What if “Gotham” was not the TV series that so many of us thought we needed back in the fall, but what if Bruno Heller's twisty comic book drama has become the TV series we deserve now?
Look, if you're going to get hung up on Batman mythology, I'm powerless to tell you that “Gotham” became or ever will become a show that will make you happy.
It's a prequel that almost cannot possibly ever line up with the version of the Caped Crusader that we know from either DC Comics, from the Christopher Nolan films or the early Tim Burton films. And that's frustrating. I can't tell you that it isn't.
The Penguin is rising! The Riddler is cracking! Somebody who may or may not be The Joker is becoming dangerously unhinged! Even Harvey Dent looks to be a couple bum coin flips away from dementia.
And Bruce Wayne doesn't look like he can do a push-up, much less a pull-up, much less work the salmon ladder, which The CW's version of the DC Universe has taught us we require in a masked hero. He's just a kid and barring a summertime growth spurt from David Mazouz, I'm not going to be willing to accept him stopping food-fights as a junior high lunchroom monitor, much less fighting crime.
The youth of wee Bruce Wayne has mocked viewers through the first season of “Gotham” and I don't see how that's going to change in a hurry. And I also get the feeling that series creator Bruno Heller has been mocking us with the character's juvenility, inserting a halting barely pubescent flirtation between Bruce and Selina Kyle to instigate head-explosions amongst the core fanboy audience. There's a certain madcap audacity to staging a “She's All That”-style moment in which Bruce Wayne is forced to do a double-take at the all-prettied up Selina seconds before going to a formal ball with a character who we think is supposed to be his future nemesis.
And if you're a stickler for established character canon, there's just no way you're ever going to reconcile yourself to what Heller and company are doing on “Gotham.” The alleged eventual hero is a fetus, the current hero doesn't even have a mustache, while our villains are ascending in ever-more-grotesque manners. If “Criminal Minds” has convinced us that there are 200+ active serial killers in the United States working and evolving at all times, “Gotham” seems to be suggesting that there are dozens of fledgling supervillains using Gotham as a pupa. “Gotham” is chaos.
But you know what? When “Gotham” is truly strutting it stuff, I dig it.
Monday (May 4) night's season finale was an operatic symphony of comic book excess, an oversaturated mishmash of genre elements evincing more inspirations than I could possibly count. Writer Heller and director Danny Cannon zipped fleetly from noir to '30s gangster films to classic Westerns to slasher/thriller elements that verged on giallo. And then the episode ended with with a scene set to Prokofiev's “Dance of the Knights” from “Romeo and Juliet,” because it was, indeed, a nimble dance.
The “Gotham” finale was controlled craziness and it often wasn't even that controlled, a fine tonal approximation for a show in which its heroes are either doomed to predominant failure or won't be eligible to vote until the series has already gone into syndication.
So what did we accomplish in the “Gotham” finale?
Well, let's start with the last shot and what it pretends we accomplished.
After Lucius Fox showed up last week in the form of “The Newsroom” veteran Chris Chalk and gave Master Bruce the cryptic information that his father was a stoic, it took Bruce nearly a full episode rifling through the family library to connect “stoicism” with Marcus Aurelius and open a volume of the Stoic emperor's writings to discover a remote control activating a hidden door behind the study fireplace, a door leading down dark and winding stairs into some kind of a cave filled with the sounds of bats. That's where the episode ended, leaving us on seemingly on the cusp of a big discovery, like the hatch at the end of the first “Lost” finale. What are the chances that Bruce is going to walk down those stairs in the Season 2 premiere, find a time-traveling version of himself from roughly 10 years later and say, “Gotham needs you now,” allowing them to switch places and letting Bruce begin his active training to don the cowl in the finale of Season 2?
“Gotham” Season 2 will probably end a few weeks after the release of “Batman v Superman” and as has often been said, DC Comics isn't about to allow for a new Batman on the small screen if Ben Affleck is trying to make people forget how recently Christian Bale was Batman on the big screen.
So “Gotham” made the regrettable decision to close its first season with an empty tease on what is probably its weakest point. We might just as well begin Season 2 with Alfred looking sternly on his young ward and saying, “I know that looks cool, but that's a big boy room and you don't get to play around in there until you're much older, Master Bruce.”
