Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“Can we get a price check on brass knuckles in aisle three?”
Before anyone asks, yes, “Scarification” is a word, defined as “scratching, etching, burning / branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification.” Even armed with this knowledge, it is still a mystery as to why this episode of Gotham is named after a really silly sounding word for tattoo. If anything, “Rise of the Villains: Dermatology Edition” is a dramatic rebuttal to the praise of “The Last Laugh” two episodes ago. The Gotham writing staff still throws everything they can think of at the wall, and when whatever sticks is relatively similar looking, it can be mistaken for a consistent tone. Forget everything the first three episodes of season two seemed to imply; the show may be taking more risks, but this is still Gotham, where they focus-group every off-the-wall play they can think of by cramming it in an episode somewhere. This week: the most impressive display of the GCPD being efficient and organized while retaining that same profound incompetence that has stuck by them since Detective Comics Volume 27 seventy-five years ago.
The natural state of all superhero media seems to be an uncomfortable amount of stagnation amidst changing events. Since comic books are largely marketed toward appealing to nostalgia or re-introducing classic characters to a modern audience, original characters often arrive in single file. Although, if Gotham’s track record is to be believed, perhaps it is best that they don’t try to create a whole new Rogues Gallery from whole cloth because the most memorable original villains they’ve given so far are a never-ending parade of sociopathic white dudes who look like they got lost on their way to the set of Pretty Little Liars. And even this is stretching the definition of the word “original” because they are always dramatic re-imaginings of peripheral Batman henchmen.
The whole purpose of that rant is to establish how rare figures like Theo and Tabitha Galavan (James Frain and Jessica Lucas) are in this gorgeously shot slog of a show. Theo’s position as a community hero allows for some enjoyable scenes as he offers Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) a hidden deal with the devil in the guise of a political alliance. Despite the aforementioned problem of being yet another arrogant white dude, Theo remains an interesting X factor in Gotham that keeps this season from (completely) dragging to a gimmicky halt. Later in the episode, however, a massive exposition dump from an antiques dealer suggests that his backstory might be more cliché, and tonally bizarre, than viewers would expect even from this show.
As the Galavan-whipped Penguin, Robin Lord Taylor, continues to show absolutely no restraint, the newly supplanted Oswald Cobblepot has new life breathed into him by no longer being the top dog anymore. He’s no longer the static character hovering in his hideout reminding audiences of how much he brought to season one. Now he’s here to essentially take up the role of protagonist from Jim Gordon, since he’s the only one who sees Theo’s full plan. It is in his investigation of this that runs into the most out-of-left-field plot development this show has yet to bring. When visiting the aforementioned antiques dealer, the Penguin, and Butch, are treated to a flashback to “Old Gotham,” where the Wayne Family humiliated Galavan’s ancestors by mutilating one of them and stripping them of their family name.
Now, someone having a legitimate grievance against the Wayne family for a past wrong is an interesting wrinkle, but from a dramatic perspective it has one enormous flaw: none of the characters in the flashback are alive! When they flash back to the immaculately produced but narratively jarring mythos, it is only so much white noise in between the actual plot. The motivation is personal, sure, but the personal edge is taken off by each generation between the event and the revenger. If viewers saw these flashbacks beforehand and actually got to meet the characters within Old Gotham, this vendetta would seem far less baffling than it actually is. And this builds up toward a reveal that any human being could have seen coming a mile away – that Galavan wants to kill Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and bring his family back to wreak their revenge on Gotham City.
Aside from essentially replacing The League of Shadows — or the League of Assassins, depending on which lore is referenced — with the League of Petty Baronets, this plan is characteristically overwrought in a way that only this show could manage. Bruce Wayne is a child! How hard is it to kill a child? And since Theo has already won over Gotham City in all but office, why not do it now? If this is a battle for the hearts and minds of Gotham, the rules are very poorly defined.
At the end of this week, Gotham remains a baffling show. The production values are incredible, but the writing team, full of experienced and talented television writers, still doesn’t seem to grasp how to structure a TV series so that it works on the screen. Despite having an overarching plot this time, they manage to retain the bafflingly random moments that the first season was comprised of entirely. How is that even possible? In this episode, for instance, a man carrying explosives is shot twice – the first time producing a Quentin Tarantino-esque spurt of fake blood, the second blowing him up. Do they know who their show is for? Because viewers certainly can’t tell.
‘Gotham’ airs on Monday at 8/7c on Fox.
Episode Grade: C