It goes without saying that masks are a popular motif in comic books and their derivative stories—the concealment of identity, and the expression of an inner self that is ironically freed through the art of disguise. Being that this is such well-worn territory within the genre, it can sometimes be a risk for a story to fall back on those same conventions. But after a case-free episode that I found incredibly disappointing (though I was apparently the only one), this week’s Durden-esque episode of Gotham found its footing in those familiar tropes, and used the overarching theme of “masks” to tie the central case-of-the-week and all the tangent sub-plots together into one of the most satisfying and singularly unified episodes of the season so far.
The main plot revolved around Richard Sionis, who comic fans know as Black Mask. Sionis runs a financial investment company, and takes his cutthroat Darwinian business ethics quite literally. The final stage of the hiring process involves a battle of the brawn between the three final candidates, using whatever office supplies they can fashion into weaponry. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get ahead in the business world these days—and sometimes that means losing a body part or two. Which, if you need the money, might be damn well worth it.
Unfortunately, one of the potential job candidates actually ends up getting killed, which gets the GCPD onto the case. The previous episode saw the entire police force abandon Jim Gordon in his time of need, with the exception of Harvey Bullock, who made a show of camaraderie alongside his idiotic goodie-two-shoes partner. The Blue Fraternity is supposed to stick together and have each others’ backs, but Gordon has made himself in something of a leper and is not afraid to make his bitterness known to his fellow officers.
While Gordon’s newfound rage is an exciting direction for the character to take from the viewer’s perspective, it’s problematic for Bullock, who is clearly torn between standing up for his partner and the fact that, well, Gordon is kind of an “asshat,” as Bullock so eloquently puts it. Like when Bullock seeks information from a black market surgeon that many of the cops use as a source, and Gordon decides to up and arrest him for operating illegally. Even Commissioner Essen, who’s developed a bit of a soft spot for the Boy Scout, thinks Gordon could use a little more tact and learn to play the game in order to win the right way.
Gordon ultimately storms the offices of Sionis Investments all by himself, but of course he ends up caught and dropped into the middle of the firm’s gladiatorial match. Sionis himself—whose office boasts all kinds of antique weaponry and armory, and who enjoys soliloquizing about the symbology of masks in modern society—offers a one million dollar signing bonus to whichever job contender kills Jim Gordon.
Despite his frustration with Gordon’s headstrong nature, Bullock refuses to stand by and let him get killed, so he delivers a rousing speech in the middle of the police station to rally the other officers into action. “Some of you don’t like Gordon. Fine,” he says. “But he’s still a cop. And none of you, not one of you stood up when he needed it.” With that, the rest of GCPD begrudgingly agrees to help.
Back in the financial offices, Gordon takes out his three attacks, and even bests Sionis himself in combat. Gordon nearly kills Sionis with his own sword, but ultimately walks away—just as Essen arrives with a backup squad. (Which probably would have been more dramatically effective if Gordon actually needed backup, since he had otherwise taken care of the situation himself, but still. It was a nice moment.)
Meanwhile, in subplot land…
- Barbara Gordon shows signs of interesting development but ultimately ends up useless once again. She’s suffering from major PTSD after being kidnap by Victor Zsaz even though she wasn’t really tortured, and in fact Liza made her cookies…but I digress. She now stands around her apartment in a sultry dress drinking wine with a gun, and almost shoots Jim when he comes home. By the end of the episode, she leaves him. Again. Ugh.
- Cobblepot steals a brooch from some rich lady, which he gives to Fish as a peace offering. She uses it to stab him right through the hand (OW). So naturally, he gives the brooch to his mom instead, then kidnaps Timothy, Fish’s new sidekick, tortures him for information about Fish’s plan to move against Falcone, and kills him.
- Fish wants Liza to move against Falcone, but Liza seems to have taken a liking to the old man. She gathers some intel for Fish, then says she wants out, but Fish won’t let her go. We learn that Fish’s mother was a prostitute who was killed by one of Falcone’s men—except we also learn that Fish was lying, “with a heart of truth,” which is something she confesses to a woman who may or may not have actually been her mother.
- Edward Nigma is wonderfully weird and sociopathic, to the point where he performs his own autopsy on the victim’s body, despite not being an autopsist himself. We get the impression that he’s done this before, and he is delightfully creepy when dealing with the corpse. He even gets excited about the possibility of more mysteries and riddles when Gordon goes missing.
- Selina Kyle steals some furs, gets arrested, tries to use Jim Gordon as an out again. We’ll be following up with that next week.
- Alfred enrolls Bruce in private school, even though Bruce doesn’t want to go. He gets picked on by a few classmates for being an orphan, and though he gives one of ‘em a right smack in the face for talking trash about his mom, the bullies beat the crap of little Brucey. So Alfred does what any good butler does: gives Bruce his father’s old watch to use as a knuckleduster, drops Bruce off at the bully’s house, lets Bruce absolutely wail on the kid’s face and then steps in at the very last moment. “He almost killed me!” the Bully whines, to which Alfred awesomely responds: “And just remember that I let him try.” Then Bruce and Alfred go get pizza. YAAAAAY!
As I said in the beginning, I was quite pleased with this episode. Despite my disappointment with the previous installment, “The Mask” followed up on the character beats of “Penguin’s Umbrella” in satisfying ways. It wasn’t perfect, of course; Sionis and his weapon collection were a bit on-the-nose, and once we met the man behind the Mask, the reveal was pretty obvious. Also Barbara. But that was all okay, because for the most part, the character moments in this episode were earned, which is a rare feat on this show.
When you have an ensemble show, a thematic throughline is a fantastic way of unifying an episode with disparate plotlines, and “The Mask” totally nailed that. On the surface level, Sionis’ Fight Club members all wear black masks when they battle (I don’t want to rehash the Fight Club academia here, but there are certainly similar themes when it comes to consumerism, etc). As Gordon observes, the Sionis’ employees are all aspiring young financiers who represent a different Gotham—they’re young and hopeful, not unlike Gordon himself, and Sionis’ gladiator matches leave them just as damaged as the city itself. It’s external damage—scars as a physical mask—but as Sionis says, that external shield lets them better project who they are inside.
Gordon, too, is young and hopeful. After “Penguin’s Umbrella,” he’s damaged inside, but he refuses to let it show. His face is a mask is to repress his emotions—which is something he has in common with young Bruce. Unfortunately, this is also what alienates him from the rest of the police force, as well as his own fiancé.
Deception is clearly one of Cobblepot’s main tools, so that bit of mask metaphor is obvious. Liza is hiding in plain sight—though she presents her face, she masks her intentions towards Falcone, and now she’s torn internally. Fish wears a mask of emotion to manipulate Liza with her tragic backstory, which we later learn is a lie. Bullock and Essen also struggle with internal conflict, as they both admire Gordon’s idealism but happily play the roles of corrupt cops in order to make things easier. Barbara pretends to be a useless, well-written female character, and fails at every turn.
Returning to the case-of-the-week format, I was perhaps most pleased with the fact that “The Mask” did not rely on contrived vigilantism revealed in a last-minute mustache twirl. The symbology of masking is still clearly central to the Batman mythos, and this unified episode explored that in interesting, multifaceted ways without beating us over the head with it. In my book that’s a win.
(a little meta-moment: when Essen asks Gordon if Black Mask’s plot makes any sense to him, he replies “No. But how is it any worse than the Goat, or Balloonman?” WAH WAH WAHHHHH)
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.