And yes, I realize the title of this post is an X-Men reference; no, I don’t care.
Last night was the world premiere of the highly-anticipated Gotham on the Fox network, a police-procedural-slash-superhero-origin-story about the fabled Gotham City in the days before the Batman—because what’s more populist than a cop drama and comic book show combined? The show tries to be a lot of things at the same time and for the most part succeeds, but its catch-all strengths are also its shortcoming as it can’t quite decide if it’s Dick Tracy, Batman Begins, SVU, or a Raymond Chandler novel. But if you’re a fan of camp and/or noir (which I am), you should be pleased.
Let’s head back to Crime Alley and take a look at what happened in last night’s episode
SPOILERS to follow, obviously.
We open on a young Selina Kyle on the prowl, in a clear homage to Batman: Year One, stalking through the red light streets of Gotham City and stealing milk for kitty cats—in case it wasn’t clear that this was the future Catwoman, because despite her omnipresence in the background of the show, she never actually says or does anything. She’ll presumably come into play as the show goes on, but her appearance is mostly excessive, as she keeps popping up like some important player… and then disappearing again. Oh well.
Anyway, the one thing she does do is witness the mugging of a wealthy family outside of a movie theatre. (“Let’s hail an uptown cab,” he says, because uptown cabs frequent sketchy alleyways?) Meet the Waynes, in case you’ve never seen this one play out before. It’s an awkward scene, with Thomas Wayne cheerfully handing his wallet and the masked mugger melodramatically shooting him anyway. Young Bruce Wayne falls to his knees and gives us a “NOOOOOOOOOO!” that’s up there with Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith and the mugger makes off with Martha’s pearl necklace. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Down at the Gotham City Police Station, where the jail cells are conveniently located right next to the police officers’ desks, some crazy crook escapes his cell and holds an officer hostage to help with his escape. The whole department is on alert—except for Harvey Bullock, who kicks up his feet and reads a magazine, not to be bothered. The crook starts screaming for his pills, and a young Jim Gordon shows up to defuse the situation. There’s a moment of “Ooh! Which crazy Batman villain is this?” but if there was any other clue there, I must have missed it, so please let me know in the comments and I’ll happily edit this post retroactively and claim credit for it.
Gordon subdues the crook like the good-cop-hero that he is, but Harvey Bullock scolds him, saying that when someone steals an officer’s gun, you should kill that person right away, no questions asked. Obviously this was written and filmed before early August, but it’s an uncomfortably prescient line that unintentionally connects with current events. That won’t be the first time that Bullock’s smug-cop attitude hits the zeitgeist either.
Bullock and Gordon are conveniently called away right then and there to the scene of the Waynes’ murder. A lot of this episode moves quickly and contrived like that, but that’s okay. Gordon comforts the young orphaned Bruce Wayne, promising to catch his parents’ killer. “However dark and scary the world is right now, there will be light,” he assures our young vigilante-to-be. We’re introduced briefly to Alfred, who arrives to take Bruce home. This Alfred is much more grim and working class, both in accent and appearance, than the typically posh butler that we’re used to, which makes a lot of sense, and is awesome.
Bullock and Gordon head to a diner to deliver exposition. Gordon, the wet and bushy-eyed newbie, is excited to take on such a high-profile case, but Bullock is less than enthusiastic, because it means that they’ll actually have to do something since people will be paying attention, and Harvey Bullock is a lazy crooked cop who doesn’t like doing stuff. “Doing stuff is overrated,” he says. “Take a look at Hitler; he did a whole lot of things, but don’t we all wish he just stayed home and got stoned?” Wait, sorry, nevermind; that was actually Donal Logue in The Tao of Steve. My bad.
Anyway, goodie-two-shoes partner cops Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen show up and ask Bullock if they can take the case off his hands because they actually care about their jobs, but Bullock says “no,” just to be a jerk. Nerdy viewers like myself will recognize Montoya as the future Question, and Allen as the future Spectre. Will we see some other costumed vigilantes showing up on Gotham before the Batman does? Both Allen and Montoya are being set-up as the kind of cops who’d be willing to take justice into their own hands and work outside the corrupt system, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see a flesh-colored mask over Renee Montoya’s face.
Back at the station, Bullock appeals to the police chief to get Gordon re-assigned, then urges Gordon himself to ask for a transfer. “Jim, you’re a nice guy. This is not a city for nice guys,” he says, and it’s so totally noir and I’m not even saying that sarcastically. If nothing else, this show’s got its noir tropes down pat. And then it ruins the mood with a montage sequence of Bullock and Gordon busting crime and running together in slow-motion on the beach holding hands. They chat with forensics expert
The Riddler Edwin Nygma who refuses to give them straight answers, presenting his findings in the form of questions and riddles, much to Bullock’s dismay.
