One of the better episodes of Gotham’s second season, “By Fire” finally gives some momentum that hearkens back to the excitement of the first few episodes. While there is still a fair amount of bland exposition, a few pivotal and frankly twisted moments energize the show and hopefully indicate that episode six is signaling the end of act one, and the beginning of the meat that the “Rise of the Villains” season openers promised. With an unremorseful teenage girl frying her abusive brothers to a crisp, a cop kicking the last bit of life out of a man who appeared to be dead because he “scared the hell” out of him, and a tragic lover’s quarrel turning into an unintended strangling, it seems that Gotham is embracing the macabre mood of Halloween, and finally returning to some of the horrific darkness that made the show so appealing in the first place.
Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is still stomping around with his righteous anger, but at least some friction is growing between this idealistic but increasingly jaded detective and his new, straight-laced, by-the-books captain, Nathaniel Barnes (Michael Chiklis). The captain’s goody-goody Strike Force reports Jim for a minor infraction of “officer conduct regs” by roughing up a suspect. Captain Barnes responds with yet more pontification about the need for rules even in war, to which Gordon admirably retorts that in Gotham, “there are gray areas”, so sometimes the rules don’t apply.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Jim at this point in his story is his level-headed and witty girlfriend, Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin), who seems to liven things up every time she’s on screen. Lee handles herself expertly even when her home is invaded and she’s held at gunpoint by the young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova). Returning home to the two staring each other down, Jim sighs, apologizing to Lee as if Selina’s threat is a minor inconvenience. Lee’s quip “Oh hey, no problem” extends the cheerful and bemused attitude toward Selina, helping to keep things light, but also reflecting the twisted humor of the situation and the city that could breed such a strange scene.
Not much is happening with Bruce (David Mazouz) other than some more of Alfred’s (Sean Pertwee) thankfully rigorous and unforgiving training, his trite teenage fascination with girls, and Galavan’s (James Frain) rather obvious attempts to ingratiate himself with the young boy and gain some leverage with Wayne Enterprises, but that leaves more room for the variegated proto-villains in this early version of Gotham City. Some of the distinctly human terrors of the seedy Gotham underbelly are revealed, with perhaps more realism than is be comfortable. Sure, the underground slave trade of women to the highest bidder is a bit exaggerated, but at the same time, all too real.
Pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle and Firefly Bridgit Pike (Michelle Veintimilla), two adolescent girls, are the ones to bust in and notify the “perverts” of this sex-slave auction that they’re about to rob them blind, complete with a bad-ass flamethrower. The striking contrast between the helpless women waiting to be auctioned off and the strength of these young girls, cultivated by their difficult childhoods on the streets of Gotham, reflects once again the need to embrace inner darkness in order to withstand the darkness of this shadowy city. The fact that the girls do not aid the women calling to them for help, and in the moment, only Bridgit briefly hesitates to consider the option, only confirms the cruel reality that, as Selina says, rule number one is to “look out for number one” in order to survive.
It has also become clear why Bridgit’s introduction as Firefly last week was so rushed — she was only ever meant to stick around for a two-episode story arc. For that reason, the audience doesn’t feel too much other than awe at her fiery demise, brought about by her flamethrower literally backfiring on her in an apparently intentional suicide attempt. If viewers don’t care directly about Bridgit’s loss, they do through Selina, whose “street kid” dialogue is still somewhat contrived, but who seems to be maturing into a character to be taken seriously. Even though the friendship between these two girls has to be taken at face value, the closeness of their relationship introduced as a fait accompli, perhaps believing this girl, in whom Selina even admits, albeit jokingly, that she sees a lot of herself, to be dead is what will propel her character to greater depth.
In the episode’s particularly intriguing coda, however, we learn that Bridgit actually survived, and while badly scarred, this apparently “fireproof” young girl is being moved to Indian Hill, the parcel of land mysteriously acquired by Falcone (John Doman) last season, now developed into a testing facility labeled as “A Division of Wayne Enterprises” and apparently designed to house and study mutant monsters. Brief glimpses of unidentified subjects point to the potential introduction of additional villains. Let’s just hope the Gotham writers don’t get too overzealous and toss in as many familiar characters as possible, as they did last season, and instead give each the time needed to build into complex and compelling characters in their own right.
Penguin’s (Robin Lord Taylor) plot to have his faithful henchman Butch (Drew Powell) infiltrate Galavan’s inner circle pretty quickly fails, as the clever Galavan easily sees through Butch’s charade. This failure reflects the fact that Penguin seems to have lost his edge since “defeating” Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose return was hinted at last week (and will hopefully happen sooner rather than later) to help Penguin regain his calculated manipulativeness. Currently, the threat to his mother (which has been drawn out for several weeks now) is making him far too emotional, which he himself acknowledged as a weakness. Perhaps what this character needs to push him over the edge is precisely what Theo and his even more brutal sister Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) are capable of: the death of Penguin’s mother (Carol Kane). After the announcement that Paul Reubens is going to join the cast of Gotham as Oswald’s father only reconfirms suspicions of the impending upheaval of Penguin’s domestic life, which he cherishes so deeply as his last remaining tie to his own humanity.
One can’t help but feel for Butch, who has developed into a rather endearing character in the past several weeks. Galavan’s crew’s debate over what accessory would be the most amusing replacement for his hand, settling on a preposterously large mallet, creates a weird mixture of comical absurdity and disturbing cruelty that one could say perfectly encapsulates the twisted allure of Gotham City. One can only hope that the surprisingly rational Butch is growing tired of continually being used as a pawn to be tossed back and forth between the two major power players of Gotham’s underworld. Perhaps this new physical modification can prompt him to embrace the insanity of the city and become a villainous force to be reckoned.
Possibly the most dramatic and exciting moment of the episode finally puts a satisfying end to the largely unsatisfying and tedious relationship between Ed Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack). Kringle, while intended to be a cute, nerdy-shy love interest for Nygma, has become increasingly tiresome, initially because of her dismissiveness toward him and her attraction to “bad boys”, which comes full circle in “By Fire.” Overhearing her confiding in Lee that she finds him to be almost “too nice” because “a man needs to have a fire, a little danger”, Nygma steps it up and allows more of his confident yet dark alter ego rise to the surface.
After Nygma finally confesses that he murdered Kringle’s abusive ex, revealing some of his dangerous side and his well-intentioned but perhaps extreme desire to protect her, Kringle initially responds with disbelief and laughter, then a different kind of disbelief paired with horror. It’s surprising that Kringle, a woman who has a knack for liking men who are bad for her and returning to abusive relationships, would stand up for herself against Nygma like she does, calling him a freak and a psychopath as she tries to leave. Nygma’s reaction, however, is both unsurprising and tragic, physically pinning her down out of a fear of losing her, proclaiming “I would never do anything to hurt you” as he chokes her to death. Surely this loss and sense of guilt will trigger a downward spiral for Nygma, hopefully propelling him toward the path to becoming the villain he’s destined to be.
Overall, “By Fire” has sparked several exciting developments for many of our proto-villains, including Selina Kyle, Edward Nygma, and the Penguin. In the next couple of weeks, we will hopefully see those sparks fanned into flames rather than left to die down to embers.