Or maybe they're going to go down the steps and they'll discover that what looks like Thomas Wayne's Bat Cave is actually just his Man Cave, with a pool table and darts and a plasma TV and Bruce will use Thomas Wayne's Man Cave to make some friends his own age and he'll worry about becoming a masked vigilante in 15 years.
“Gotham” doesn't need him. Not yet.
Gotham needs Jim Gordon, but “Gotham” also needs less obvious delineation between the characters DC will let the show tamper with and the people they can't touch.
Apparently, for example, Sal Maroni is a character we're allowed to mess with. One of Batman's original nemeses, Maroni is responsible for Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face in one incarnation of the mythology, but he's been usurped by the much more recently invented Carmine Falcone.
So that's why the “Gotham” version of Maroni, played by the happily scenery-chewing David Zayas, took a bullet in the head in Monday's finale, while Falcone wasn't just spared, but he was able to have sentimental moments with Gordon, telling him about his father and giving The Future Commissioner the pocket knife that Gordon's father gave him. Falcone may claim he's ready for retirement someplace tropical, but we suspect his rise remains a work-in-progress. After all, he's alive.
What about Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney? Well, Smith has been pretty frank about not returning next season, but is that a ruse? One of the pleasant surprises of this season, Smith gave Fish a mysterious wandering accent and a gonzo attitude that made her believable as a top-tier heavy despite her diminutive stature. The stuff with the eye-plucking and Colm Feore was fantastic and I loved Fish's pre-credit return to Gotham in the finale, perched atop a small dinghy and arriving at a cove that just happened to be where Selina Kyle and her ragamuffin friends were hanging out.
“Good morning, child,” Fish purred to the Future Cat.
“We ain't children. And it ain't morning,” Selina replied, before getting a makeover to become Fish's new henchwoman and to presumably end all hope that Jim Gordon is going to be sympathetic next time we see her. Badass New Fish, with her partially shaved head and scalp studs, was cool, but Badass New Selina was also a nice improvement over familiar Steampunk Selina.
But who will mentor Selina next season? I haven't the faintest. Penguin threw an already wounded Fish off of a rooftop into the river and boldly declared himself “King of Gotham,” perhaps forgetting that a fall from a rooftop onto concrete is enough to kill somebody, but a fall from a rooftop into water is a recipe for a return at a future sweeps period. I don't know the level of acrimony behind Smith's claims that she was departing “Gotham,” but I strictly abide to a No Body = Not Dead rule of TV mortality. Unless we start next season with Edward Nygma poking Fish's body with some surgical instrument, I'm assuming Fish will rise again.
Oh and speaking of Ed, confronted by Ms Kringle after she successfully cracked the acrostic he left in the letter he crafted from her now-dead abusive ex, Mr. Nygma seemed to be going through a mental breakdown of his own, complete with jittery editing and lamentations of “Be a man!” Nygma killed for what we assumed was the first time earlier this season and I guess we can bet that more killing will be coming soon.
So Penguin's The King of Gotham, Edward Nygma's unraveling his own riddle, Selina Kyle has decided that serving as hype woman for a mobster is “the coolest gig ever” and Falcone is the last crime boss standing.
But what of our other new “Gotham” force of evil?
I'm referring, of course, to Barbara Kean. Written off as the unbearably dull, apartment-bound fiancé to James Gordon at the beginning of the season, Barbara's recent evolution has been rather glorious. Some fans wanted to see Milo Ventimiglia's Ogre kill her off, but who wants to see that now? Barbara has become awesome, in a crazy-eyed, wholly broken kind of way. We'd known that Barbara had issues, but it was her rather eager acceptance of The Ogre's S&M/killing room a couple weeks back that gave us our first hint where the character might be heading. In this episode, I liked the way Erin Richards worked Barbara as a shell-shocked PTSD victim, got Morena Baccarin's Dr. Thompkins to serve as an underqualified trauma counselor and then went full “Fatal Attraction” on her over dinner, recounting the murder of her parents at her own hands, not The Ogre as I guess we'd thought, and pulling a knife.
“You're uncomfortable? How about now?” wild-woman Barbara asked before going all Jack Torrance on the bathroom door Thompkins was hiding behind. That Thompkins showed previously untapped reserves of resourcefulness and was able to take her down only enhanced a terrific, apartment-destroying catfight.
