Gotham: Season 2 Episode 7 – “Mommy’s Little Monster”

Upheaval seems imminent as Gotham’s proto-villains reach their emotional and psychological breaking points.

In the seventh episode of Gotham’s second season, the characters finally start coming into their own — Gordon (Ben McKenzie) starts acting like an actual detective, Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) learns to embrace his dark side, and Penguin’s (Robin Lord Taylor) sinister cleverness gets pushed to new, twisted heights when motivated by heartbreak and revenge. While Gotham still seems to be ramping up to something rather than ever quite getting there, we finally appear to have reached the top of the roller coaster, poised to plunge into the crooked darkness festering in Gotham City.

Before we even get to the Gotham title screen, “Mommy’s Little Monster” opens with the significant, albeit predictable, death of Penguin’s mother. While I would have preferred a revelation that she had been killed long ago by the Galavans, who would instead have been toying with Penguin all along, the dramatic effect of killing her while she’s in her son’s arms is certainly powerful. Even still, the death scene itself was somewhat drawn out, probably to give an actress like Carol Kane a proper send-off. Robin Lord Taylor’s performance is riveting, as usual, although perhaps a little too melodramatic, even for a series that tends to embrace the kooky humor of over-the-top drama.

What’s most important about this opening scene, though, is that it represents the inciting incident that will propel the Penguin over the edge while simultaneously revealing the heartlessness of Theo Galavan (James Frain) who, while revealing himself as an even more vile villain despite his heroic veneer, also shows that Theo’s sister, Tabatha (Jessica Lucas), is arguably even more ruthless than her brother. While she’s still a supporting character, Tigress is starting to be given moments of sheer badassery, including her role as the one to deliver the brutal final blow to Penguin’s mother while the two are in the middle of a joyous embrace.

In one of the most delightfully gruesome moments of the episode, Tabatha executes Martinez (Lucas Salvagno) with a stiletto heel to the jugular in her characteristically callous attitude, never batting an eye. This loss of another member of the Strike Force just reconfirms that these characters are pretty much cannon fodder, “Alpha Team” being to Gotham as “Red Shirts” are to Star Trek. If, as is the case with Martinez, their deaths are at least somewhat unique and contribute to the development of our would-be villains, though, it’s a somewhat justifiable plot device. It’s still frustrating that Gordon (Ben McKenzie) gets so mired in his righteous anger at the loss of these stock characters, particularly because viewers aren’t able to empathize with anything resembling the level of emotion he displays.

Gordon does finally start acting like a detective, when he catches a whiff of Galavan’s corruption, ironically triggered by his confusion about Penguin’s recent behavior, which most of his colleagues, including Bullock (Donal Logue) in one of his characteristically amusingly insensitive quips, chock up to Penguin being an “abacus of crazy”. Gordon knows Oswald a little too well to be convinced that he would be so reckless as to physically attack the soon-to-be-elected mayor simply for not wanting to be his ally. Hopefully the allusion to a potential Gordon-Penguin partnership will help bring Jim back to the brink of succumbing to his inner darkness, reinforced by his increasing disillusionment with Captain Barnes’s (Michael Chiklis) insistence on a black-and-white approach as he even goes so far as to support Galavan’s call for martial law, despite the danger of such a tactic in the distinctly gray world of Gotham.

Young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) finds himself in the middle of a tiresome adolescent love triangle when Selina (Camren Bicondova) visits him despite Alfred’s (Sean Pertwee) previous warning (a literal slap to the face which she now throws back in his face with a backhanded comment). She does so because of her newfound vulnerability and need for a friend in the wake of Bridgit’s loss last week, pointing to this character’s increasing depth. Bruce had already been entertaining Silver St. Cloud (Natalie Alyn Lind), however, whom we now know is a willing partner in the Galavans’ schemes, manipulating Bruce so that he’s wrapped tightly around her finger and threatening Selina’s life when he’s not in the room. To her credit, Selina doesn’t shy away, but instead calls Silver out. Unfortunately, the lovestruck Bruce remains frustratingly duped by Silver’s act.

Despite its title’s most direct reference to Penguin and the unquestionably important changes in his life, “Mommy’s Little Monster” actually deals quite heavily with the Riddler’s origin story, which plays out surprisingly early in the history of Gotham City, pointing to some possible experimentation with this familiar character. Edward Nygma’s eventual evolution into the Riddler has been directly and regularly implied, but he is finally becoming more than just an implication, more than an accessory character. His alter ego becomes a physical reality, more than just a “projection of impulse”, forcing him to crack as he tries to solve his own twisted riddles.

While it’s doubtful that the suspicious behavior of a sweaty-faced, fidgety Nygma would go unnoticed in the Gotham City Police Department’s headquarters, the morbid treasure hunt his alter-ego sends him on to locate Kringle’s body is drawn out just long enough to make it feel playful. This origin story mixes the macabre with humor in Gotham City’s own wacky, grisly way, with Kringle’s severed hand hidden among snacks — ladyfingers, of all things — in a vending machine. In a gruesome version of a familiar frustration, Kringle’s hand even gets stuck in the mechanism when Nygma attempts to purchase this lady’s fingers. Even though Gotham seems to steal pages straight out of Fight Club’s book in its treatment of Nygma’s split personality, the ultimate merger of the two in the final beat of the episode promises that the caricaturistic opposite halves of his psyche will now be abandoned in favor of greater depth and psychological complexity in this character, allowing Smith to explore Nygma’s inner conflict with more subtlety and nuance.

“Mommy’s Little Monster” also returns to some experimentation with striking visual allusions to other eras, including an exhilarating, machine-gun-powered Old West shoot-out between Zsasz’s (Anthony Carrigan) crew and the hopelessly out-manned — but not out-gunned — Gordon and Bullock. In one of the more visually impressive sequences, Penguin devises a particularly clever plan to get close enough to Galavan to personally exact his revenge, resulting in an apparent zombie horde of decoy Penguins. The mob hobbles down the street with that distinctive limp, a seemingly unstoppable force that keeps coming no matter how many “Penguins” get picked off, ultimately infiltrating and wreaking havoc on Galavan’s post-election celebration party. The image is both frightening and amusing, consistent with the overarching tone that, when successfully executed, makes Gotham so entertaining.

By the end of the episode, Gordon declares his intention to take down Galavan, telling him to his face that he’s one of Gotham’s monsters. In a move that forecasts a larger, overarching narrative for the season that is now really being put into action, Penguin alludes to Galavan’s greater scheme, about which I now wish we actually knew fewer of the particulars for the sake of mystery. Penguin also hints to Gordon that someone he cares about will be affected, likely even imperiled, as a result, which points to the potential reunion of these unlikely “friends”, as Penguin insists on calling them, in what promises to be an excitingly and perhaps humorously contentious joint effort to defeat their mutual foe.

For the most part, these familiar characters are starting to assume their preordained roles, yet there are just enough discrepancies and opportunities for divergence from the established story, including Nygma’s somewhat premature acceptance of his dark side, Jim’s probable collaboration with the Penguin, and, despite her unfortunate recent absence, Barbara’s (Erin Richards) potential to rise as an important villain in her own right. Hopefully these new developments mean Gotham is poised to throw canon out the window and reinvigorate the city that birthed the Dark Knight in a decidedly fun way, playing with its twisted and unstable villains.

RATING 7 / 10