We learn that the bullet that shot Martha Wayne cost $6 which apparently means it was a mob hit, and our heroes head to a strip-slash-comedy (?) club run by Fish Mooney, a well-known crime boss connected to Carmine Falcone, the Big Bad of Gotham City. Fish has an umbrella-carrying-lackey by the name of Cobblepot, who the rest of her thugs all tease and call “The Penguin” and it makes him sad. Fish and Bullock clearly have an established relationship and it makes Gordon uncomfortable to see his partner acting all cozy with a well-known crook. Bullock both gives and gets some information relating to the Waynes’ murder. Did I mention that Bullock is a crooked cop? Okay.
Jim Gordon heads home to his totally rich and totally smokin’ fiancé and they have the sex. But before they get to cuddle, he gets drunk-dialed by Bullock, eager to follow-up on a lead he got from Mooney. They head to the home of Mario Pepper, a known felon on parole who the writers actually named “Mario Pepper” for no logical reason that I can ascertain. Pepper lives at the corner of 4th and Grundy (as in the supervillain Solomon Grundy), and also has a creepy little read-haired daughter named Ivy who likes to water plants. Holy Easter Eggs, Batman! Our heroes ask Pepper about the Wayne murder “last Saturday”—wait, last Saturday? It’s already been more than a week? This confusing timeline sends Pepper into a panic and he makes a run for it, leading them outside where it’s suddenly daytime even though it was dark when they arrived.
No time for confusing continuity, Dr. Jones—there’s a rooftop chase to be had!
Pepper gets the drop on Gordon, but Bullock puts some bullets in him (say that ten times fast) and saves his partner. The CSI unit finds Martha Wayne’s pearls at the Pepper residence, and Gordon and Bullock are praised as heroes.
But wait! There’s still a half-hour left! That must mean there’s a twist!
Oswald “Don’t Call Me Penguin” Cobblepot meets up with Montoya and Allen. He snitches on Mooney and informs the cops that she framed the late Mario Pepper with a fake pearl necklace, and stops just short of turning to the audience and saying “You didn’t think it’d be that easy, did you?” In case it wasn’t obvious that the Penguin was going to make play for Mooney’s power, Crispus Allen makes sure to ask him straight-up why he’d snitch on his boss.
Then there’s a funeral for the Waynes, and it’s very sad, but Bruce still gets some closure, at least until Gordon remarks, “Sorry that you didn’t get to see a trial,” as if the poor young orphan standing at his parents’ graveside was really that conscientious about the justice and due-process of law. Meanwhile, Selina Kyle continues to stalk from the shadows.
Renee Montoya shows up to tell Barbara Neal that her fiancé is a crooked cop, even though it’s been made clear that her and Gordon don’t live together because they’re not married yet. So why does Montoya…ohhhhhh. In a nice refreshing surprise, it turns out that the future Mrs. Gordon and the future Question have a romantic history (before anyone gets too excited about progressive social politics, this is still network television, so it’s never made explicit). Apparently Barbara Neal is taking some inspiration from Kate Kane because someone in the writers’ room conflated Batgirl and Batwoman, either intentionally or accidentally. (And yes, I realize that Batgirl-Barbara-Gordon is not traditionally Jim’s wife.)
Barbara confronts Gordon about framing Mario Pepper, then Gordon confronts Montoya about making him look bad in front of his girl, driving a further wedge between Gotham City’s few honorable cops. Montoya confirms what she was told, and Gordon launches his own investigation to prove Pepper’s innocence. It turns out that Mario Pepper doesn’t own any shiny shoes, which apparently means he wasn’t the real killer, because I missed the part where “shiny shoes” were the operative bit of evidence.
Gordon confronts Bullock, who pulls a Darren Wilson (too soon? yes, yes it is) and says that well, they already killed the guy, so he may as well be guilty, or else it’d be a huge hassle for them. Then Gordon confronts Mooney, because we’re ramping up to the climax so there’s a whole lot of confronting going on. Mooney explains how police corruption works and tries to seduce Gordon over to her side, but like any Token Good Cop, he resists. Mooney and her thugs knock Gordon out, then tie him up and take him to the meat-packing factory where all good mobsters do their dirty work.
