Violence in Gotham is growing along with the rising madness, and boy, is it exciting. The second episode of this season shifts focus away from Jim Gordon’s (Ben McKenzie) inner struggles to reconcile his dedication to goodness and light with his willingness to commit dark and ugly acts in pursuit of that dedication. Instead, “Knock, Knock” thrusts us into “The Rise of the Villains” heralded by the title of the season in a delightfully playful yet chillingly fiendish rampage of the newly formed “Maniax” crew of criminals.
Last week, we got a decapitated-head puppet; this week, we’re treated to more of this kind of ghoulish silliness. Announcing their presence with a message spelled out in bodies thrown off a roof in a kind of game, nearly roasting an entire bus full of cheerleaders while leading taunting cheers themselves and wearing straight-jacket uniforms, and broadcasting a massacre at the Gotham City Police Department, the Maniax firmly establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Gotham. The whole thing is very theatrical, guided by Theo Galavan (James Frain), who emphasizes that the group should learn “stagecraft” because their primary goal is to headlines and cause mass panic, and in just one episode, they’ve already succeeded
The star of the Maniax show is Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan), the most likely candidate for a proto-Joker, although his fate is still open to debate, particularly with Barbara Kean’s (Erin Richards) increasing embodiment of the kind of cracked humor of the character. Jerome’s menacing cackle is undeniable, though, and he emerges as a striking figure, exhibiting the kind of villainous mixture of cleverness, boldness, insanity, and ambition that only the twisted darkness of Gotham could produce. Above all, he meets Galavan’s requirement of theatricality, delivering a chilling and twisted yet somehow convincing monologue to the citizens of Gotham, calling them to “Wake up!” and break free of the prison of sanity, to no longer be “tiny little cogs” in the “giant, absurd machine” that is Gotham City.
Strangely absent is the character that has previously been a driving force behind Gotham’s attraction. Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of the Penguin has been widely praised, yet the writers of “Knock, Knock” should be commended for seeing that his presence simply was not necessary for the story they were trying to tell. Indeed, trying to fit in a brief side-story for this domineering figure would have only detracted from the focus and mood of this episode — as does the brief and unnecessary attention paid to Edward Nygma’s (Cory Michael Smith) awkward interaction with his love interest and resulting argument with his confident yet dark alter-ego. The vacuum left by Taylor is filled by Monaghan, whose performance is entirely convincing, both vocally and physically, while still uncannily off-kilter.
The action surrounding the would-be Dark Knight, by contrast, feels like something of an afterthought, and it doesn’t maintain near as much interest in this episode as the villains do. Alfred (Sean Pertwee) and Bruce (David Mazouz) get into a fight that threatens to separate them forever, as Alfred continually insists on treating Bruce like a child, focused more on protecting him from Gotham’s darkness as opposed to helping him see it for what it is and respond to his calling. Finally, the two seem to reconcile with a mutual agreement to work together toward that end, so hopefully such petty spats between Bruce and Alfred are over. A calm yet charged altercation between Alfred and Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) foreshadows potential movement in a more accelerated and engaging direction for our heroes, but only if Alfred holds up his end of the bargain to teach Bruce the physical and mental strength needed to survive in a hard world such as Gotham.
The treatment of newly appointed Commissioner Essen (Zabryna Guevara) was, disappointingly, somewhat dismissive. Finally coming into her own as a strong female character just last week, now her suddenly poignant and sage remarks about her motivations and principles seem to also presage her imminent demise, leaving a few final words of wisdom as she passes the torch to Jim. While she does get a chance to verbally spar with Jerome, and the other characters do seem genuinely shaken by her loss, viewers do not have the same kind of strong reaction because of her lack of development, and her rapid removal from a position of power and even from the show reflects Gotham’s interesting yet subtle consideration of gender.
Brief but regular jabs at women, such as Essen’s predecessor scolding her outspokenness with a, “That’s enough, young lady” in the season premiere, as well as women’s blatant exclusion from the boys’ club of the Maniax, are juxtaposed with momentary if forced demonstrations of female strength, such as Essen’s defiance of Jerome, calling him a “little man”, Barbara’s sexual power over her male colleagues, and Tabitha Galavan’s (Jessica Lucas) physical strength and weapons knowledge. Unfortunately, much of these representations of women verge into the stereotype of sex as the primary source of female power, particularly for female villains. They even go so far as to make Tabitha into something of a dominatrix as she repeatedly and unsympathetically whips the mayor, whose head is amusingly trapped inside a box the entire time.
It will be interesting to see how Gotham‘s representation of women develops in future episodes, and the intelligent and independent medical examiner Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) certainly has potential to develop into a more prominent and dynamic female force for the show. Moreover, the fact that the death of a colleague who just so happens to be female is what drives Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) to return to the Gotham City Police Department is hopeful, and Jim Gordon’s correction that she wasn’t just a good woman, but a good cop, ties into one of the overall themes of the episode, which is the idea that resisting one’s inherent nature is futile. As Bullock says, “We are who we are, right? No use fighting it.”
Returning to his previously rejected role as a cop, Bullock isn’t the only one who finds himself surrendering to his perceived identity. Barbara also sees herself as renouncing her act as the “good, kind woman” Jim thought her to be and embracing her inner darkness, assuring her former lover that she isn’t sick, she’s free, free to be whomever and do whatever she wants. This notion is one that is spreading through the shadows of Gotham, and the Maniax are ready to liberate their fellow Gothamites of the bonds of sanity. Madness is poised to spread like a virus, and we can’t wait to see who next gives into the infection bubbling beneath the surface.
While the tone of “Knock, Knock” does sometimes verge into silliness, when paired with the ruthlessness and violence carried out by the Maniax and set in a city filled with darkness and despair, it kind of works in a way reminiscent of Tim Burton’s approach to Batman. Despite the frustrating blandness of this episode’s heroes, “Knock, Knock” has done a great job of cutting down on irrelevant subplots solely for the sake of including as many characters as possible. The focus on the Maniax and their growing threat to Gotham sets up expectations for some exciting progress in the downward spiral into insanity, and the eerily silly, macabre violence it breeds.