Assassins, cannibals, and all-out brawls intersperse the particularly violent ninth episode of Gotham’s second season, but the grab-bag of characters, settings, and visuals feels somewhat scattered and haphazard. There are certainly some fun experiments with the visual richness of Gotham City and her underbelly, including a fun opening scene that leads a vengeful Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) to a lavish underground casino where she commissions a hitman to kill Detective Gordon (Ben McKenzie), but “A Bitter Pill to Swallow” ends up being somewhat difficult to swallow itself.
The small-talking piano tuner (Jon Skarloff) turns out to be possibly the most conspicuous hitman ever, but this actually adds to his off-kilter elevator brawl, which juxtaposes skewed angles of the men’s brutal fistfight in a cramped, dingy elevator with the cheery lobby music outside the ornate doors. After this first assassin’s failure, the “Lady” (Michelle Gomez, fresh from playing “The Mistress” on Doctor Who) in charge issues a free-for-all, and an onslaught of hired killers descend on Gordon and the team investigating Galavan’s (James Frain) apartment for evidence of his crimes, including Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis) and yet another fresh-faced Strike Force member. A bond between Gordon and Parks (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut) is somewhat hastily formed, as Gordon coaches the newbie through the combat that ensues, supposedly intended to give more emotional impact to her ultimate, and completely unsurprising death. Any Strike Force newbie who gets a name and even a modicum of attention is pretty much doomed at this point.
Parks meets her end at the hands — or teeth, rather — of the new baddie introduced this week, Eduardo Flamingo (Raúl Castillo), a ruthless assassin known for eating his victims. Her bloody, zombie-attack-style death is perhaps the most notable example of the pervasive violence of the episode, and indeed, of Gotham as a series; yet, unlike in previous episodes, it doesn’t seem to have quite as much of a narrative purpose. It doesn’t reveal anything new about Flamingo, whom we already knew was a brutal killer and a cannibal. Sure, Parks’s death should motivate Jim with still more of that righteous anger at losing yet another rookie, but the same convention has been used multiple times in past weeks, so why should this one be any different?
“A Bitter Pill to Swallow” unfortunately represents a return to form — a disparate, meandering story — unlike more recent episodes’ clear focus on a single unifying plot. The only potentially unifying thread in this week’s web of diverse storylines appears to be the theme of Jim Gordon’s impending breaking point, his readiness and perhaps even willingness to cross the line. That story has already been told, though, many times; he has, in fact, crossed “the line” multiple times. The redundancy of Jim’s story is growing old, especially as his self-destructive tendencies are yet again hurting the people around him who inevitably get caught in the crossfire. Moreover, we’re still waiting to see how things with Lee (Morena Baccarin) resolve, but she seems to be getting as fed up as the viewers are with him.
Jim has taken his penchant for making stupid decisions and still finding a way to come out on top too far, resulting in the destruction of possible evidence against Galavan (James Frain), a severe injury for Captain Barnes, and the death of yet another “Red Shirt” Strike Force member. How many times must he repeat the cycle before he finally snaps and either goes for full-scale vigilante justice, in true Batman style, or goes off the deep end, turning his interminable righteous anger into a misguided and perhaps even villainous vengeance. Either of these options would be far more interesting than the tedious monotony of Gordon’s repeated crises of faith that never seem to really propel the increasingly unlikeable character to the new depths they should.
Gordon’s continued insubordination has at least provided a moment of greater depth for Barnes, who until now has been a rather frustratingly stock character, the straight-edged, hard-ass captain hell-bent on strictly upholding the letter of the law. After being incapacitated when saving Jim from an assassin’s knife, Barnes reveals some of his motivations, which stem from a memory of his time in combat that haunted him for years. His wrongful killing of a young prisoner of war ultimately led him to come to terms with his human fallibility and to subscribe to a philosophy of undying loyalty to the law as “what separates us from the animals”. This greater understanding of an apparently flat character’s motivations, while still somewhat one-dimensional, has at least begun to legitimize Barnes as a slightly more believable character.
Young Master Wayne’s (David Mazouz) activities this week don’t warrant much attention, reducing our would-be Dark Knight to a simpering adolescent boy trying (and failing) to sneak out of the house to see a girl, of all things. Convinced that Galavan did in fact have some intel on his parents’ murders, Bruce appeals to Silver St. Cloud (Natalie Alyn Lind), still apparently oblivious to the idea that he might need to be a little suspicious of Galavan and his ward, particularly after his indisputable attempts at bribery and incarceration.
Bruce is still foolishly and blindly infatuated with the girl, though, and while Alfred’s (Sean Pertwee) relentless scolding and insistence on treating Bruce like a child has gotten a bit tiresome, in this episode, the boy clearly deserves and needs it. Selina’s (Camren Bicondova) return and reiterated warning to Bruce about his “bad news” girlfriend at least serves as a reminder of why we like and miss her character, especially when the facade of her street kid persona, while sometimes admittedly overdone, starts to crumble away, revealing a clever, perceptive, and earnest girl looking for genuine friendship.
Unquestionably, the best thing about “A Bitter Pill to Swallow” is the burgeoning bromance between Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). Although Taylor has given exquisite performances all along, Smith is truly starting to shine as a Nygma, who has had a sort of coming of age; his interactions with Penguin help solidify his playfully murderous resolve and twisted yet somehow slightly reasonable outlook. An injured and grieving Penguin wakes to find himself essentially kidnapped by Nygma, who insists on nursing him back to health. In return, he seeks murderous mentorship from the Penguin as he fully embraces the thrill of the kill. Penguin, however, is still mourning the loss of his mother and is resolute in his decision to leave Gotham forever, even rejecting Nygma’s thoughtful gift of one of Galavan’s croneys, bound and gagged.
Ironically, though, it is Nygma who provides Penguin with guidance, bringing him to embrace, like him, the freedom of having lost the only ones they love, meaning they now have nothing to lose and are therefore all that much more powerful. The Penguin we once knew, whose humanity was still tethered to his love for his mother, has died with her, and the new Penguin that’s been unleashed, with Nygma’s help, is sure to be even darker and more dynamic than we have seen before. The potential for this diabolical duo to evolve into a delightfully dark partnership — or as Penguin would say, friendship — is encapsulated by their chummy dining, drinking, and singing, and their joint excitement about the man tied up in the closet as their little party’s “entertainment.”
“A Bitter Pill to Swallow” is largely unfocused and circular, rehashing some of the same ideas as have already been beaten to death in previous episodes. The lack of a clear, central storyline and the introduction of several new characters returns this week’s episode of Gotham to some of its frustratingly standard mediocrity and apparent aimlessness, but there are still moments that redeem it. In addition to some stunning and vibrant visuals, the developing friendship between the Penguin and the would-be Riddler has provided at least some of the whimsically sinister moments we seek from this show.