral code forged during his time as a hero soldier; Harvey is complacent because he’s afraid of what would happen to him if he wasn’t; Fish and Oswald are both disrespected and condescended to by their superiors. But Gotham needs to give us more, and every week we get another fantastical mystery of the week instead of the grounded character development a successful cop show needs.
I want to see the show that we got a brief glimpse of during the pier scene in the pilot, a show about two cops caught between their duties as public servants and the pressures placed on them by the criminal element that runs the city. In that scene, we saw a frightened Bullock that wanted to do what was right, but understood the consequences of trying to fight the status quo and had settled into a pitiful state of complacency. We saw Gordon forced to compromise his integrity (on the surface) so that he could continue to do noble work. These are ideas that the shows should be focusing on, but instead we get street drugs that give people super strength before killing them.
Gordon actually does get embroiled in mob drama this week when Sal Maroni learns the truth about Oswald Cobblepot and brings in Jim to verify the Penguin’s claims, but for the most part he’s on the case with Bullock. Oswald’s storyline sees some improvement this week by having the character confess his past to his new employer, and it’s nice to see Maroni react with appropriate aggression and distrust. Maroni was so quick to accept this overeager man into his gang, it makes sense that he would react just as hastily when he has reason to believe that the enemy has sent a mole into his organization.
Maroni threatens to kill Oswald if his story doesn’t match up with Jim’s, and while it’s obvious that’s not going to happen, the sense of danger is welcome. Unfortunately, the danger isn’t all that convincing because we know that Oswald will be a part of Gotham’s future. The audience already knows what this world will eventually look like, so it’s hard to build tension when familiar characters are put in potentially deadly situations. Hence my exasperation when this week’s mystery of the week climaxes with Bruce Wayne at risk of being exposed to the super drug, something that clearly isn’t going to happen.
The last two episodes have done better work incorporating Jim and Harvey’s cases into the overarching narrative of the season, and their investigation of the new street drug Viper brings them into a conspiracy that involves a group of people using Wayne Enterprises to fund the gang presence in the new Arkham development. We don’t know how the two are connected as of yet, but there’s definitely a connection there, and the only person that has stumbled upon it is 12-year-old Bruce Wayne, who is currently doing a much better job solving the mystery of his parents’ murder than the cops assigned to the case.
At this past weekend’s Gotham panel at PaleyFest, Jada Pinkett-Smith revealed that she showed up to her audition for the series with a shirtless man on a leash, “LIAR” written across his head in lipstick. And the character has had exactly that much subtlety from that point forward. I go back and forth with Fish Mooney; I appreciate Pinkett-Smith’s commitment to playing this cartoonish character that is a modern take on the Batman TV characters she likely caught in syndication as a child, but the campiness of her persona clashes dramatically with the gravely serious approach to the subject matter.
Fish’s subplot with her new “weapon” Liza (Makenzie Leigh) would be more enjoyable if Leigh wasn’t such a bland actress, although technically the character is supposed to be a blank slate for Fish to write on. She’s going to make this girl the perfect woman for Don Falcone by teaching her the song his mother used to sing him as a child and coaching her in motherly line delivery, and then she’ll let loose her experiment to have a meet-cute with Falcone in the park.
You know what’s not an interesting character type? A blank slate. Liza is a non-entity, and while that’s the point of the character, it makes her very boring. We’ve seen that Liza can beat up a woman her size when they’re both wearing high heels, but we have no idea what makes her a threat to Falcone. “Viper” ends with Liza and Falcone’s first meeting like it’s a big suspenseful moment, but unless she plans on killing Falcone with her interpretation of “O mio babbino caro,” Liza’s threat level is very, very low.
While Gotham is taking steps forward in the plot department, the lack of character development makes it very difficult to be invested in the story. Power dynamics are starting to shift, but those changes mean nothing if the audience doesn’t have a firm idea of what the dynamics used to be. Rather than constantly reminding the viewer of Gotham’s future, the show needs to start delving into the past of these characters and this setting to bring as much definition to this world as possible. It’s entirely possible to tell great stories in Gotham City without relying on Batman, but the writers of this show have yet to realize that the way to craft those stories is by creating multi-dimensional characters.
- Selina Kyle’s appearance in this episode is a hilarious afterthought, almost as if the writers have no idea what to do with the character. The fact that she decides to pickpocket a person by approaching him in broad daylight on an empty street is bad enough, but it becomes especially ridiculous when she begins her stealth mission by jumping on top of a car and sliding down its hood. Is it too late to send the character to juvie and get her out of the picture for a while?
- Disregarding the Selina appearance, I really enjoy the scene of Harvey and Jim buying hamburgers on the street. The show needs more casual bonding moments like that.
- Viper is an early version of Venon, the drug that gives Bane his super-strength and berserker rage. That’s the kind of shout-out I’d like to see more of. We don’t need to see baby Bane; the Viper is enough.
- No Barbara in this episode. Improvement!
- “A drug did that? Wow.” I actually enjoyed Commissioner Essen this week, and Edward Nygma was nowhere near as obnoxious as he usually is. Improvement!