“Damned If You Do”
Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue, David Mazouz, Robin Lord Taylor, Erin Richards, Zabryna Guevara, Sean Pertwee, Camren Bicondova, Cory Michael Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Victoria Cartagena, Andrew Stewart-Jones, John Doman, Morena Baccarin, Nicholas D'Agosto
Regular airtime: Mondays, 8pm
US: 21 Sep 2015
Season two of Fox’s Gotham has been titled “Rise of the Villains”, which bodes well for the direction the series will be going in coming episodes, but interestingly, the focus of the season premiere has very little to do with them. While Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) settles into his new role as king of the Gotham underworld, a growing madness begins to infect the city, and it’s not just the criminals who are starting to crack. In particular, the majority of the episode follows James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as this idealist starts to lose faith in the essential goodness of mankind and begins to waver from his moral compass.
Opening with a wordless sequence set to Lou Reed’s eerily off-kilter “Perfect Day”, we sense an impending disruption of the quasi-stability found at the end of the first season, Penguin having come out on top in the scramble for power among Falcone (John Doman), Maroni (David Zayas), and Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith). Even for the apparently happy couple, Jim and Leslie (Morena Baccarin), a seed of doubt seems to have been planted in their relationship. The unease grows as Penguin establishes his ruthlessness in executing a penitent croney and Barbara (Erin Richards) is eyed by her soon-to-be fellow inmates, yet eyes them back menacingly herself.
Gordon’s frustration with his inability to clean up Gotham comes to a head; when his anger gets the best of him, Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) jumps at the chance to fire him from the GCPD. Even when stripped of his identity as a cop, Gordon realizes that his calling to protect and serve the people of Gotham remains, and he considers working outside of the law in order to fulfill that calling, even to the point of striking a deal with the Penguin to get himself reinstated.
The season premiere is promising in terms of developing more complicated, three-dimensional characters, particularly Jim and Bruce (David Mazouz). Even though we know Jim is supposed to someday become Commissioner Gordon, it’s exciting to see Gotham taking some liberties with his character, pushing him to his ethical limits. As he wrestles with his conscience and his decision to work with the Penguin, the advice he needs interestingly comes from Bruce, who is starting to show a kind of maturity and understanding of the way the world, particularly Gotham, works that the Bruce of Season 1 hadn’t quite yet reached.
Accusing Jim of sacrificing the greater good for his own sense of dignity, Bruce proposes the idea that “sometimes the right way is also the ugly way”, which is precisely the push moralist Jim Gordon needed to reveal himself as something of a badass as he collects a debt owed to the Penguin and takes down an entire crew of mobsters, killing a man in the process. While Gordon’s remorse is palpable in McKenzie’s powerful performance, the revelation that he is even capable of such an act propels this character into greater depth and complexity than would have been possible for the rookie detective we met in Season 1, particularly given that he has already violated Batman’s one rule: not to kill.
While Gordon’s moral dilemma is the primary focus of the episode, the glimpses into burgeoning madness in some of the other characters provide exciting prospects for where the rest of the season will go. Season 1 left Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) encountering a dark side of himself as his identity splits, and while we do touch base with Nygma’s confident, strangely seductive alter-ego, it’s only briefly; however, we’re sure to see more of him as the season progresses.
More attention has been paid to the results of Barbara Kean’s psychological break at the hands of Jason “The Ogre” Lennon (Milo Ventimiglia), which left her clearly disturbed and seemingly fragile at the end of last season. In the month that has passed since the season 1 finale, she has apparently tapped into a much more self-assured kind of insanity. In a way, her demeanor resembles that of the Joker or Harley Quinn, indicating her potential to go down the path toward a full-scale villain herself in this version of Batman’s story. Admitting that she just has “issues”, Barbara seems to have accepted or even embraced her fate as a woman with an irreparably broken psyche, and Richards plays her with a kind of playful ferocity that is irresistible both to the viewers and to her newfound criminal companions.
The most exciting performance, as usual, comes from Robin Lord Taylor in his chilling portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot, whose ruthlessness and delight in that ruthlessness reach greater heights in the season premiere. What is perhaps most sinister about Cobblepot as he transitions into the Penguin is his nonchalance. For example, in one of the most powerful scenes of the episode, in which Gotham seems to be embracing some classic horror tropes, Penguin infiltrates Commissioner Loeb’s home on a dark and stormy night, his visage illuminated only by flashes of lightning as he asks for peanut butter, of all things, preferably smooth, so he can make himself a sandwich. This cavalier attitude sends even more chills when Penguin’s favorite and most twisted henchman, Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), reveals the decapitated head of Loeb’s bodyguard and uses it as a puppet.
Yet Cobblepot’s presence in the episode is otherwise quite minimal, and although the last time we saw Fish Mooney, she had just joined the fishes, having been pushed by Cobblepot into the bay, her absence in this episode is distinctly felt. Hopefully it isn’t the last we’ve seen of that dangerously seductive and clever manipulator, especially given the explosive clash of wills that could arise if she were to return and confront Penguin, once her errand boy, now the self-proclaimed king of Gotham, and most importantly, her betrayer.
Gotham’s season 2 premiere skillfully picks up most of the narrative threads from last season and introduces exciting new directions for the characters, leaving viewers with many questions. This is impressive, given that, as seen to a certain extent in the first season, this show could easily be overshadowed by the well-known future of Gotham City. What’s so exciting about this series is its potential to shake things up, to tell a different version of the story, opening the characters up to different fates. Will Gordon continue down this dark path, abandon his morals, and succumb to the darkness of Gotham? Who is Theo Galavan, really, and will he push Barbara toward a villainous path? Will Fish Mooney reemerge from the depths to give Cobblepot his comeuppance? Will Alfred (Sean Pertwee) ever see Bruce as anything but a child?
The one question we know the answer to, though, is the one suggested by Bruce’s father in the note left for him in the pre-Batcave: Will Bruce seek the truth and thereby renounce personal happiness? As his father states, in Gotham, you can’t have both, and we know that both Bruce and Jim feel a calling toward the truth. In many ways, the season 2 premiere is about the parallels between Bruce and Jim, so in the final shot of the episode, when Gordon looks at his reflection in the mirror, what does he see? A cop, as has been his identity for so long? Or perhaps, in this version of the story, does he see something darker?