Lest you think that Harvey Bullock was just a lackadaisical and crooked cop, he goes to rescue his partner—and ends up getting himself caught on the chopping block as well when Fish Mooney takes offensive at his attempts to negotiate. And as if that wasn’t ruthless enough, Mooney also lays the smackdown on poor Cobblepot when she figures out that he snitched on her. Bullock and Gordon are saved moments before they’re fed to the fishes—by Carmine Falcone, the Big Bad crime boss of Gotham City. A cop-killing would cause some serious damage to the working relationship between Gotham PD and the mob, he explains to Mooney’s henchmen before he punishes them. “There are rules. If Mooney wants to kill policemen, she needs to ask permission,” he says.
Falcone and Gordon have a nice heart-to-heart about the checks-and-balances system of the American government and it’s actually pretty well done. The power play between police, corporations, politicians, and criminals is all a carefully-managed balancing act under Falcone’s control. But it seems that Gotham City is teetering on the edge—if the city falls out of that equilibrium, it will quickly descend into chaos, which would be bad news for everyone. Falcone comes off here as a well-intentioned Machiavellian pragmatist—truly, he seems more righteous and moral than Harvey Bullock, and acknowledges his respect and appreciation for Gordon’s do-gooder attitude. After all, the people of Gotham need someone like Gordon to keep them feeling safe and satisfied, which is why Falcone set-up Pepper—so that, in the eye of the public, there was closure to the Waynes’ murder, and everything could continue as normal. But if Falcone didn’t have the Waynes killed…then who did? I suspect that will be the overarching plot of the season.
Meanwhile, Gordon now owes Falcone a favor for saving his life. #noir
Despite this upbeat resolution, Bullock still needs to salvage his relationship with Mooney, which means that Gordon has to prove his allegiance. Did you follow that? ’Cause I didn’t. That was one of those contrivances that felt like it made sense on the show but doesn’t actually hold up under scrutiny. Bullock and Gordon have Falcone’s protection, so why do they still need Mooney? And on top of the fact that she already tried to kill them, why would she want to work with them when they already made her look bad in front of Falcone? Because noir, I guess. Anyway, Bullock and Gordon have Cobblepot tied up in their trunk, and Bullock tells Gordon to shoot the poor Penguin and throw him in the water to prove himself. Gordon whispers in Cobblepot’s ear that he should never return to Gotham, then intentionally misses the point-blank shot right over Penguin’s shoulder and pushes him into the water. Which was apparently convincing enough for Bullock from his vantage point of ten feet away.
Gordon pays a visit to Wayne Manor, where he finds Bruce standing on the edge of the roof with his arms spread wide. Alfred’s all “Eh, he just does that sometimes. Kids these days,” and Bruce explains that he is learning to face his fears…by tempting himself to commit suicide? The sentiment is right, I guess, and I suppose that having an 11-year-old kid cut himself would be too much, but regardless, this moment kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Anyway, Gordon confesses the truth of the frame-up to Bruce and Alfred. He asks them to keep it a secret, of course, and promises that he will find the Waynes’ real killer and bring him to justice.
And in the final moment of the episode, we see Selina Kyle, creeping on Wayne Manor. Which I guess makes a nice bookend for the beginning—and again, her relationship with Bruce will obviously be a major plotline going forward, but for a standalone pilot episode, it feels kind of weird.
Gotham succeeds the most with its heavy noir leanings—everything is corrupt cops and secrets and shady politicians, except for the single white light of Jim Gordon. The writing team certainly know their tropes, but they don’t take any risks in subverting or otherwise playing with them. I suppose this is hard to do in a noir setting, where clearly defined morality is subverted itself and every single character is playing three sides against the center just by the nature of the genre, but still. Other than some nods to Batman continuity, it feels like a fairly generic if well-executed noir. But then, I suppose that’s very Batman in and of itself.
That being said, the production design deserves a special commendation. With the exception of a few clunky flip-phones, this show could be set any time in the last hundred years. Is it the 1930s? The 1980s? Is it right now? I’m tempted to use the word “anachronistic” just because I like typing it, but really, there’s almost a timeless post-industrial-revolution feel to it that you probably wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it (I had to think about the flip-phones, for example, and the absence of computers is hardly conspicuous).
OBLIGATORY JOKER SIGHTING: Fish Mooney watches a private Comedian performance in her club while she eats dinner. He stands there uncomfortably on the stage as she mauls Cobblepot for snitching.
I’m interested to see where it goes from here as Gordon learns the ropes of being a corrupted cop, the Penguin returns to claim his proper name, and Selina Kyle actually does something. Join me back here each week for a recap as I wait for it to evolve into something more transcendent than noir with winks-n-nods!
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. Thom enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.