The catfight in Barbara's apartment, always one of the show's best pieces of production design, with its prominent clock backdrop, was just one of many reminders of how good Danny Cannon is as a TV director when you let him shine. That scene, the whole extended mob powwow in Don Falcone's safehouse and the earlier sequence freeing Falcone from the dingy recesses of Gotham Hospital were stylized to the hilt and called to mind influences ranging from “The Shining” to “Scarface” (either version) to “3:10 to Yuma” to a slew of other Westerns in which white hat heroes and black hat villains have to find common ground because, as Jim said of Falcone, “He's a bad man, but he's the best bad man we've got.”
This was a very satisfying finale and left me pleasantly curious about the direction things will take in the second season. If you're hung up on “Batman” and The Dark Knight's inevitability and all of that… You'll probably never love the show, but if you can get behind the story of compromised heroism, heightened villainy and general excess that Bruno Heller is unspooling, I think there's a lot to appreciate in “Gotham.”
A few other thoughts on the finale and the season:
*** The season was too long. 15 episodes was the correct length and FOX forced producers into 22. That was a mistake. The problem is that long delays kill FOX Monday dramas and even with 22 episodes, a month-plus hiatus of repeats made ratings drop 0.5 in the key demo and the numbers haven't come back. And that's on FOX just as surely as the network killed “Sleepy Hollow” with the nine-month absence, before “Sleepy Hollow” killed itself. So there's a problem: These shows aren't designed for 22 episodes per season, but if you only do 13 or 15, you're stuck with long breaks that the shows can't recover from. I have no solution, though variations on what “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” did with “Agent Carter” are smart-ish.
*** The show's biggest problem may not even be Baby Bruce Wayne. If you forget Batman and just take Bruce Wayne as a kid trying to unpack his father's complicated legacy in the same way that Jim Gordon is doing, he's not bad at all. Both Bruce and Jim are determined, furrowed-brow heroes, internalized men of principle in a world in which externalized monsters are thriving. It's a contrast. And for me it works. No, the show's problem unfortunately is Donal Logue's Harvey Bullock, because his moral ambiguity adds nothing to this world, at least as he was deployed in the first season. That Bullock is a man who did a lot of bad things, but maybe now wants to do good things is fine as a starting point, but where does it go from here? That character stagnated in the second or third episode, which is too bad because if they can figure out a proper direction for him, Logue will be able to play what they give him. I hope that happens.
*** I sense that the episode title, taken from “Anna Karenina,” reflected Heller's disinterest with “normal” and “happy” as “Gotham” states-of-mind. Or that's what I want to think.
*** Robin Lord Taylor was hailed immediately as the show's breakout and this finale was a fantastic episode for him. There were so many great line readings (“You have been a wise mentor and a good friend. But… Business. Must. Come. First.”) and even more great bits of physical business (going all Tony Montana with a machine gun). Cory Michael Smith's breakdown was very good and we've already established how good Jada Pinkett Smith is/was.
*** Letting Selina Kyle strut was a good move. Camren Bicondova has swagger and the show sometimes forgot that this season. The sweet moments with Selina and Bruce will play better when we get more hints of how far she's eventually going to go to the dark side.
*** Going back to the problems with Bullock/Logue, “Gotham” discovered in Season 1 that people of human scale don't work in the milieu of the Gotham PD. Zabryna Guevara's Sarah Essen? Useless. Victoria Cartagena's Renee Montoya? Useless. Peter Scolari's Commissioner Loeb gave Gordon the right tone to play off of, as did Richard Kind in his few episodes as Gotham's mayor.
*** Now that Barbara Kean is broken, I want more Erin Richards next season. She's much more interesting that way. I'm still waiting to see what Morena Baccarin's character is going to turn into, but she proved independent and capable this episode and required no rescuing from Jim, which is always a plus.
*** To repeat again: This was a gorgeous episode of TV. Fish's arrival at the docks. Falcone's filthy hospital room. Everything with Leslie and Barbara in that apartment. The fire-spewing safehouse chaos. Even the overhead lighting of Jim, Carmine, Bullock and Woman with Dog in the awkward elevator ride. Pretty stuff.
What'd you think of the “Gotham” finale and of the season as a whole?